Everybody loves backyard chickens these days; with urban farming growing in popularity, many people are finding chickens an easy introduction into the world of microlivestock. With a backyard flock, you get a chance to see personalities blossom among your birds while collecting eggs. There are lots of benefits to having backyard chickens, but before you get started, it can be helpful to have some basic information to get your cluckers off on the right foot.
1. The long arm of the law. Regulations about backyard chickens are highly variable. Some cities don’t regulate them at all, while others limit the number of chickens or ban roosters. Make sure you know the law, and determine if you need a permit before you get chickens. While you aren’t required to, you might also want to talk to your neighbors before starting your flock; smooth potentially ruffled feathers in advance by making sure your neighbors know what you’re planning to do, and giving them contact information in case they have questions or concerns.
2. Housing. Like the rest of us, chickens enjoy shelter, but they like a chance to roam around in the outdoors, too! Chickens need at least 4 square feet of space each, and some of that space needs to be vertical so they have room to roost; if your chickens are too crowded, they’ll be prone to disease, and your flock is more likely to have personality problems. They also need three to four square feet of outdoor space each as well, so plan for that as you lay out your coop area. For bonus points, consider a movable coop or chicken tractor, so you can move the chickens around to fresh dirt. They’ll appreciate the fresh forage, and you’ll appreciate the conditioned dirt they leave behind! (Tip: Chickens are fantastic for clearing out vegetable beds at the end of the growing season.)
3. Food. Chickens need about a half cup of food a day each. There are lots of food options around, but for beginners, it’s a good idea to plan on getting some scratch as well as an egg-laying mix. Scratch is made with corn and a mixture of other grains, and it’s designed to be scattered. Not only does this give the chickens something to do, it also gives them a chance to pick up stones for their crops. Egg-laying mixes contain lots of nutrients to promote egg production and healthy shells; and remember to mix in some ground mussel shell periodically so your hens get enough calcium. Chickens should always have access to fresh clean water, too.
Your chickens will also appreciate treats and snacks, but remember not to go overboard. Feel free to toss them edible leftover fruits and veggies (no moldy, slimy or rotten food), and you may find that they prefer some things to others. Our flock, for example, adores tortillas.
4. Breeds. Chickens come in a dazzling array of breeds, from showy specimens to the more utilitarian. If you’re raising chickens for eggs, some good starter breeds are Araucanas/Ameraucanas (they lay green eggs!), Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, and Buff Orpingtons. The possibilities are endless, though, so don’t be afraid to branch out into more exotic feather-footed and tufted breeds. Be aware, however, that they tend to produce fewer eggs, and that those festive extra feathers can attract mud and mites, so they need a very clean environment.
5. What if they get sick? Chickens are hardy, but they do sometimes develop health problems like respiratory tract infections (which can be a sign that the coop needs cleaning!), mites and worms. Don’t panic: treatments for these are often available at your local feed store, and you can also find a vet who handles poultry. Some small animal vets take on chickens, and the Association of Avian Veterinarians can help you locate one too. They can also help you handle stress behaviors like cannibalism and egg eating, which can happen if your chickens get unhappy; possibly because of the introduction of new birds, or a stressor like a loud dog next door.
If your chickens start losing all their feathers, don’t freak! They’re molting, which is a normal part of their lives. Those feathers will grow back and they’ll be sleek as ever — but if they don’t, or a chicken molts out of season, talk to a vet. You may also find that your hens will go “broody,” hunching down over a clutch of eggs to incubate them. There are several options for dealing with a broody hen, including letting her hatch the eggs or doing a bait and switch with fertile eggs from somewhere else if you want some chicks of a different breed. You can also plant some fake eggs. Eventually she’ll figure out that nothing’s going to hatch, and her behavior will go back to normal.
Above all, remember to have fun with your chickens. Birds really do have their own personalities and they can be quite friendly; while it might seem odd to think of hanging out with a chicken on your lap, you may find yourself doing exactly that one of these days.
Photo credit: normanack
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