A beginner's guide to owning chickens

Always wanted to have chickens but don't know where to start? Look no further.

Chickens can be great to have in the backyard for many reasons - the main being for fresh eggs and a low-maintenance pet.

So if you're wanting advice on which chickens to buy and what you will need, expert Chris Lesley, founder of Chickens And More and Backyard Chickens has all the tips:

Why chickens?

Chickens are one of the best things to happen to any garden, as they eat many of the pests that ravage vegetables and flowers, without disturbing worms and other beneficial burrowers.

Chicken manure also makes for one of the best fertilizers around, especially high in the nutrients that plants need to thrive.

Keeping chickens also helps people get outside and move around, adding benefits to mental and physical health as well as providing a fulfilling animal companionship.

Choosing your chickens

There are many factors to consider when choosing chickens, most of which vary by breed. 

Rhode Island Reds, Leghorns, and Australorps are all celebrated for their egg-laying capacity, producing more than 200 eggs a year. Those looking to maximize their egg production can also look at the hybrid breeds created specifically for egg-laying – with the caveat that those high levels of production are usually not sustainable for more than three or four years.

This variation can even manifest within different strains of a single breed. Among Rhode Island Reds, for example, a hen from a “production” strain will lay a lot of eggs for only a few years, while a “heritage” Red will lay less frequently for a longer period of time.

Additionally, chickens, like people, can struggle to get along with those they live with, and some breeds are better adapted for interaction than others.

Breeds like the silkie and the cochin, bred to be beautiful pets more than barnyard animals, are known to be sweet and gentle with humans.

Birds that are best at mixing with other chickens include faverolles, Delawares, and Plymouth Rocks, as well as the Australorps and Leghorns.

Chicken care

Chickens need shelter in the form of a chicken coop and usually an attached run. Official regulations vary by locality, so keepers should check their local by-laws before building, but the general rule is that a coop should have at least four square feet of floor space per chicken – 10 if the chickens aren’t let out – nesting boxes, and raised roosts.

The walls of the coop should be sunk deep enough into the ground to prevent predators from burrowing in, and the top should be enclosed in mesh or wire fencing to keep birds out – even small birds that won’t attack the chickens can spread disease through the flock.

In terms of day-to-day care, chickens are relatively low-maintenance but they still have specific needs that need to be met.

Unlike household pets, chickens should have food available to them at all times, especially when they’re young; free feeding allows them to replace their lost energy throughout the day and ensures that even the shyest members of the flock get enough to eat.

They also require certain supplements to their diet, including insoluble grit, which replaces the dirt and small rocks birds ingest in the wild to aid in the grinding up and digestion of their food. Free-ranging chickens will pick up some grit on their own, but they shouldn’t be fed off the ground in an attempt to introduce it – as with humans, eating off the ground can give chickens avoidable diseases.

Another important step for preventing disease in a flock is to keep their coop and environment as clean as possible by regularly removing feces and replacing nesting materials.

Be prepared for a lot of faeces– chickens will poop anywhere and everywhere, including in their food and water if they aren’t carefully set up out of pooping range. A regular clean is also a great time to check the flock for early signs of illness, either physical or behavioral.

Though it will take time, chicken owners should get to know their chickens’ routines and personalities, so they can identify early when those patterns change and hopefully catch any diseases or injuries before they cause serious damage to the flock.  

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