Raising Chickens: What to Know Before Starting a Backyard Chicken Flock

Small Animals |  September 14, 2019

Raising chickens can be a highly rewarding experience. Having a few backyard chickens are a way to avoid supporting commercial egg production while adding new pets to the family that are personable and easy to keep.

But the realities of chicken raising can be surprising to people who have never cared for them. To find out what new chicken owners should know, we talked to Colorado Crossing store staff member Staci Machado. Staci has raised dozens of chickens, and she was eager to share her knowledge about chickens with people considering this pet.

MB: What should you know or consider before raising chickens?

SM: People sometimes aren’t prepared for the fact that chickens can live for thirteen or fourteen years. And hens don’t lay eggs that whole time. Chickens are bred to lay heavily for the first three to five years of their lives. Then, egg production drops significantly and then stops.

Chickens are also flock animals, which is why we often talk about chickens in the plural. I suggest no fewer than groups of three birds because they don’t feel safe without a flock. Chickens clean each other and dust bathe together. They need other birds to feel safe.

Also, certain chicken breeds are easier to have as pets. Orpingtons and Wyandottes are super-curious friendly birds that are big and lay a lot of eggs. Barred Rocks and Rhode Island Reds are also great. Plus, the Easter Egger chickens are friendly and lay blue or green eggs, so they are really popular pets. I recommend people avoid chicken breeds bred for meat because they can develop health problems as they age.

MB: Do you need a rooster, or can you have a flock of all hens?

SM: The only time you need a rooster is if you want to produce fertilized eggs to hatch your own chicks. Otherwise, you don’t need a rooster, and some cities won’t allow roosters because of the noise.

Roosters can make great pets, too. If you allow your flock to free-range, roosters will watch for predators and warn the hens. They show the flock where the good snacks are and try to protect all the hens. So, there are benefits to having a rooster.

MB: If you choose to buy chicks rather than an adult bird, what should someone expect when raising chicks?

SM: Most people buy day-old chicks from feed stores, and chicks can’t go outside until they have all their feathers. That usually takes six weeks or so. If it’s warm during the day, your chicks may be able to be outside during the day when they’re partially feathered, but they need to be in the brooder at night.

When they’re day-old chicks, they need to be kept at about 95 degrees for that first week. You then lower the temperature 5 degrees each week using a heat lamp. So, chickens must stay inside in a brooder for a lot longer than people expect.

Initially, baby chicks can be a lot of work. You need to monitor their temperature and make sure they have plenty of food and clean water. Once your chickens can go outside, the adult birds don’t need a lot of daily care beyond having clean food and water.

MB: When chickens live outside, they need a coop. Can you explain what someone should consider when buying or building a coop?

SM: Building or buying a coop can be a lot more labor intensive or expensive then people think. There needs to be four square feet of space per bird inside the coop. Chickens also need ventilation above their heads to prevent frost bite in the winter, while also preventing drafts. Their respiratory rate is so high that chickens produce a lot of condensation. If they can’t go out and all that moisture doesn’t evaporate, it can settle on their combs and wattles and cause frostbite.

In addition to a coop, you’ll also need a run or space where your chickens can free range. Chickens can be very destructive because they are little garbage disposals that eat everything. They also scratch the ground, which can create dips and channels in your yard. So, if they’re concentrated in a smaller space, they might damage the area surrounding the coop.

MB: Once your chickens live outside, do you have tips to bond with them?

SM: When you have chicks, you can take them out of the brooder and hold them for small amounts of time. Typically, chicks will get friendly very fast. Hand-raised chickens often like to be held and like to see their humans.

If you want to adopt adult chickens, it can take more time to win their trust. But mealworms are incredibly tempting to chickens, and they also like grubs, so it’s easy to throw some treats near you so they get used to your presence. I recommend sitting in the run while reading a book or playing on your phone. It’s a great way to bond with adult birds, and soon they’ll come to see you.

Bonding with chickens is also important because you’ll want to check them once a month head to toe. Look for any injuries, but also check for parasites. Chickens can get parasites from wild birds, and they can be hard to spot from far away.

MB: Any parting words for someone who might be interested in raising chickens but aren’t sure if they’re right for them?

SM: I got chickens because I wanted to eat eggs, but I didn’t like the egg industry. I liked the practical aspects of having them; they can eat pretty much anything. I tell people if you want to throw away less food, get chickens.

Then I was really blown away with how much personality and intelligence they have. You can teach them tricks, and they like human company.  They are much better pet animals than most people anticipate. ***

Staci Machado is a self-identified crazy chicken lady who works at Colorado Crossing Mud Bay in Bend, Oregon. At one time, she had a flock of thirty chickens. Visit her in Bend, and she’ll be happy to discuss the intricacies of proper nutrition for your furred or feathered pet.

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