Having a small flock of chickens at home is indeed a wonderful source of eggs and meat and fun. Best of all it's easy to do. Chickens need very little care, just keep them in food and water, give them shelter and a place scratch around and lay eggs, and protection from predators, and that's just about all you have to do. They're really not a demanding animal at all.
Some folks keep chickens as pets, and that can be fun too. Whatever your interest is, I've found these small animals to be low maintenance, easy to handle, and quite a source of entertainment. There is no need to be hesitant about raising these birds as they're a good homestead and backyard animal for the beginner.
Before we dive in, let me first identify a couple of challenges. My experience suggests that the two biggest challenges to having a small flock of birds are:
The good news is, I've created my own solutions to both of these challenges and I'm happy to share them with you.
Even if you only have a backyard to work with, as long as it's not illegal to have fowl at your place, you can do just fine. You might be surprised to know that even New York City allows chickens, as long as there are no roosters in the flock.
If you're a beginner, you might want to first take a look at my article on chicken behavior to get a feel for what's in store.
Let's take a big picture look at raising these birds, and I'll leave it to you to follow the links to much more detailed information.
To answer this question, you really need to know more about your objectives. If you're looking for pets, you can get Bantams and Silkies and possibly some show birds. If you're looking for meat, you'll want to raise Cornish Cross (also known as X-rocks) as they're one of the best converters of feed to meat anywhere on the planet. If fresh eggs are among your objectives, then there are many chickens to choose from. Some lay white eggs, some lay brown eggs, and some lay pastel colored eggs of blue and green.
Get familiar with the many chicken breeds to pick from, so you can have quite a fancy flock of birds if you're so inclined. Generally, all the chicken breeds get along with one another just fine, so mix and match and have fun with it.
Most people like a good dual purpose bird, what's known as a heavy bird that's a good egg layer as well. It will provide meat for the table when egg production slows to unacceptable levels. When you harvest your layers for the table, I suggest you make soup or stew out of them, as older chickens tend to be lean and stringy.
The photo above shows some of my birds from years ago. In the foreground are three Barred Rocks hens, in the background from left to right are a Buff Orpington and Buff Sex Link hen, and a Black Australorp rooster. All of these breeds are excellent layers, and all except the Buff Sex Link are considered a heavy dual purpose bird.
If you're new to this, here's a bit of insight about buying chickens that ought to get you off to a good start. And, here's an overview about how one might go about raising chickens from day-old chicks and fertilized eggs. This information should help you be better prepared to obtain fresh eggs and meat from your own backyard chickens. And, it's something you can do all year round.
Chickens are like many other animals, if you crowd them up they won't do as well. Nevertheless, chickens are well known as animals that require very little space. Just enough room is all they need to be happy and productive. If I were to start out small, I'd suggest four to six birds can be happy in a 100 square foot pen. That's an enclosure of 10 feet by 10 feet, with roosts above and a coop that's outside or adjacent to the enclosure.
If you crowd up your chickens, they'll strip the ground bare in no time at all. If you allow them more room (or have fewer birds), they'll be happier because of the extra space, and you can keep natural food under their feet like grass, worms and bugs. That too will keep them happy, healthy, and producing good quality eggs.
The photo above shows chicken yard #2 under construction. To give you some sort of idea of proportions, the gate on the left is about 10 feet wide and roughly 8 feet high. For many people, this yard might be nearly the size of their entire backyard. I have a few acres, so I put it to good use so my flock never feels like there isn't enough room to spread out, run around, and explore new places. As a result, my chickens at home have never attempted to fly over the 7 foot high fencing.
On occasion you'll need to get your hands on your chickens, whether they're inside the pen or have gotten out and are wandering the neighborhood or yard. It's easy to get a hold of them and handle them if you know the proper techniques to employ for the situation. I have seven techniques for catching chickens that work well for me and my flock of backyard chickens.
Basic shelter for your birds should include a coop as they'll know this to be their home. Some folks lock up their chickens inside the coop at night for protection. This is a good idea if their enclosure isn't predator proof.
The most important function of a coop is to provide your birds with protection from sun, rainstorms, high winds and predators. It can also be a location for their water, food, roosts and nesting boxes.
I let my chickens enter or leave the coop anytime they please, and I find this is essential in the winter as they tend to stay inside the coop when it's bitter cold and when the wind picks up. Otherwise, they only go into the coop for water and to roost at night.
It's not necessary to have a fancy coop, I've used a homemade wooden camper shell, shown above, as a coop for many years. Just provide a way to clean it out, and provide adequate ventilation for the birds because they're naturally dusty, especially during the summer.
A small pen or a large yard is just fine for chickens. If you give them plenty of room, they'll be happy with their home and yard. Chicken wire works fine to keep birds inside an enclosure, but it's not a good form of protection, especially from dogs. I fence my flock in with good chicken fencing so I never have to worry about predators getting at them. If fencing will keep predators out, it most certainly will keep your chickens at home, right where you want them.
I have multiple chicken yards adjacent to one another, and each one is protected by strong fencing both above and below ground. Photo right shows an access point between two yards with a ramp for my girls. Having separate yards lets naturally grown food in one yard recover while my flock feeds in another yard.
In smaller spaces, your birds will likely want to get out so they can have more room to roam and scratch and find places to rest and take a dust bath.
If your birds are prone to flying out of your enclosure, then you'll need to practice clipping chicken wings to keep them from flying over your fence. It's easy to do.
Preventing your chickens from flying keeps them out of harm's way when it comes to predators, and they won't be hanging around where you don't want them...scratching up the flower beds and pooping on your back porch...or worse yet, your neighbor's back porch.
If you're wondering what do chickens eat, I'm here to tell you it's just about anything. They are great consumers of kitchen scraps, grass and weeds, bugs, worms and even mice. Since they're a bird, they'll naturally eat grain, and this will likely be the largest recurring expense for maintaining your flock...should you not have an abundant natural source of food for them.
My preference is to provide natural food for my birds, and use grain as a supplement. Here are a few approaches to providing cheap chicken food for your backyard chickens. If you can keep your birds in good and inexpensive food, you'll enjoy better eggs at a lower cost than you're accustomed to at the grocery store. Here are suggestions for how you might provide natural chicken food to your flock. Anything natural will be better for your birds, and they'll prefer it too.
Feeding chickens isn't difficult, nevertheless, I created an automatic feeder to make this a less frequent chore. If something like this interests you, then I'd suggest you give my homemade chicken feeder a good look. It operates well and reduces the amount of work associated with keeping backyard chickens fed.
The feeder is shown to the left. It's made from a 55-gallon food grade steel drum. You can imagine that it holds hundreds of pounds of food. It helps me reduce daily tasks by allowing me to fill the barrel only on occasion.
If you're interested in building something similar, just click on the link above and you'll be taken to a page that explains in detail how I put this feeder together.
water available to your birds is very important. They need it to
process food, make eggs, and otherwise be healthy. If given access to
water, and plenty of room to roam about a large yard, chickens can
almost make it on their own in terms of finding food. If you have a
rather large area where they can free range on grass and bugs, I'd
suggest that supplemental food is unnecessary.
Keeping your backyard chickens watered is a chore that I don't enjoy. It can be messy and a bit of trouble as waterers tend to get fouled easily. Here is some information about chicken waterers that you'll likely find helpful. And, you might want to take a look at my "bigger and better" chicken waterer. It's my automatic and all season solution to what often is a troublesome chore of keeping chickens at home in sufficient clean, cool water.
Chickens are a great source of meat, but I raise them mostly as a source of fresh chicken eggs. As shown in the photo below, it's possible to get yourself up to your neck in fresh eggs. And, that's a good problem to have.
I focus on egg laying chickens because it's a supply of food that lasts a long time in the refrigerator. Here is my estimation of the shelf life of eggs. If you're going to accumulate them, you'll need to bone up on egg storage techniques and know what to do with old eggs. You'll probably also want to know when do eggs go bad. And, if you're going to be storing eggs for a while, you may want to get some plastic egg storage trays as they are the best for long-term storage.
Once you get your hens to lay, you'll be busy cleaning eggs and enjoying them at every meal. If I were limited to chickens at home, I'd be setting my sights on lots of fresh eggs.
Chickens at home and around the house are easy to deal with. They're not nearly as much hassle as other animals, yet there are a few issues that you need to be aware of and guard against. Usually, preventing problems is easy, as long as you're aware of them and you know how to head them off.
You'll have to deal with chickens pecking each other because there is a certain pecking order within the flock. It gets readjusted each time to introduce new birds. Pecking is easy to prevent and less easy to cure. Much of how you handle the problem will depend on your style of flock management. I suggest prevention first, and then permanent solutions when reasonable preventive measures aren't working.
Another issue with chickens is their natural behavior of scratching the ground. Usually this isn't a problem, but if you free range your chickens at home, expect them to ruin everything and anything you might call a garden, especially if the plants are small or relatively low to the ground.
In the photo above, you can see that where there once was green grass around the trees, the chickens have scratched it bare. They will demolish a garden or a flower bed, so keep them out of places you don't want scratched up.
To say that your chickens at home are vulnerable to attack after dark is an understatement. Usually, chickens will find themselves a spot on a roost to spend the night. This might be in a tree or in the coop, or simply sitting on top of your fencing. While they're there, you can simply walk over and pick them up. If it's that easy for you, it's just that easy for a predator too. Make sure their night roosts are in a location that is protected because they're just about as docile and approachable at night as one of your pets...no so in the daytime, but at night they're vulnerable.
From time to time you'll have to deal with a broody hen that won't get off of her eggs. There are solutions for this, but sometimes just letting a good mother do her job is the right course of action.
You're also likely to run into problems with reduced egg production
so learning how to deal with such problems will be handy indeed. It's
all part of being a manager of a small flock of chickens at home.
You'll soon find that your flock is one of the best dust makers on the planet. Chickens are naturally dusty. They even take dust baths. So, expect the inside of the chicken coop to be covered in dust in a matter of weeks. It's one reason the coop needs ventilation. The idea of dust and chickens is like fleas and dogs, they go hand-in-hand.
You're not the only one who enjoys eggs and meat from your chickens. To predators, it's all "free" food. In my area of southeast Wyoming, the most common predators are:
These animals can be hunted and trapped, but usually I don't actively seek them unless they're being destructive or clearly have an interest in my birds. Instead, I build barriers to dissuade them so they'll go off to a neighbor and spend time keeping an eye on their backyard chickens.
Sometimes when larger predators are persistent, they need to be removed from the picture by hunting or trapping. It's a protection for my flock as well as my small dog who has run of the place.
Unless you can create a cooperative relationship with a predator, it's going to be a competitive one. In their eyes, you're offering free food. Try to discourage them at first, if you can.
I have weasels around my place too, but I've never had any trouble with them. I also have hawks nesting right near my chicken yard, but they haven't ever touched one of my birds. Predators vary according to your location, so you might have a different set of hungry critters to deal with.
To keep the coyotes and fox out, I use my own version of chicken fencing. The raccoons and skunks can easily climb, so I use a fence charger to surround the chicken yard fencing at the top and bottom, and that offers protection for my birds. I'm also on the lookout for signs of four-legged intruders and prowlers. When I see they're hanging around my backyard chickens, I set a live trap and get rid of them.
One of the problems I have with my chickens at home involves sparrows and finches coming to eat the chicken food. It's annoying and expensive, and can introduce illnesses into my flock. That's one of the reasons I set up the automatic homemade chicken feeder. My expectation are that the chickens will hear the feeder actuate, then rush in to get the food before the wild birds do...and that's just the way it works.
Usually, one would start off with chickens at home by raising them from day-old chicks in the spring. The big concern there is keeping them warm until they get old enough to be on their own in the yard. Everything goes well during the summer, and then it's typical to get concerned about your chickens in the winter months.
Relax, as chickens at home will require little care above and beyond what you might normally offer them in warmer weather. Even though they're a jungle bird by nature, they've been adapted to cold weather and they do rather well. I think they do better in the harsh winter weather than they do in the extreme heat and humidity of summer.
Expect your birds to be very curious and cautious about wandering around in the snow, but before you know it, they'll get it figured out and be walking around on the snow and ice like it was a warm summer day. Chickens are naturally cold hardy.
Meat from my chickens at home is a secondary benefit at best. I have raised chickens for meat, but I'm much more interested in eggs. After all, the eggs just keep on coming...for years. If your focus is on meat production, it's best to go with the Cornish Cross as it is a tremendous meat producer. They are an unusual bird as they do nothing but eat all day long. It's how they've been bred.
For those of you looking for meat chickens let me suggest the best meat chickens I know of. There are other dual-purpose breeds that provide meat and eggs, but my suggestion is to specialize when you raise chickens. Get the best meat producers and raise them for meat, and get the best egg producers, and gather their eggs. You'll be more satisfied with the results that way.
If you're raising chickens for meat, there are many great recipes for your home-grown source of meat.
If you're just keeping chickens at home as pets, there are some distinct benefits you can enjoy. First of all, chickens are quite self-sufficient. They're also very inexpensive to acquire and maintain. They can keep you company and entertain you as well, all the while cranking out eggs.
I dare you to tell me that this isn't a funny thing to watch. Here we have one hen trying to get into a nest box with another hen, yet there are several empty nest boxes available. "No, this nest box is the best one, and we're both going to squeeze in here and lay eggs."
I've also seen one of my hens sitting on dozens of eggs, as if they were all hers and she was going to hatch them. And, I had one of my girls cackling about her egg laying prowess, then she turned around to face away from me and started to lay an egg. I reached out and caught the egg as she dropped it...and it never touched the straw in the nest. Now that was fun, and no one ever had a fresher egg than that...right out of the vent.
Photo above shows me having fun with a local grade school. They shipped kids out on the bus, we sat them around on straw bales in the barn, and I covered their laps with sheets to protect them from chicken poop. Then, we let them hold chickens and learn about chicken behavior, egg laying and lots of other interesting things. The most fun I had was meeting the bus at the top of my drive, hoping aboard and then shouting out into the bus full of kids, "Are you ready for chickens?" The kids all cried out "yeah" and went nuts with anticipation.
Well, I had to make sure they were ready for my backyard chickens, and they were...very ready and very enthusiastic.
Here comes the bus and it's soon to have a bunch of excited kids on board, thanks to me and my big mouth. Oh well, it was a rare moment and I certainly wanted to make the most of it. If I didn't get the kids cheering and squealing, I would have been disappointed.
After we finished up with one load of kids, I sat on the tailgate of my old truck and listened as they sang me a song of thanks for having them come out to see and interact with the chickens.
Later on I received personal letters from every child. I remember one said that his favorite part of the outing was when I threw the chicken up in the air to show that they don't fly well at all. His note came complete with a crayon drawing of me tossing the bird into the air. What a hoot!
The photo below shows a curious hen that found an opening in our glass storm door. She wanted to know if there was anything good to eat inside the house. As I recall, she found a moth or two in the cracks between the door and the threshold.
So, you can have lots of fun with your chickens at home, they're not just for laying eggs and making great chicken soup. Embrace your moments with these little critters...they're entertaining and can become your pets whether or not that is your intention.
And, when you're confident that you know just about everything you need to know about raising chickens at home, take a look at the facts about chickens to see if there is anything that piques your interest. Chickens are fascinating creatures, and it seems there is always something to learn about them.
Here's another nice site that you will enjoy. It's all about raising chickens.