Backyard Chickens Launch Careers

Many parents build a backyard coop and stock it with a few hens as an interesting way to help their children learn responsibility by caring for animals and where food really comes from.

These are important lessons, but chickens offer children much more.  A small flock can spark curiosity and imagination that gels into a rewarding career or lifelong hobby. 

That may sound far-fetched but ask successful people what sparked their interest and led toward a career or meaningful hobbies and often they’ll say: “When I was only four or five years old Dad and I made a birdhouse and ever since I’ve been fascinated with building things…..so I became an engineer.” Or, “When I was only a few years old I spotted a brilliant red bird out our kitchen window. Mom and I looked in her bird book and identified a Scarlet Tanager. Birding’s been my passion ever since.”

Parents never know what might ignite a child’s interest, so even brief exposure to a diversity of positive experiences can spark a lifelong passion. Master teachers recognize that curiosity is a powerful precursor to learning. Rather than doling out facts, gifted teachers create an environment that stimulates curiosity. Students eagerly take it from there.

Jane Goodall, famous for observing and documenting chimpanzee behavior in Africa, began her naturalist career as a young child carefully watching how chickens lay eggs in her grandmother’s chicken coop.

Chickens are fascinating creatures, and a small flock can begin a child’s adventure in science. A few hen’s ability to teach out values the eggs they might contribute to the family. Children who joyfully interact with their chickens are poised for a satisfying career in animal care and agriculture. 

According to Dr. Susan Lamont, Distinguished Professor of Agriculture at Iowa State University, many career opportunities are open in poultry and other areas of agriculture. More will be available when today’s youth hit the job market in 10 – 15 years. “Even children growing up in urban or suburban neighborhoods can find a rewarding career in agriculture.  Lessons learned caring for a chicken flock can nudge a youngster in that direction,” Lamont says.  

“There are many careers of various types open for students at all levels of education. Some have PhD degrees but others work as research associates or lab technicians with lesser degrees. Some openings require a high school diploma and further technical training in robotics, electronics, and other areas if they are doing maintenance or facility services on larger farms. Some farms hire engineering graduates. It depends on the situation. Then there are jobs in food safety that may require a certification. There certainly are jobs open in poultry and salaries are competitive,” says Lesa Vold, Communications Specialist at the Egg Industry Center. 

Do some experimenting

Parents can help pique kids’ curiosity by encouraging simple chicken experiments. These help kids learn the scientific method while letting the hens be teachers. Here are a few simple examples:

Do chickens prefer sleeping with certain flock mates?

It helps to have five or six hens that are easy to identify as individuals. Perhaps they have different feather colors, patterns or physiques. Each evening take the child to the coop and photograph roosting birds. This is data collection. After taking photos for a week analyze them. Is there a pattern?  Does the Rhode Island Red always or usually sleep next to the Black Australorp? This is data analysis. If a clear pattern emerges then the child has learned that hens like sleeping by a certain flock mate……or not.    This is drawing conclusions based on observation and analysis.

 Do chickens have food preferences?

Put a cup or two of chicken scratch or wild bird seed mix in a bowl. Take a picture of the contents. Let the chickens access it. They’ll usually crowd right in and start pecking. Observe carefully. Do hens prefer certain seeds over others?  If yes, which ones?  Do they shun some seeds? What does this mean? Can chickens distinguish one type of seed from another? How do they do this?

These are basic and simple experiments that can be done with very young children. They sharpen observation skill, spark curiosity, and introduce kids to the scientific method used by researchers in dozens of areas to advance human knowledge.

A fulfilling career just might be hatched in the backyard coop. 

Making It Easy

Books, magazine articles, and Internet blogs often offer tips on how to involve children in chicken keeping. It is an outstanding way for youngsters to learn where food really comes from, gain responsibility by caring for animals, and pique their curiosity about living things. Some kids will be “bitten by the chicken bug” and find that keeping a flock develops into a lifelong joy 

There’s one unfortunate thing about kids. They grow up and leave the nest!  Then the years pass and parents’ aging joints begin to creak and muscles start to ache. The common chores of lifting heavy feed bags, scooping manure out of coops, and hauling drinking water to the flock often cause older people to give up their chicken hobby. 

There are ways to make keeping chickens easy on the back and muscles. These simple tips could encourage older people to keep enjoying their Australorps, Brahmas, Rhode Islands or any of many other fascinating breeds as they age.

Avoid Lifting

Lifting heavy weights sometimes pulls muscles and can be tiring. Most bags of feed and bundles of wood chips weigh upwards to 50 pounds. Slinging them around is no problem for a strapping 30-year old but as the years add up, that same size bag seems to grow ever heavier. Some ways to avoid lifting include:

  • Ask the feed store if an employee will carry bags out and lift them into the trunk. Often, they are happy to help.
  • After arriving home, slide the bag from the trunk into a wheelbarrow or wagon and roll it to the storage bin, usually a metal garbage can, in or near the coop.
  • Instead of trying to dump the feed from the bag to the bin, after opening the bag use a scoop to bail the feed in a few pounds at a time. It takes a little longer but is easier and safer than hoisting that heavy bag.
  • Use a scoop that holds two or three pounds of feed to transfer it from the storage bin to the feeder.

Put Everything Within Easy Reach

Position the feed storage bin as close to feeders as possible to make transferring feed simple and easy. Also, keep scratch grain and grit within reach of the coop to minimize walking. It saves time and energy to make everything needed to care for chickens convenient.  

Enlist Hen Help

Often nests are placed against a side or back coop wall, and sometimes they’re mounted low. Gathering eggs requires entering the coop and bending, often several times a day. It’s far easier to enlist the hen’s help to make egg collection easier. Most people have common tools. With basic carpentry skill a person can make a nest about waist high that protrudes from the coop into an easily accessed space. Nest openings face the coop and allow the birds to easily enter them to deposit their daily gift of a fresh egg. Hinges enable the top of the nest to be opened simplifying collection. The hens eliminate the need to bend over to gather their eggs.

Hinges, Clasps, and Grips

Hardware stores sell inexpensive springs made to close screen doors. It only takes two screws and a few minutes to create an automatic coop door closer. One end of the spring is screwed to the door frame and the other to the door itself. The spring closes the door automatically and holds it closed, making it easy for a person to enter or leave the coop with hands full, while making it hard for hens to escape. It’s helpful to have a clasp hold the door closed to make entry challenging for a hungry nocturnal raccoon. Many clasp designs automatically secure the door once the spring pulls it closed. A simple loop made of heavy duty wire (see photo) enables easy opening of the clasp by a person on the door’s opposite side while eliminating the chance that he or she will get locked inside the coop with the birds.

Lighten the Water Load

One gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds and most waterers hold two to five gallons.  Lugging water gets heavy fast, but there are ways to make the refilling chore easy.  Most backyard coops lack a hose tap near them, so water has to be carried a distance from the house. A plumber can be hired to run an underground water line to the coop, but that’s expensive. An easier and less costly way to have a handy water supply is to add a section of gutter to the coop roof and channel downspout water into a rain barrel.  Rain barrels hold and store 30 to 50 gallons of water of clean precipitation. Even a light shower on a smallish roof fills them up.  

Most common buckets hold 2 ½ gallons of water, and weigh around 20 pounds when full. Rather than lugging a filled 50-pound five-gallon chicken waterer from the hose tap or rain barrel to the coop, simply keep a couple of buckets handy. Fill them from the rain barrel and transfer water to the waterer. It may take two or three trips, but that’s easier than lugging the filled container.

Create a Visible Pop Hole Door

Anyone who has had a raccoon feast on their prized chickens knows how important it is to close the pop hole door each evening to exclude the furry predators. Door closing is easy to forget, so automatic door closers might make the chore more certain. Some closers operate on timers, while others have a photo sensor and close the door at twilight. Usually they operate on electricity. Having power in the coop to operate the door, lights and water heaters during cold weather is a major labor saver. Some door closers may be powered by batteries but hiring an electrician to run power to a coop is a major labor-saving investment.

Most people manually close the pop hole door in the evening and open it the next morning. Sometimes they forget. While watching an evening television show or reading, a nagging question can enter the mind. “Did I close the door?” There are two ways to find out – walk out and see if it’s closed or check it from a distance with a flashlight. Positioning the pop hole so it can be seen from the house saves steps, and a flashlight with a focused light beam enables checking it from a distance. That saves steps in the darkness.

Making chicken keeping easy saves anyone time and effort and could prevent a lifting or bending injury. Human bodies age, while interest in keeping chickens lingers. Structuring the coop and managing chores to reduce lifting and make chicken care easier, saves time, reduces the chance of an injury, and makes it possible to maintain a flock even by older folks.

Keeping ‘Em Healthy

In the immediate aftermath of the First World War a vicious flu epidemic quickly spread around the world. Somewhere between 50 and 100 million people died. Centuries earlier waves of bubonic plague swept through Europe leaving death in its wake. More recently an outbreak of measles spread across the United States.

When WWI ended, millions of refugees roamed around seeking a home. Soldiers from dozens of countries boarded ships and trains as they bid the war and military goodbye and looked forward to peaceful civilian lives. Many carried the deadly flu virus in their bodies, spreading it around the globe and infecting people nearly everywhere. It even reached the Arctic and Pacific islands. 

Bubonic plague was also deadly but quite different. Carried by rodents, mostly rats, and spread to humans by biting fleas, upwards of 100 million people died. The disease was deadly because people lived crammed together in filthy buildings and towns, allowing rats and their fleas to thrive.

Lack of sanitation and the movement of microbes enabled diseases to thrive and spread. Lessons learned from human disease can help keep chickens healthy.     

Chickens are amazingly healthy animals. Given good care they rarely get sick. Many people keep a flock for years without ever losing a bird to illness. However, chickens are vulnerable to many diseases. Some are aggressively infectious and can quickly devastate a flock. Wise people heed the lessons learned from human flu, measles, and plagues and work to prevent deadly chicken diseases from sickening or killing their birds. 

The keys to keeping chickens healthy are to provide them a clean place to live, quality nutritious food, clean water and isolation from pathogens.

Maintain a Healthy Flock

Crowding in filthy cities gave The Plague an opportunity to kill millions of people. Chickens crowded together in moist, dirty housing are ripe for disease. Here are simple ways to keep chickens healthy and productive:

Give them space. Backyard flock owners typically have tiny coops. They are often tempted to crowd too many birds together. Crowding encourages cannibalism, egg eating, fighting, odor and disease. Good flock managers give chickens room to roam.  Larger breeds need a minimum of four-square feet of coop space each. Light breeds only slightly less. However, the more space they have the better. Access to a clean outdoor run offers healthy sunshine, fresh air, and lets the hens fluff up and clean feathers as they bathe in the dust. 

Keep them dry. Once litter gets wet, smell follows from enthusiastic bacteria multiplying in dampness. Keep the coop dry. If litter gets wet from a tipped over waterer or a leaky roof, immediately scoop out and compost the wet stuff, replace it with dry wood chips, and fix the roof or secure the waterer so it can’t tip. 

Feed them well.  Always provide chickens with fresh nutritious feed. Commercial rations, such as Nutrena NatureWise Layer Feed, are a healthy complete diet that birds can supplement with occasional tasty bugs and worms they discover in the run.

Protect them.  Make sure the flock is safe from furry predators, biting insects, and winter drafts.

Keeping Diseases Away

Keeping diseases away from a chicken flock helps prevent outbreaks. Fortunately, most backyard flocks are protected by isolation. A common scenario in an American suburb is that only a few families keep chickens. One flock is typically a long way from the next closest one. Microbes have a hard time getting to a flock – unless humans inadvertently bring germs to their chickens either on their clothes or shoes or in the bodies of other infected birds.

Detailed information on biosecurity can be found on many websites and is often printed in chick catalogs, magazines, and books. Some basic tips for keeping germs away from a backyard flock include:

  • Buy chicks from a hatchery that participates in the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP), has appropriate permits, and ensures that their breeding flock and chicks are free of infectious diseases. Many hatcheries print biosecurity information in their catalog.
  • Be wary about adding new chickens to a flock. An easy way for a microbe or parasite to infect a healthy flock is to hitch a ride on a chicken. Backyard flock owners are often tempted to add a new bird or two to their flock. Make sure the bird comes from a flock that has not experienced any recent diseases and has been kept in a clean coop. Putting the newcomers in quarantine for a month removed from the rest of the flock gives time to allow a potential disease to show up in the newcomer.
  • Keep clothing and shoes clean. After visiting a poultry show or another flock change clothing and clean shoes. Even tiny scraps of manure or dirt hitchhiking on shoes or pants can bring disease to a flock. Make sure visitors who have been in contact with other chickens also practice sanitation.
  • Clean feeders and waterers regularly.
  • Limit flock exposure to wild birds and mice that may carry pathogens.
  • Vaccinate if appropriate. It’s not practical or possible to vaccinate chickens to prevent all diseases, but most hatcheries will vaccinate chicks for a few common diseases. Medicated chick feed may help reduce coccidiosis; a common disease caused by a protozoan.

When small, healthy chicken flocks are kept in a clean coop, fed nutritious food, and isolated from disease they’ll likely never get sick. The hens will enjoy a long, healthy, and productive life.

Managing Nests

Sometimes chickens simply seem silly. Take egg laying for example. Give a small flock four or five comfy nest boxes and three or four hens will cram into one at the same time while nearby nests remain vacant. That’s a problem. Too many hens laying in a one box is a recipe for broken eggs and a mess. Some hens even ignore perfect nests and lay their eggs on the floor where they’re bound to get dirty and are hard to collect.

There’s no perfect solution but careful nest management helps keep eggs clean and collecting easy.

How Many Nests

Most backyard chicken books and websites recommend placing one nest for every five hens. That’s good advice. One nest can accommodate a typical backyard flock of five or six hens. But more are usually needed. Most eggs are laid in the morning, so often several hens will be in the nest box at the same time jostling around while preparing to lay. Often that results in a broken egg or two that soil unbroken eggs. It wastes eggs and adds to the washing chore.  

The obvious solution is to add more nests. Unfortunately, that often fails. Put six nests in a six-hen coop and they’ll continue laying nearly all the eggs in the favored nest. Nearby nests go unused. 

A few tricks to lure some hens into rarely used nests include:

  • Curtains: Chickens prefer a somewhat dark and private place to lay. Adding a curtain to drape down over a nest entrance may entice birds to enter a rarely used nest. Cut a piece of cloth from an old T-shirt or towel and staple it so it covers about the top half of the nest opening.
  • No Vacancy Sign: Covering a popular nest temporarily with a board  is a “no vacancy” signal that forces hens to get in the habit of using other nests. After a week or so remove the board. By then some of the hens may have “adopted” the formerly little used nest. 
  • Bait:  An egg or two in a nest acts like bait that attracts hens. Putting an egg in a rarely used nest may lure some to get into the habit of laying there. Purchased artificial nest eggs work great and never spoil, but golf balls are a cheaper substitute. Real eggs also make great nest bait but should be rotated out daily and replaced with fresh ones so they don’t get old.

Nest Size

Chicken bodies range from tiny Bantams to massive Brahmas and Jersey Giants. Most flock owners typically favor brown egg laying breeds that weigh five to eight pounds. Nests measuring about 12” deep, 12” wide and 8 to 12” high work just fine for these mid-sized birds. Making a nest box is one of the simplest carpentry projects. A five-foot-long 1″ x 12” board cut to one-foot lengths is big enough for a single nest. A 10-foot board will make two nests. Be sure to cut a piece of scrap wood about 4” wide and 12” long and nail it to the bottom of the outside of the nest. It holds the nest bedding in place and keeps eggs from rolling out.

Nest Placement

In addition to cramming into a single nest chickens seem to delight in making egg collecting challenging. They’ll choose to lay in the nest that’s hardest for a person to reach. It might be down close to the floor requiring bending to gather or in the box farthest from the coop door. The solution is simply to not give them the option of laying in an inconvenient place.    

The more often eggs are collected the less time they will be in the nest to get dirty, stale or broken. Convenience makes frequent collection pleasant and likely. Place nest boxes close to the coop door in an easy to reach place. An even better solution is to craft the coop, or buy a manufactured one, that has nests protruding from the exterior wall with a trap door on top. That makes entering the coop unnecessary for collecting eggs. Just lift up the trap door, reach down, and gather.  

Nest Linings

Some hens will pop into a nest and lay an egg in a minute or two. Then she’s back on the floor. For other hens laying is a lengthy process. She’ll sit in the nest a long time.  Every once in a while, she’ll jostle around. If three or four other hens are jammed into the same nest movement is likely to break an egg or two. Soft padding on the nest’s bottom helps prevent broken eggs and makes the laying experience more comfortable for hens. Many items work well to cushion eggs.

Wood shavings:  Sawdust and wood shavings make ideal nest linings, but they have one major problem. Put a couple of inches of fragrant shavings in the nest, and the daily movement of hens will push much of it out. It needs to be replaced often. Larger sized wood shavings tend to stay in place longer than sawdust.

Commercial liners: Several companies sell nest liners, usually made from plastic mats or woven wood fiber. They are ideal. Since each is a single piece that fits snugly in the bottom of the nest hens can’t scratch it out like they do with wood shavings. Plastic ones can be washed occasionally. Soiled wood fiber ones can be composted. 

Plastic door mat: Home stores commonly sell green plastic door mats made to enable someone to rub dirty shoes off before entering the house. They are inexpensive and can be easily cut to nest size with a knife. They cushion eggs, can be easily washed, and hens can’t scratch them out of the nest. 

Straw:  Straw is the classic nest lining that’s been used for thousands of years because it works. Straw fibers tend to somewhat interlock so hens have a hard time scratching them out of the nest. Straw soils and packs down over time, so it needs to be replaced occasionally. Used straw makes great garden mulch. A bale should last a year or more.

Homemade Straw: Folks who mow a lawn can make their own nest lining free. Simply let the grass grow six or seven inches high. Then mow it on a warm, breezy, sunny day.  The mower will spit out clumps of cut grass. Rake them into loose windrows that allow the air to blow through the stalks and dry them. On a low humidity day with a light wind it only takes a few hours for grass to cure. Then rake it up and store it in a metal garbage can or another container with a tight-fitting lid. Line the nest with a couple of inches of the homemade straw.  It’s softness cushions eggs while its sweet smell makes collecting a joy.

Most people keep a few chickens in a backyard coop for the delicious fresh eggs they lay.  Eggs are gems of the coop, and careful placement and management of nest boxes makes it likely that every egg will be clean and easy to gather.

Crafting a Chicken Ramada

Although winter’s subzero cold stresses people and animals, the blistering summer heat is usually a greater threat to lives and health. Wise chicken keepers prepare their coop and run to be comfortable and safe during the July and August inferno.  

Keeping chickens cool during the hot months involves providing shade, water, and a breeze. 

Water

Panting causes increased evaporation that helps chickens cool their bodies. During summer they’ll drink plenty of water, so placing several founts or buckets of cool, clean water scattered about the run and coop allows them to frequently drink without a long walk. Water fouls quickly in hot weather, so replacing stale water with fresh water is a  daily summer task. 

Breeze

Chickens love a cool breeze during hot waves. Resting in the shade under a ramada lets a breeze coming from any direction cool them during the day. Like people, chickens enjoy a cool night time breeze while they sleep. Coop windows positioned to allow cross ventilation help keep sleeping birds comfortable through the night. Make sure that open windows or doors are covered with heavy duty wire mesh to repel raccoons and insect screening to keep gnats and skeeters outside.

Shade

Backyard chickens lucky enough to have a large, sunny outdoor run love to sit in the shade on hot days. If they are lucky, the run has several shrubs that protect them from sunshine. A simple ramada provides that shade if shrubs are absent. A chicken ramada is not a fancy motel. It’s a structure easily made from a discarded pallet. In the hot sunny southwest people traditionally built an open sided structure of sticks that lets the breeze in while sheltering people from the blazing sun. A chicken ramada does the same.

Chickens love spending time outdoors in a spacious run. It’s a place for them to socialize, relax and discover tasty seeds and insects to eat. Unfortunately, the outdoors can be a dangerous place. 

Two hazards are common. One is the blazing summer sun that can be lethal if birds can’t find cool shade and water. The other is overhead predators, usually hawks, that occasionally swoop down seeking a tasty chicken dinner. 

Building a Ramada

A chicken ramada shields birds from heat and raptors. A simple one can be made for less than $1.00 in about an hour, even by people lacking fancy carpentry skills.

Step 1: Find three free pallets. Some two billion pallets are in daily circulation around the world. Many are used only one time and then discarded. Stores and factories often pile pallets out back to be hauled away and disposed of. It costs them money to get rid of them, so often simply asking the store or factory manager for permission to remove a few brings and enthusiastic, “Yes!”  Before picking up a pallet inspect it carefully. Most will be stamped with the letters HT. This means the pallet was placed in a massive oven and HEAT TREATED…..baked to kill any insects or weed seeds that might be lurking on it. Pallets with this marking are safe to handle. Occasional, pallets might be marked MB or have a tag saying they’ve been chemically treated to kill pests. Leave them alone! They aren’t safe for either people or chickens. Bring three heat treated pallets home and place them on a level surface.

Step 2: Using a hammer, pry bar, and nail puller, carefully disassemble two of the three pallets. Often pallet wood splits easily, so pry slowly and carefully to keep the boards intact. Most pallets are made of 1/2 to 3/4th inch thick boards nailed to 2X4s. You’ll need four 2X4s 24” long and one intact pallet to make the ramada. Save the 2X4s from the disassembled pallets and use the other boards for fireplace kindling or projects around the coop. 

Step 3: Cut the 2X4s to 24” and use a screw gun to attach them to the bottom corners of the pallet that was not disassembled. Nails work if no screw gun is available. Buying screws or nails is the only cost of this project. Basically, a chicken ramada is a table-like structure with the 2X4s forming the legs and the intact pallet the surface. The length of the legs isn’t critical and can be anywhere from 18” to 36” long.  

Step 4 (optional): Paint the new Ramada or coat it with a wood preservative.

Step 5: Place it in the chicken run. Try to position it as close to the middle as possible. This will prevent adventuresome chickens from flying out of the coop. Some chickens will flap up to the ramada and use it as a launching pad to fly over a fence that they wouldn’t otherwise have enough wing power to clear. If the ramada is a ways from the fence they won’t have the strength to escape. 

A ramada made from a recycled pallet has spaces between the boards that allow some sunlight to filter to the ground, but mostly it casts a cool shade that chickens loiter in on hot days. Often, they also like perching on top.

Chickens instinctively recognize that danger sometimes comes from above. They have excellent vision and a few birds in the flock constantly scan the sky for danger. Should a raptor or crow fly over they’ll give a warning call, sending the flock scurrying for safety under the ramada.  

Summer’s heat isn’t far away. Comfortable chickens are productive birds and providing water, shade, and breezes keeps them safe.

Feeding Chicks: Making the Transition to the Coop

What to Feed chicks

Let’s got started feeding chicks!

Congratulations, your chicks have made it to the transition stage!

A few weeks have passed since you brought those little balls of fluff home, and it’s time to formulate a plan on housing, because your flourishing chicks will soon outgrow that brooder.

Here are a few tips on transitioning to the coop some tips on feeding chicks and chick feeding recommendations as your babies grow into healthy adult birds.

Housing Upgrade

The change in environment can be a big one for your chicks, so consider these tips as you move them from brooder to adult coop:

  • Chicks should be mostly feathered – At 5 to 6 weeks your fluffy chicks will start to resemble adult birds by growing out pinfeathers.
  • These adult feathers will help them regulate their body temperature better than fluffy chick down.
  • Chicks should be acclimated – Although they start off at 90 – 95 degrees in the brooder the first week of life, you need to decrease this temperature each week until the temperature inside the brooder is close to what daytime temps will be. For the first few weeks (and especially if outdoor temperatures are fluctuating), you may want to bring the birds back into the brooder at night or in bad weather.
  • Chicks should be integrated – Nobody wants hen-house drama, and taking a few simple steps to introduce new birds to old will save a great deal of time and potential injuries.
    • These steps include having a “get acquainted” phase when the new and old birds are in separate, but attached areas so they can interact without aggressiveness.
    • You also want to do the coop consolidation at night so that the old and new flock wake up together, which can help minimize bullying.

On the Menu

At this point it is also important to remember, if you have youngsters joining your existing flock, to only feed chick starter to all birds until the youngest bird is 16 weeks.

The extra calcium in regular layer feed can harm young chicks. Once you’ve reached the 16 week mark, it is safe to switch to layer feed.

Your girls will most likely not be laying until they are around 24-26 weeks old, but it is important to build up the calcium level in their system. Using a layer crumble makes the transition a little easier.

Chicks should also be eating treats and grit by now. It’s a great idea to get your birds used to eating treats (if you plan to offer them) a few days prior to putting them outside. That way, you can use the treats to lure the birds into a secure space at night, if needed.

Until they are used to thinking of the coop as “home base” they may need just a bit of encouragement to go back in at night.

Just remember, if you start feeding treats, you should offer no more than 10-15% of the total diet as treats, so that you don’t create nutritional imbalances in their overall intake.  Also, you should offer a grit free choice to aid in digestion.

Chicken Breeds, Hybrids, Crossbreeds…Just What Are They?

chicken breeds. What are they?Anyone who enjoys keeping backyard chickens is truly fortunate but may be confused about chicken breeds.

Never before has such a diversity of chicken types been available from hatcheries that produce chicks for small backyard flocks.

Catalogs feature chickens ranging from tiny bantams to massive Jersey Giants. Birds come in an amazing assortment of feather colors and patterns.

Egg shells may be dark or light brown, white, tinted, green, or even blue. Various bird types are described as flighty, calm, broody, winter hardy, or heat tolerant.

Choosing which chicks to order is fun, but with so many choices it can be perplexing.

To add confusion are common terms used by hatcheries. Often a particular bird is called a “breed”, “crossbreed”, or hybrid. There isn’t always consistent use of these terms from hatchery to hatchery.

So, just what is a breed, crossbreed, and hybrid?

It was much simpler during most of the 6000 odd years that chickens have been domesticated. Until around two centuries ago most chickens roamed around cities, small towns, and farms.

They interbred at random, producing new generations with a hodgepodge of traits. These birds were mongrels but usually well adapted to the local environment. Diversity ruled.

Few chickens looked the same, although certain traits emerged in different parts of the world.

For example, small bodied active chickens that lay white eggs trace their ancestry to lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

This jumble of characteristics began changing in the 1800s when the Industrial Revolution enabled millions of people to leave the farm to labor in new urban factories.

Perhaps because their heart was still on the land, many families kept chickens, even in big cities. Their birds produced eggs and meat but also became a passionate hobby.

Before television and the Internet filled idle hours, millions of people attended poultry shows. Breeders developed show chickens in a way that produced standardized predictable appearances and traits.

Many of today’s breeds, like the ever-popular Rhode Island Red and Plymouth Rock were developed then, but dozens of other breeds have been created since to fulfill specific needs or catch eyes at poultry shows.

What Is a Breed?

According to Dr. Susan Lamont, C.F. Curtis Distinguished Professor at the College of Agriculture and Life Science at Iowa State University:

A breed is a population that breeds true and is defined by well described externally observed qualities.

Breeds are recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA) and published in their book, Standard of Perfection.

This simply means that all members of a breed will have similar characteristics, such as size, physique, feather color, and comb type.

Mate two members of a breed and their offspring will share their traits. Some breeds have several color variants.

For example, the Plymouth Rock is a breed, but within this breed are white, barred, buff, and other colors and feather patterns.  No matter their feather color or pattern, all varieties of Plymouth Rocks have a husky body, single comb, and are  good layers of brown shelled eggs.

Hybrids Fueled the Modern Poultry Industry

During the Twentieth Century scientific breeding revolutionized poultry. College educated geneticists created modern hybrids with the intent to create strains of birds especially efficient in converting feed into eggs or meat. Probably the best known is the Cornish Rock hybrid, developed from the Cornish and Rock breeds.

Prior to the development of hybrid meat strains, chicken was a relatively expensive meat produced by slow growing Light Brahmas, Jersey Giants, New Hampshires and other breeds.

It took much feed and time for these birds to grow to market size, thus making chicken an expensive meat enjoyed mostly on special occasions. The Cornish Rock changed it all.

This hybrid produces an eating size bird in half the time on much less feed than the old timers. Credit hybridization with precipitously dropping the price of chicken in the grocery store or on a restaurant menu.

Today the average American eats about 60 pounds of chicken meat a year.

Scientists also created hybrid egg layers capable of producing upwards of 300 eggs a year.  Among the best-known laying hybrids are California Whites, a Leghorn based white egg layer, and the ISA Brown, a complex hybrid that is an amazingly efficient producer of brown eggs.

Hybridization is often not as simple as crossing one breed with another.  Sometimes complex series of matings over multiple generations are required to develop sophisticated highly productive birds.

How About Crossbreeds of Chickens

According to Dr. Lamont, crossbreeding technically refers to mating two or more breeds. The intent to improve traits is usually not a defining factor. Crossbreeding results in chickens that do not breed true and are not registered by the APA.

“In the early days, around 200 years ago, cross breeding was used to introduce a visible trait, like barring (on the feathers) that helped identify sexes at hatching,” she said.

Today this is common with hybrid strains where females and males have different colored feathers or patterns. It’s a much faster way to separate the gender of baby chicks than vent sexing, which must be used with most chicken breeds.

In vent sexing a highly skilled and experienced hatchery worker gently squeezes the bird’s vent, revealing slight differences between males and females.

Few people enjoying a small flock of backyard chickens keep roosters or have any interest in breeding their birds. For them it doesn’t really matter if they own registered breeds, hybrids, or crossbreeds.

Families can pick and choose their chicks based on the traits they like the most. Hybrid layers often are the most efficient at producing the maximum number of eggs, but many true breeds also lay well and connect their owner with the glory days of poultry when attending chicken shows was a passion.

Many hatcheries allow customers to order a diversity of chicks, making it easy for a customer to order a diversity of breeds and hybrids.