The internet is full of memes and products that have tapped into the contemporary chicken keepers’ zeitgeist. They refer to chicken addiction, chicken math and never having too many.
But seriously, how many chickens are enough? How many are too many? I’m not talking about commercial farms jamming thousands of birds into massive barns, but the small flock owner who starts with four, or six, and lots of good intentions. What’s the difference between want and need? It’s a question that’s easy to laugh off when you feel like you can never get enough, but I’m starting to realize I have reached the limit – not just my own, but maybe what is best for my flock.
I started off with eight pullets in 2005 and was satisfied with that. I didn’t have a rooster and they didn’t go broody, so hatching chicks wasn’t an option. They had a predator-proof, good sized coop and were free-ranging on acreage. At that time I was working six days a week. I enjoyed spending time with them and my chicken chores were minimal. Two years later, I had lost two to hawks and, after issues with them wandering over to the neighbours’ garden, I re-homed the remaining six with a friend.
Fast forward four years: I missed my chickens and was ready to start again. Their old coop had been converted into my partner’s art studio so I had to come up with another option. I loved seeing my birds foraging in the woods, but I didn’t want to contend with them venturing over the property line again or being vulnerable to predators, but mostly I wanted them contained to minimize the damage to our garden, to curtail their egg laying in the woods and their penchant for pooping at our doorstep.
I got four pullets of different breeds and the following summer my Buff Orpington hen went broody. I got fertilized eggs from friends and hatched some chicks. Of course, I kept some. The four turned into eight. The following year, she went broody again. I kept some chicks and by then, had adopted a few more. I’m sure you see where this story is going.
My pen was large (1200 square feet), but my coop was not (4’x4’ with lots of roost bars). What do you do when you want more chickens? That’s easy: build a bigger coop. We all know when you have more space (be it a garage or workshop or coop) it’s easy to fill – and fill it I did.
My first birds (Dorkings, Welsummers and Easter Eggers) didn’t go broody, but my subsequent hens are super-broody. I went from the Orpington, who was broody just once a season, to multiple girls being broody two, and three, times a year! The thing about breeding birds – and especially crosses, which are mostly what I have – is it’s a mystery how they will turn out and what colour eggs they will lay. I’ve re-homed a few, only to be sent photos of some stunning birds and their fantastic eggs, and regretted it.
In the fall of 2017, I added another coop and an almost 500 square foot run. You know the old adage: If you build it, they will come. My girls did not disappoint in that department.
Last year, I had 17 broody hens and hatched more than 100 chicks. I love hatching chicks – they are the highlight of the season – but they are work. I spent hours juggling broody hens in segregated housing, cleaning and filling multiple waterers and feeders and cleaning coops. I do a short shift every morning before catching my bus to the ferry at 7am and then again, when I get home at 4:45pm. In summer, it’s dry and light. In winter, dark and rainy. On weekends, I spend more time – not just cleaning, but hanging out with them.
I like to keep my chickens’ area clean. I spend lots of time with them so I want it to be a pleasant experience for me, but I also want to provide them with nice digs. I’ve seen many birds living in pretty unhygienic conditions: standing in mud and poop; coops smelling of ammonia; dirty waterers. I get that folks love their birds and are busy, but at what point do we say ‘I only have the time and energy to properly care for this many birds’?
Having more chickens not only translates to more work, but actually less time spent with individual birds. It can become easy to lose sight of who might be acting ‘off’ until it’s too late. A sick bird can get lost in the crowd.
As you know, chickens are flock animals with a pecking order. When we bring birds into, or take them out of, a flock, the pecking order needs to be re-established. That’s a stressor for birds and has implications on their overall health and egg-laying. Mixing birds of different ages is also problematic in terms of disease prevention, because asymptomatic pathogen carriers, under stress, can shed the virus they may be carrying.
I went to a full-day Small Flock Avian Health Management workshop led by two Avian Pathologists last month. After keeping chickens for almost a decade, I know a lot, but after that day I realized that I still have lots to learn.
We spent time talking about biosecurity, which is something many small flock owners don’t practice – or at least, not routinely and consistently. I starting thinking about how I go from a friend’s that has chickens without concern about what I might be tracking back home on my shoes or car tires. Or how I’ve added rescue birds needing good homes. They’ve appeared healthy, but how do I know what pathogens they might have been exposed to?
We also talked about how birds can be carriers of a viral or bacterial pathogen without appearing sick or having succumbed to it. I had a couple of unexpected losses last year and had no idea why. I didn’t think to have them necropsied at the time, but in future if that happens I’ll invest in having a necropsy performed at the Animal Health Centre. They not only provide the cause of death, but relevant information about what other issues might be within a flock that you’re not even aware of (e.g. internal parasites, pathogens).
Since that workshop I’ve thought a lot about what I can manage, what is fair to my birds, issues of biosecurity and building the overall health of my flock. I have to say that my birds are well-adjusted, in that, there are no pecking or bullying issues. I do think though they would be happier with fewer birds to contend with: less competition over food, roost bars and nest boxes (I’ve got plenty, but they still have their favourites they scrap over).
To that end, I am in the process of rehoming about 15 of my birds so I can consolidate some of last year’s grow-outs into the main coop (the two flocks live side-by-side in adjoining pens). My goal is to end up with 34 hens and one rooster. Over the spring break, my friend Tracy and I will be building new roost bars to accommodate the newcomers. Then I’ll thoroughly clean and disinfect the back coop and leave it empty until I have broody hens and will house them there. When their chicks hatch they will have the entire back pen to themselves.
One of the recommendations that came out of the workshop was to install nipple waterers as they are less likely to carry pathogens than the type that birds can dip their beaks, or worse poop, into. This is a simple fix: I actually have some hanging nipple waterers I’ve never used.
We’re now heading into spring. It’s hatching season and folks will have broody hens or want to spark up their incubators. Or head to the feed store for supplies and come out with a box of fluffy chicks. The best laid plans often go sideways when you see chicks. I know many people struggle with the answer to how many is too many. For me it’s about wanting to cut back on my burgeoning workload and finding ways to improve the overall quality of life for my birds.
I’ll then have the opportunity to relax a bit, sit back and observe the individuals in my flock and assess where I want to go from there.