Rhode Island Red laying henYou’ve decided that you want to keep chickens. There are a few things you need to do before you bring the little darlings home. Most of this information can be found in a wonderful online forum called BackyardChickens.com. The information below is a summary of more detailed information BYC has.

Check city ordinances. This should be the first thing you do if you live within city limits. Many municipalities are now allowing backyard chickens but there may be some restrictions such as the number in your flock, no roosters, etc.

Check with your HOA. Even though the municipality allows chickens, many HOAs – the bane of urban living – have bylaws banning chickens and any other animals deemed to be “livestock.”

Decide if you want eggs, meat or both. Ask yourself why you want chickens. Do you want fresh eggs? Do you want to fill your freezer? Do you want an unusual pet? The answer to this question has an impact on which breed you select.

Free-range or not. Free-ranging is basically just letting your flock out to wander about. Free-ranging is only an option if the region where you live does (or has) supported wild poultry in the past – like before suburbia invaded. This means wild turkeys, grouse, partridge, etc. A few pros to ranging are a varied diet for your flock; insect control in your yard/garden; happy chickens. Cons are that chickens can be destructive to gardens – they don’t know the difference between a veggie garden and wild edibles; loss to predators, stepping in chicken poo. Even if you don’t range your flock, any eggs or meat you get from your flock is better for you than what you get at the store. The downside to having a run, is that it take space.

There’s more than one breed of chickens? I know it shocked me, too. Aside from eggs vs. meat, the other important factor in selecting a breed is the climate where you live. This is especially important if you live where there are extremes – cold, heat, drought, etc. Mixing chicken breeds is alright.

BackyardChickens.com is your friend with breed selection. Their Chicken Breeds section contains basic information as well as pictures of the most common breeds. The American Poultry Association has links to many of the individual breed clubs with more detailed information. Most heritage breeds will provide both eggs and meat.

Meat chickens. Meat breeds or broilers have been developed for maximum meat produced in the shortest amount of time – 3-4 lb dressed bird in as little as 3 months. Cornish Cross is the most common breed raised for meat, even in the factory poultry farms. Anecdotal information that I’ve received from others is that these birds grow so quickly and get so heavy, that their legs can’t hold them up and they have to be harvested. But, no 1st hand experience with this.

inside chicken coop images (front l to r)Babs & Madame, Silver-laced Wyandotts. Daphne, Gold Sex Link; (back) Cheetarah, Amerucana. Ducks
Silver-laced Wyandottes, Gold Sex-Link, Amerucana laying hens

Laying chickens. Just like the meat you get from backyard chickens, the eggs are vastly different than what you get in the store. The yolks are much darker yellow, sometimes closer to orange. The reason for this is due to more carotenoids in the hens’ diet because byc’s are foraging, even if they’re kept in a run. You can also select a breed of chicken that will produce colored eggshells – beige, tan, dark brown, light green or blue. It’s actually kinda fun to have a carton of eggs with different colors.

Every hen has a set number of eggs she will lay in her lifetime, which she’ll do in 3-4 years. When she reaches maturity, about 5-6 months, she’ll start laying eggs. Once her little body gets the hang of it, she’ll lay about 1 egg every day and a half. Some breeds lay more, some breeds lay less, but this number is pretty standard. Most hens slow down their egg production in the winter.

Pet chickens. If you want a chicken that will follow you around and sit on your lap, be sure to socialize it from the day it comes to your home. Be sure to hold it and pet it every day for a reasonable amount of time – somewhere between 20 seconds and 18 hours. It is not as hard as you think to train chickens.

Housing for your flock.
You’re going to need a coop for your flock. These can be simple or elaborate; pre-made or built from scratch; stationary or mobile. Do whatever works for you, but expect to spend at least $200 on your coop, even if you build it yourself.

Every coop needs:

  • Minimum of 4 sqft per bird. There’s a sweet spot to size…too small and the flock doesn’t have enough room; too big and it takes too much to keep the flock warm in extreme cold weather.
  • Roosting perches. When chickens roost they tend to huddle together, so you don’t need a ton of space for the chicken coop roosts. But make sure they’re strong enough to hold the birds. You can use dowels or 2×4’s; I used dead-fall branches.
  • Entrance/exit for the birds. You may not need to get into the coop depending on the design, but the birds need to get in and out. If the entrance is only for the birds, be sure you have some sort of access to clean the coop.
  • Nest boxes. I’ve heard from other people that they don’t have next boxes and the hens just use the floor. I decided my girls needed boxes. I didn’t know this, but hens prefer to lay their eggs in the same nest-like place every day, so nest boxes make that easier.
  • Enclosed run (if you aren’t going to range). Minimum of 10sqft per bird. We used chain link dog runs from Lowes for ours. Remember that there are airborne predators as well and add netting or chicken wire over the top. Even if you do plan to range, you need a predator proof chicken run for your flock for the first few weeks they’re in the coop so they can imprint on it as Home.

Day-old Silver-laced Wyandotte chicks
Chicks vs. Adults. Chicks vs. adult birds is another decision. Chicks are usually easier to find, especially in the spring, but they are more work. If you get chicks, you’ll need to keep them in a brooder in your house or garage or somewhere protected and away from any adult chickens you have until they’re big and strong enough to go into the coop – about 6-8 weeks. A brooder can be any durable box (think plastic or wood) such as a large plastic bin, old cooler or even a kiddie pool. Provide a source of heat, like a heat lamp, and voila! You have a brooder. We made ours out of scrap plywood – 4 sides and a bottom. Adults can be harder to find and will need to “imprint” on your coop before they can be ranged – or they won’t come back.

Where to get your chickens. Depending on your situation and the time of year, you may not have many options. However, most farm stores have a “chick day” in the spring. Customers can order chicks and pick them up at the store on a specific day. My experience getting chicks this way has been very positive. The feed store we go to has a large selection, very reasonable prices, and good communication. Every Tractor Supply I’ve been in has chicks and ducklings available in the spring. There may not be much selection as far as available breeds, but the chicks are healthy. Craigslist will usually have chicks or adult chickens. And, who knew it, but if you want to hatch your own chicks, you can get hatchable eggs from Amazon! If you’re getting a large flock more (20+ birds) or if you missed Chick Day, there are some great online hatcheries. They’ll overnight day-old chicks to your local post office and you’ll need to pick them up. Rural post offices are very used to this, not sure how urban post offices deal with this. Note for online orders: they often send male chicks as “packing peanuts” if your order is small. This means that you’re going to have several baby roosters and you’re going to need to decide what to do with them. Humane euthanasia is a good option because I promise you, no one needs more than 1 or 2 roosters…ever.

A word about roosters. If you’re going to range your flock, take a moment and think about roosters. Ideally, a rooster will protect the hens by putting himself between them and the predator. This isn’t always what happens. We had a rooster that would “show the way to safety” when a predator attacked. He lost about a dozen tail feathers during the various attacks and we lost 7 hens to predators during his tenure. He was also very aggressive with 3” spurs that were sharp and hard as nails. Roosters are often banned within the city limits so that may make your decision for you. However, sexing chicks isn’t an exact science and when you think you’ve asked for all pullets; you may have a rooster or two hidden in there.

Are you ready? Don’t let this be intimidating. Keeping chickens has been a great decision for our little homestead. They’re pretty low maintenance and earn their keep. We currently have 5 laying hens and get 3-4 eggs each day. We keep our neighbors and coworkers in fresh eggs.

Ideal Poultry – online hatchery
Murray McMurray Hatchery – online hatchery
BackyardChickens.com – excellent forum with tips, information, etc.
4 Steps to Starting a Hobby Farm and Advice You’ll Be Glad to Have – MorningChores.com

See the following article by TopSurvivalPreps.com to learn more about chicken breeds and an excellent book and videos for getting started in raising your own backyard chickens.