Bringing Chickens to Your Backyard – Where to Start

Ever since chickens were domesticated before the dawn of history, they’ve been constant companions.  As people settled Europe, Asia, the Americas and even remote Pacific islands they brought chickens along to provide eggs and an occasional tasty stew. For centuries nearly everyone knew how to manage a flock.

Then, about a hundred years ago, chicken husbandry shifted. Previously, most people lived on farms or in small towns. Nearly every family kept at least a few chickens. The flock was a source of income for many. Children were often responsible for caring for them, and they had excellent mentors. Parents and grandparents showed how to care for birds and butcher one for special meals.

That changed as the Industrial Revolution encouraged millions of people to migrate from farms to cities. Following the Second World War massive suburban growth sprawled over the countryside, and suburban town governments usually created ordinances to ban farm animals.

Generations of mentoring came to an end with suburbanization. And now, most Americans are now three or four generations removed from the farm. Today’s parents and grandparents know where to find eggs in the supermarket but lack any knowledge of chicken husbandry.

Fortunately, that is changing. Many suburban dwellers have become uneasy with their disconnect from the land. They want to produce wholesome food in the yard while helping their kids recognize that meals come from the soil, not the store. Modern urbanites and suburbanites face a dilemma. Producing food and caring for animals require skills that have been largely lost.

Unlike cattle, sheep, or hogs unsuited for suburban life, chickens are the one farm animal that function well in a tiny backyard. They’re small, relatively quiet, and can be raised in tiny coops that fit in even the smallest yard. Chickens mesh well with gardening while converting food scraps into delicious eggs. They are the perfect food-producing animal to raise in tight places with high human density.

Raising chickens isn’t complicated, but it can seem that way for novices who want to keep a small flock but lack mentors to learn from. Fortunately, the growing backyard chicken phenomenon is increasing acceptance of these docile animals in both cities and suburbia. It’s unleashing a torrent of books, websites, and magazines that help and encourage newcomers. Chicks, feed, supplies, and information are increasingly stocked in urban and suburban stores.

So, how does a person with no chicken experience learn how to start and care for a backyard flock? It is really not difficult. In many ways caring for chickens is similar to tending a family pet. Chickens, like dogs and cats, need safe housing and nutritious food. Anyone who has successfully kept a pet already knows the basics of animal care. Chickens have some special needs. Here are a few tips:

CHECK LOCAL ORDINANCES

In recent years dozens of city councils have responded to the surge of interest in backyard chickens by changing ordinances that once banned the birds.  Typically, ordinances specify the number of hens that can be kept, usually four or six, and forbid noisy roosters or slaughtering of chickens in town.

The first step in keeping chickens is to find out if it’s legal. Almost all towns have a link on their website to access ordinances. Look for an animal or animal control link. A second way to learn is to call the city clerk. Usually this person is familiar with ordinances. In many cases there will be good news. Far more towns allow chickens now than they did a decade ago. If they are not legal locally, take heart. It may not be hard to encourage the town council to alter the ordinance to allow families to keep a small flock.   Dozens of model ordinances are readily available for a local government to use as a model.

Surprisingly chickens are perfectly legal in many of our largest cities. Dozens of flocks live in New York City, for example. Some are in community gardens, enabling even residents of massive apartments to tend a flock in a nearby park. Ironically, small towns in farm country often ban chickens inside city limits.

LEARNING

Assuming that keeping chickens is legal, the next step for a newcomer is to learn how to maintain a flock. As chicken husbandry grows in popularity that’s becoming easier.   Odds are almost certain that someone’s keeping chickens nearly everywhere. They’ll offer encouragement and knowledge but finding them can be a challenge. Using social media is one way to connect with them. Other ways to learn include:

Backyard Chicken Classes:  Nature centers, city park departments, county extension offices, and stores that sell chicks and supplies often offer basic workshops for beginners. These are excellent ways to learn about chicken care and meet others who share a passion for keeping a flock.

Reading:   Most public libraries stock chicken care books. These are also usually sold in stores that sell chicken supplies.   Websites, like this one, provide outstanding information.  Finally, one of the best sources of information comes from chick hatcheries.  Most will send a free paper catalog, and all have websites. In addition to providing information on breeds nearly all online and paper catalogs include chicken care tips. They are a wealth of information, and most hatcheries are happy to help newcomers.  A question posed in an email or by a phone call is likely to lead to enthusiastic help and information from hatchery staff.

GETTING READY

Once someone has decided to keep chickens and done research, it takes time to prepare for the exciting day when chicks arrive. Coops can be homemade or purchased. Some tiny ones can be bought as kits at farm supply stores or ordered online. They are easy to assemble and work fine. Brooders are easy to make but must be ready before chicks arrive. It doesn’t need to cost a bundle or be complicated.   People handy with tools can save money by building their own coop, nest boxes, feeders and roosts. Brooders can be made of a big cardboard box heated with a light bulb.

START SMALL

A key to success in keeping chickens for the first time is starting small and simple. A mini coop housing four hens of easy to manage breeds is an ideal way to gain experience managing a flock. Starting small is inexpensive and easy yet yields the experience a new person needs to expand the flock later.

That the majority of today’s children grow to maturity removed from food production is a modern tragedy.  A few chickens in the backyard, combined with a vegetable garden, are an ideal family project that yields tasty food while connecting people to the earth that sustains us.

Can Chickens Smell and Taste?

Anyone tending a backyard flock quickly learns that chickens can be as picky about food as a crabby child. Put a pan of kitchen scraps into the run and hens enthusiastically devour bread, meat scraps, and some greens yet shun citrus, turnip chunks and many other goodies. They seem to instantly know what foods are a delicious break from dry feed.

Midsummer is a time of food plenty for chickens and wild birds, and it’s fascinating to watch what they will and won’t eat. Any grasshopper misfortunate enough to hop into a chicken run becomes an instant protein-rich snack. Hens entirely ignore box elder bugs buzzing around them. They’ll eat grasses that grow in their run and shun other plants, like motherwort. How do they know what’s good to eat and what’s not?

Scientists have been debating how well birds can taste and smell for years. Because they have tough bony beaks and small hard tongues it’s more difficult to study their tasting ability than it is with mammals.  According to an ornithologist, Dr. Neil Bernstein, the bird brain is heavily developed for sight, sound, and balance with smell and taste much less acute. Their sense of touch varies by species.

Humans mouths contain about 9,000 taste buds compared with 50 to 500 for birds.  One researcher discovered about 400 taste buds in ducks. Chickens have some taste buds, but they are located in the back of their mouth. So, before they can taste something they’ve already committed to swallowing it.

Studies on the chicken sense of smell and taste are scarce, but more research has been done on wild birds visiting feeders stocked with diverse seeds.  Wild birds, such as chickadees and cardinals, use their keen sense of vision to locate seeds and seem to know which ones are tastiest or most nutritious. For example, they’ll pick every sunflower seed out of a blend of seeds before eating a single milo seed.

Chickens aren’t bird brains. They have intelligence and memory, and this may be a clue on how they react to food.  “I once ate popcorn not knowing I was about to develop the flu.  To put it politely, I tasted popcorn that night on the way out.  It was years before I could eat popcorn again because I unconsciously associated it with illness,” said ornithologist Bernstein.  The same might happen with chickens. A bird who gobbled down a box elder bug and had her throat badly scratched may remember it and take this common insect off her food list.

In many ways, chickens are like humans. People have food preferences. So, do hens.  Although generally, every bird in a flock is likely to like or dislike a certain food, this can vary.  One hen may like tomato scraps, but a flock sister won’t touch them.

Some birds can detect odor. Turkey vultures can locate food hidden under a dense tree cover by chemicals emitted from decaying dead animals. In contrast, great horned owls have been known to kill and eat skunks. “Because skunk spray can hurt owl eyes I don’t think they seek skunks often.  Owls don’t seem to have a sense of smell, but they certainly have food preferences,” said Karla Bloem, Executive Director of the International Owl Center. “For example, they don’t seem to like ground squirrels but love voles,” she added. For a great horned owl having no sense of smell is a benefit. But, how about chickens?

Chickens don’t seem to have much ability to smell or taste. That may be an advantage. They seem to prefer foods of certain colors. Toss scraps of red tomatoes into the run, and they’ll be instantly devoured, while green pepper scraps are ignored. Why hens will eat green grass yet avoid nearby green motherwort or buckwheat plants is a mystery perhaps known only to chickens.

One thing is certain. When given a diversity of foods chickens, and other bird species, have an amazing ability to choose those that are nutritious. One of the benefits of keeping a flock is observing them. It doesn’t take long to learn that they are amazingly perceptive.

 

How To Raise Chickens: Raising Chicks in Two Phases

Phase I: The Brooder
Young chicks must have a brooder for warmth and protection.

What’s a “brooder?” Watch the video below to learn exactly what a brooder is and how to set one up.

How To Setup Your Brooder

  • Prepare the brooder by cleaning and disinfecting it before the chicks arrive.
  • Once it has dried, cover the floor with 4 to 6 inches of dry litter material.
  • Pinewood shavings or sawdust is recommended to aid in disease prevention.
  • Place the brooder in a draft-free location.
  • Carefully position an incandescent bulb about a foot above the box floor to provide heat and add a second light in case one bulb burns out.

Newly hatched chicks will find their perfect temperature in the brooder.

Three Chicks Huddled Together in the GrassIf it’s too hot under the bulb chicks will move away from the heat; if too cool they’ll move closer.

Give chicks space to move about. Baby chicks huddle together when they’re cold, which can cause smothering or suffocation, so check your chicks regularly to be sure they are comfortable.

Raise the height of the lights as they grow, because their need for artificial heat will diminish as they grow feathers.

Water and Food For Your Chicks

Clean, fresh water is the most important thing to give your chicks.

Make sure it is always available and that the waterers are clean.

Chick starter grower rations are available in medicated chick feed and un-medicated chick feed formulas.

Select one with 18% protein that has the vitamins and minerals chicks need to flourish.

It is important for the right blend of nutrients to be age specific, as this feed lays the groundwork for the birds entire future.

Phase II: The Coop
Within a few weeks, your chicks will soon be big enough to move into their coop.

As they grow it will become obvious that your brooder won’t hold them forever and forming a plan around how and when to introduce them to the coop or outdoors is a great idea.

Here are some important things to remember when moving from baby 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 temps 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 to help minimize bullying.

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.

Chicks should be eating treats and grit – 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 in case you need to lure the birds into a secure space at night.

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

Just remember, if you start feeding treats (offer no more than 10-15% of the total diet) you also need to offer a grit free choice to aid in digestion.

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Trimming Chickens Wings

Wondering if it may be necessary to trim your chickens’ wings? Check out this video featuring Nutrena Poultry Specialist Twain Lockhart as he explains how to properly trim chickens wings.

Questions or comments? Leave them below!

 

The Naked Truth about Molt

Molt is the natural shedding of feathers and regrowth of new ones that usually occurs any time from August to December. Learn from Nutrena Poultry Specialist Twain Lockhart what you can do to help your get through molt faster.

Leave a comment if you have one, or feel free to ask questions below!

Quarantine New Birds

Do you have a new bird that you need to enter into your flock? Join Nutrena Poultry Specialist Twain Lockhart for some tips on how to quarantine your new birds.

Thank you for watching, and leave a comment or question below if you have one!