Backyard Chicken Basics

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Chickens love to hunt for worms and bugs in freshly turned soil. 
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Chickens are entertaining even when they’re only a day old. 
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Chickens relish many types of “treats” that might otherwise be compost or garbage: stale bread, vegetable peelings and more. 
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Baby chicks require special equipment. If you use a waterer that’s designed for full-grown birds, the chicks may drown. 
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Chickens don’t necessarily need housing this fancy, but you must protect them from predators — including neighborhood dogs. 

Chickens provide good food and good laughs. They’re quirky, beautiful and clever. They come in countless colors, shapes and varieties, and there’s hardly a culture on the planet that doesn’t raise them. Keeping chickens will teach you basic livestock handling, and these hardy birds will amaze you with their individual character traits. They eat ticks, grasshoppers and lots of other pests. More good news: Raising chickens won’t break the bank. A handful of chicks will cost less than a large pizza and require less effort than a house cat.

Another great reason for keeping chickens is the quality of free-range eggs. No more watery whites or pale yolks. You are in for the richness of a country hen’s eggs — eggs proven to be lower in cholesterol and higher in several vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids, keeping you and yours healthier (see “More Nutritious Eggs,” below, for more on the benefits of free-range eggs).

But what’s my absolute favorite reason to raise backyard chickens? They add life and vigor to a home, turning houses into homesteads and people (children and adults alike) into naturalists. They connect us to our food and to our past. Trust me: It’s a better life that comes with morning clucks.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to live down a country road to keep chickens. What you do need is a little bit of space, some research and a city ordinance that allows laying hens. Before you begin your adventure with backyard chickens, you’ll need to plan for a few basics needs, such as housing, predator protection and supplies.

There’s a Chicken Breed for Everyone

When choosing your hens, knowing a little about the history and characteristics of the breeds you’re considering will be helpful. Some birds thrive outdoors and require little feed if they can scavenge on their own. Some can lay like champs in close quarters while others need plenty of free-range space to spread their wings. As for temperament, some are major characters while others are calm and gentle.

On the flip side, giant, corn-chowing hybrid meat birds (usually called “broilers”) should never be considered for laying stock because most won’t survive much longer than a few weeks after they reach slaughter weight.

Consider your preferences for the color of the hens and the color of the eggs they lay. All these factors should influence your decision of which chickens are right for you and your home, so do your homework beforehand — you’ll find it fun and valuable. (Our new Pickin’ Chicken iPhone/iPad appdescribes 75 chicken breeds with pictures and helps you select the breeds that are just right for you. If you don’t have an iPhone or iPad, search for “best chicken breeds” on our website. — MOTHER)

You can’t have just one chicken. These social birds need the company of at least one other hen to be content. Best is a minimum of three total. If one passes away for any reason, the remaining two hens will still have each other, and you won’t have to introduce a new member to the flock, which causes the hens a bit of stress as they establish a pecking order. Three hens could give you about 500 to 700 eggs during their first year of production (one year from when they start laying eggs when they’re about 5 months old), but that number will decline about 20 percent or more each year.

Staging a Coop

By the time your chicks start resembling miniature chickens instead of those round balls of fluff you carried home, you should set up their permanent outdoor housing. It can be humble or lavish, as long as it’s functional. The coop will be their safe haven — shelter from storms as well as from claws and jaws.

The number of chicks you have, your housing situation and your budget will all factor into your backyard chicken setup. If you’re renting a brownstone with a fenced backyard, for example, you could get away with nothing fancier than a converted doghouse you score off Freecycle or Craigslist. If you own a half-acre in suburbia, you could buy building plans for a coop that will suit your birds’ needs perfectly or order a prefab chicken spa complete with nesting boxes and watering stations. Don’t limit your options?–?be creative!

If you’re comfortable around a circular saw and want to call out your inner artist, you can literally build a future for your girls. Even if your carpentry skills are limited, you could still build a simple coop. Chances are a cheap, old shed or a dog run?–?or even a used coop?–?is available in your local paper, Pennysaver, or the Craigslist farm and garden pages. Borrow a friend’s pickup or rent a U-Haul for the day and go get it.

You could also buy a new basic coop. If you’re dealing with fewer than five birds, you have quite a few affordable options. My praiseworthy first coop, the Chick-n-Hutch, cost less than $200 (with shipping), and I assembled it on my back deck with only a screwdriver in 20 minutes. It made it through an Idaho winter and?–?covered with an old wool army blanket at night?–?sheltered my hens from coyotes, wind and rain.

Foxes and Hawks and Coyotes — Oh, My!

You’ll also have to protect your birds from weasels, bobcats, fishers, owls, raccoons, and various stray dogs and cats. (That’s not an exhaustive list.) These critters are all out there, crouching in the hedgerows, smacking their lips and scanning for a fresh chicken dinner. It’s your job as the guardian of the flock to keep your chickens safe so they can keep producing eggs for years to come.

If you live in a city, you may think that means you won’t have to worry about predators — especially the larger ones, such as coyotes — harming your flock. But whether your backyard chicken setup is urban, suburban or rural, it will attract animals wanting to steal a meal from your egg factory. No hen is ever really off the radar, but that doesn’t mean “keeping chickens” is a synonym for “homeland security.” You can take various basic precautions, with different options for different needs.

There are daytime predators?–?hawks and dogs?–?that can cause problems. But at a minimum, always lock up your flock at night. I don’t mean turn a literal key, but make sure predators can’t invade the place where your birds tuck their heads under their wings as they sleep. Your coop should have a latching door that isn’t easily flipped open and wire that securely covers windows and other openings.

If your coop isn’t inside a pen and doesn’t have a floor, make sure the base is secure from predators that dig, such as foxes and dogs. You can secure the coop by attaching a foot or two of wire to the inside base of your henhouse and letting it rest on the floor around the entire perimeter.

Free-Range or Pen-Safe?

A bird that can roam as it pleases in a safe, fenced yard is certainly a happy bird, but you may want to limit its free-ranging time to only when you’re home. When an Idaho neighbor complained about my chickens walking onto his property, I had to confine them, letting them range only in the evenings while I made dinner. Most birds won’t stray too far from their home come sunset, and I could keep an eye on mine from my kitchen window.

Confinement protection options include stationary pens, portable electric poultry fences and mobile pens. Stationary pens, of course, keep your birds in one area, which they will deplete of grass and turn into a dust bowl in no time. Portable fences and mobile pens (aka “chicken tractors”), on the other hand, allow you to move your birds onto fresh patches of grass daily, giving your lawn a boost from their manure and your birds a fresh area to explore without staying long enough to ruin it.

Supplies and Setup

You can often find grown hens from a local farmer or on Craigslist, but many people prefer to order chicks by mail or buy them from a local breeder or farm store. The first weeks of life build the foundation for your stock’s overall health, and a few common-sense preparations will be crucial to the birds’ development and well-being. A brooder is basically the space where young chicks live. It includes protection, a heat source, bedding, feed and water. Here are the basics on my brooder supply list:

Brooder Box. You’ll need a clean, comfortable and warm place that’s free of drafts and dampness?–?the quickest way to end a chick’s life is by putting it in cold, damp quarters. My bathroom is my default brooder room. Most bathrooms have plenty of sockets for a heat source, floors conducive to scrubbing (if something leaks or spills), and a door to guard against curious cats, dogs, ferrets and 4-year-olds. It’s also a place you’re certain to visit several times a day?–?convenient for making observations of temperature, food and water supply, and overall goings-on.

The brooder box can be as simple as a cardboard box or as elaborate as an old claw-foot bathtub in a corner of the garage (providing your garage isn’t damp and drafty). Just make sure the sides are at least 18 inches high so the birds can’t escape as they grow?–?or fasten a screen over the top, which will also deter house cats.

You must keep chicks warm. Ninety to 95 degrees Fahrenheit is the magic temperature range, and you’ll want the heat source working at least a day in advance to make sure the brooder warms up to and can maintain that temperature.

Chick Starter Feed. After the brooder, this is the most important item on your “chicklist.” A 50-pound bag costs about $15 and will feed three chicks for several weeks. FYI, starter feed is higher in protein and lower in calories than adult (aka layer) ration. Conversely, layer ration is higher in calcium. Never substitute adult chicken feed for starter feed for chicks?–?the chicks can’t tolerate the higher calcium level.

Electricity. You’ll need a dependable source of constant electricity for the lamp (see below). Make sure you have your nursery planned for a location with a good electrical circuit and in a spot you can check on before you head out the door for work in the morning.

Lamp and Lamp Cover. The heat bulb substitutes for the mother hen and keeps the chicks warm. You can buy a special infrared bulb, or just use any high-wattage incandescent bulb. Clamp your lamp securely. For added safety, hang it from a chain or rope so that if the clamp fails, the lamp won’t fall into the brooder and cause a fire. You should have a metal cover over the lamp to keep anything from touching the bulb directly, and the socket must be ceramic, not plastic. Most feed stores carry brooder lamps in late winter and early spring, when hatcheries are shipping chicks all over the United States. Adjust the height of the lamp so the chicks are content sleeping at the edges of the light from the lamp.

Bedding. Pine shavings are a problem-free and favorite choice for bedding. (Cedar shavings reportedly can harm chicks.) You can also use straw, mulch hay or strips of newspaper (flat sheets of newspaper are too slippery and can cause leg problems for the chicks).

Chick Water Fount. You’ll need to have a small chick fount (see photo in the Image Gallery), and these are typically inexpensive. You can buy complete plastic founts, or just buy the bases designed to attach to mason jars (which is what I prefer).

Chick Feeder. Like the founts, you should opt for a baby-sized feeder. They come as screw-on attachments for mason jars or as trough-type feeders, which I’m quite fond of. The ones meant for chicks have little holes that force the birds to keep some sort of order during a feeding frenzy. Yes, you can always keep it simple and just place a pie tin in there, but chicks are messy eaters. Brooder cleaning is a lot easier if you have a specific and orderly container for feed.

Enjoy your chicks?–?and just wait and see. Chickens make any homegrown food adventure seem possible. After you see how easy they are to manage, you’ll start planning for next year’s beehive or apple trees. Rabbits could be next, or ducks. You’ll have crossed over to the farming side of the road. Welcome to the coop!

More Nutritious Eggs

Eggs from hens raised where they can eat seeds, grass and bugs are far more nutritious than eggs from confined hens in factory farms. MOTHER EARTH NEWS research shows that eggs from hens raised on pasture have:

  • 1?3 less cholesterol
  • 1?4 less saturated fat
  • 2?3 more vitamin A
  • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • 3 times more vitamin E
  • 7 times more beta carotene
  • 4 to 6 times more vitamin D

Details of the research are available on our Chicken and Egg Page.

Design an Automatic Chicken Coop Door Closer, Win a Brinsea Incubator!

Chickens naturally go into their coop to roost at dusk, but that’s about the time that many predators start hunting. When you’re not able to be home to close the coop door at the right time, your birds might be in danger.

MOTHER EARTH NEWS is sponsoring a contest for the best design for a DIY automatic chicken coop door closer. We’ll publish the winning entry in the magazine, and the designer will win a Brinsea Octagon 20 Eco incubator! Get more details on the contest.

This article was adapted from Chick Days: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Raising Chickens from Hatching to Laying by Jenna Woginrich (Storey Publishing, 2010). Check out Jenna’s blog, Cold Antler Farm.

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