Saturday, June 4, 2011

Chicken Keeping 101 - Revisited

After only a year into keeping our feathered treasures, I am amazed at how many people look to me for expert advice.

I have learned a tremendous amount since we brought home our baby chicks last June, but I still defer to experienced poultry enthusiasts as authorities on this engaging hobby.  

That being said, here are the questions I am most often asked, and my pearls of wisdom, so far, to share with those who want to get started. It’s an adventure….

"Why keep chickens?” 

Historically viewed as utilitarian farm animals, chickens are enjoying a renaissance in suburban landscapes as friendly, endearing backyard pets. 
  • First, there's the eggs. Fresh, delicious eggs each and every day... they will spoil you with their golden yolks and scrumptious taste. So much for tolerating the six week old relics that are sold in supermarkets. 
  • Research has shown that chickens who are allowed to free range and eat grass lay eggs that are higher in Omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin E. They are lower in cholesterol as well. How's that for putting you in control of the food process? 
  • Plus, chickens are fun, quirky and endlessly entertaining. And they're great with kids. And they make you breakfast. And they eat those annoying pests… mosquitoes, ticks, grubs, you name it, they love it!  It's not a hard decision to keep chickens if you consider all of the benefits.
"How much time do you have to devote to them daily? Are they high maintenance?”

Clearly, chickens are living creatures and need daily care, just as any animal would. If you have pets in your home already, you understand this responsibility and the commitment it requires.

However, if you do not, but are ready to take on this new endeavor, don't be intimidated. I would argue that in many ways, chickens are easier to keep than many other animals. They live outdoors and are sturdy creatures. Devote 10 to 15 minutes each day to your flock, provide ample, safe housing, food and water, and free range them periodically; you will be richly rewarded.

If you decide to go the “baby” route, day old chicks are available at Benedict’s, in Monroe, CT and online through My Pet Chicken, whose office is located in nearby Norwalk. Run by a lovely couple, MPC has successfully cornered the market in backyard chicken keeping by allowing you the freedom to buy as few as three chicks.

You may choose from a variety of breeds, based on your preferences. You can even complete a simple questionnaire that will determine which breed of chicken is best for your family’s needs. Want a child-friendly hen? Want a steady layer? Chocolate colored eggs? Winter hardy? They have it all.

I ordered all of my “girls” as day-old chicks through MPC, and have enjoyed receiving healthy chicks, as well as superior customer service from this local company.

My Pet Chicken also supplies everything you need to keep chicks, right from the start, including brooder kits, coops, chicken feed and even gourmet treats for your feathered friends.

Pullets (10 week old chickens) can also be ordered through MPC, and this is a quicker route to your girls making you breakfast. The only downside is not enjoying that cute “baby” stage, raising and bonding with your hens from the very beginning. It’s a personal choice. 

Here’s What You Need to Get Started:

Baby chicks should be started indoors in a brooder. A brooder is simply a cardboard box, or like material, lines with newspaper and a layer of pine shavings. It should be high enough for the chicks to live safely inside, and have a 250 watt red heat lamp trained on it 24/7... in a fire safe manner. Organic chick starter feed and fresh water will also be required, naturally.

Chicks can be moved outside to a coop at six weeks of age. They will evolve from a chick starter feed to a developer feed at 6 to 8 weeks, and layer feed at 18 to 20 weeks. Know that most chicken experts recommend organic, non-medicated feed for their hens. And provide crushed oyster shells as a free choice supplement that will boost their calcium for stronger shells. 

Once your girls reach 20 to 24 weeks, they will begin to lay pullet eggs. These will be small, and thin-shelled. Eventually, you will see the mature eggs, and they are lovely, coming in a kaleidoscope of colors. They will also vary in size and shape; a clutch of them in your nesting boxes is a sight to behold, indeed!

It takes 24 hours for a hen to make and lay her egg, so expect one every other day, though I have one major producer, “Goldilocks,” a vibrant Rhode Island Red, who manages to squeeze one out on a daily basis. I salute her productivity.

Understand that chickens live for five years, some longer. After the age of three or so they stop laying, so you need to decide if you are going to let them live out their remaining years under your care, or (and if they are not your children's pets it's much easier to make this decision) you can take them to a local farm and have them processed. Bon App├ętit!

"What size coop do I need?" 
As for the coop, bigger is better. Bigger IS better. BIGGER IS BETTER. Get the picture? Always buy a larger coop than what is required. The rule of thumb is 2 to 3 square feet per chicken inside the hen house and 4 to 5 square feet for the outside run. I went a little crazy and devoted 160 square feet of living space for my dozen (or so) girls. I hope they appreciate the luxury life style they have.

Most importantly, invest in a well built coop that keeps your flock safe from local predators. And keep it clean. A sweep out with fresh bedding every other week should do the trick, though I clean it almost every weekend, especially during the messy months. A thorough cleaning is required only twice a year, to eliminate those pesky parasites.

"What about the neighbors...will they complain?" 

Most neighbors will enjoy your chickens. The soft clucking from your hens is non-intrusive, certainly preferable to a yapping dog. Check in with them to let them know you are about to embark on this exciting journey, butter them up with fresh eggs, and you will have loyal fans forever.

Oh, and if you live on limited acreage, train them to stay near their coop, only free ranging them an hour before dusk (the girls will go in automatically at night to roost). Now, roosters are a different story…. which brings us to the next question.

"Do you need a rooster for your chickens to lay eggs?" 

Seriously... think about it. Do we gals need guys around to make our eggs each month? But, to answer the question directly, no, you do not need roosters to have eggs. Chickens make them regardless, and wouldn't you rather eat unfertilized eggs, anyway? Some of us who are vegetarian-ly inclined might find the alternative rather icky in concept.

And roosters are most definitely not welcome in suburban, not to mention urban landscapes. They are loud, aggressive, and will tick off your neighbors. So, unless you live on a generous parcel of land, and don't mind the daily "Cock-a-doodling" as well as finding that your flock keeps expanding exponentially each year, I don't recommend them.

“What about illnesses and veterinary care?”

The reasons for keeping chickens vary from one person to the next. Many view chickens as a food source, more than a pet, especially if they keep a larger flock. However, if children are involved, as you can clearly see from the pictures in this article… the answer is obvious. These girls are part of our family.

We provide a balanced, organic diet, plenty of exercise, affection, and the little extras that chicken experts recommend to keep our flock healthy. Table scraps of veggies and fruits are the ultimate delight in our girls’ lives…. Just avoid feeding them onions and garlic, unless you want your eggs to taste funny.

While we would not go to the vast expense that we would extend to our dogs, we would seek out professional care, if needed, for our hens through our local vet, who is familiar with and treats chickens. Check with your vet to see if he or she is comfortable handling a health issue that may arise for your flock. 

Healthy Chickens = Happy Chickens

Health issues, while few, typically arise from worms and mites, which do not require veterinary attention so much as they require preventative maintenance… opportunities for dust baths prevent mites, and providing diatomaceous earth takes care of worms, mites and other parasites. There’s also a de-lousing powder you can pat on their bottoms during the winter months when the ground is frozen over and they are unable to dust bathe. Other, less common illnesses appear to be viral and respiratory in nature, and may require a visit to the vet.

So... if, after hosting a family meeting so that all are on board, and doing your homework, you are ready to rock and roll in the wonderful world of chickens... God speed, and good luck. It's a blast.

Also, know that "chicken people" are friendly folk, eager to share their passion for raising these productive birds with others. Lean on them for advice. Post a comment on my blog... if I don't know the answer to your question, I will find it for you, or refer you to a more seasoned expert.

And don't be surprised if you become completely obsessed with your feathered friends, absorbed in all the nuances of care that this species requires. 

Two things this hobby has brought home for our family - an appreciation for where our food comes from, and how very precious life is. We treasure our chickens and care for them as members of our family. Their life span is fairly brief, so we make sure every day is a happy day for our girls. The dividends are well worth the investment.

For more information on raising chickens, I recommend the following websites: -- Terry Golson, author of Tillie Lays an Egg and the Farmstead Egg Cookbook, is a wealth of information and incredibly generous with her time and knowledge. You should check out her adorable hen cam: And feel free to post questions on her hen blog as well. -- This popular site has loads of information on responsible chicken keeping, a consistent source of education and inspiration for newbies like me.
And I would be remiss if I did not mention Lauren Scheuer's Blog, Scratch and Peck, as a singularly talent-filled source of anecdotes and illustrations. Please check it out when you have the chance:

Chick Lit Library

Recommended reads in my library on hen keeping. I refer to them often for guidance:

Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow
Keeping Chickens by Jeremy Hobson and Celia Lewis
Extraordinary Chickens by Stephen Green-Armytage
Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance by Martin Gurdon (a memoir... very entertaining)