The popularity of keeping chickens is undergoing a dramatic resurgence since the turn of the twenty-first century. Laying hens are making appearances in astonishing numbers across the continent as ordinances are changed to allow backyard henhouses in suburbs and cities.
It is increasingly common for people and poultry to form close bonds, and some chickens enjoy all the luxuries once reserved for canine and feline friends, from frequent bathing and specially-made treats to even leashes and sweaters. Like most creatures, chickens have distinct personalities and often appear to genuinely enjoy the presence and companionship of humans.
Although I do not treat chickens as pets and do not generally develop affection for them, I very much respect those who do. My chickens are strictly livestock. I rarely even assign them names, except by way of identifying them when passing along information about them. The Golden Comet is called “the comet.” The one which is in the habit of spinning around in little circles is “circle chicken.”
That said, I am a strong proponent of humane livestock treatment. My chicken philosophy is to balance the best possible care and quality of life with the greatest amount of freedom—for both them and me. My backyard chickens look to me for food, water, shelter, and protection, and I expect eggs in exchange. Beyond that, we do not interact much at all.
No matter what your ultimate hen-philosophy may be, the methods for raising chickens are very similar. Read on for a primer for raising chickens in your backyard.
First, infrastructure. You will need to provide your birds with a place to get out of inclement weather and hot sun, a way to stay warm enough in winter, protection from predation, roosts for sleeping, and nest boxes for laying.
When it comes to chicken-house designs and fencing layouts, the sky is the limit. There are ready-made or prefabricated chicken houses made of myriad materials, ranging from stunningly beautiful (and probably equally stunningly expensive) to very basic abodes. Some pens are attached and others are detached. Some outdoor runs have roofs and floors and some do not. Enclosures can also be electric in order to keep chickens and potential predators from passing through.
Many folks build their own structures. Here again, the materials can be quite wide-ranging, and the sizes and designs even more so. Some people get fancy with aesthetics and clever amenities, and some throw together some pieces of used plywood and call it good. Homemade pen choices are similar to that of purchased models—attached or not, floors and roofs or not, and electric or not.
My own chickens’ accommodations include a well-insulated 8×12 house that stays above freezing without lights for much of the winter where I live in the northeastern United States. In summer, we remove the covers and insulation over the windows to allow for excellent airflow.
They have a small door which slides open vertically for their own egress and entry, and there is a full-size door for human access. There are nest boxes along one wall, and perches of varying heights along the other three. In the center hangs a grain feeder and a waterer.
Outside, the chickens have year-round access to a fenced area roughly 80 by 100 feet. This pen is open, meaning it has no roof over it. In the summer, I add portable electric-mesh which doubles or triples the size of their enclosure and provides an additional layer of protection against hungry foxes and coyotes.
There are two other open-air outbuildings to which the birds have daytime access, providing cover from sun and avian threats, as needed, and extra rain shelter as well.
The size of my laying flock fluctuates from as many as 24 to as few as eight. This results in my hens having ample space and to truly range freely, which makes them happy and provides me with rich healthful eggs with yolks the color of pumpkins.
The more birds you have, the larger accommodations you will need. The general rule, put forth by my local organic-certification experts, calls for between one and a half to two square-feet per laying hen inside the house, and eight to ten square-feet per hen outside. Each bird will need eight to ten inches of perch space, and a nest box is needed for every two to five hens.
The basic hen house requirements are simple. Cool enough in summer; warm enough in winter by way of body heat and insulation, or electric lights, or both; an easy egress for chickens; adequate perch space; and enough nest boxes. Electric lights are nice, as well as a roof over the doors. Beyond that, you can add your own touches as you see fit.
All chickens need to get some outside time. They need fresh air, a change of scenery, and the opportunity for dust bathing and sunning themselves. Mine choose to spend time outdoors year round in all but the bitterest cold.
What you use for an outdoor enclosure depends upon your particular parameters, work schedule, and relationship with your birds. A completely-enclosed run might be the best bet if you live where the threat of predation is great. Wild animals are the biggest concern in my backyard, from canines to bobcats to skunks to weasels to raptors, but domestic animals pose the greater risk in some neighborhoods.
Although I have lost a handful of chickens over the years to foxes, one or two to coyotes, and one to a bald eagle, I still let mine go out. I am of the opinion that their quality of life that would be too diminished if they were kept cooped up, but you will want to choose your own priorities for your birds.
Once the structural provisions for shelter, protection, and basic chicken needs are in place, it is time to acquire the birds themselves. There are a lot of options to choose from. You can buy them “started”—young birds that are beyond the fragile baby stage but not yet fully grown, or get them at any age from someone who is downsizing. Started chicks will cost more per bird but will be less labor-intensive and will come with a lower chance of loss. Older birds will be cheap or even free and are often already trained to feed dishes and fences, but could possibly come with disease or other problems.
The most popular way to purchase chickens is as day-old hatchlings, or “peeps.” They can be purchased at big-box farm-supply stores, local feed stores, directly from farmers or egg operations, or ordered online or from a catalog.
Like most domesticated creatures, chickens come in different sizes and different colors and varying attributes. There are standard breeds, smaller ones called bantams, and heavy breeds. Some are better for egg-laying or are “dual purpose.” Some breeds are almost strictly for meat production, genetically engineered to mature in only six to eight weeks.
You will want to buy at least two or three of similar sizes. Some sellers have a minimum purchase requirement of five or six. Chickens are social animals and will need one another for companionship and for snuggling on cold nights. However, birds of larger breeds will pick on smaller ones.
Whether you pick them up from the post office or a supply store, it is a lot of fun to drive home with a boxful of chirping balls of fluff.
Peeps need special accommodations. They have to be in a secure enclosure, protected from draft, and heated. Their water and feed dispensers should be smaller than that of adult birds, too.
Here is what I do: I start peeps in a large dog crate in my cellar, set up on blocks or sawhorses, both to allow for ease of tending and to keep them up off the cold concrete floor. I line the crate floor with something soft and slightly grippy, such as a thin felt doormat that has long served its purpose at the back door and will not be missed, or an old garment or kitchen towel so worn it is not even suitable for donating. Paper towels can be used if necessary, but slippery surfaces like newspaper should be avoided as they can cause foot and leg problems for the chicks.
I cut strips of cardboard boxes, six to ten inches wide, and place them around the edges of the crate as a draft barrier. Box flaps work great, and can be duct-taped together as necessary.
I use a small, round plastic feeder and waterer, especially designed and sold for peeps. My attempts at using makeshift containers have been unsatisfactory: they get into wide shallow dishes of feed and make a mess, and are at risk of drowning in an open water-dish.
Chicks may not know how to drink, and you will need to teach them. Just stick a few of their little beaks into the waterer by popping them gently on the head, and they will figure it out. It is likely that the rest will see them and follow suit, but make sure they are all drinking within the first day.
Be aware of pasty butt for the first few days as well. Sometimes their vents get a little caked-on. This prevents elimination and it is crucial to take care of it. Just use a wet paper towel and wipe it off.
Baby chicks must have very warm temperatures in order to thrive. If they were being raised by their mother, they would be snuggled up under her wing on a warm nest, but humans need to use an artificial heat source instead. Heat lamps are perfect for this. I suspend mine above the crate using a gear tie so that I can easily adjust the height. The closer the heat lamp is to the chicks, the warmer it is where they are. I usually have the heat lamp inside the crate for the first few days, and move it out as they develop feathers and need less heat.
The chicks will tell you whether or not they are warm enough. If they huddle under the light, they are cold and need it to be closer. If they move away from it and crowd the far edges of the crate, it is too warm and the light needs to be further away. Or you can always change out the light bulb for a different wattage.
The chicks’ feed needs will change as the birds develop. Starter feed is made of very small particles, resembling cornmeal. Many people choose medicated chick starter, which is not organic but mitigates mortality. They will soon be ready to move up to a “crumble,” made up of coarser particles about the size of peppercorns or beet seeds. As they approach maturity they can graduate to layer pellets.
As the chicks grow, they will need more space. They will also eat, drink, and eliminate more. For their comfort and yours, you will want them out of your house within a few weeks. If these are your first chickens, you can move them into the henhouse early in life.
If they are to be added to an existing adult flock, you will need to provide them with separate housing until they are old enough to defend themselves. Chickens can be aggressive toward underlings, and very young pullets—the word used to describe immature females—must be protected from the adults.
Introducing pullets is tricky business. It helps to have at least as many new birds as old ones in order to level the playing field somewhat, but the older ones are still going to be rough on them. Some people say it helps to bring the young ones in at night when the older ones are all roosting, in hopes of tricking the mature birds into thinking the young ones were there all along, but that has not worked as well for me as I would like. In a very small flock with a half-dozen or less birds of each age, it is possible to move the young birds in gradually, starting with short supervised interactions.
Once your birds are settled into their forever home and become familiar with the surroundings, you will want to teach them how to go in and out. Going out is easy. Just open their access door, and they will eventually venture out no matter how timid they are. Going in is a little more work. When dusk approaches, encourage your birds to return to the house by scattering treats on the floor inside. If they are tame enough that you can handle them, just pick them up and push them through the door opening. If not, you will need a little more patience to herd them in. If all else fails, you may need to let them settle in for the night outside. Once they are asleep, they are easy to grab and put in the house. It will take a few evenings, but they will get it.
It is a good idea to train your chickens to come to a certain call. In the same way that clicker training works with other animals, chickens easily learn to associate sounds and rewards. Just a few days of calling “Heeeeeere, chickie-chick-CHICK” while scattering high-value foods is enough to bring them running to that sound.
What are high-value foods? Chickens are omnivores. Mine especially love animal fat and bread, but fruit trimmings are always welcome too. They enjoy a lot of kitchen scraps that are unappealing for humans, but I take care to steer clear of moldy or otherwise contaminated food.
Their primary feed is organic layer-pellets, but they eat very little of it in summer, choosing instead to dine upon the smorgasbord of bugs and tender seedlings they find in the chicken yard. Chickens like scratch—dry goods scattered upon the ground which they can peck at—as well. My research indicates that cracked corn is nutrient-poor junk food, so I give them a more healthful scratch option of mixed mill grains instead.
They do love an occasional snack of junk food, and I always embarrass whomever I dine out with by scraping plates into a napkin or paper bag to take home to my chickens. They react to leftover fried potato skins and bits of sandwiches the way I would if I won the lottery.
Pullets will start laying for the first time at around twenty weeks, more or less, depending on the breed and the conditions. If you got them in May and they begin to lay in October, they should lay about six eggs a week for the first year. The first pullet eggs will be small, with shells that are perfectly smooth and very hard.
The following autumn they will begin to molt. They will lose their feathers and look ghastly and you will worry there’s something wrong with them. It is a natural phenomenon and all you—or she—can do is ride it out. Take a little extra care to keep them warm if they molt in cold weather. It helps to give warm drinking water and extra high-fat foods, and use a heat lamp temporarily as necessary.
They will not lay while molting. All hens do not molt at once, so hopefully, there will always be at least one laying at any given time throughout the late fall and early winter. I usually begin to hoard eggs at the first sign of feathers dropping, and avoid egg-rich recipes throughout late fall and early winter. When laying resumes after molting, the egg volume will be diminished.
Eggs from older birds will be larger, but the shells will become increasingly rough-textured and thin-shelled as the birds age. It helps to give free-choice calcium such as cracked oyster shells, either mixed in with their grain in the feeder or scattered on the ground. Some people feed them eggshells instead, but others maintain that doing so teaches them to eat each other’s eggs.
It is not uncommon to keep laying hens for only a year or two and then sell them or use them for meat. I do not dispute that choice, but my birds get unlimited retirement benefits. Not only does it seem fair, but I think it benefits my chickens overall—the older girls keep order in the flock and pass on their wisdom to the young ones.
House clean-out is essential. Waste piles up and must be shoveled out on a regular basis. I haul it off to compost and spread new pine-shavings on the floor and line the nest boxes with fresh hay.
Beyond the basics of food, shelter, and protection, I am pretty hands-off with my chickens for most of their lives. When they do die of natural causes, usually sickness or predation, I am sad for their demise, thankful for their service, and satisfied that I provided them with the best life I could.
By staying ahead of infrastructure needs, practicing some degree of diligence, and keeping things as simple as you can, you are sure to enjoy raising hens for laying for years to come.