The basic guide to keeping chickens:
So what do you need to know and do to keep your feathered companions happy and in good condition? This article is mostly a quick overview of the basic of chicken care with links to in depth articles around the web, pointers, ideas and things to think about.
- Somewhere to house them. A coop to keep them warm and cosy in the winter and to lay their eggs in.
- Feed. A balanced and mixed diet to keep your hens healthy and laying.
- Water. Clean and fresh every day.
- Eggs. Collect them every day to keep them clean, maximize freshness and prevent breakages.
- The biggest thing about keeping chickens is simply taking the time to enjoy having them.
Keeping chickens is for the most part easy, simple and rewarding. You can keep chickens as easily in a urban backyard as you can at an open countryside property or farm. You will discover very quickly once you start to keep chickens is that they are actually very undemanding creatures and tend to look after themselves for the most part.
I’ve been keeping chickens for more years than I care to remember. I got started because I was a chef and wanted to produce my own food for the restaurant. My business had quite a lot of space and I wanted to add as much home produced produce as I could to the menu.
Chickens are natural foragers and they will want to be out and about scratching around for insects and fresh greenery. They should also have access to dusty areas areas for them to bathe in.
Do you have time to keep chickens?
To be honest, this really boils down to time to check your chickens in the morning before work again in the evening at dusk as they roost. You will always need to make sure they are safely in their coop for the night.
Currently I probably take 15 to 20 minutes on a daily basis to deal with my hens. I invested in an automatic door opener so as I Don't have to be there at bed time. Hens will take themselves to bed when the are ready. On the whole I prefer to spend time with mine on a daily basis as I enjoy being around them.
Winter can be more work for both the chicken and the keeper!
You will also need to put aside an hour each week or two to clean out the coop. An light task if you invest in an easy to clean hen house. The hens will get involves in this and spend all their time shuffling the bedding around and clucking over your handy work.
You will need to care for your chickens every day, just like any other pet. You need to get someone to cover for a week's holiday for example. Next door neighbours or friends can often be bribed to keep an eye on them with the promise of some extra fresh eggs should you wish to be away for a while.
Any existing cats and dogs you have will suddenly have to share their lives and garden with the new chickens.
Keeping chickens at home and the law:
If you are keeping a few hens for eggs then you aren’t going to have many problems. Over 700,000 people in the UK and 4.5 million in the US already keep chickens in their gardens.
However make sure you examine the deeds and any lease for your home. You might be surprised to find that some expressly forbid the keeping of livestock and chickens.
In addition, your local town council may have by-laws concerning chickens. You will often be limited to just 6 hens with no cockerels.
If you are seriously thinking about getting a few hens then it may be best to do a quick check and make a few phone calls just to be on the safe side.
A chicken lives for around 5 or 6 years and is quite a commitment.
How many eggs can you expect?
I would suggest that if you are completely new to keeping chickens to start with three hens. Hens are friendly and need company and three really is the lower limit. Bigger families will need a few more. Chickens like to live in groups.
UK average egg consumption per person is approximately 180 eggs a year, or just under 3.5 eggs a week. A family of four would eat about 12 to 14 eggs a week, which is about what you would expect from three happy and well-fed hens.
Egg production is breed dependant, dark egg layers produce less egg and a Rhode Island Red may lay up to 280 eggs a year, while a showier breed such as the Orpington may only produce 80 eggs a year.
You will get more eggs in spring and summer and they will taper off in winter.
Chickens will typically lay in the morning. So if you see them come out to eat and then disappear back into the housing area it's usually to lay an egg.
Harvest your eggs early if you can. This will help stop muddy and damaged eggs or one of your hens actually eating the egg.
In full lay three hens will provide a family of four with enough eggs to keep the larder stocked. Above is a selection of eggs from a show near me. Proof there can be something for everybody as far as chickens are concerned.
Chickens and neighbours:
If you mention to yur neighbours that you are planning to keep chickens you will want to tell them that your not planning to get a cockerel.
The vast majority of people keep chickens without a cockerel. You don’t need one for your hens to lay their eggs. And contrary to what some may think having a cockerel around doesn’t increase the number of eggs your hens will lay. Unless you plan on actually breeding and hatching your own chicks there is very little reason to keep one and even then you could buy hatching eggs in.
You may also be concerned about the noise level but these are generally unfounded. I had a friend of mine keep three silkie hens in his small urban garden and it was 11 months before his next door neighbours even noticed.
My hens like most, are really quiet during the day and apart from the usual soft clucking which is barely audible from the bottom of the garden they only make a bit of noise to proudly announce to us that they have laid their egg.
They are a lot quieter than a barking dog, or cat that can keep you up at night with their midnight antics.
Feed , grit and water:
Hens need a balanced and consistent diet otherwise it can adversely affect their happiness and productivity.
See this article for an in depth guide to feeding chickens and what they must not eat.
You'll Need Grit as hens don't have teeth. They swallow grit and it helps grind their food in the gizzard. Even if your chickens are free range you should provide some. Grit with added oyster shell has the benefit of a higher calcium content which helps create stronger egg shells. You can have some in a small pot next to their feeder.
Having a treat bag is a must. Here is some ideas. It’s a great way to get them back into the hen house when necessary or to bribe them.
Water is absolutely essential for your hen's health, both the chicken and the egg is made up of 70% water. Your chickens must have access to clean cool fresh water from preferably 2 sources.
You’ll soon discover that water need to be raised up from the ground as chickens do not make any effort to keep their water clean, and will happily scratch up dust and dropping if it is left at ground level. Once the water is dirty, they tend not to drink from it.
This can be accomplished by hanging the drinker and feeder from a bar or pole so it is at your hens shoulder height. I just use large bricks.
When they drink their beaks get cleaned and that fouls the water over time. This is why you need to give fresh every day.
Water is critical to chickens and you should know that on a hot day a single hen can drink as much as a pint.
There are two types, that which you spread on the coop floor and that which you line the nest boxes with.
Bedding spread on the floor of the coop absorbs moisture droppings and smells. This layer of bedding also acts as a clean and soft surface for the hens feet, insulation in winter and hopefully helps to keep the mud off your eggs in the wet.
Damp bedding is a haven for parasites, mould and bacteria, none of which will do your chickens any good.
Wood shavings, chopped straw and shredded paper can all be used as chicken bedding but I use sand.
I use hay in the nest boxes with sprigs of rosemary and a dusting of diatomaceous earth.
More on bedding here.
The chicken coop:
This will most likely be your biggest outlay so have a think about it first as choosing coops can be overwhelming!
The basic function of a chicken coop is to provide your hens with a place to lay their eggs and a safe and secure place to roost at night. This is all they generally do in the coop – lay eggs and rest safely at night.
So with that in mind:
1. Is it big enough? bigger is normally better to a small degree.
The inside of the coop should have at least, according to DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), 1 sq foot per large fowl and 8 inches square for bantams. You should have a little more than this and don't forget some height to give volume. Free range hens can mean a smaller coop. Cramped conditions leads to boredom, pecking and an increased likelihood of pests and diseases.
2. Will it be easy to clean?
It should have a dropping board under the perches, that saved me a fortune in bedding and cleaning time. you just have to clean the board. Can you stand up in the coop and get to the corners easily. All things to think about especially if you have trouble bending. Chicken create around half of their droppings during the night on the roost.
3. Is it well ventilated?
Ventilation is so important to keeping chickens healthy, it can not be understated at all. Air flow with no draughts. Ammonia can be given off by dropping and a damp coop will give you nothing but trouble. This young bird below is roosting happily in a large airy wooden shed.
4. Are the perches correctly made?
Perches need to be high up as that is what chickens prefer and sturdy. the best shape is round or with a rounded top. Don't go for square ones. Perches must be above the nesting boxes or the hens will try to roost in the nest and fill them with poop overnight.
5. Nest boxes and collecting eggs:
Nest boxes must be easy for you and the hens to get too. A quiet corner with a few covered boxes is normally just fine. They must be darker and out of the way a bit.
6. Is it weather proof and predator proof.
It has to keep the weather out and survive storms and predator attacks.
8. Design and looks:
Does it look how you want it to. This is surprisingly important to people. I am happy with a good solid shed to use as a coop.
Predators you encounter will depend on where you live in the world. You should research your local ones and take appropriate steps.
Rats, mice and crows are the traditional problems but there are others. Keeping food covered and hidden away from wild birds will help solve problems and you should actively trap rodents as well as taking preventative steps.
Common pests and problems
Worms - Worms are endoparasites, which means they live inside their host, so they are not possible to spot by eye. The usual external symptoms of worms are loss of appetite and weight, lower egg production, faded comb colour and liquid droppings.
Mites - Red mites hide away in the dark corners of the chicken coop, emerging at night to feed on the blood of your poor unsuspecting chickens.
Lice - Lice are extremely irritating for your chickens, and a severe infestation can also kill small chicks.
Scaly Leg - Scaly leg is caused by a mite that burrows under the scales of your chicken’s legs. Symptoms include leg inflammation, swelling and lameness. If left untreated, the condition gets worse, as the scales get pushed away from the skin by the mites’ excretions.
Sneezing and Colds - all birds sneeze occasionally but it is something to watch out for. An eye like the one you see above is a sure sign your bird needs treatment.
How to spot a healthy chicken:
Eyes - Your chicken’s eyes should be bright and clear.
Nostrils - Nostrils should be free of discharge. Also check for beak deformities.
Feathers - Plumage should be clean, sleek and well-groomed by the chicken, not you. it's called preening. see here for moulting.
Vent - It should be clean, free of dirt and parasites, slightly moist, but not giving any discharge. Droppings should be firm and grey-brown, with a white cap. You can tell a lot about a chicken by looking at it's backside.
Legs - Must be smooth and blemish-free. Rough scales may indicate parasites.
Comb - Your chicken’s comb and wattles should have good, strong colour and be free of scabs. Otherwise healthy hens with a light comb are not in lay.
Gait - Movement should be free and easy and the bird should be active and scratching around.
Fully feathered, bright eyes and red comb. This is a happy healthy Wyandotte bantam cockerel.
How to keep your hens healthy:
Generally speaking prevention is the key to keeping your chickens healthy. Cleaning your chicken coop must become a regular part of your life, not something you remember to do every now and then.
Dirty unkempt living quarters is where a lot of your problems can begin, so this is why it is probably one of the most important things you can do to prevent infestations and diseases.
From time to time your flock could benefit from a 'pick me up'. There will be times when either your chickens are unwell or needing that extra boost of vitamins and supplements.
1. Buy in the day - then you can see them moving and assess their condition.
2. Pick it up - hold it , feel it. check the head, feet the feathers and the backside. Look for lice or mites
3. Buy them yourself - any doubt then walk away and find other chickens.
4. Check their red bits - clean bright wattles and comb.
5. The vent - The chickens bottom. It should be clean and if it's a round hole it means she's out of lay, if it's elongated or slot like she's in lay
6. The crop - The crop should be full but not packed solid with food or full of fluid.
7. Activity - happy and healthy hens are be busy and active, feeding and drinking well, preening and scratching.
If you like the bird buy it otherwise don't and do not get pressured into buying a cockerel if you don't want one.
Should chickens be vaccinated?
Very Good question. The answer is yes if you want vaccinated birds but the trouble with poultry vaccinations is that they come in big batches of 250 or 1000 doses, so it's basically impossible to get back garden bred birds vaccinated.
So if you have to get vaccinated chickens then get them from a big commercial breeder. This is a vaccinated modern hybrid bred for the backyard keeper.
Collecting your hens:
Plan your trip and take a crate or boxes with holes in like pet carriers.
In summer the inside of a car can get really hot and extreme temperatures are detrimental to hens.
Letting them loose:
Always keep them confined for at least three nights so as they learn where home is otherwise getting them back in the coop the can be a challenge.
How To Pick Up And Hold A Chicken Correctly
The easiest way to learn is to do. Have someone show you like the person you buy your hens from or a fellow keeper.
How to clip a chickens wings:
Clipping the wing of a hen is the most common and easiest method of keeping them contained. Using a sharp pair of scissors and cutting off the first ten flight feathers of one wing in a semi circular motion to shorten the main wing feathers.
If done correctly wing clipping doesn't hurt the bird at all. It's not even noticeable when they are walking around as the primary flying feathers are hidden underneath when the wings are folded.
You only clip one wing as this causes your bird to lack the balance needed for flight.
You will need to repeat this after each moult as new feathers will grow.