How to get started keeping backyard chickens
I have to give my daughter Ivy credit for any benefits I reap from our backyard chickens. We've had chickens over the years, but it has been her love for them that has really made them thrive and inspired me to take an interest in them too! Who knew chickens could be such great pets?
Chickens really are quite entertaining and are a great source of nutritious eggs as well. Ours have kept us on our toes, made us laugh, disturbed the peace and stretched our patience but all along we have enjoyed having them. Here's what I've learned that will hopefully help you get started keeping backyard chickens where you live!
Chickens are available in many breeds so if you are interested in something specific, it is best to do some ground work before buying. There are traditional breeds and hybrids which have been bred to exhibit a particular desirable trait such as those who lay larger numbers of eggs or tend to be more docile. Also note, that if you buy chicks you will not be able to determine their sex so you could possibly end up with all roosters (no eggs, lots of fights!) and no hens.
Young hens ready to lay eggs are called pullets and are usually around 20 weeks old. To start off with you might want to buy less than 5 chicks. They are more productive when young, up until about 5 years of age. Over time, you can slowly obtain more to keep the egg supply steady.
Some popular breeds include:
- Rhode Island Red
- New Hampshire Red
- Plymouth Rock
- Jersey Giant
- Single-Comb White Leghorn
- Ameraucana, lay beautiful eggs in shades of blue and green
- Buff Orpington, very docile and also beautiful
- Silkies, make excellent pets (see photo above right)
You can buy chicks online or search from a local breeder. We have done both with success. When you buy chicks online you can order males, females or “straight run” meaning, you get what you get. That is because most large hatcheries have “sexors” which determine the sex of the chicks.
- Are active and alert
- Have bright eyes and dry nostrils
- Have shiny feathers
- No bald spots
- Are a good weight; not scrawny
- Have a clean bottom
- Nice straight toes
- Do not have a bad odor
How to care for your chickens
It is best to handle chickens often to make them sweet. This happens naturally if you have children, well, at least it did with mine. Meet our backyard chickens (and our other pets) in this video, and see our silkies we recently added in this video.
I recommend getting a reference book from your local library before buying chickens to get an idea what is involved in caring for them. If you are serious about keeping backyard chickens, Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens is a great book to have on hand. You will need to check your chickens to make sure they are healthy. Chickens that are not feeling well usually keep their head down and eyes closed. A sick chicken may refuse to eat, drink or lay eggs.
How to pick up a chicken
It is best to handle chickens often to make them sweet. This happens naturally if you have children, well, at least it did with mine. Meet our first chickens (and our other pets) in this video, and see our silkies we recently added in this video.
To pick up a chicken, place both hands around/over her wings and body without squeezing her, then lift. Use a calm voice and talk to the chicken. Slide your hand under her body and let her weight rest on your arm keeping her close to your body. Please do not ever pick up a chicken by a wing, leg or neck! This only works in cartoons.
Our chicken care routine goes like this:
- 6:30/7 a.m. open chicken coop and set them free
- check water and give them food
- check nests for eggs, we just use whatever is handy to carry eggs, but I want a basket shaped like a chicken and I keep my eggs at room temperature on the counter in a ceramic egg tray
- play with chickens, depends on how much time we spend outside that day
- once a week, we rake up and clean up their yard
- about every other week, add a bit of straw to their beds and remove old dirty straw, as needed
- 9 p.m. close and lock chicken coop
Things chickens will need:
- A home, this is usually called a Hen House (we got ours at Sams club, but we have had others that we built from scratch, see photo below)
- Straw, to add to nests as cushion
- Feed, usually an organic corn mix and protein pellets. We keep ours in metal cans inside our garage to deter rodents.
- Automatic Feeders that will keep the chicken food dry.
- Fresh water in a Container for chickens to drink from
- Sand, ash or just dry dirt for “dust baths” which they love (here's a special dust bath recipe!)
- A place to roost, so they don't sleep in their nesting area and get the eggs dirty
- A place to run around looking for bugs safe from predators, typically called a “run” (optional)
Entertaining chickens and being entertained by them
Chickens get bored just like kids, here are a few ways to entertain your chickens:
- give them your grass clippings after yard work, they like to scratch through them
- scatter their food or grit so they have to search for bits (but not where you don't want them to scratch!)
- give them watermelons, they love them
- give them cut branches to perch on when you trim trees
- hold them while you read outside
- when planting or digging, if you find worms, give them to your chickens, make them hop for it
- give them a cardboard box for the day
- pile things up for them to scratch back out
- give them sand for dust baths
- give them a kiddy pool with water
- freezer fruit, veggies or seeds in water blocks
- give them corn on the cob
- give them leftover vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and grains (no meat)
If you have children who will be taking care of the chickens, you will definitely want A Kid's Guide to Keeping Chickens, as it is filled with interesting things to do, and your children will love looking at it. I ordered this book for Shawna after we saw it in a bookstore, so that she could become an expert just like Ivy. Since I know she will be leaving the “nest” eventually, I need to train her replacement.
Check local city and/or county laws and neighborhood regulations. It may be not be legal to own backyard chickens where you live, so start out by calling the local animal control office or your local municipality to inquire what the laws are in your area, or do an online search to be sure.
I found this out the hard way. Knowing our home was located just outside the city limits (no one can believe we are not city zoned) we never expected there would be any kind of problem with us having backyard chickens. We do live in a neighborhood but our backyard is private and there is a decent amount of space between our neighbors, which includes trees, shrubs and brush from our neighbors unfinished back yards, technically the space is called a buffer zone.
About seven or eight months after we got our chickens one of our neighbors knocked on our door and proceeded to explain to my daughter that we would have to “get rid of” our chickens because the “neighborhood covenant” had a rule against this type of pets. (Only loud obnoxious barking dogs and indoor cats are allowed, pardon my sarcasm, but the neighbor was very rude!)
After a few phone calls, we discovered that our Title Company failed to provide us with the “covenant” for our neighborhood. I suppose it is considered outdated, being nearly 25 years old. Upon reading it, we realized there were many infractions in our neighborhood besides chickens! My husband is a real peace keeper so he handled it nicely.
We don't have a rooster. Just a few hens and they aren't noisy, but our neighbor felt our chickens would disturb the peace. She didn't seem to mind the other neighbors three constantly yapping dogs that create so much noise. In the end it worked out for us to keep our chickens, but we got
lucky a miracle, I guess. I share this story, in hopes that if you want backyard chickens, you will first make sure it's a-ok.
I honestly had my friends and family praying about our situation because our chickens had become part of our family, not to mention that we get a steady supply of delicious nutritious eggs from them. Yes, my children hold, play with and talk to our chickens. Times have changed since our neighborhood covenant was written, and I believe that backyard urban chicken keeping is definitely trendy and on the rise!
I mean, who wouldn't love a face like this:
Why keep backyard chickens
Ivy has loved chickens since she was very young. She had one particular chicken, she named Fluffy, that she really bonded with. You would see her carrying it everywhere, reading to it; she even held it in her lap while swinging!
Personally, I always enjoyed having fresh eggs in my kitchen and felt that they were healthier and much fresher than the ones in the store. Besides, it's a great way to be a prepper.
When asked, “why should anyone keep backyard chickens?” some of my children's responses were:
Harm: First of all they lay eggs and they're healthy, their poop helps compost, and chickens are cute.
Shawna: You don't have to pay for eggs and they're fun to play with.
Keeping chickens is a good way to teach children responsibility with a build in reward. If you are wondering about having chickens and keeping your yard beautiful, this book is full of help and beautiful pictures!