So you’re thinking about getting chickens and don’t know where to start. Well, you’ve come to the right place. I’m going to ask you to step back and think about what keeping chickens means before taking the plunge and getting some. Who wouldn’t fall in love with a ball of fluff? But just like puppies and kittens, chicks grow up. But unlike other domestic pets that we might have had as children, or even throughout our lives, chickens are new to lots of folks who may have no idea what they might be in for.
I belong to a number of Facebook farm and chicken groups and regularly read posts along the lines of: “We just bought chicks at the feed store – how do we care for them until we build our coop?” You wouldn’t have a baby without first preparing for its arrival. Or maybe you would, but I don’t recommend it. Do your research, ask questions, go visit people who have chickens, study coop design and then make the decision that’s right for you based on your time, budget, space and commitment. Maybe they are right for you, but just not now.
I love that folks are interested in having a few birds to supply them with fresh eggs. Or to bond with your kids. Or to entertain and keep you company. What I’m concerned about is that many people are woefully unprepared to care for them. Lots of birds suffer because of their owner’s ignorance and lack of preparation. Being prepared doesn’t mean you have to be an expert – just spend some time researching what having chickens entails before you get them.
Depending on how many birds you have they can be relatively little work on a day-to-day basis, but there will be a learning curve, sharp for some, about basic husbandry, biosecurity, health issues and caring for birds at the various stages of their lives. I went to a day long workshop on Small Flock Health Management recently and was surprised at how much I still have to learn about some things, even though I’ve had chickens for almost a decade and spend many hours devoted to educating myself on their care.
They are relatively easy to keep, but they are by no means no-maintenance pets: they require daily care and cleaning, get injured and sick, need to be treated for parasites and need companions. And unlike dogs and cats you may not have access to a local vet who is experienced with avian issues.
If you don’t like household chores don’t get chickens: they poop a lot, the coop is dusty and cleaning is a daily event. I have seen far too many chickens kept in unhygienic conditions because their owners don’t spend the time required to keep their housing clean. If you’ve got allergies (dust, feathers) or respiratory issues, then maybe chickens aren’t for you.
I’m not trying to talk you out of getting chickens, but having animals is a commitment. It may be helpful to consider the following when making a decision:
What are the by-laws in your area regarding chickens? Investigate if it’s allowed and if so, how many and under what conditions? (e.g. proximity to property lines, size of lot, hens only). Some people try to bend the rules and when found out have to quickly re-home birds or face the consequences.
Why do you want chickens? Are they going to be pets or dinner? Are you looking for docile friendly hens? Super egg layers? Meat birds? You’ll want to research breeds and see what suits your needs the best. Chickens are not interchangeable: breed plays a role in temperament, egg production, foraging ability, tendency to go broody or likelihood of making better companions.
Are you home every morning and every evening to let your chickens in/out? If not, will you invest in an automatic door? I have one, but I still go out each evening to make sure everyone made it back to the coop in time.
If you plan to go away for more than a day do you have someone to chicken-sit? If you like spontaneous get-aways or vacations longer than a weekend, then maybe you’re not ready for chickens.
How much time do you have to spend taking care of your birds? When I started with four pullets I spent a few minutes a day scooping poop, filling their waterer and feeder. On the weekend, I’d spend a bit more time cleaning. Fast forward to having upwards of 30 adults and hatching 100 chicks in a season when I spent at least 30-45 minutes/day doing routine tasks and an additional 30-45 minutes cleaning on the weekend.
I do a major cleaning three times a year: I remove everything from the coop, sweep, power wash and clean windows, which takes about three hours. I spend additional time on projects like erecting shelters, painting, fencing, coop expansion, administering first aid/caring for sick birds, and dealing with broody hens and their chicks. And then there’s the time just spent hanging out with my birds: they are social and enjoy human company.
Are you going to sell eggs? You will need to collect and clean eggs daily. Dealing with egg customers can take time as well.
Can you afford to keep chickens? Start up costs for buying chicks or older birds, buying or building a coop, fencing? Have you budgeted for on-going bedding and feed? Most small flock owners do not cover their costs by just selling eggs.
If you want to make money you can do that in several ways: sell hatching eggs (which sell for more than eating eggs), birds (you’ll get more for purebreds or interesting birds), or poultry (meat birds). Each of those options also requires time.
If you’re on a budget are you prepared to spend the time to find ways to offset your costs? (i.e. food recovery programs, freecycling).
Will you pen or free-range your birds? Are you prepared for the risk of injuries and losses (i.e. emotionally, financially, knowing chicken first aid)?
Are you going to start with chicks? Sexed pullets or unsexed, straight-run? Most people prefer knowing the sex of the birds they are buying, but pullets cost more and many breeders only sell straight-run chicks. Even feed stores and hatcheries make mistakes. What will you do with any unwanted cockerels?
If your birds get sick are you able to take them to a vet? Do basic first aid? Euthanize them, if necessary?
Do you have kids? What will their role be in caring for chickens?
Do you have dogs? Are they chicken friendly? If not, how will you protect your birds? Train your dog? Have neighbours with a dog that might encroach on your property and harm your birds? Dogs are one of the most common predators of chickens and many new chicken owners are totally unprepared when their friendly Fido injures or kills their birds.
Do you have neighbours that might have an issue with you getting birds? (e.g. noise, smell, concern you’ll attract rodents).
Are you going to have a rooster? I love my rooster: he’s gentle, relatively quiet, a reliable protector and good with the girls. I have @30 hens and wouldn’t have more than one rooster because of competition for the hens and increased crowing. Roosters get a bad rap for their crowing but my hens, collectively, make far more noise, for far longer every day, than my rooster who crows a few times at dawn. When a hen lays an egg she sings the ‘song of her people’ which can be loud and protracted. Be prepared for some noise. The more birds you have, the more they encourage others to join in.
Production layers are bred to start laying early (5 months) and often, but, sadly, many will die young (i.e. by age two). Heritage breeds will start laying later (6-9 months) and less often, but will live longer (5-10 years). What will you do with aging chickens that are still healthy, but may not lay very often, or have stopped laying altogether?
Many people, myself included, started small and then, slowly over time, expanded. Do you have an ideal number in mind? Do you have the space (land, coop, pen) to increase your flock? Lots of folks get addicted to chickens and get more (and more) without really considering their needs.
Chickens are flock animals with a pecking order. Introducing new birds is stressful for everyone, which can lead to bullying, pecking and a drop in egg production. More importantly, stress can contribute to birds with compromised immune systems getting sick. The introduction of new birds is a critical time for latent infections to manifest.
When I first got chickens in 2001 there was very little online presence for small flock chicken keepers. A friend gave me a book on basic husbandry, but that didn’t really prepare me for everything I’ve had to deal with. I’m glad to see the number of chicken websites and blogs have grown exponentially, but like all things on the internet, there are good, fair and downright bad sources of information.
Online forums are filled with conflicting advice and it can be quite confusing to both the novice, and even experienced, chicken keepers. Find a source you feel is reliable and factually accurate and stick with them.
After doing your due diligence set some goals around the number of birds can realistically care for. If you haven’t heard the terms ‘chicken math’ and ‘chicken addiction‘ you soon will. The advice regarding gambling: ‘Know your limit, play within it’ applies here as well.
Build your coop as big as possible because you can always use more space (e.g. storage, infirmary, broody hens, quarantine area). My 13′ x 8′ coop was the biggest I was allowed without getting a building permit.
Do as much research as you can so that you are prepared for the day you bring your first birds home. Chicks grow really quickly and you need to be ready for their next stage of housing and feeding.
Chickens can be fantastic pets and companions, just make sure they are right for you.
Stay tuned for upcoming info on getting started.