Chickens are great, comical creatures that have been domesticated for thousands of years. Keeping backyard chickens was common 100 years ago, but in the 1950s the advent of factory farming and inexpensive store-bought eggs led to a decline in its popularity. However, recently there has been a resurgence of interest in keeping one’s own chickens, both for pleasure of fresh eggs and for the entertainment pet chickens offer. All domesticated chickens belong to the same species, Gallus gallus. There are hundreds of different breeds within this species. However, all chickens have the same basic requirements to remain health: a good quality diet, a clean environment and protection from the elements and predators.
Firstly, Are Chickens Right for You?
Chickens are not right for everyone, even if you may love the idea of having one. Here are few things to consider with owning a pet chicken.
Do You Think They’re Cute?
If you have spent time around chickens and you are not especially fond of them, or having them doesn’t appeal to you, you may be less inclined to care for them, which is not ideal for you or your chickens. And forewarning: if you love them but your spouse or partner does not, be prepared to be the sole caregiver!
Can You Dedicate Some Time Each Day?
Chickens are low-maintenance, but they do require a small amount of daily care as well as some monthly and semi-annual maintenance. You will need to plan on spending 10 minutes each day on your pet chickens, an hour or so per month, plus a few hours twice a year on semi-annual chores. If that sounds like more than you can handle, then chickens may not be the right pet for you.
Do You Have Enough Space?
Chickens do not require a significant amount of space. If they’ll be “cooped up” with no area outside to freely roam, your coop will need to provide a minimum of 10 square feet per bird. Conversely, if they will have an outdoor “run” area or will be allowed to range freely, which is preferable, they only require two or four square feet per bird inside the coop, as long as they also have at least 10 square feet per bird in the outside run.
With this being said, the more space the better, both indoors and outdoors. Chickens are great foragers, as they eat insects, grasses and weeds, and many other tidbits they find in the yard. The more foraging they do, the healthier and happier your chickens will be.
Also, it is important to keep in mind that the less outdoor space they have, the more they will destroy the area they do have. Chickens obsessively scratch up the soil, peck at what they find and scratch some more. In addition, they dig holes for “dust baths”. Also, they really enjoy eating plants and weeds. As a result, if their run area is small, they will make a dustbowl out of it in a week. Conversely, give them a larger run area, or even better yet, let them range freely, and your yard will benefit immensely. The scratching behavior of chickens aerates the soil; their droppings fertilize it; and they will eat pests such as grubs and ticks.
Does Your Town Allow Chickens?
Not all towns allow chickens, so be sure to check before you get one. The health board will have regulations either for or against keeping chickens, as well as the zoning board. You may have to apply for a costly zoning variance to keep your chickens. Even in places to do allow chickens, there may be regulations relating to waste disposal, the minimum distance required from the coop to the property lines, and so on. Make sure to research this first and you will avoid unwelcome surprises.
Additionally, if you are planning on keeping roosters you will need to find out about the local noise regulations. If your neighbors complain you may be forced to get rid of them.
Caring for Baby Chicks
Just like puppies and dogs, baby chicks and chickens are unbelievably adorable and loveable. And just like puppies and dogs, they can be a handful. Here are few caring tips for chickens.
Clearing your Schedule
Chickens, specifically baby chicks, require constant care and monitoring, so make sure your schedule is clear for the fir the first 4 weeks. Don’t plan on vacations or even day trips unless you have a seasoned baby chick pro on standby. Also, make sure you or a family member is available to check on them at least 5 times a day.
Deciding Where They are Going to Live
Young chicks can be kept almost anywhere, as their small size makes them easy to handle. However, they grow quickly and by the time they are three or four weeks old, they will be taking up a lot of space and making a big mess. As a result, it is important to prepare a living space for them early on. The good news is that you can transfer your chickens to their outside coop at 4-5 weeks of age, so you won’t have to deal with that mess for too long.
Ideally, you will own a garage, workshop, basement or another predator-proof and draft-proof environment that is not in your main living space. Why not the main living space? Baby chicks, just like grown chickens, love to “scratch” their bedding materials, creating a very fine dust that gets everywhere. The older they become, the more dust they make. In addition, baby chicks have a smell, while not necessarily bad, but you may not want it in your house.
Caring for Grown Chickens
Caring for pet chickens is pretty easy, as they have the same needs as most any other pet. Here are the daily, monthly, semi-annual and annual chores, as well as other nuances of chicken husbandry.
On daily basis, you will need to keep feeders and waterers full. In addition, you will need to make sure the waterer is clean because chickens will be less inclined to drink dirty water, and a dehydrated bird can very quickly become ill or die.
Also, make sure your chickens appear active, bright and healthy. If not, make sure to schedule an appointment with your vet. Eggs should also be collected and refrigerated, pointy side down for maximum freshness.
If you have opened the chicken coop door to let your chickens outside, always be sure to close and secure it at dusk (once they have all returned!) to make sure predators can’t get in.
Keep in mind that you can leave your pet chickens alone for a few days provided they have enough food, water and space for the duration of your trip. The eggs they lay in your absence should be good to eat. Fresh eggs keep for several days without refrigeration. Also, your eggs may have some slight traces of dirt or chicken feces on them, but resist the urge to scrub them clean. The egg contains a delicate membrane called the “bloom” that wards off bacteria and other foreign matter, so scrubbing will damage this membrane. If you are one who prefers perfect-looking eggs, rub them with your fingers very gently under warm water. Then, wash your hands thoroughly.
On a monthly basis, the bedding in the coop and the nest should be changed. This is necessary for sanitary purposes, as excessive ammonia can build up and is dangerous to poultry, causing respiratory illness.
In addition, the feces should be removed. It can be put in the compost bin or used as fertilizer.
Twice a year you will need to thoroughly scrub your coop clean. Bedding should be removed, as well as nest materials, feed and water containers. For a cleaner, All Pets recommends a concoction of 1 part bleach, 1 part dish soap, 10 parts water. A strong citrus cleanser can also do the trick. After cleaning the coop, rinse it well and let it dry before replacing with fresh bedding. This should also be done with the feed and water containers: clean thoroughly and rinse well, and replace with a fresh supply. This can all be done in just a couple of hours.
Foods Chickens Shouldn’t Eat
One of the great benefits of having chickens is they take care of your unwanted leftovers. However, there are a few foods chickens shouldn’t eat. These include:
- Citrus fruit and peels (they can cause a drop in egg production)
- Any large serving of meat, or meat that has gone bad
- Garlic or onion (unless you want your eggs tasting like them)
- Avocado skins and pits
- Raw potato skins
- Long cut grass
Additionally, Morning Glories and Daffodils are poisonous to chickens, and even though they will generally know to avoid them, you may want to keep an eye on them around these plants.
The key to handling chickens is to find the balance between being gentle and letting them know that no matter how much they wriggle or squirm, they are not getting away.
First, put your dominant hand on the middle of their back. If you are new to chickens, it is helpful to secure their wings as much as possible with your thumb and forefinger. Your other hand needs to take their legs out of the equation. This can be done be securing one leg between your thumb and forefinger, and the other between the forefinger and middle finger of the same hand. Then lift them to support the lower portion of their body with the heel of your hand and wrist. Your dominate hand should still remain on their back. Once you have them up and are holding them close to your body, this will prevent further wriggling.
These are just a few important things to know about chickens, especially if you are considering having them as a pet. Contact All Pets Veterinary Medical Center with the link below for more information!