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Beginning Chicken Guide: Before you bring your flock home


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By Drs. Foster & Smith Educational Staff

Beginning Chicken Guide

So you've decided to keep chickens, now what do you do?

If you haven't already, read our article on legal and neighborly aspects of chicken keeping. Before you get your flock, you've got some decisions to make, such as age of chickens to get, breed(s) of chickens you want, and where to get them. You'll also want to have the essentials on hand before your first chickens arrive.

How long do chickens live?

The lifespan of a chicken can be 8-10 years, with some chickens living up to 20 years of age. However, a chicken's egg laying span is only about 5 years. Chickens need 14 hours of daylight for optimum egg laying. You'll want to decide whether to have chickens for the spring, summer, and early fall, or to keep your chickens year-round - even during times when you will be getting few to no eggs.

Babies or adolescents?

Chicks are cute. Chicks are fluffy. Chicks need constant attention and care, like babies. While some people want that responsibility, and the great experience that comes with it, others may prefer to get adolescent pullets.

Pullets will have their young lives, before laying eggs, to form a flock, so there is a better chance of them getting along than if you started with adult chickens. They will also start laying more quickly than if you get chicks, which may take up to 5 months to start laying eggs.

Another reason to forgo getting younger chicks is the chance, if they're not "sexed" (determined to be male or female), of getting one or more roosters in the flock. Many municipalities do not allow roosters, and older roosters are difficult to manage. Whatever you decide, make sure you weigh the pros and cons of both.

Chicken lingo:

Generally speaking, a chick is a baby chicken. Once it starts looking more "chicken-like", but before it starts laying eggs, males are called "cockerels" and females are called "pullets." Once they start laying eggs, or reach one year of age (sources vary on this), cockerels become roosters and pullets become hens.

What kind?

Chickens are flock animals so have at least "a pair and a spare" for your backyard flock. There are hundreds of breeds of Gallus gallus domesticus (the common chicken's noble taxonomic name): some are particularly cold-weather hardy, some do better in hot weather. Some chickens make better egg layers than others, some get along better with flock mates. You might like a certain look for a chicken, or you may not care about looks, but want docile chickens. You may even want to know the best chicken to keep as a pet.

With good healthcare, good nutrition, a life with less stress and more fun, and good sanitation practices, chickens can live beyond a decade, so choose your chickens wisely. Plenty of backyard chicken forums, books, and websites are out there so you'll be able to do thorough research.

Where to get chickens

Your local feed store or farm will know where the best place to get your particular chickens will be. You can also do a web search, ask chicken owners around you where they got their chickens, join a chicken-keeping forum and post a question, or search for a local chicken-keeping blog or website. You may even be able to adopt an adult, laying hen that someone decided he or she could no longer keep.

Now for the Nitty-Gritty!

Housing is of utmost importance. And a secure coop where chickens go at night is essential. A good coop will have plenty of room, including:

 dot An inside, private area for roosting and laying

 dot A secure outside, shaded area for when they are not free ranging in your yard

 dot A door that latches securely

 dot Room for a nesting box

 dot Easy access to removing eggs

You'll want a coop that's ventilated, stays cool, and is easy to clean, since chickens can get respiratory illnesses easily. Most of our coops are easy to set up, but there may be a service in your area that helps set up coops and answers your first-time chicken questions.

Other Essentials

Supplies you'll need before your flock arrives include:

 dot Water is the most important nutrient of all. It helps all chicken body systems and is especially important for laying eggs. Ensure your chickens have all the water they need by providing a waterer and checking it frequently for cleanliness and water level.

 dot Nutritious, delicious, and life stage-appropriate food helps chickens stay healthy and ensure they get all the nutrients they may not get when foraging.

 dot Don't forget a feeder that is safe from spilling, keeps food clean, and lets your chickens feed at will.

 dot Although your free-range chickens may forage and get some materials that act like grit. This essential nutrient is necessary to help chickens digest their food. To ensure they get the grit, they need, provide it separately.

 dot Bedding is needed for sanitation and to keep chickens comfortable, not to mention to line nest boxes. Get bedding and litter made for chickens. It will ensure that your maintenance is easier.

 dot You love your pets, including your fowls. Why not give them treats they love? Kitchen scraps are fine (except those from the onion family - they will impart an unpleasant flavor to eggs), but why not give chickens the nutrients they need in a treat that helps you bond with your flock?

 dot Chickens love to dig up dust and roll in it. This is one way they keep themselves clean and reasonably free of external parasites. If you don't want to dig a hole in your yard (or have your chickens do it for you!), provide ready-to-use dust for their bathing pleasure.

 dot To prevent boredom (all birds can exhibit behavior problems if they're bored), you may want to consider giving healthy treats like lettuce, cabbage, or other vegetables in toys made especially for chickens.

 dot To make egg gathering easier, we suggest an egg gathering basket and reusable egg cartons to store eggs.

A final word - predators

Chickens are a delicacy for mammals or large carnivorous birds that may roam your neighborhood, so keep chickens locked up in the coop at night. For daylight hours or even for extra protection, consider predator control.

Also, make sure you know where your closest avian or livestock veterinarian is. Search the internet for such a service and keep it handy for emergencies. Enjoy your chicken keeping!

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