The Basics of Having Backyard Chickens


Have you ever wished you had a pet chicken, but didn’t know if they were for you or if they were even allowed in your area?

Chickens make great pets, even in the cities. However, there are several things to take into consideration before purchasing your first chick, such as legality, breed, space, and the all important chicken coop.

Chickens make great backyard pets

Being a city girl, I was so excited to get my first chicken when my husband and I moved to a small town.

I looked for hours on end online to find the perfect chicken breed, marveling at the different varieties of feathers, egg colors, and temperments.

Then, I went to my local feed store and looked for my ‘perfect’ chickens.

Of course, all of the chicks were fluffy, cute and sweet and I came home with 16 instead of my intended 4.

However, as I took them home I soon realized that there was a lot more to having a pet chicken than I could ever have guessed.

Can I Have A Chicken In the City?

Surprisingly, many cities, especially suburban areas, allow for pet chickens.

However, I cannot overly emphasis the need to research your particular cities zoning and ordinances on the matter.

There can be several stipulations on the amount and type of chicken a city will allow.

For example, one city ordinece will allow up to 10 chickens, while another will only allow for 5.

Many cities make it illegal to own a rooster (sometimes your neighbors don’t like waking up at the crack of down to crowing), while other areas will allow for one or two.

The best way to find out is to email, or call your city and ask what their policy is for chickens.

Best Backyard Breed of Chicken

How to choose the best breed of chicken

When it comes to choosing the best breed for your family, there are several factors that can help you choose what’s right for you.

  • Is the sex of a chicken important
  • Climate
  • Temperament
  • Egg production
  • Adaption to confinement
  • Special Features

Telling the Sex of a Chick

If you live in an area that prohibits roosters, it might be best to go with a sex-linked variety of chickens.

A sex-linked chicken is a cross between two specific different types of chickens that produce female chicks of one color and male chicks of another color.

This way, you are almost 100% sure that the chick you are buying is either a male of a female.

There are different ways of telling the gender (sexing) chicks. However, these methods, such as vent sexing, are usually done by professionals to help avoid harming a chick.

Sometimes wing shape of chicks can be used to determine a male from a female chick. However, this method only works when a chick is just a few days old and only with select breeds.

After that, the wings look similar and you won’t be able to tell the difference until much later when the chicks develop combs or begin to crow.

For our family, we like to get eggs, so we like to go with a sex-linked variety called a Golden Comet.

Not only are we sure they are female, but they start to produce eggs sooner than most other chickens and are generally very sweet by nature.

Climate

Different breeds of chickens have been developed over the centuries not only for their looks, but for their ability to thrive in different climates.

When looking at the best chicken for you, before you look at feather patterns or egg colors, determine if you need a chicken that can thrive in cold or hot weather.

Chickens without adequate thick plumage and large combs can freeze and get frostbite when it drops below freezing.

On the other hand, having a less thick plumage is ideal for chickens that are living in hotter climates.

When researching which breed best for you, pay special attention to cold hardy, and heat tolerant and choose which kind is applicable in your area.

Temperament

Chickens are descended from wild Asiatic birds called Jungle Fowl, however, over the millennia they have been bred to possess different looks and characteristics.

One of those characteristics is temperment.

Some birds have been bred to keep their instinctual aggressiveness to help protect them from predators, while others have been bred to become friendly and gentle pets.

If you are planning on letting your chickens be free range, a chicken breed that can defend itself against predators might be ideal. However, be warned that these chickens, especially the roosters, will likely attack you and other pets.

If you are looking for a pet chicken, or if the chicken is going to be around children, it is best to look for a chicken with a docile personality.

My favorite chicken in terms of temperament are Silkies.

Although they aren’t the greatest egg layers, and the fact that they look furry instead of feathery, silkies are very sweet and gentle and make great first time pets for children.

A breed of chicken that I have had aggression issues with in the past has been Rhode Island Reds. The roosters would chase after my kids and try to peck at them.

However, like most animals, the amount of time that you spend with the chicken can make a big difference when it comes to their temperament.

Interacting with chicks when they are young, and having them associate you with treats is a great way to have chickens allow you to handle them and pet them.

Tip: When handling a chicken that may seem upset, place your hand over their eyes until they settle down and talk to them in a quite voice.

Egg Production

When deciding on a breed of chicken, it is a good idea to determine if egg laying is a characteristic that is important to you.

Some chickens, like our Golden Comets, are prolific egg layers with the rate of laying one egg per day.

Other chickens may only one to two eggs a week.

You may also want a certain egg color, either white, brown, or green.

Note: There is no nutritional difference between eggs with different colored shells. Nutritional value of the eggs is dependent on what the chicken is fed.

Some breeds of chickens can lay all year long, while other chickens egg production slows in the winter.

Fact: Chickens egg laying is dependent on the amount of sunlight they are exposed to.

Adaptation to Confinement

Some breeds of chickens are used to being confined into small pens, while other chickens are more adapt to free ranging living conditions.

If you have limited space for a chicken, choose a breed that specifically says that it handles confinement well.

If a chicken doesn’t feel that it has enough space, it may begin injuring itself or other chickens.

If possible, create a chicken run area for chickens to get out and stretch their legs and wings.

Special Features

The final aspect of the chicken breed selection process is to determine what special features you are looking for in a chicken.

Chickens come in all variety of colors and feather patterns.

Some of the more unique looking chickens include polish chickens with their crazy tufts of feathers on their heads, frizzles with curly feathers, and silkies with their fuzzy plumage.

There are big chickens, little chickens, laced patterned, barred patterened, stripped, speckled, and more.

To find out more about different chicken breeds, check out this list made by Oklahoma State University here.

How Much Space Does a Chicken Need?

The amount of space a chicken needs depends on the breed of chicken and the amount of chickens.

Most chickens can live in fairly small quarters as long as they have room to exercise, take dust baths, have a place to roost, and enough room to get away from other chickens if need be.

Chickens like to peck at things, and get easily bored if left in too small of space for too long.

As mentioned earlier, it is a good idea to have a space for chickens to roam during the day. If the backyard is enclosed without any dangers from other animals, a chicken can very happily walk around a backyard eating bugs all day long.

If protection from animals is needed, a simple chicken run made of chicken wire can be constructed to allow a chicken to walk around while being protected.

Chicken’s enjoy the security of a roost at night, and will usually naturally return to their perches when night comes, making rounding up the chickens when the sun goes down a fairly easy process.

Creating a Chicken Coop

There are several cute and inspiring chicken coop ideas online, especially on Pinterest.

When making a chicken coop, the sky’s the limit on the possibilities you can do to make a nice and cozy home for your feathered friends.

However, when planning a chicken coop there are some things to take into consideration:

  • Will it keep the chickens comfortable in the elements?
  • Is it easy to reach the eggs?
  • How many chickens can it comfortably house?
  • Does it have a roost?
  • Can it keep the chickens safe from other animals?

Designing for the Elements

No matter how cute a chicken coop is, it is useless if it doesn’t keep the chickens comfortable and safe.

If you live somewhere cold, make sure that you provide enough height in your coop to install a heat lamp.

Make sure the heat lamp is high enough so the chickens do not bump against it and burn themselves.

Also make sure that the location of your coop is somewhere that can be reached by an extension chord so you can plug in the lamp.

If you live somewhere extra hot, a small fan can be installed to keep the chickens cooler. Once again, make sure that there is a way to plug in the chord into an electrical outlet and that all wires and cords are out of reach of the chickens.

Reaching the Eggs

If you are planning on gathering eggs from your chickens, make sure you have a way to reach them without disturbing the chickens.

A small box with a hinged lid in the back is a popular option, as well as nesting boxes placed near the entrance of the coop.

If your chickens are known to go broody, and you wish to hatch eggs, make sure there are comfortable spaces where a chicken can sit on her eggs and still be close to food and water.

Note: Even without a rooster present, a hen can still go broody (sit on eggs to hatch them). If there is no rooster, the eggs are not fertile so they will not hatch chicks. Remove eggs from the broody hen in this case.

Number of Chickens in the Coop

It is important not to overcrowd a chicken coop.

Although they are social animals, chickens maintain a strict pecking order.

In order to show their superiority to other chickens and their place in the chicken hierarchy, they will ‘hen peck’ at other chickens, and the other chickens allow this to happen, even until they are hen pecked to death.

Pecking also occurs when the chickens are stressed, either by the presence of other animals outside, being too hot, too cold, or being bored.

To avoid pecking, it is important for chickens to have their own space and other things to peck at. It is recommended that each chicken have at least 3 square feet per chicken, and placing hard fruit like apples and cucumbers for them to pack at.

If buying a chicken coop, follow the recommened guidelines for chicken capacity.

There are usually two different numbers for the capacity of chickens, one for standard sized chickens (normal sized chickens), and another for bantam (miniature) sized chickens.

If chickens are allowed to roam throughout the day outside, they generally do not need as much coop room as penned up chickens, since they mainly will use the coop for sleeping.

Chicken Roost

Chickens instinctually seek high places when night falls.

This is to avoid predators, a behavior they still maintain since before domestication.

The nice thing is, that although a chicken may be roaming all day long, they will usually seek the same safe spot every night.

By making a safe roosting spot for them in the chicken coop, you and the chicken can feel safe knowing that no predators can attack them while sleeping.

Fortifying Coop Against Other Animals

There are several animals, wild and domesticated, that are always looking for an easy chicken dinner.

Because chickens lack a lot of defenses, they are usually easy pickings for other predators.

Some predator animals that we have dealt with have been skunks, dogs, hawks, bobcats, and other nocturnal animals.

When creating a secure chicken coop, you need to realize that animals can attack from above, below, and through most fortifications.

If your chicken coop is on the ground, make sure that you place chicken wire on the ground, then cover it up.

This will make sure that digging and burrowing animals can’t dig into your chicken coop.

Make sure that the top of the cage is also covered so nothing can enter through the top.

Again my recommendation is….chicken wire.

Most chickens need room to roam

Protecting Free Range Chickens

At one point, we had free range chickens. I loved how they were able to have plenty of space to run around and forage for bugs and weeds.

We had their area encircled by an electric net, which worked great in deterring most animals from attacking them.

As long as there were places for the chickens to hid under, they were pretty safe from hawk attacks.

However, one day one of the kids forgot to plug in the fencing, and the local stray dogs found an all you can eat chicken buffet.

The carnage was the stuff of nightmares.

There are benefits in using electric fencing.

It’s portable.

It’s effective when plugged in.

And it allows your chickens the greatest amount of ranging possiblities.

Somethings to consider when choosing to use electric fencing is:

  • the height and spacing in the fence
  • the power source
  • availability of water for the chickens

There are different types of livestock fencing available, but it is important to get the type made especially for chickens.

This will ensure that the fence spacing isn’t large enough for a chicken to squeeze through or fly (yes fly) over.

Although chickens can’t fly very high, they are still capable of flapping their wings and going over fences especially if they launch themselves from a higher place.

There are different types of power sources for electric fencing. There is the standard plug in option, but there is also solar power sources available.

The problem with the standard plug in power source is that it limits your options of where you keep your chickens to where an electrical extension cord can reach.

Although more portable, a solar power source is usually limited to when there is enough sun light to power it.

Benefits of Keeping Backyard Chickens

I have loved having chickens in my yard.

They are great for pest control.

When I let them roam freely around my yard I have no spiders, scorpions, or centipedes in my house.

They are great little garbage disposals. The kids and I love to give them vegetable scrapes. The especially love watermelon rinds.

They are great first pets. In fact, when introducing our kids to responsibilities, their first chore is to take care of the chickens.

They learn that animals need food, clean water, and a clean place to live.

The kids enjoy seeing how many eggs the chickens produce in a day.

The kids especially love watching how the cute little chicks grow up into big balls of feathers.

Their droppings make great fertilizer.

Another nice thing about backyard chickens is that they can be left alone for a few days if we decide to go on a trip. As long as we fill their food and water dispensers before we leave, they hardly notice that we are gone.

Disadvantages to Backyard Chickens

There are some drawbacks when it comes to backyard chickens.

  • They can get very smelly if the coop isn’t cleaned regularly
  • Their food can attract ants
  • They can get very mean with each other
  • The roosters crow, not only in the mornings
  • They poop everywhere
  • They peck at things, especially fingers
  • They can also attract lots of flies

With proper coop and chicken care, smell issues are usually easy to resolve, and if the chickens have plenty of room and are not under duress can usually live happily with each other.

If you think that a chicken is right for you and your family, check out your local feed store such as Tractor Supply, or find an online chick breeder and find the chicken just for you.

For basic chick care, check out this article by the University of Florida.

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