You're exploring a residential neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York, when you hear 'boc boc boc boc buh-GAWK!' You shrug, thinking that either you're hearing things, or else someone has their TV up rather loud. You continue exploring, and stop to admire an adorable playhouse. Out of which comes a... chicken? It's shaped like a chicken, but they don't come multicolour, do they? And what's that two-legged puffball following it out? And that tumbleweed with feet?
Backyard chicken keeping has grown lately. At one time, most families kept a few chickens - in the US, there were even posters extolling the practice of poultry keeping, saying Uncle Sam wanted families to do so. In the decades between then and the recent resurgence, chicken keeping was considered the province of big agriculture, family farms and poor people, and certainly not something to be done in urban areas - most certainly not where affluent people may be.
Common Misconceptions About Chickens/Eggs
Chickens are Filthy/Smelly/Disease-ridden/Pest-ridden Creatures
Just like any other animal kept by humans, whether pet, livestock, or zoo animal, cleanliness and health is largely determined on how the humans in charge keep the environment the chickens are in. Clean, dry, uncrowded surroundings equal clean and healthy poultry, while noisome, crowded conditions will result in filthy, ill birds.
Chickens Will Attract Predators
While many predators find chickens tasty, the predators are already around, even in urban settings. For that matter, in many areas, the worst chicken predators are pet dogs - dogs belonging to the chicken owner as well as any that roam the neighbourhood.
Chickens are Vegetarians1
No. Chickens are very firmly omnivores. As well as grains and vegetation, chickens will eat anything smaller than them that they can catch and fit into their beaks. Bigger things will be pecked into pieces or torn apart. A well known observation in chicken forums is that, no matter how attached you are to your chickens, you do not want to be closed in with them while you're unconscious! The only way to have a fully herbivorous chicken is to not allow it any contact with the outside world.
Eggs Come in Contact With Feces While Being Laid
While the cloaca is used for elimination as well as egg-laying, there is a valve at the end of the oviduct, just like the valve that keeps food in a human's oesophagus from going into the trachea.
No Rooster = No Eggs
There does not need to be a rooster in the flock for the hens to lay eggs. While there are animals that do not ovulate until copulation has taken place2, chickens are not part of that group. There's actually no mechanism to allow for stimulated ovulation - roosters have no penetrative organ. Sperm is transferred via 'cloacal kiss'.
If a Rooster is with the Flock, the Eggs can't be Eaten
This is, of course, in direct contradiction with the above. There are different rationales given for this belief.
1. There's rooster sperm in the egg.
No. At most there will be a blastoderm, which is a small cluster of cells surrounded by a white line, thus resembling (and often called) a bull's eye.
2. There's a chick in the egg.
A chicken egg has to be kept at 85°F (29.4°C) for several hours for the blastoderm to start developing into an embryo. As long as eggs are collected regularly and often, there is no culinary difference between fertile and infertile eggs.
Chicken Eggs are Fertilized After they are Laid
That only works for animals that lay non-shelled eggs in an aquatic environment, so, no.
Eggs With a Shell Colour Different To What One is Accustomed To3 are Inferior in Some Way
Shell colour has absolutely nothing to do with the contents. An egg is an egg is an egg.
Blue or Green Eggs Have Lower Cholesterol/Are Healthier Than Other Eggs
See the above - with a caveat. Most, if not all, blue and green egg laying breeds do not lay enough eggs to make them worth raising commercially. Eggs of chickens that forage for at least part of their diet are significantly lower in cholesterol and saturated fat, and significantly higher in vitamin A, beta carotene, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E and vitamin D. So, while the colour of the shell does not affect the contents, an egg with a blue or a green shell was likely laid by a chicken that ate a more natural diet, and thus has healthier eggs. Then again, white, brown and dark brown eggs laid by chickens that forage also have healthier eggs than chickens that eat nothing but commercial feed.
Vocabulary and Resources
Just like any activity, chicken keeping has its own vocabulary.
Chicken: Common name for subspecies Gallus gallus domesticus, does not connotate sex or age of the bird.
Chick: Generic term for an immature chicken, either sex.
The Chicken Chick: Kathy Shea Mormino, a well-known backyard chicken blogger. Her blog includes reliable chicken information, DIY projects and recipes.
Pullet: Female chicken up to one year of age.
Hen: Female chicken over one year.
POL: Point of lay - depending on the breed, a pullet 18-24 weeks old, just before egg production.
Broody: A hormonal change in a pullet or a hen that leads to the desire to hatch eggs and raise chicks. Can also refer to the bird demonstrating broodiness. Occasionally, a rooster will show broodiness.
Cockerel: Male chicken up to one year of age.
Cock: Male chicken over one year.
Rooster: Either a cockerel or a cock.
Straight Run: Chicks sold unsexed. Literally, chicks sold in the order they hatch.
Comb: Fleshy growth on top of head behind beak. Generally larger in males, though present on both sexes. Come in many different shapes, depending on breed.
Wattles: Thin fleshy flaps, usually red, that hang down beside and under the beak. Present on both sexes, though generally larger in males.
BYC: Backyard Chickens, a well-known chicken forum that has been in existence in various forms since 1999. Considered one of the best online resources for backyard chicken keeping. Has information on other types of poultry as well, such as ducks, geese, turkeys, peafowl, swans, quail, pheasants, emus, ostriches and rheas. There's even been information on keeping cassowaries! Granted, the bigger birds wouldn't be kept in an urban backyard - an emu, for example, needs as much room as a horse.
SOP: Standard of Perfection. What show birds are compared to. Has detailed specifications for size, shape, colours and patterns allowed, comb type, tail angle, etc. Each breed can have different standards in different countries.
Culling: Getting rid of a member of the flock in any way, rehoming as well as killing.
Heritage Breed: A breed raised in its current form for a long time in a location. Varies by country as to what is considered heritage vs imported.
Production Breed: A breed developed to lay lots of eggs in the first two years of life if a laying breed, or for extra fast growth if a meat breed. Quite often a hybrid as opposed to a true breed.
Dual Purpose: Chickens bred for both egg and meat production. Don't generally lay as many eggs as a layer breed, nor grow as fast as a meat breed.
Henderson's Chicken Chart: Chart listing dozens of chicken breeds, giving information on egg size, frequency, colour, bird size, usual temperament, etc. Helps in narrowing down choices for someone wanting chickens.
Why Keep Chickens?
People keep chickens for different reasons. Some keep a few hens for eggs, and see them primarily as livestock. Others keep a few hens as pets that pay rent with eggs. Yet others don't see individual chickens as pets, but have realised that they see the flock as a whole as a pet4. Chickens are also helpful in the garden, as long as they can be kept out at key times such as right after planting - chickens scratch and dig and love seeds - or when things, especially red things, start ripening. During those times, it's probably best to fence in either the garden or the chickens, unless you don't mind 'sharing'. They eat insects, and some will eat slugs and snails. Other small garden pests may be hunted down, as well. Chickens can also be quite decorative, and some people do keep them chiefly as lawn ornaments - which can be a good retirement for senior hens who have slowed down laying5 or a nice place for extra roosters to live. Several roosters can live together peaceably if there are no hens about, and roosters are usually more colourful than hens.
Not everyone that raises backyard poultry owns just a few hens. After all, some people have really big backyards. People with higher numbers of birds are less likely to see all their chickens as pets, though there may be special individual birds that are. If someone is able to have larger amounts of poultry, they are more likely to raise chickens for meat as well as eggs. Many people who do so, when accused of being cruel for raising their own meat, will point out that they make sure that their birds have a wonderful life with a bad few minutes on one day, as opposed to living in overcrowded conditions for their entire lives6. Larger flock keepers are also more likely to breed chickens - not least because many urban and suburban areas do not allow roosters! Some breeders breed to simply replenish their own flock, while others breed to sell to others. Some breed for egg production, some for meat production, some for appearance, and some breed to the Standard of Perfection.
Who Can Have Chickens?
Chickens are allowed in places that one would not think they would be. Conversely, some places that most people would expect to find chickens do not allow poultry. Some places allow hens but no roosters, while others allow either. Some places put limits on number of birds, or type and size of enclosure, or on how near enclosures may be to the property lines or other buildings. Other places place no limits on anything. Permits for poultry are required in some areas, while in others, they are not. In yet other areas, any limits placed on the general public are waived, either in whole or in part, for children who are members of 4H or FFA7 - with suitable proof, of course. All people pondering poultry procurement need to research their local regulations themselves - for example, by asking at the local town council, or finding codes online. The information can be elusive, though there's a list here that can help people in the US get started. However, even if the laws in an area allow for keeping chickens, anyone who is part of a Home Owner's Association (HOA) will need to check the HOA agreement. In most cases where the city or county laws differ from an HOA agreement, the HOA agreement outweighs the laws, since the homeowner agreed to uphold the agreement.
After due diligence, if the laws regarding poultry aren't clear (or if they're clear but not conducive to keeping chickens), one must decide if one wants to risk keeping chickens anyway. Illegal chickens can be confiscated, and have also been killed on the spot. This is not common, and the person killing the animal in front of the owner is generally reprimanded, but still.
There are myriads of ways to start or add to a chicken keeper's flock. One can buy adult chickens, POL pullets, young pullets8, small chicks or fertilised eggs. Once someone has an established flock, that person can still purchase any of the above, or, if there's a rooster in the flock, they can get 'free' replacement birds. There are advantages and disadvantages to all chicken ages.
Fully adult birds are the easiest to sex - if it lays eggs, it's a hen, and if it doesn't and crows, it's generally a rooster9. As far as secondary sexual characteristics, as a general rule roosters are more colourful and larger than hens10. A rooster's stance is more vertical than a hen's, and his legs will usually be longer and thicker. There are differences in the feathers, as well, except in those breeds where the rooster is supposed to be 'hen feathered'. A rooster will have longer tail feathers, and there will be 'sickle feathers' alongside the tail which are long and curved. A hen's saddle feathers11 are wide and rounded, while a rooster's are long, thin and pointed. The same differences in feather shape hold true for the feathers at the base of the neck, called hackle feathers. And if one's goal is to have a colourful egg basket, getting hens that are already laying will guarantee the colour of the eggs. Knowing what breed you're getting can give you a good idea if the bird is a purebred, there's still variation in some varieties of some breeds. And if you've got a mixed breed with any chance of a blue egg gene in the mix somewhere, all bets are off.
While a well-taken-care-of chicken can live for 8-15 years, and can lay reliably up to 4 or 5 years - longer if she's a heritage breed as opposed to a production breed - most people looking to sell adult chickens aren't going to be selling them until egg production slows down12 at about 2 or 3 years old. If a flock keeper isn't primarily interested in egg production, this may not matter. Adults can tend to be a more expensive option, but not necessarily. If ordering adult birds online, however, they are the most expensive to ship, because a special box is required and they must be shipped Express13. Adults are also heavier than younger birds, so that contributes to shipping costs as well.
Pullets at Point-of-Lay (and cockerels of the same age) are also easy to sex, though some individuals can still be ambiguous. A person buying a POL pullet won't have a long wait for eggs, usually. The first year of laying is generally the most prolific, as well.
POL pullets tend to be the most expensive. After all, the previous owner has fed her for anywhere up to six months with no return, and the new owner will be getting all the eggs. The same shipping regulations hold for near-adults as for adults, and there's not that great a weight difference between an animal at the point of sexual maturity and an older one, so shipping cost is nearly the same as for adult poultry.
Younger Pullets and Cockerels
Depending on the breed and the age of the chick, sexing may or may not be reliable, or even possible. Because of this, and because of the lesser amount of feed bought by the previous owner, the younger the bird, the less expensive14, as a general rule. If one has neither a brooder nor an incubator, a chick that is just old enough to be fully feathered is the least expensive option. The same shipping rules as above, though the younger the bird, the less it weighs.
If the chicken keeper has a brooder but no incubator, day-old chicks are the least expensive option. Some breeds and hybrids can be sexed at hatch because of colour differences between males and females. Of all the live-fowl options, day-old chicks are the least expensive to ship. They may be sent via Priority Mail in the US, as well as Express. This is possible because a chick does not need to actually eat or drink for the first two days after hatching, because the yolk is still present15. The younger a chick is when you get it, the more likely that it will be easy to handle. Some birds never do warm to humans, though.
Unless you have got chicks that are sexable at hatch, or ordered from a hatchery that hires vent-sexers (still only 90% accurate at best), you take your chances as far as sex of the chicks is concerned. For that matter, if you've got chicks from a feed store that orders from a hatchery that vent-sexes and has separate brooders for pullets and cockerels, it's possible that other customers (or employees) have handled the chicks and put them back in the wrong bin. Also, chicks that haven't feathered out yet need a heat source - most commonly a lamp, but there are contact heaters, as well, all of which require electricity at all times, for weeks at a time. If one broods chicks indoors, chick dust gets absolutely everywhere. Also, it will be months before the pullets start laying.
For the person with an incubator (or a broody hen, if one is adding to a flock instead of starting one), buying hatching eggs can mean the lowest immediate payout. Heck, if one has friends with their own flock, complete with rooster, one could conceivably get eggs for free! Some people have also had success hatching fertile eggs from the grocery store, even after those eggs have been refrigerated, which is another low-cost option. Buying individual eggs from a breeder is less expensive than buying chicks from that same breeder. Unlike live birds, there are no special regulations from the postal service regarding shipping eggs. If you are adding to an already existing flock, and have a proven broody, then you can just give the eggs to her and let her do all the work of hatching the eggs and raising the chicks. You can also try to give day-old chicks to a broody hen, but that isn't always successful.
Incubators vary widely in quality, and there is no way to tell if the eggs that one is putting into an incubator are fertile. One egg from a batch can be sacrificed to check for fertility, but just because the egg that is checked is fertile, it doesn't necessarily follow that all the eggs are. A rooster:hen ratio of 1:10 or better is a good indication that the eggs are likely fertile, but there is no guarantee. Despite old wives' tales, there is no way to determine which sex is going to hatch out of which egg16. With an incubator, temperature and humidity need to be monitored constantly, and most incubators require humans to do any required adjustments. If the incubator doesn't have an auto turner, then some way must be found to turn the eggs at least three times a day to prevent the developing chick sticking to the inside of the egg. Chicken eggs have an average incubation time of 21 days, during which time one wants to avoid electrical interruptions. And, once the eggs have hatched, they share the disadvantages of day-old chicks. If one has hatching eggs shipped, that can lead to a whole other set of problems, largely related to how well packed the eggs are and how rough the handling during the journey.
Where to get them?
People procure poultry in many different ways. Many times, a local feed store will sell chicks in the spring, and may have chickens of various ages available occasionally. Other people have found chickens near them on Craigslist, or via groups on Facebook. There are many hatcheries to be found that sell online and via mailorder, and chicken breeders also have websites. One can also sometimes rescue spent hens from egg farms - quite often, the hens are only 2-3 years old, so they're still laying, just not every day. Hatching eggs can be bought from hatcheries and breeders, and are also available on EBay. Live animals cannot be bought on EBay, though some sellers will circumvent the rules by offering a 'hatching service'. BYC has a section for buying, selling and trading hatching eggs, day-old chicks, older chicks and adult chickens, as well as other animals and inanimate objects. If buying birds or eggs to be shipped in the US, NPIP certification may be necessary. Regulations vary by state, with at least two states inspecting each shipment for certification papers and destroying shipments lacking the correct paperwork.
Chickens don't need elaborate housing. As long as they have a draft-free, well-ventilated, predator-proof place to stay dry, they will thrive. Space requirements are fairly simple, too - to prevent overcrowding, a coop should have four square feet (0.37 square meters) per bird, and the coop should be enclosed in a run/yard of ten square feet (0.93 square meters) per bird17. This is a rule-of-thumb minimum - it doesn't hurt to have more room per bird, and having more room will help if one's flock grows larger than originally planned. Healthy, fully-feathered birds do not generally require heat in the winter: there are chicken keepers near the Arctic Circle who do not heat their coops, and their chickens are quite healthy.
How much ventilation is enough? One rough rule of thumb is that if you think you have enough ventilation, double it! Another, more quantifiable rule is at least one square foot (0.093 square meters) of ventilation per bird. More is better, so long as there aren't any drafts hitting the birds as they sleep - while chickens wear home-grown down coats, a draft can ruffle their feathers and let out the heat. Ventilation is vital to let out excess humidity from chicken breath and droppings. If a coop is dry, chickens can withstand subfreezing temperatures quite easily, but a humid coop can lead to frostbite in temperatures above freezing. Even in warm weather, excess humidity can encourage mould growth and lead to respiratory distress.
Almost all carnivores and omnivores love chicken! Because chickens have worse night vision than humans, they are very vulnerable at night and twilight, so predator-proofing their sleeping area is a must. Predator-proofing requirements vary according to what predators are in the area, and remember, pet dogs and cats are just as much predators as wild animals. However, there are some basics that are applicable everywhere. Hexagonal chicken wire is only good for keeping chickens in, not anything else out. Any animal strong enough to take a chicken can break through it. Raccoons can not only chew through it, but they can reach through the openings and pull heads off. Chicken wire also rusts comparatively quickly. Half-inch hardware cloth is a much better choice. There are various ways to protect from diggers, and from birds of prey.
The design of a chicken coop is limited only by one's imagination (and any local regulations, which should be looked into before work starts). Of course, budget, skillset and material availability have some influence as well. Coop building can be a great opportunity for upcycling - people have made coops from old plastic playhouses with hardware cloth over the windows, as well as old pallets. People also convert old outbuildings into coops, or build structures resembling hoop greenhouses. There are also flatpack coops available, but those aren't always the best solution. Quite often the manufacturers overestimate how many chickens can dwell in their coop, and the coop can, but not always, end up being flimsy enough that, by the time one is done reinforcing it, the money and time spent could just have easily have gone into something built from scratch. The flatpack coops are cute, though.
There are a lot of people who will declare that all chickens need is a little cracked corn, because that's all that their relatives of a couple generations ago fed their farm chickens. Well, first off, chickens on a farm a few generations ago had a bit more space and variety to forage than the average backyard provides - feed that other animals have spilled, a larger variety of plantlife, insects in manure piles, etc. Secondly, chickens reach sexual maturity at around six months, so one human generation represents many chicken generations. In the last few decades, chickens have been bred for faster growth18 and higher egg production. Both of those require more nutrition than a diet of straight corn can provide - after all, one egg laid by a hen uses the same resources that one birth given by a mammal does.
There are other people who will insist that chickens can eat nothing but a commercially produced diet. While this is more defensible on a nutritional level, an egg laid by a chicken that eats nothing but commercial feed will taste no different (except for the freshness factor) than eggs bought at the store, at a higher cost per dozen19. Part of that is simply economies of scale - the average backyard chicken keeper cannot use tons of feed before it spoils.
Most backyard chicken keepers do use commercial feed of some sort, but also supplement with various treats and, if their location allows, at least some time foraging. Some chicken ordinances state that chickens must be enclosed at all times, and don't consider fences at the property lines as enclosures. And some locations have a predator load high enough that owners choose not to risk losing their birds. Table scraps are the cheapest type of treat and, unlike other domestic animals, there are very few human foods that chickens cannot eat, although feeding table scraps to livestock is illegal in the UK, due to regulations written to encourage composting during WWII. You can even give cooked poultry bones to chickens, but some people feel uneasy feeding chicken to chickens. There are also various treats that can be bought anywhere animal food is sold - black oil sunflower seeds, dried meal worms and so forth. People also raise meal worms or black soldier fly larvae for their chickens, as well as any overpopulation from their vermiculture bins. Spent grains left over from brewing beer are very good for chickens. Whatever treats are fed, it is recommended that they only make up 10-20% of the diet.
Some people choose not to use straight commercial feed as their chickens' staple food, and mix their own feed from scratch. Others use commercial feed and ferment it to make more of the nutrients available to their chickens. Fermenting also reduces feed costs, because the chickens eat less (as wet feed swells a lot).
Of course, chickens require access to clean water whenever they are awake. At times, chicken keepers may place additives in the water - apple cider vinegar, garlic20, probiotics, vitamins, medicine (to treat worms or other small parasites) - but most times, it is not needed.
Any time multiple chicken keepers meet, whether online or in real life, there is a large likelihood that chicken manure will be discussed. Not only can the health of members of the flock be indicated by the appearance of the droppings, but all that poo needs to be managed somehow. Just like any other aspect of chicken keeping, there are many ways to do so.
Since chickens do the majority of their indoor elimination while they are sleeping, some people place something under the roosts to catch the droppings. They then dispose of the droppings when convenient. Quite often, this is in compost. Why pay for a great soil amendment when it can be had for free?
If sand is used in the coop, it's a simple matter of scooping, just like a cat litter box. However, sand can eventually absorb odours, and is a bit chilly in the winter.
The deep litter method is basically composting in the coop. It works best if the floor of the coop is dirt, but it can also work on a wooden or concrete floor. Protecting the wood by covering it with something waterproof is a good idea. It can be the least labour-intensive manure-management plan, with the time between cleanings being counted in months instead of days or weeks, and with no more odour than a forest floor. Some people can have trouble getting it started, however, if there is either not enough moisture or too much, or if the coop is too small to get a good pile going. Composting organisms may go dormant during very cold winters, but if it gets that cold, the droppings freeze and have no smell anyway!
Lots of Bedding
Not quite the same as deep litter, but can be nearly as odour-free, especially combined with a poop board. The most common purchased bedding is pine shavings, though anything absorbent that dries quickly works well. In rice growing areas, people may have access to rice hulls, which are said to be excellent. Outside the US, hemp bedding may be found, which is also supposed to work quite well. A BYC member in Finland is conducting product testing as of the time of writing of this Entry.
Some chicken keepers choose to keep a bare floor in the coop. Either the coop has a hard floor, such as concrete or wood, and the owner scrapes up the droppings, or the coop has a dirt floor, and the droppings are scooped, scraped or allowed to decompose. Sometimes, if the coop is raised, the floor is wire. Solid floors are often combined with a poop board.
Several normal chicken actions can be quite alarming to a new chicken keeper:
Lying on one side, wing and leg on the upper side stretched out, eyes either fully or half closed. If the eyes aren't fully closed, the eyes are glazed.
No worries - the chicken is basking in the sun. (If there is no sun, and there aren't any other heat sources around to be basked in, then some concern could be merited.)
Lying on one side in a depression, with spasmodic movements of either/both legs, and possibly the head, as well.
Dustbathing. Much easier to tell when the bird is finished digging and shakes the dust either down to the skin or out of the feathers.
Running about with a small vertebrate held in the beak. Worse yet, tug-of-war with a small vertebrate.
Extra protein! Also, dinosaur descendants...
Hen or pullet has been in the nest box (or some odd place) for multiple days, even sleeping there instead of roosting. Leaves once or twice a day for a few minutes and eats as if starving. Enormous, odoriferous droppings. A normally gentle bird may peck or bite if touched. Bird is puffed up and/or flattened out over the nest. Bird may make strange noises. Bird loses weight quickly.
The hen or pullet is broody. If one wants chicks, this is good news. If not, the longer the bird is broody, the harder she is to break.
Rooster trembles, squats down, stands up, shakes his wings, and weaves his head side to side. Does not stop until either pecked on top of the head, or hen or pullet squats with wings held half open.
Well, as the next step after the hen squats is that the rooster mounts her, this is a mating dance.
Chicken has several bald spots.
Chicken is having a hard moult. Chickens have a few juvenile moults, and then, after they turn one year old, moult every fall (Autumn). Not every chicken has a hard moult - sometimes the moult is only noticeable because there are suddenly feathers everywhere and all the birds in the flock look a little thinner than usual. In a soft moult, feathers are replaced as they drop instead of all the feathers being lost at once.
Backyard chicken keeping can be quite rewarding. However, anyone wishing to keep chickens needs to do more research than the scope of this Entry allows. The websites mentioned in the Vocabulary and Resources section above are a great start, but there could be local resources available, as well as several good reference books. At the very least, checking local regulations is a must.