What to Know About Backyard Chickens
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If you just bought a house, you’re probably starting to swell with the possibilities of owning your own home. Build what you want where you want! Play loud music at night!
And even, say, get a backyard chicken?
Backyard chickens are becoming increasingly popular these days. They provide nourishment, entertainment, are great pets, and can help your garden and yard in a variety of ways.
But they don’t come without problems. There is work involved, and if you don’t do it right, it’s very easy to lose a flock to disease or predators.
Here’s what to know about backyard chickens, presented FAQ fashion.
Table of Contents:
Can you have chickens in a residential area?
Run a search on Google by typing in your area plus livestock ordinances.
Example: Richmond VA livestock ordinances
This will give you a quick idea of whether or not you can have chickens. But, it’s not a guarantee.
Do you live in a neighborhood with a homeowner’s association? If you do, you’ll want to read any special rules and regulations because your HOA may have banned the raising of backyard chickens even if your county approves of it. If you find the legal wording confusing, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone or email one of the board members. Hopefully they’ve already decided whether or not you can or not. If they haven’t because it’s a new HOA, they’ll have to put it to a vote first.
How much does a chicken cost?
If you buy them when they’re just chicks, they’ll just be a few bucks each. Fully grown and actively producing eggs, anywhere from $20-$50, depending on the breed.
Build a coop or buy a kit?
This depends on how many chickens you want and what your budget is. Most coops that you can find at Tractor Supply, Walmart or Amazon will likely just be for 4-6 chickens. A few will go up to eight, but go much higher and the price increases dramatically (we’re talking thousands). If you can afford it, don’t worry about going too big. Chickens are smart and will stick together when it gets cold.
If you build the chicken coop yourself, you can build it exactly to suit your needs. Will you save any money? It depends on what products you use. Most people buying wood at the hardware aren’t going to save that much money.
How much does a chicken coop cost?
The cost varies, but expect to spend anywhere from $300-$600.
How much does it cost to build a chicken coop?
If you build it yourself you’re not going to save that much money (in fact, you may even spend more). Wood is expensive, and you’ll need a lot of it. You’ll also need to keep in mind that you’ll likely need wiring, roofing materials, and concrete.
If you do build it yourself, do yourself and your birds a favor and make sure they have nesting boxes that you can reach from the outside (via a lockable door).
Do chickens need separate nesting boxes?
You don’t need a nesting box for every bird. I have six birds who all take turns using two boxes.
Do nesting boxes need to be elevated?
Anything that is elevated is more appealing to chickens. They’re natural climbers and feel more secure when they’re up in the air. If you don’t elevate your box, it’s quite possible the chicken won’t even bother laying in it.
If you don’t elevate the box, your hens will lay their eggs on the ground and the eggs will get covered in both mud and poop. Not very appetizing! The eggs will also be more likely to be eaten by predators such as opossums and snakes.
Do chickens need a run?
The age old question: Is a run necessary?
In case you don’t know, the run is the area the chickens hang out when they’re not in the coop. It’s a fenced in area where you’ll keep their food and water and where they’ll be able to exercise.
If you don’t plan on letting your chickens free-range, yes you’re going to need a run. It’s absolutely necessary if you want healthy chickens.
Some coop kits come with runs, but you’ll still want to make sure it’s big enough for the amount of birds you have.
Also make sure it has a roof or fenced in covering. Hawks, possums, and raccoons will take advantage of any opening you give them. Both possums and raccoons are more than happy to climb over a fence!
How much space does a laying hen need?
Always give your birds as much space as possible. If you can’t do that, then there is a bare minimum you’ll want to keep in mind.
For the coop, you’ll want to give each bird at least 2-3 square feet.
For the run, each bird will need at least 8-10 square feet.
Careful: Bad Things Happen If You Don’t Give Them Enough Space
When they don’t have enough space, they get aggressive with one another. This is partly where the phrase hen peck originates. Fighting and cannibalism will occur when chickens feel claustrophobic.
Do you let your chickens free range?
Chickens poop a lot. The smell isn’t terrible, but it can be gross to find chicken poop all over your sidewalk and porch (you will one day step in it and it will be gross).
Don’t think you’ll be able to keep them contained to a certain part of your yard. Though they can’t fly, they can jump really high, and will flutter from one high perch to another. (I’ve found chickens on top of my two story house many times.)
Though it comes with some annoyances, free-ranging allows chickens to truly diversify their diet (meaning they’ll be healthier and they’ll produce healthier eggs). Free-ranging chickens can also help you with ticks as well as help aerate your soil.
It’s up to you what’s more important: A clean yard, or strong birds.
Either way you go, just know that they’re going to attract predators. There’s no way around it.
Predators: You don’t think your home has any, but you’re wrong.
No matter where you live, raccoons and opossums are nearby and are going to try and hurt your flock. They’ll know you have birds because of their smell. There’s nothing you can do about, regardless of how often you clean their coop.
Here’s a few things to know about would-be predators:
An opossum will eat any part of a chicken it can get its claws on, but if the eggs are easy to get to, it will probably go for them first; however, if you’re really good about gathering eggs each day, your chickens will be its next target. If possible, give your birds a perch that is 5-6 feet off the ground. This will do a lot to protect them at night from many predators, including opossums.
Though opossums can be vicious, so, too, can racoons. They have long arms that they can squeeze into tight areas, and are strong enough to do incredible damage to birds with just a single handhold.
Quick story: I bought my first coop off of an old farmer thinking he would know what he was doing. He had made it himself. I quickly learned that though it was built, it was not well thought out.
The coop was four feet off the ground, and rested on 2X4 legs, so there was an area beneath the coop big enough for animals or kids to walk under. I know why he built it this way. He did it so the chicken poop would just fall through the grate and to the ground and he wouldn’t have to clean it up. However, the grate was just big enough for a racoon to fit its paws into.
That was not a fun morning!
Obviously I should have put a fence around the chicken coop, but you don’t know what you don’t know!
If you want to free range your birds, hawks may be an issue (but I’ve personally never had an issue with them). How much of a threat they’ll be to your birds depends on your yard and your run.
If your run is not covered at the top, hawks have been known to swoop in and snatch them up.
Chicken wire is a quick and easy fix for this.
If you plan on free-ranging, your birds may be at risk from hawks if you have a lot of open land but don’t have any trees or places for them to hide. Despite what you may have heard, chickens are smart and are constantly watching the skies for predators. The moment they see the shape or shadow of a hawk, they run for cover. Hawks like to be able to swoop in and quickly fly off. If the birds make that difficult for them, they’ll move on.
Generally speaking, I’ve never had a chicken that wasn’t too big for a hawk.
Trees, porches, shrubs, sheds and houses all interfere with the flight paths of hawks. As long as your yard has these things, don’t worry too much about them.
Snakes are often only interested in eggs because full-grown chickens are too much of a match for them.
If a snake gets into your run, it will be the snake you need to worry about and not your birds. Chickens are very capable of taking on snakes (especially when they work together).
Foxes, Coyotes, and Wolves
Whereas raccoons and opossums will usually only take one bird at a time, foxes, coyotes and wolves can decimate an entire coop in one swoop. You likely won’t have any issues with them during the day, but you will need to keep an ear out at night.
Just make sure you put your birds to bed before sunset, as well as lock up all points of entry. If it’s not easy, they’ll move on.
No matter how much you protect them, you will have an issue one day.
You’ll have a better chance of protecting your flock if you keep them cooped up all the time. Will they be healthy if you do that? possibly, but not as healthy as they could be. Again, it’s up to you what’s more important.
How do you protect your chickens from predators?
The key to protecting your chickens mostly revolves around protecting them at night. Here are four things I recommend:
If possible, Give your girls a good roost inside their coop that’s a good five feet off the ground. If a predator gets inside while they’re sleeping, it will at the very least be very difficult for it to reach your birds.
As you may have already read, another good thing to do is to put a fenced in area around the coop. IMPORTANT: When attaching the fencing, bury about a foot of it horizontally so that when a predator tries to dig its way inside it will dig into the wire.
An electric fence that runs around your coop is another option. Predators will check it every night, so make sure it’s always on.
Electric fences are best used for coops that you can move around. That way you don’t have to build a new fence every time you shift them around. They’re usually solar powered and can be bought online.
Have solar lights in and around your coop. Predators are wary of artificial light. Motion sensors work, but not as well as lights that are always on. The reason being many predators won’t even attempt to go near the coop if it’s lit.
A rooster will fight to the death for your hens. More directly below.
Do you need a rooster if you have chickens?
First off, check your neighborhood, county, or city’s laws about roosters. You may not be able to legally have one. If you get one even though you’re not supposed to, everyone’s going to know within the first hour of you bringing it home.
If you can have one, let’s talk about it.
Roosters are aggressive, but that’s their job. They are extremely protective of every hen under their guardianship and will give everything they have to keep them safe, including their lives. But they’re not very good at knowing when to attack and when to stand down, meaning they’ll go after you if you’re not careful.
It won’t matter whether you raised the rooster up from it’s cockerel state or brought it in as an adult. It will charge you for the simplest of things, like gathering eggs or cleaning the coop. Just be sure to wear shoes, pants, and gloves when around them and you’ll be fine. An old broom also does wonders.
All in all, they are great for protecting your hens against predators (and for getting baby chicks if you want them).
Is the noise terrible?
No, it’s not. Though they are loud, Hollywood has greatly exaggerated the effect rooster’s have on people in the morning. After a week or so, they won’t even wake you up. Just know that they crow at all hours of the day, not just in the morning.Thankfully, they do go quiet at night; however, if you do hear them, it’s because something’s attacking your flock.
Are roosters needed for eggs?
If you want to have baby chicks, yes.
Does having a rooster increase egg production?
How many eggs will I get from a chicken?
That depends on what time of year it is, what breed you have, and how old it is.
Chickens don’t lay eggs their entire lives. For most chickens, you can expect to get eggs for up to 5 years (maybe longer, maybe fewer). Really young chickens and really old chickens will lay fewer.
Many chickens also won’t lay during winter months. Too much of their body’s energy is spent keeping them warm, so egg production just won’t happen. However, there are a few breeds hardy enough that will lay year round.
How many chickens should you get?
This depends on a number of factors. How many people are in your family, how much backyard space you have, and how big of a coop can you afford to build or buy.
Chickens in their prime will lay at least one egg a day, but sometimes may even lay up to two.
Personally, I think everyone with chickens should have a minimum of four. For me, four chickens has always been a good flock number. With four, I’ve never had anyone try and do her own thing, nor have I ever had any problems with aggressiveness. Four’s a small enough number that everyone will stick together, and it’s not too big that they’ll try and hurt each other.
What you should know about food and water for your chickens.
If you’re not careful, chickens will poop in both their food and water, so a good thing to do is put both up high.
For food, some people will even put it on the other side of fencing. The fencing is just big enough for their head and necks to go through, but too small obviously for their bodies. This way they won’t walk or poop in their food.
Another option is to hang a food dispenser so that it’s level with their beaks. Doing this, they may still try to perch on it, but you can get cones to put on the top so they can’t.
Lastly, you can build your own dispenser out of PVC pipe. Build it large enough, and you’ll be able to fill their food up from outside of the coop.
Water is another thing you should hang up. Personally, I like to get the five gallon jugs with nipples on the bottom. The nipples are red and thus appeal to the bird’s instinct to peck. They’re also great because they don’t have to be cleaned.
They make other options that are essentially little bowls that fill up with water when the chickens peck at the button inside. These work, but you do have to clean them because they’re made entirely out of plastic.
As with food, you can also get creative with PVC pipes. This way you can fill them up from outside their coop, which is nice if you don’t want to put on your work boots.
How much food do chickens need each day?
Chickens need approximately .25 pounds of feed per day. So 1.75 pounds per week per bird.
How much water does a chicken need each day?
Obviously, depending on the weather, the amount of water chickens need each day varies.
A good rule of thumb is to make sure they have an overabundance of it.
An adult hen will drink about ½ a liter a day. It takes almost four liters to make a gallon, so if you get a 5 gallon water feeder, or even two of them, a small flock will be good.
Can you use chicken poop in your garden?
Yes! It’s actually very high in nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.
How long do you have to wait to use chicken poop in your garden?
It’s easy to get sick from chicken poop, so always err on the side of caution. A good solid year is your best bet.
How do you get your birds to go back to their coop at night if they’re free ranging?
This is simpler than it sounds. The trick is just making sure they know that the coop is their bed. To do this, you just have to leave them cooped up for about 1-2 weeks. They’ll be fine as long as they have plenty of food, water, and air circulation.
After you freerange them, you’ll find that they will naturally go back to their bed once twilight comes. It’s the strangest thing. One minute they’ll be vigorously scratching the ground, and the next they’ll be walking home— like their shift ended or something.
Now, there are certain scenarios that can happen where one or two birds won’t. Either your coop is too dirty, or you forgot to fill up their food and water (the latter is the most likely scenario). So, if you see a bird is missing when you go to lock them up at night, look up. Though chickens can’t fly, they can flutter. Look for her on low branches, porch railings, or even the roof of your coop. Just pick her up and put her back in the coop--making sure you fix whatever made her want to stay outside the next day.
How do you get free range chickens to lay eggs in a coop?
They just will if they think of their coop as their home. If they start laying elsewhere, keep them in the coop until they’ve laid. Do this for a few weeks and then start letting them out again first thing in the morning. They should return to their coop to lay their eggs from then on.
How do you add new chickens to your flock?
The best way to do it is to put the new bird in the coop at night when the others are already asleep. This will lower their tempers about 50% the next morning when they wake up, but they will still likely peck at any new birds. If you don’t do it at night, all of the birds are going to descend upon the new ones and peck them all day long (which is a dangerous situation).
You’re going to feel bad for your new birds, but there’s nothing you can do unless you’re willing to get another coop. It will take about 1-2 weeks for everything to normalize, but it might happen even sooner depending on what breed you have and how many birds are in the flock beforehand.
Can you train chickens?
Yes. Chickens are very susceptible to the pavlovian response. One easy way to quickly train them is to make the same noise every time you throw them a treat or a leftovers. Do the same noise every time (it doesn’t matter what it is), and they’ll come running to you.
Are children safe around chickens?
It depends on the breed of the bird and how hands-on your kids are. If your kids leave them alone, they’ll most likely ignore your kids. Most problems occur when people (children or adults) try to feed them. People like to get as close to the birds as possible so they can basically put the food right in the bird’s mouth; however, regardless of what your intentions are, the chicken will likely try to jump up and snatch the food out of your hand (which will likely cause them to nip your fingers). They’ll especially do this if there are other birds in the area and they feel as they have to beat them to you. Another reason they do this is because it’s how they catch bugs. It’s just in their nature to jump up for food that they don’t have to dig for.
A quick word on roosters:
Most hens will run away a little bit from people. Most roosters will not. If your child is young and basically as tall as a full-grown rooster, the rooster will see him or her as a defeatable threat and may try to buck or even peck your child. For this reason, never leave your children alone with a free-ranging rooster.
A quick word on chicken poop:
There are any number of diseases you can get from chicken poop. If your chickens free-range and your children are outside barefoot (or picking up hens or eggs), they could get sick. Either keep your birds cooped up, or make sure everyone knows to wear shoes outside.
Also, aways wash your hands after handling birds, unwashed eggs, or cleaning their coop and run. And of course, always wash your eggs with soap and water before cracking them!
Will my dog or cat kill my chickens?
Untrained dogs or cats will likely try to attack your chickens, but bigger dogs are more likely to since they won’t be intimidated by the size of the birds.
However, I’ve never had a dog I couldn’t train not to lunge at birds. I have a pit-bull (which is a normal dog despite what the press would have you think), and I quickly taught her that the chickens were not fair game. If free-ranging, just make sure you introduce the two of them while your dog is in a harness and on a leash. She will lunge the first time she seems them! But it’s just instinct and you can train her not to if you’re patient.
Can you pet chickens?
Chickens aren’t mammals, so their response to human affection is limited. That said, they will grow to trust you and look to you for safety. If you raise them from chicks, they’ll even hop up on you and take a nap. I personally, though, have never had a chicken respond to petting. I can only say they’ve tolerated it, but that’s it.
You may see all sorts of videos online to refute what I just wrote, but know that they are exceptions and not the rule.
What diseases can humans get from chickens?
Yes, if you’re not careful and don’t wash your hands after handling chickens or cleaning their coop, you can get sick. Especially if you don’t clean their eggs before eating them!
Some diseases you can get from chickens include:
Again: Clean their coop and run, and wash your hands after handling them to help prevent any disease.
Do I need to bathe my chickens?
There are very few situations where you would need to bathe your chicken.
Chickens do what is known as a dirt bath.
Watch them, and you’ll see them dig a shallow hole and fling dirt all over themselves. This is how chickens prevents mites and lice from spreading on their bodies. Nothing’s wrong with your birds if you see them doing this. It may look like they’re having a seizure or going into convulsions, but they’re not. They’re just trying to get as much dirt on themselves as possible.
Can chickens be left alone for a week?
Yes, provided you take the proper precautions. Make sure they have an abundance of food and water, shelter from the elements, and protection from predators.
Is having chickens cost effective?
A twenty pound bag of chicken feed costs about $15. If you only have four birds, that will last you for quite a while. So yes, it can be quite effective. Keep in mind the cost to get ready for birds, though— meaning coop, run, fencing, and feeders. It will take a while to make your money back after you’ve paid for these items, but it will happen over time. You won’t save money within the first year of having your own chickens, that’s for sure!
For most people, having backyard chickens isn’t about saving money. It’s about the experience of raising your own food and being able to guarantee its quality.