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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Backyard Chickens 101: Part One

Since it's spring time and many of us will be getting new chickens we felt like it was time for a chicken 101.

First off, let's talk about chickens. Even though the idea of getting fresh eggs from your backyard every morning sounds great, you may have a few concerns about keeping them. I have wanted to have a farm for as long as I can remember but when it hit me that I might be able to keep them in my own postage stamp lot I had a lot of questions. I'm going to address them below:

First off, are they noisy?

I imagined keeping chickens would be something akin to the geese at the park and that there was no way my neighbors wouldn't complain. I was surprised to find that with the exception of the roosters(male chickens) these birds are pretty quiet. Definitely quieter than my neighbor's dogs! My hens will sometimes cluck around and squawk at one another but it's such a small sound I doubt that their noise would ever carry over my fence and disturb anyone. Now, I never had more than 6 hens at once so I can't comment on large flocks!

What about the smell?

I was surprised to find that my hens smell very little. The smell really relates to the size of the coop and the number of birds you are keeping. Their waste is not even close to as stinky as other animals and will quickly work it's way back into the earth - unless you are requiring them to stay in a small confined space. Even doing that, as long as it isn't smaller than each each bird requires, you will only need to "clean" their coop every few weeks. At our house that meant raking or shoveling out some of the bedding and adding it to the compost pile and then replacing it with fresh pine/straw.

What about disease?

Chickens are hardy animals. They take care of themselves as long as they are given the freedom to do so. Large factories where thousands of birds are housed together in confined spaces are disease spreaders - not backyards. If one of my chickens were acting funny I'd notice it immediately and take action. Chickens are clean animals and if they were starting to get really dirty that would be a sign that something is wrong - which a backyard chicken owner would notice when a factory worker might not. They aren't complicated animals and they don't come into contact with other chickens so they are pretty safe and healthy. Also, when I first got chickens I was worried about the bird flu until I read an article on whether or not backyard chicken owners should worry about bird flu. The article pointed out that Americans don't tend to drink the blood of obviously sick chickens or eat chickens that have died from disease. I think we fail to realize that other cultures might not take the same precautions ordinary Americans would and therefore put themselves more at risk. In the end, you really don't need to worry.

Are they expensive?

They sure don't have to be! Just like other family pets you can go and spend over a thousand dollars on a mansion of a chicken coop or you can build your own or even pull it together from things you've already got. And their feed is pretty cheap - and it can be even cheaper if you feed them kitchen scraps. Plus, a chicken's favorite meal is found right in your own backyard. Letting them roam around your backyard grass and find bugs will not only make them happy but the grass will add some omega 3's to your eggs not to mention decrease the amount on bugs out there!

Where do you get chickens?

There are a few places to look but the easiest place is your local feed store or IFA. You can also look on local classifieds like craigslist. You can also order them online and get live chicks shipped directly to your door! Sometimes these hatcheries require a certain number of chicks per order so you'll need to consider that. The price of chicks should range from $1.00 on up a piece. Some breeds are rare and sought after and can cost more. Also, it is important if you are planning on keeping these in your suburban backyard that you are getting females only! Female baby chickens are called pullets and it's something you need to ask so that you don't keep waiting for eggs from a male chicken!

What breed should I get?

I started by just buying what looked cutest to me at the feed store and while that isn't terrible it might not give you some of the characteristics you desire. If you didn't know it, not all hens lay the same number of eggs. Some hens lay extra large eggs every day and others only lay small eggs once a week. The best place to look is on mypetchicken.com at their breed list - they even have a questionnaire that you can fill out with what you are looking for and they will recommend the best breeds for you. That site is also great for lots of basic questions and even buying coops online.

When do they start laying eggs?

Waiting for your first egg can take an eternity! Hens will generally start laying around 20 weeks and will keep laying well until they reach about three years of age. Their production will sometimes go down in winter but there are things you can do to keep it going such as giving them a heat source as well as artificial light.

When do eggs have babies in them?

This has got to be my favorite question - and I've heard some crazy answers for how you get a fertilized egg! Some people say that all eggs have chicks in them or other say a rooster has to sit on the egg after it's hatched but acutally folks, chickens do it the old fashioned way. I haven't owned a rooster yet so I haven't witnessed much chicken sex but I do know without it you don't have any fertilized eggs! So if you don't have a rooster you don't have any chicks on the way! Also, you can still eat fertilized eggs. If the eggs aren't immediately handled correctly a chick will never form so just put your eggs right in the fridge and they'll be just like the others.

Where do I get their feed?

You can get chicken feed at the local feed store or IFA. And though you might not realize it, you might have one closer than you imagined. I was living in a suburb of a very large city and realized I had one right down the road that I had been passing for years! They can also be a good resource for questions you might have or for the other supplies you'll need.

Will I like my chickens, are they like pets?

I have a friend who is terrified of chickens and she cannot imagine that they could be lovable. So while you might not imagine it, chickens are very rewarding animals and many regard them as pets! I too, came to love my hens, even feeling that I'd keep them with or without eggs. I wrote a post about that a while back and you can read more about my chicken love there.

Now that we've gone over a few of the basics we need to get down to the nitty gritty details like housing, feeding, and daily care. Marisa will be going over all of that in Part Two of this post.



Dale Johnson said...

Great article Megan! You explain how simple it really is.

ChristyACB said...

Great post! Let's hope the city of Norfolk will agree with you as we continue to try to get the rules changed so we can have backyard chickens.

Quick question:

You said that chickens will lay until about 3 years old. What do you do with them after? What do most people do with them after? I know chickens can live 12-15 years (I was waiting at the vet and a woman with her 12 year old pet chicken was next to me for her check-up). 9 years is a long time to keep a bird that doesn't lay and would create an awfully large flock of retirees eventually.

megan said...

Christy - that is a tough decision to make and we did have a post about that a while back. You can read it here:


I still haven't had to make this decision yet but since I'm ok eating chicken theoretically I should be ok eating my own. Good luck!

Carolyn Evans-Dean said...

Chickens can continue to lay after three years of age... There production just kinda slows down.If you were in the egg business, it would be a big deal. For a backyard flock you can always cull older birds for the stewpot, give or sell them to someone else to do the deed or provide a retirement pen without benefit of Poultry Social Security! We never had a chicken that lived as longer than 5 years. It just seemed that something seemed to happen to them like illness, raccoon, etc...I guess that was just life on a farm (sigh)

Dale Johnson said...

If you decide to stew them or give them away, getting new chicks right before you do it softens the blow a little.

Mike said...

Good article Megan. I have gotten to the point where I wonder why people don't have chickens. They are very easy and unlike many pets, they actually give back in the form of eggs.

Anonymous said...

I am also planning to by new chickens for my farm as some of my old chickens have died lately and your blog post was very useful for that. I personally like chickens but I only hate their smell. Thanks for posting useful information about chickens and pictures are also very nice.


Kate and Crew said...

I've had backyard chicken fantasies for entirely too long. I'm hung up on a few things that seem to be a combined hurdle that's too big for me to climb.
1) We have one big stupid dog. He's kind, but big and stupid. I think if he ever got the chance, he'd flatten hens with his paw.
2) We don't know anyone nearby who could watch the hens while we went on vacation. Not that we go away that often... but how do you find hen-sitters? We don't really have neighborhood kids that we know.
3) The hen huts are PRICEY! And my DH is not handy with a hammer... People say you can keep hens cheaply, but the hen housing can be really pricey if you have no carpentry skills...

I will continue to follow your chicken exploits and hope that one day we can figure this chicken thing out ourselves.

Lisa K said...

How do you keep the chickens from flying out of your backyard? I'd LOVE to have backyard chickens but worry about them escaping.

Dale Johnson said...

Kate and Crew,

I would like to help dispell your concerns.

1. Aboout your dog. Layers such as Rhode Island Reds or crosses are very hardy and take care of themselves. My neighbors' Golden retriever has gone after my chickens with no success. I think the chances of your dog hurting them are slim. The only time foxes or racoons can get my chickens is if they can sneak up on them at night.

2. About vacation. We have left our chickens alone for several days. We just put out plenty of water and feed. For our 2-3 week vacation, we do have someone take care of them every few days. Friends or neighbors are often willing to take care of them just to get the free eggs. Who takes care of your dog when you go on vacation?

3. I think Marisa is going to talk about housing but I will say that you don't have to be a good with a hammer and saw to build a simple coop. So don't let that deter you.

Just take the plunge and get yourself some chicks this spring. You may want to start small, 2-6 chickens. You will be very happy when those eggs start coming.


Dale Johnson said...

Lisa K,

You do need a fence to keep them in your yard. To keep them from flying over the fence you must wing them. This means that you take one wing and clip the feathers on the back edge of the wing. The way we do it is my wife holds the chicken while I gently stretch out the wing and cut the feathers with a pair of scissors. I do not cut the feathers on the tip of the wing. By leaving 2 or 3 feathers on the wing tip it makes it so that you can't tell the wings have been clipped. The reason winging them works is that by clipping one wing it makes them off balance so that can't fly very far. Now the important part: If you are a Democrat you would want to clip the right wing. If you are a Republican, you want to clip the left wing. But I think that is obvious.

megan said...

I have never clipped wings and actually have never had a problem with chickens being able to fly out - even with a four foot fence. The only time they are able to escape is if I happen to have something they can hop up onto next to the fence and the out.

Unknown said...

Great responses Dale!

Dale Johnson said...


I think that is a Barred Rock (Plymouth) and Langshan in your pictures. We have had both those breeds and I agree with you that you don't need to clip their wings. But if you had a Rhode Island/cross and you didn't have to clip the wings, I would be surprised. Most of the Rhode Islands/crosses that we have had are real Amelia Earharts and we have had to clip their wings. The common layers that I don't have any experience with are the leghorns but I think they are good flyers to.

This brings up the issue that Kate had with her dog. I am just so used to Rhode Island/crosses that I said the the dog probably wouldn't be a problem. But it may be a problem with some the more docile breeds.

The thing I like about this website is that you can get various opinions and experiences.

Dale Johnson said...

I enjou Friday nights when I can relax and peruse this blog.

Kate and Crew said...

Dale - thanks so much for your response to me! It has really helped...I am sooo close to taking the plunge!! But when I said my husband wasn't very handy with the hammer, I meant that he would probably have a tooth pulled before he'd voluntarily build something... maybe I can see if there are any local hen housing purchasing options - CraigsList maybe????

One final question (if you don't mind) Do any of you know if chickens are lower-maintenance than ducks? We had a flock of pet ducks that we raised from ducklings and they were sooo noisey and sooo messy. We had to donate them to an animal refuge center (that has an enormous pond) after their "area" at our house got destroyed in the hurricanes in 2004. So we've done yard-fowl before. We loved the ducks, buy holy-holy high maintenance birds!! I wonder if chickens are easier...

Off to the library for a chicken book...

Kate and Crew said...

scratch CraigsList - haven't found one on there for under $650. Sigh.

Mike said...


We built our chicken coop with the boards from our neighbors fence when they tore it down. If your husband doesn't want to build anything, look into getting a dog house for the chickens. We used a dog house for the first year or so that we had chickens. The downside to this is that we had to stoop down to reach in and get the eggs but it was still worth it. We clip our chickens wings like Dale mentioned and don't have problems with our birds flying away.

Kate and Crew said...

My mom found someone who loves chickens and is making me a chicken coop!!!

So I'm ISO chicks. Where can I find a list of docile breeds that won't be too angry around children and might like being held?

Also, what breed of chicken is your black and white one with the red in the photos on this post? She is beautiful!

Thanks so much for all the help!

megan said...

Kate & Crew - There are definitely breeds out there that known for being more docile and on that link to the breeds list it will tell you if they are one of those breeds.
And thanks on my hen Mermaid - she is a plymouth rock - which is a great breed for both eggs and kids!

Jennifer said...

Dale, you crack me up! (Does that make you an odd egg?)

Jeff Siddons said...

Do you have to be concerned about whether you choose an even or odd number of chickens to raise? With finches you want an even number or someone gets picked on. I just got three chicks and after getting home saw two of them pecking at somethng on the third chick. Thanks


Unknown said...


I haven't ever heard of that, but now I know something new about finches. I had 5 chickens and now I have 6 and haven't had any problems with even or odd numbers. It is pretty normal for the chicks to establish pecking order, that third little chick will learn her place and will soon stop getting picked and pecked on. Great question.

Anonymous said...

I just impulsively bought 2 rhode island reds and 2 mallard chicks. debating the next step in housing and found a couple coops on etsy.com. there were at least 2 on there plus a 'how to' booklet you could buy to make one yourself. My favorite is one that's on stilts with wheels so that you can move it around the yard when necessary. I love it! but not the price. It's called a Salt Box chicken coop. guy that makes them is in seattle (http://www.seattlechickencoops.com/).
Thanks for all of your awesome advice.

Unknown said...

Hey! The eggs aren't nasty are they? Not much to clean and then they taste pretty normal? Also, what do you do with the chickens during the winter, do they just sort of hunker down and tough it out? Do they lay eggs then? Thanks!

Unknown said...


Uh, sometimes the eggs are pretty nasty as in poopy. I think it may have to do with the type of breed you get. As for taste, they taste like the eggs you get in the grocery store. What I like about them is that they are more nutritious and I know that the ladies were treated humanely. I also like the texture and the rich color that I get from my fresh eggs. During the winter I put a heat lamp in the coop, egg production goes down but doesn't completely stop.

Are you thinking of getting chickens?

Unknown said...

I guess I am, seeing as I got as excited as a chicken with its head cut off, when Mike and I were talking about it on Friday. I'm interested in improving my veggie gardening prowess as it is, but I also think this is neat and am finding what you guys have generously put online to be very helpful so thanks! Thanks for replying to each of my questions. Deep down, I suspected in my heart that the eggs would be poopy. I'll let you know if we do this...

Anonymous said...

Great site, gave me chicken fever.

I'm going to build a coop for about 8-12 chicken hens with an open air section and an enclosed heated section(NYC Winter). I have some questions:
1)should I make individual nest boxes for them? If so, in the open or enclosed area.
2) Do they like perches?
3) Do they like to sleep/nest close together?

Thanks, George

Unknown said...


Good luck with the chickens, I just know that you will love it!

1. For 8-12 girls, you will definately need more than one nesting box, but you don't need one for each girl.

2. YES, they love to sleep off the ground and will need enough perch space for each of them. You don't want them sleeping in their nesting box (it gets really messy if they do)

3. They do sleep close together, normally on their perch.

Anonymous said...

I use a 4 inch wide plank for a chicken roost inside their coop. (One of my birds has wonky toes, so her grip is weak.)
Building a coop is a lot easier then you think. You can also modify rabbit hutches and come out with a workable coop.
I made their pen for ranging out of discarded wooden pallets.
Check Craigs list for shipping containers and large dog runs. You'd be surprised at whats available that will work! Good luck!

Alana Jo said...

Thank you so much for the info!

Anonymous said...

nice blog. I just ran into it and saw you're a suburban chicken farmer too! I got inspired like you did on a whim. I lost my four, raised from chicks, to a neighbor's dog that broke through the wooden fence. I'm trying to replace them now. They are a lot of fun though aren't they?

great blog!

kelly said...

We are looking at getting a couple chickens for our backyard. My question is what is the best material to lay down as a floor for the coop? Easiest cleaned would be best. I think were going to lay interlicking bricks down first as a base...

Karin said...

Thanks so much great post.

here is my first new hens

Donna said...

Our coop and run are nearly done so we'll be getting three next week...so glad to find your blog! I write at www.theradishpatch .com but chickens will be a new addition and I feel much more prepared having read your advice...thanks!

Unknown said...

Great article about raising chicken. thanks for sharing!!

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