5 Things to Know About Backyard Chickens

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.


Related Posts:

The Trouble with Backyard Chickens

A Quick Guide to Raising Backyard Chickens

The Magic of Chickens


Photo credit: normanack


Rosemary Lowe

For those thoughtful, caring people who would love to have some hens: there are thousands of them waiting for you in shelters and sanctuaries, to give them the loving home they so deserve. All baby chicks (cute and cuddly like puppies and kittens) grow up, just like puppies and kittens do--very quickly, and these animals often suffer and die because of thoughtless humans. Baby chicks are bred in horrendous conditions, and then shipped in large trucks, across hundreds of miles, in heat and cold weather, stacked in small cages upon one another.Many chicks people buy as females, turn out to be roosters. These "trends" come and go, so please be mindful of this. I have a friend who has 10 chickens. She named them all. She spent hundreds of dollars building a safe, secure house for them. Now, she understands just how much daily work it is to properly take care of them, and once they die (she will keep them after egg laying is done), she told me "I think I'll just get a rescue chicken or two, never mind the egg thing."

Christine Jones
Christine J5 years ago

Great article. I have a veganish diet myself, so don't eat eggs, but I love the idea of having them as pets. I know they have great personalities and are much smarter than people think they are. Kudos to anyone saving ex-battery hens and giving them a lovely life for the remainder of their days.

Alicia Guevara
Alicia Guevara5 years ago

Don't plan to have backyard chickens (I live in an appartment), buy enjoyed article. Tks.

Carrie Anne Brown

interesting article, thanks for sharing :)

Pat A.
P A5 years ago

I think it was Dr Mercola who recently had a wonderful interview with a man who raised free range organic hens in full view of all predators nearby. He had cages which had been developed over the years to be the size that the hens liked most - and they were moved each day to a new patch of grass. The number of hens per cage (from memory about 8 ft by 16 feet or so) was limited to a number that the hens themselves liked (observed over many years by seeing which method gave healthier hens and presumably who laid more eggs - proving they were happier) and it seemed a very good system - but you would have to have the space to move the cages each and every day - and the muscle-power and will-power to do that daily too, 365 days a year! That meant that NO parasites could build up in the soil and that the hens were safe from predators - and they had a covered over bit that they could hide under to feel safe (as well as be safe from hawks) and which gave them shade. Over the year the hens went over an enormous area of fresh ground - about an acre or so, I think - and they were kept in groups that knew each other so they had stability and plenty of room to socialise, and seemed happy. Just a thought....

Diane L.
Diane L5 years ago

Ummm, and for the "naysayers" who have invaded this discussion to try to insult those of us who eat eggs, specifically to say they're unhealthy, please watch Dateline tonight. One of the people interviewed is Dr. Oz. He's probably a household name and a cardiologist. He says the best way to remain healthy is get a good night's sleep and start the day by eating eggs. He said it's an absolute FALACY that dietary cholesteral and blood cholesteral are related, and eggs are one of nature's best foods. We've heard that before, right?

Diane L.
Diane L5 years ago

Karen S., I'll have to check out to see if there is one around where I live and go from there. I actually don't look forward to raising small chicks and have to install heaters & lights, etc. My next-door neighbor wanted to have hens, so got some chicks at the feed store, went thru a lot to build shelter and a coop which he could move around his property and one of his dogs (Shih Tsu) got into the garage where he was keeping them and killed all of them. I think adult birds would stand more of a chance. I do have one huge GSD that will chase anything that moves/runs but she's also almost 11 and slowing down, and at night they'd be enclosed in a predator-proof shelter.

Karen Seoighe
Karen Seoighe5 years ago

I get my hens from a chicken abattoir. Despite being end of lay, they are prolific egg producers and it is so rewarding seeing ex-battery hens discovering natural behaviors which they had been denied. They are cheap to purchase, and look glorious after they have been through a moult and grown some feathers.

Margaret C.
Margaret C5 years ago

Thanks so much to all of you talking about your chickens! My daughter and I have been talking about them and have heard all of the good things about them as pets from people we know and who love them dearly.

As soon as I feel I know enough about keeping them and feel comfortable that I will do the right things for them, I will look into getting some.

Thanks again, it was sort of a pep talk for me.

Diane L.
Diane L5 years ago

Neil, all living beings should be treated FAIRLY and accordingly. In my humble opinion, that does not mean given "equal rights" to everything, nor equal respect. I don't respect house flies, mosquitos, slugs or such things that cause death and disease simply by existing. Now, using animals for our benefit doesn't mean lack of respect, so getting back to this topic, that means having hens around to provide eggs is not disrespecting them, nor is it NOT showing them kindness.

Laurita and Billie, thank you for the information! I'm hoping to get a few hens of my own soon, maybe this spring if or "when" I can get suitable shelter built for them. I'm very rural and predators all over the place, so that will be a necessity. I want them to "free range" as much as possible, but be safe. I also think it's my responsibility to learn as much as possible about keeping them before getting chicks. In the meantime, I'll get eggs from a neighbor who has 5 very happy pet hens (all with names, all of which come running when called).