This May will be our first anniversary of chicken ownership. It definitely has been a huge learning experience, I can’t wait to get more land and do things differently. After seeing some posts on twitter from soon-to-be-chicken-owners, I decided I should share what we’ve learned the hard way. Chicken ownership is not as easy as owning a pet bird.
Have the Coop AND Run done before bringing the chicks home.
We had the coop done long before bringing our girls home, but we didn’t have the run done. The girls were quickly outgrowing their brooder box and we had little time to get the materials and build a run. It caused several rough moments between me and Jeff as we panicked to get the run together and the girls outside. Having the run done early would have also helped immensely when we cleaned out the brooder every other day. The girls would get some free (and secure) time outside while we cleaned the brooder without worry.
Also, we would have had more time to perfect the design so that it was the best solution for us. Instead, we ended up with a design that makes it hard just to refill their food once a week. It’s even harder to get in there and catch them if they wont come to us.
I also suggest starting with chicks — it’s really tempting to want to start with pullets because 1) they lay sooner 2) you know their gender… but, you don’t get to start them off and tame them. It means a lot to have chickens that aren’t afraid to approach you and will let you hold them to doctor them up when needed.
Be ready with lots of research.
I thought I had researched absolutely everything, I even read the entire Raising Chickens For Dummies book, but I still had lots to learn! The most important thing to know the ins and out of is their diet… how much scratch/grit do they need, what kind of feed for what stage of growth, what treats and how much can they have, medicated chick start or plain, etc. I only skimmed through the chapter on feed, that was a mistake. Fortunately we didn’t have any issues with feeding our girls, but I did waste a lot of time searching for answers on my iPhone in TSC when it came time to buy a new stage of feed.
Also research the delivery of their food and water. You want a system that is easy to refill, keep clean, and has plenty of access for them. Limited access to their food and water can cause problems within the pecking order, and even cannibalism. The perfect system is one that is easy on you, and them… but they are the priority.
Be ready with lots of research… about your chosen breeds.
This is especially important if you are a suburban or urban backyard chicken owner. Some breeds are louder than others, some are difficult to sex as chicks, some are aggressive, some do well in certain climates… the list goes on. Make a list of what you need in a breed — size of eggs, behavior, prefered climate, etc. Then, pick your breed. BYC has a good breed index, but remember that this is information gathered by an online community composed mostly of amatures and may not be entirely accurate (more on that later.)
As you know, we have two Black Australorpes and a Rhode Island Red. The BA’s are usually quiet, but RIR’s are typically loud. This isn’t exactly the case for us — Selma is definitely sweet and quiet, but Patty and Baby (RIR) are very loud and will make sure you hear their rants. RIR’s are also labeled as aggressive — but Baby is the SWEETEST chicken and our friends with RIR’s say the same about theirs. Originally we had a buff orpington — Marge — who turned out to be a Mark. We didn’t originally plan to get a BO, but my mother in law wanted more color to our flock when we were picking out chicks. I had researched BA’s and several other breeds except BO’s. When we got home, I learned orpingtons are hard to sex until they’ve reached 14 to 16 weeks… and sure enough, Marge was a cockerel.
Be prepared to be a Chicken Doctor.
You can’t protect your flock from everything, including themselves. You most likely will not be able to find a vet to treat the bird during an emergency. Most suburban and urban vets wont even consider seeing a chicken, and most agricultural or avian vets will just tell you to cull the bird. Chickens are still considered dispensable animals, not pets. I know that this seems unjust since these vets will attend to $10 budgies from the pet store, but that’s just how it is.
Have an emergency kit with an antiseptic spray for fowl, exam gloves, chick saver, pine tar, corn starch, and whatever other basics you can get your hands on. The worst feeling is when you have a sick or injured bird and need to run to the supply store for the things to save them. Having the most basics on hand will save you worry and possibly save the bird’s life. Remember that human treatments don’t usually translate to animals, so you will need specialized items.
Also, know your chicken poop, as silly as it sounds! Chicken poop can be an indicator of health or problems, and every chicken owner should regularly watch their flock’s poop. Familiarize yourself with the infamous chicken poop guide, the only time this guide wasn’t useful was when the girls’ poops turned an evergreen… then I remembered they had a red cabbage head earlier. Opps!
Online resources & communities are to be taken with a grain of salt.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s lots to be learned in great communities like Back Yard Chickens… and bloggers like me, but you have to remember — these are not experts, they’re people who were in the same spot you were not too long ago. These sites can be either very encouraging or super discouraging, their information can be incredibly accurate or incredibly inaccurate. This is where you need to continue to research on your own, instead of just going off of the answers you might receive in a forum thread. Weigh the information you find and pick what seems to be correct.
For example, when the girls were reaching the pullet stage, I posted their photos at BYC asking for advice on their genders. Of course, as it turns out… Marge was a cockerel, but the people in the thread were trying to tell me ALL of them were. Why? Because of the growth of their combs. One member posted a photo of his silkie at the same age trying to make his point. No two chickens are alike — especially between different breeds!!!!!!! I can’t stress that enough! Patty definitely has twice the amount of comb that Selma does, but they are both definitely hens, and the same breed! Plus, different breeds have different types of combs — and each comb type has different growth patterns. The thread upset me a lot, because before I had done research looking up photos of buff orpingtons (Marge’s breed) trying to tell for myself the feather shapes and comb growth. These people were rude and condescending. Finally, someone spoke up… someone with decades of experience… that comb growth is not an accurate tell for gender — feathers are slightly more accurate. Not one person in the thread had looked at the feathers or gave me photos of their hens of the same breed and their feathers — which is what I had originally asked for them to do. The person who came to the rescue in my thread also sent me a private message telling me to not be discouraged by the treatment I was receiving for asking a question, a question that is encouraged and has its own area in the forum. The community at BYC is generally amazing and welcoming, but there are certain areas of the forum where know-it-alls rule the roost.
So in conclusion — remember that people in these communities are not usually experts, they are people with enough time on their hands to be browsing these forums giving whatever information is stored in their head from their own limited experiences. I have had other, more positive experiences using the online communities as resources, but I still have to take a step back and ask myself if their advice is really accurate.
Be prepared to battle boredom.
We all get cases of cabin fever and get sick of the same everyday routine. Chickens experience this as well, but they cannot cope with it as well as humans can. If you cannot free range your chickens, have some way to break up their everyday activities by either having a way to move them to a new part of the yard… or with treats that create a new activity for them. Treats like my homemade scratch blocks, or a head of cabbage. Treats that encourage foraging and pecking are a good distraction from applying those behaviors to each other, like we experienced. Chickens will attack each other, and like sharks — blood makes them crazy. Boredom is enough to drive them to this behavior, even if they normally are best of friends.
Believe me, there will be plenty of unexpected surprises.
There just are some things you can’t prepare for, no matter how hard you try. They will surprise you with odd behaviors and sounds, both of which can be indicators of a problem. YouTube is definitely a great resource for diagnosing the behavior. If you suspect a hen is egg bound, you will be able to find videos of egg bound hens and their behavior during that emergency. If your hens are suddenly making a new noise — like egg songs if they’re pullets — you will be able to find videos of this behavior to confirm. I never found another instance of a hen yipping like a dog and purring like a cat, like Selma did when she started laying… but maybe I’ll catch her doing it again. She sometimes gives me little yips after she’s laid a difficult egg.
Lastly, make sure you have the TIME to own chickens.
Unlike most pets where you just have to keep their food and water filled, cages clean… chickens demand a bit more attention. I work from home, but I still find it difficult to get everything done that needs to be done. Chickens poop A LOT… if you can’t scoop the waste out of the coop each day, gather the eggs, check for anything abnormal, and feed them their scratch & treats — then you probably don’t have enough time. Sure there’s different coop & flock management methods, but that’s my rule of thumb for determining if a person has enough time.
This is just the start!
If you have questions, feel free to ask them in the comments. Remember, I am not an expert — these are just the things I learned since we took this journey! If there’s anything you want me to expand on in another post, let me know! Believe me, this is a long post but I had PLENTY more to say.
In the right sidebar I have links to some of the blogs I follow, and several of the homesteading blogs have LOTS of great information on chickens.