Chickens are busy creatures, always at work, scratching and pecking for food, grooming themselves, laying, and setting. There’s never a dull moment if you’re a chicken. They’re never bored and they never get tired of being a chicken. They go to bed early and they’re up at the crack of dawn–ready to work all day on their busy little chicken business.
Chickens have a lot of personality. They’re cheerful little bees, too. Friendly, interested in people, and encouraging of one another. You should hear the ruckus when the hens are laying. One hen lays while the others join in a chorus of clucking. They are so happy for each other! They have a sense of humor, too, shown in the way they hide their eggs, and change hiding places regularly. They think they are so funny. And they know I’m way too lazy to track after them in the snow when I hear them clucking.
They’re the easiest anmals on the farm to tend–they mostly tend themselves, especially if they’re free-rangers. I get a lot of quesions about chickens and a number of people have emailed me specifically requesting a post about keeping chickens for the novice. Granted, having kept chickens for just shy of two years myself, I’m little beyond novice status myself, but hey, that just means I understand. Anything can seem mysterious–until you do it. In a very short time I’ve gone from–wow, like, is that a REAL CHICKEN (?!) as if they were some sort of magical storybook creature only to be found in Little Golden Books to not being able to imagine my life without chickens in it ever again.
In a growing number of urban and suburban areas today, keeping chickens is becoming more common, so this isn’t just for country living. You don’t need much space to keep a few hens. Many municipalities are changing laws to allow keeping chickens, perhaps because the economy has forced a turn back to more self-sustainable practices, or perhaps due to the general increasing popularity of simple living. The more sophisticated the world becomes, the more we long for something to ground us.
Chickens are grounding. There is something very soothing about a chicken. And it’s nearly spring–and spring means baby chicks. If you’re going to start keeping chickens this year, the time is drawing nigh!
You can start either by incubating some eggs yourself–if you have a chicken-keeping friend who will give you some (and you can even order eggs to incubate) or by buying chicks from a feedstore. I do both. I have a Little Giant still-air incubator. I like it. It’s easy to operate and very simple. It doesn’t do anything fancy like turn the eggs, but I don’t mind. The benefit of getting chicks from the feedstore is that you can buy them sexed and know what you’re getting. If you live in town, this is important in order to avoid roosters. (Not that there isn’t the occasional mistake in a batch of supposed hens…. Good luck!)
Once you have your babies, you’ll need a simple brooder box to keep them in until they’re big enough for the chicken house. A brooder box can be easily constructed out of a few pieces of wood, somewhat like a garden planter, with chicken wire tacked down across the top (with a removable end so you can get in there to change out feed and water etc). You can get little waterers and feeders made for chickens from a feedstore or large pet supply store. They should be able to walk without slipping–this is important–so keep something sturdy under their feet in the box (such as wood shavings or straw). Chicks need to stay warm–get a light. You can buy special lights for this purpose, or use a 25-watt bulb and rig it over the brooder box.
When your chicks have outgrown the brooder box and are starting to grow feathers (after several weeks), it’s time to move them to the chicken house. (If it’s not too cold where you are, you can even keep the brooder box in the chicken house.) There are as many different ways to build a chicken house as there are chicken keepers. Our chicken house is a simple construction using reclaimed wood with a metal roof. There’s a people-size door on the outside and a chicken-size door to the yard, which is fenced and covered on top, too. (You can see more about how we built our chicken house here and here.) Some people use chicken tractors, which are large box-like chicken houses that can be moved around to fresh grass. Other people build veritable chicken palaces. We pretty much have a chicken shack. Just remember, the chickens don’t really care.
They’re frugal little things. Give them a sturdy, safe house with a roost, a light at night, plenty of food and water–and they’ll be tickled pink. (Put “chicken house plans” in a search engine and you’ll come up with plenty of options. Or just make up your own–that’s what we did.)
Don’t expect eggs right away. Most hens will start laying when they are 5-7 months old, some take even longer. If you want pretty green and blue eggs, get Easter-Eggers (Ameraucanas or Araucanas). Some breeds are more dependable layers than other breeds. Rhode Island Reds are very popular egg-producers. I have a little of everything, some purebred, some Easter-Eggers, some good layers, some not-so-good layers, some mixed breeds (which is what happens when you incubate from a mixed flock). I love my mixed breed chickens–each one is beautifully unique. But I appreciate the pure breeds as well.
On a daily basis, chickens need food and water. Occasionally they need their house cleaned out and fresh straw put down. That’s about it! They’re generally healthy and simple to tend. If you have a place to allow them to free-range, they’re even simpler to tend and they forage for their own food. (Be careful about free-ranging in your backyard if you live in town–remember that chickens CAN and DO fly. They could easily fly over a backyard fence if it’s not high enough. I saw Mean Rooster–a HEAVY bird, fly up ten feet one day trying to get up to the porch just so he could STAB ME IN THE FACE. Oddly, I miss him…..)
Chickens are fascinating, charming, and downright wonderful! I highly recommend them. They’re very easy to keep, so don’t be afraid. There are many, many books, websites, and other resources that provide detailed information. Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens is a good one. Feel free to ask questions on this post or on the Chickens in the Road forum, too. One of the most-often asked questions I get is: “How do you know if an egg is fertilized or not?”
Answer: If you break an egg over the frying pan and the yolk starts screaming–
I’M JUST KIDDING.
The answer is–you don’t know. If you have at least one rooster with your hens, some of your eggs are going to be fertilized. Not all of them, unless you have really dedicated roosters. I mean, look, those boys have a lot to do between scratching and pecking and chasing the hens around in circles and under and over gates. Those hens don’t give it up easy, you know. The roosters can’t catch them all every day. (That’s one of the reasons you can’t expect all the eggs to hatch when you incubate.) Fertilized or unfertilized, the eggs taste the same. On a side note, a rooster is not necessary in order to get eggs. Your hens will lay with or without a rooster. (And in that case, you will know that they aren’t fertilized if there’s no rooster around!)
So who’s got chickens? Who wants chickens? Or just more chickens? I’m ready for spring chicks already! It’s so hard to wait.
P.S. Dip into the archives–you find all my chicken stories here.