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Getting Started with Backyard Chickens

by Sue Campbell (SueCinPDX)

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What you need to know to start your own flock.

It's almost Easter and baby chicks are everywhere. Like puppies under the Christmas tree, it's not a good idea to put baby chicks in the Easter basket without some thoughtful planning.  There are many great reasons to keep chickens in your backyard.  Chickens are easy to care for, endlessly entertaining and take the concept of "local" whole new level by providing delicious eggs for your family. I encourage anyone who's been tempted to get chickens to take the plunge -- after some careful preparation.  

 

 

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To that end, I've created this starter guide to urban chicken-keeping:

Check local ordinances   Your city likely has ordinances regulating chicken-keeping.  Some municipalities limit the number of hens you can have without a permit and most don't allow roosters.  The website www.urbanchickens.org lists ordinances for many US cities. 

Talk to your neighbors   It's a good idea to give your neighbors a head's up that you're planning to get chickens.  Arm yourself with facts to head off any concerns they may have, for example, chickens are not as noisy as many people think and a well maintained coop will have little or no odor.  Let them know you'll send some fresh eggs their way on occasion (fresh eggs make great bribes). 

Research Breeds and Sources There are many breeds of chicken.  Decision factors include temperament of the breed, egg production, cold hardiness and even egg color.  Some popular breeds for beginners include Australorps, which are friendly birds and good producers and Rhode Island Reds, great no-fuss producers of brown eggs.  Make a list of four or five potential breeds and then start looking for sources in your area.  I'm spoiled living in Portland, as we have several farm storms specializing in urban chicken-keeping. Depending on where you live, you may have to go a bit farther afield. 

Decide How and How Many You have some choice here.  You can get baby chicks, which means you'll need some extra supplies and time you can devote to ensuring their survival. Also, sexing baby chicks is a tricky business, so there's a small chance you could end up with a rooster, make sure you have a plan in place if that happens.  Make sure your chicks have been vaccinated for Marek's disease.  It is quite fun to raise baby chicks, just a bit labor intensive. 

Another option, and a great one for newbies, is to get started pullets.  These are hens that are 6-8 weeks old, meaning they have all their feathers and are ready to be kept outside in a coop, rather than a brooder box.  I got my first four birds this way and it was very manageable.  

 

 

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Depending on where you live, you may even be able to get hens at the  "point of lay," which means the birds are about 4-5 months old and will begin laying in a month or two.   The last option is to adopt mature hens, but you risk not knowing exactly how old the hens are, and therefore can't be sure how much longer they'll be laying. 

You'll need to plan on getting at least two birds, as chickens are social creatures and don't do well in isolation.  Expect to pay more for birds closer to the "point of lay."  In Portland, chicks run about $5 to $6 each, started pullets around $20.  Prices are cheaper if you are willing to drive to the country.  You can also check Craigslist.  Chicks are available by mail-order, but most hatcheries have high minimum orders and shipping can be expensive. 

Get Your Supplies I highly recommend getting all your chicken supplies (except food) well in advance of the day you bring your girls home.  This will spread out the cost and reduce chaos on the big day.  Even if you're getting baby chicks who'll be in a brooder box for six weeks, make sure you have a coop from day one.  You never know what could get in the way of getting a coop in time.  Unless, of course, you want the chickens to live in the house with you!  In that case, you can forget the coop and buy chicken diapers instead.  (Yes, they make them.)   Here's what you'll need: 

  • A coop. Unless you have building skills and time on your hands, you'll need to purchase a coop.  Check Craigslist for low-cost options.  A good starter coop is what's known as a "chicken tractor," which includes a coop and run (exercise area enclosed in wire).  They generally hold around 3-6 birds and can be moved around your yard to provide fresh grass for the hens and avoid total yard destruction.  Coops need to be predator proof!  Even in an urban environment, hens can fall victim to raccoons and other predators.  The door needs to close securely and the run must be enclosed in wire.  Chicken wire is not enough, you need hardware cloth, which is basically welded wire mesh.  Coops also need to have some ventilation, but make sure it's not drafty in the roosting area. Most chicken tractors have a cupola at the top for this purpose.  You also need about a foot of roosting space per bird inside the coop.  If your coop doesn't come with roosts, just make some from wooden dowels. 
  • A Feeder and Waterer.  If you're not getting baby chicks, I recommend starting out with a generous sized feeder and waterer.  You'll spend less time re-filling.  If your coop is a good distance from a water source, get two waterers.  You can fill one in the house and swap it out with the empty one in the coop.   
  • Litter.  You'll need litter for the floor of the coop.  I use pine chips.  Never use cedar chips, as cedar is toxic to chickens.  Some people say not to use straw as it's prone to mildew and pests, others say straw works fine for them. 
  • A nesting box (or two).  If you're coop doesn't already have one, you'll need a nesting box for every four hens.  They don't have to be fancy.  You can use a milk crate or even a five gallon pail.  There are plenty of websites with instructions for building your own.  You just want the chickens to feel cozy and enclosed.  My coop has a five gallon pail nesting box and my hens don't use it.  They made their own nest in a corner behind the metal garbage bin I use to store their food. 
  • A metal garbage bin with a lid.  Metal is best for food storage.  Plastic is no good, as rodents can chew through plastic. 
  • Egg cartons.  Start saving all your egg cartons now, so you don't have to buy them.  Just don't store empty shells in them, so they stay clean. 
  • A chick lamp with a 250 watt red bulb.  Whether or not you are getting baby chicks, it's a good idea to have one of these on hand for cold weather.  Especially if you get young birds in the late fall or early spring.  You may need to set it up in your coop if the temperature drops below freezing.  I usually move the waterer near the chick light when it gets very cold to prevent the water freezer up.  Just make sure the birds have enough room to huddle under the light.  Depending on how close your coop is to an outlet, you may need an extension cord, too.  
  • A brooder (for chicks only):  This is a large container made of wood, metal, plastic or even cardboard.  You can also use a bathtub if you have an extra in your house.  You want it to be about 3 x 2 feet and 2 feet deep for 3-4 chicks. 
  • An instant read thermometer (for chicks only): Maintaining the proper temperature in the brooder is crucial.  Don't guess.   
  • A chick feeder base, waterer base and mason jars (for chicks only): The bases only cost a buck or two.  Fill mason jars with food and water and thread the jars onto the bases.  
  • Grit: Chickens don't have teeth -- they use grit to digest their food.  Get chick grit for chicks or #2 grit for older birds. 
  • Oyster shell: This adds extra calcium to the diet for stronger egg shells.  Don't give to chicks or young pullets, it's only for laying hens. 
  • Feed: You'll need chick feed for chicks, developer for older birds (12 weeks and up) and layer pellets or mash once your birds are about 5 months old.  You can wait to buy feed the same day you pick up your birds.  Be aware that organic feed is about twice the price of non-organic.

 

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Bringing Your Birds Home and Ongoing Care  

Caring for Baby Chicks:

  • Set up your brooder with the heat lamp and litter 24 hours before you bring your chicks home.  This will ensure the brooder is warm when the chicks arrive.  The temperature should be around 90-95 degrees.  The brooder needs a hot side and a cold side, so position your light at one end of the brooder.  Food and water should go on the cold side.
  •  Your chicks will come in a cardboard crate, hold them securely on the ride home and keep the car warm and quiet.  When you get home, put your chicks in the brooder and fill the feeder and waterer.  Dip their beaks in the water and food, so they know where to find it.  Then stay quiet and leave them alone for awhile. 
  • Check water several times a day and clean out any pine chips and feces.  Fresh water is key.  Check food level once a day. 
  • Handle your chicks often. But be sure to wash your hands before and after.
  • Feed only chick feed for the first two or three weeks.  After that, they can have some treats served with chick grit.  Good treats are oatmeal, plain yogurt, grass clippings and fruit.  
  • Clean the brooder by removing all old litter and replacing with new at least once a week. 
  • The most dangerous condition chicks are susceptible to is called "pasting up."  This is when poop builds up and blocks the vent, and can be deadly.  If you see poopy build-up, remove it by blotting with a warm wet paper towel or cloth. 
  • Once a week, raise the heat lamp to decrease the temperature by 5 degrees until you reach 70 degrees. 
  • Keep all pets away from your baby chicks and closely supervise children. 
  • As the chicks grow older, you may need to cover the top of the brooder with a screen to prevent escape.  When your birds are fully feathered out at about six to eight weeks, they can move outside to the coop.  If it's still cold at night, move the lamp too and turn it on at night. 

Caring for Started Pullets: 

  • Make sure your birds are safely transported home.  You will likely have them in a cardboard box, secure the box so it does not slide around during travel.  When you arrive at home, bring your birds to the coop, fill the feeder and waterer and bribe the hens with a tasty treat, such as frozen corn or melon.  Leave the chickens inside the coop for about two days, to establish that this is home.  After that, they can be let into the run or outdoors and they will return to the coop on their own at sundown each day. 
  • Don't let your young hens out of the run unless you are in the yard to supervise them.  Young chickens are vulnerable to hawk or other bird of prey attacks. 
  • Everyday you will give your hens fresh water and check the food level. They will still be on chick food until around 12 weeks, then they can switch to developer feed (or you can mix half chick feed and half layer feed).  You can offer chick grit, but no oyster shell yet, as they cannot handle the extra calcium. 
  • Don't let the hens stay in the run at night, close them up in the coop to protect from predators. 
  • As for cleaning your coop, there are two schools of thought, you can clean out all the pine chips once a week and replace with fresh, or you can use the "deep litter" method, where you add fresh chips on top of the old chips once a week, and clean the whole works out every month or two.  Dirty litter can be composted for garden use.  Proponents of the deep litter method say this method is actually healthier for the chickens. 
  • When your chickens are about four months old, you can switch them to layer feed.  Layer feed has extra calcium for strong egg shells.  You can also mix some oyster shell in with their food at this point.  Chickens love treats.  You can buy scratch at your local feed store.  You can also give them table scraps, but don't give them anything fatty or spicy.  You also want to avoid onions and garlic.  My hens love tomatoes, melons and veggies. 
  • Your chickens will begin laying eggs around five to six months old.   

Resources  Here are some helpful websites for beginners: 

  • www.omlet.com  Omlet makes a modern a chicken coop called an "eglu." They also have a comprehensive guide to chicken care and breeds for free on their website.
  • http://www.backyardchickens.com/  Great information and inspiration for those wanting to build their own coop.  They also have a great forum where chicken people will be happy to answer your questions and generally support your chicken obsession.
  • Henderson's Handy Dandy Chicken Chart  Great chart for researching breeds.  For urban environments and families with small children, temperament can be as important as egg production when selecting a breed.
  • Chickens 101  Check out this series of articles by Renee Caldwell from the Kansas City Examiner. 

It's surprising to most people, but chickens require much less care than your average dog or cat and they provide so much in return.  Even before you collect your first egg, the sight of a flock of chickens running toward you in anticipation of a tasty treat will delight you in a way you wouldn't expect.  Start your preparations today and you'll be joining a growing number of city dwellers who fondly refer to themselves as "chicken-kissers." 

 ANOTHER GREAT POST BY SueCinPDX: Chickens: A cost/benefit analysis

Tags

chickens, chicks, pullets, chicken-keeping

comments

Got my four barred Plymouth Rocks on Mothers&#x27; Day (how appropriate). As chicks they spent their childhood in my guest bath shower until they got old enough to tolerate the outside. I spent a couple weeks (few hours a day) building their coop and had planned to make a tractor. Turns out our ground is too uneven and squishy from too much rain so it&#x27;s just a really heavy slightly portable pen. They&#x27;re almost 3 months old I guess so I&#x27;m a few weeks away from my first eggs. <br/> <br/>They love fresh grass but find they&#x27;re really picky about other things I offer them. They DO love papaya seeds and innards but refuse almost everything else. My main problem is the grass after I move the pen (only every couple weeks - I know too long but don&#x27;t have that many places to move them). Looks like the acid poo has really done a number on the grass. We get TONS of rain here but it&#x27;s also acid. I&#x27;m trying dolomite to see if that might neutralize the soil some. Anyway, looks like I might have to resort to leaving it in one place and using deep litter. Can&#x27;t let them go free range as we&#x27;ve feral jungle fowl in our neighborhood and I&#x27;ll be damned if I&#x27;ll have eight roosters over here trying to court them! Any suggestions on soil repair would be appreciated.
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fernforest commented on 07/29/12
Excellent information! If only we could live in the country. As it is, our 13 fat hens do well. (No rooster - noise ordinance.) With the salmonella egg recall recently, I&#x27;ve thanked the girls many times for giving us fresh eggs that we know are healthy!
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vetch commented on 09/11/10
We keep our baby chicks in a round horse tank (no corners) until ready to move out into the whole coop. A 2x4 across the top with heat lamps clamped on keeps them nice and warm. Just take them out of the tank and tip the tank on it&#x27;s side until needed again. We had to put fowl netting over the chicken run since we lost 5 to owls or hawks the 1st week outside.
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MRS.D commented on 09/04/10
Great article! I&#x27;ve always been interested in raising chickens but wasn&#x27;t sure if I were up to the task. This article spells it all out and when I&#x27;m ready I&#x27;ll definitely be reading this again.
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Brandi Mills commented on 05/27/10
This post is seriously blowing mind! I wish I was a city dweller that could have a chicken- apartments don&#x27;t really lend themselves to that, but when I get my own little plot, I will be referring back to this. Thank you for the cool chicken info!
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Seedling commented on 04/13/10
I am impressed by your efforts here! I could not even handle two little ducks we got for Easter years ago. Congratulations. Excellent resource advice.
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sam spade commented on 04/04/10
A friend of mine had a few questions about chickens and I said I would ask: <br/>&quot;I&#x27;m very interested in this, but what&#x27;s the end game? How long do they live? Do they make good eating when you&#x27;re done having eggs? Can you leave town without getting someone to tend them?&quot; <br/> <br/>Thanks!!
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gardengirl commented on 04/03/10
Great question about the end game. According to the Seattle Tilth website, chickens have an average lifespan of about 8 years. The are most productive in the first 2 years. After that, production drops off sharply. If you want to eat your chickens when they're done producing, you'll want to research a dual purpose breed. Be aware that you may get attached to your chickens and decide not to eat them. Some folks keep them in their "retirement," other sell them for meat or decide to eat them. As for leaving town, if you'll only be gone for the weekend, you can leave extra food and water and leave them in the coop. Anything longer than that, and you'll want someone to come and check on them. Ideally, you want someone to let them out in the morning and close them up at night. However, I don't have any difficulty finding someone willing to do this if I pay them in eggs. Here's a link to the Seattle Tilth chicken FAQ http://seattletilth.org/learn/resources-1/city-chickens/citychickensfaqs
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SueCinPDX replied: on 04/03/10
Thank you again for your great info!
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gardengirl replied: on 04/05/10
This is a great post - so informative! Thank you so much for laying everything out there so perfectly - I am so tempted to have some chickens. Do you give yours organic feed? Is there really a difference in the health of the chickens and ultimately their eggs? Again, thanks for your fabulous info!
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gardengirl commented on 04/02/10
I do use organic feed. Though, my hens do get some non-organic treats. I would suggest if you buy organic eggs at the store, you buy organic feed as well.
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SueCinPDX replied: on 04/02/10
Thank you!
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gardengirl replied: on 04/03/10
This was a great article. Thank you so much for the information.
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teetee the gardner commented on 04/02/10
What an unbelievably helpful guide! We would definitely love to have chickens but it is always good to know what you&#x27;re getting yourself into before you jump in! Thank you SueCinPDX!
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dig the dirt editor commented on 04/02/10

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