Taking care of chickens is a part of a growing interest in producing food at home.
A small flock of laying hens provides a regular supply of fresh eggs, as well as being interesting pets in their own right.
Taking care of backyard chickens requires time and money. But exactly how much of each can come as something of a surprise!
Read on for more information about taking care of pet chickens.
Taking Care Of Chickens
This article focuses on how to take care of egg laying chickens – known as layers. We’ll cover:
- Can you afford the time commitment?
- How much does taking care of chickens cost?
- How much space do chickens need?
- Choosing food for your chickens
- Deciding whether to let your chickens roam
- How to be a good neighbor whilst keeping chickens
- Chickens and other pets
- Protecting your chickens
How Much Time Does Taking Care Of Chickens Take?
A lot of people think chickens are animals that mostly take care of themselves.
But keeping backyard chickens can be a time consuming hobby!
Chickens need releasing from their nesting box every morning, and rounding up again every evening. They need fresh food and water every day.
And every day you should take a few minutes to observe each one for physical or behavioral signs that they’re injured or sick.
With a bit of practice and experience, these daily routines are unlikely to take long, but it depends how many birds you keep!
Less Frequent Needs
Once a week their food and water bowls need disinfecting and the nesting material in their coop needs to be changed. Allow anything up to an hour for this, depending on the size of your flock.
You’ll also need time to respond to important ad hoc needs, such as making vet trips, and repairing damage to their coop.
Another important consideration is who will provide this time commitment if you go out of town – is there someone else willing to drop round twice a day, and give up an afternoon to visit the vet, if needs be?
How Much Does Taking Care Of Chickens Cost?
The cost of keeping chickens depends upon several factors.
These include how many you keep, what kind of habitat you give them, which grain you feed them, etc.
The upfront costs of getting new chickens are:
- The coop. Coops can cost less than $100 for a small coop which sits inside a separate enclosure, to over $1000 dollars for a large predator-proofed coop with an integrated enclosure. Alternatively, you can pick up coop designs for a few dollars, and make it yourself for the cost of the materials.
- An enclosure or fencing, if your coop doesn’t include enough outdoor space.
- Food and water dispensers.
- The chickens! Chickens can cost anything from $5 for a young Rhode Island Red chick, to $50 for rare breed hen who’s “at the point of lay” (the age they start laying eggs – usually around 20 weeks old).
The ongoing costs of caring for chickens are:
- Parasite prevention treatments, like wormers
The occasional costs keeping chickens are:
- Vet care
- Repairs to their coop and enclosure
- Paying someone else to come in and look after them while you’re away
How Much Space Do Chickens Need?
Chickens need a bare minimum of three square feet of floor space each, plus a raised nesting box.
However, it’s kinder to offer at least five square feet of floor space, especially if they don’t have access to a larger enclosure during the day.
Chickens are social animals, so they should never be kept alone.
A sensible minimum number of chickens to keep is three, so when one dies, the other two still have each other for company.
So a coop for three chickens might have a footprint of 3ft by 5ft, for example.
Chickens are descended from jungle bird species, so they prefer to nest up high. Traditional nest boxes sleep 4 to 5 birds at time.
Choosing Chicken Food
Chickens are omnivores. As well as grains and leafy plants, they also like peck about for insects.
You can buy grain feed for chickens online, and from farmers supply stores and some pet stores. Make sure you choose an appropriate food for your chicken’s age.
Most modern chicken feeds are fortified with vitamins and minerals, and provide just the right balance of protein to make them nutritionally complete.
Chickens need grit in their diet to help them digest their meals. Some grains contain added grit, and some grains need grit added separately.
Chickens who enjoy a free range lifestyle might not need added grit in their diet, if they can get it over the normal course of a day in their surroundings.
Eggs laying chickens need extra calcium in their diet to form the shells of their eggs. You can buy specialist diets which contain ingredients like crushed oyster shell to meet this need.
Deciding Whether To Let Your Chicken Roam
Your chicken will spend the night time tucked up in their coop, but during the day they will need access to some outdoor space for fresh air, daylight (essential for stimulating egg laying), and exercise.
Some people provide an enclosed run for exactly this purpose, and others let their chickens roam freely around their property.
Free roaming chickens are an idyllic sight.
And chickens with more space have more opportunities to practice natural behaviors, which is good for their well being – and you’re likely to witness and enjoy more of their unique personality this way.
Questions to Ask
But there are several counter-considerations to weigh up before you make your choice:
- Does your local legislation allow free roaming backyard chickens?
- Predators – free roaming chickens are more at risk of being picked off by opportunistics predator species (more on these later).
- Risk of escape – free roaming chickens need to have their flight feathers clipped twice a year, to stop them making a bid for freedom.
- If your boundary has any gaps at all, even flightless chickens are likely to go visiting your neighbors’ yards, just for kicks.
- Damage to your yard – chickens love pecking and scratching. They can trash a lawn in days, and they especially love digging up and eating flowers.
- Disease – chickens can carry diseases which can be passed onto humans, including salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis, avian influenza viruses. Can you keep free roaming chickens segregated from all the places you sit to eat and drink?
How To Take Care Of Chickens AND Remain A Good Neighbor
Part of taking care of chickens is managing the juggling act of keeping them happy, and keeping your neighbors happy.
Chickens can be noisy birds, and chicken runs can be smelly places, especially in summer.
Here are our top tips for keeping chickens without causing friction with your friends next door.
Don’t keep a rooster!
Roosters, also known as cocks or cockerels, are male chickens.
They’re the ones who make a racket at the crack of dawn every morning.
But hens don’t need a rooster around to lay eggs, so luckily there’s no need to keep one of these noisy potential nuisances if you have neighbors nearby.
Clean up regularly
Chicken coops are warm and humid places, and they can quickly get smelly, especially in hot weather.
Make sure you honor local rules about how close the run can be to your property boundary.
Clean it out every week, and more if necessary in hot weather.
Serve their grain in a rodent proof container
The easiest way to serve your flocks’ meals is scattered around the floor of their enclosure.
Some chicken owners feel this promotes natural pecking behavior too.
But unfortunately missed grain becomes a magnet for rats and other vermin. Which then head off to explore your neighbor’s property too.
No one is going to thank you for being the person who introduced rats to their yard, so prevent it becoming a problem by using raised, rodent proof feeders.
Share your bounty!
The sounds and smells of chickens next door can be annoying, but free fresh eggs can really help make up for it.
If they’re a gardener, they might even be interested in some of your chickens’ poo to add to their compost heap!
Chickens And Other Pets
If chickens aren’t the only animal you’re going to keep at home, you need to think about how they’re going to get on with the other pets you already have.
Dogs with a high prey drive who haven’t been socialized to chickens from a young age are likely to try and hunt them.
Herding dogs and livestock guarding breeds may not hunt them, but might cause a bit of commotion rounding them up from time to time!
Cats might try to catch chickens, but how much success they have might depend upon their relative size. They’re a much bigger risk to chicks and bantams, for example.
Chickens can also be carriers of viral and bacterial infections which they can transmit to other pets.
Protecting Your Chickens
As your chickens’ flock leader, guardian, and protector, part of your job is to remain vigilant against things which could harm them.
Namely, predators and diseases.
The average backyard is visited by a surprising number of wild animals which will try to get at your chickens.
- and birds of prey, including owls and hawks
How to Protect Your Chickens
Unfortunately, losing chickens to predators is so common it’s almost a rite of passage for chicken owners.
The best way to protect your chickens is by keeping them in a completely secure enclosure, made from extra strong chicken wire, or even chain link fencing.
Some of these predators can easily dig beneath a fence buried as much as 12 inches into the ground.
So if predation is a worry for you, consider enclosures with a complete, submerged chicken wire or chain link floor.
And check your chickens’ enclosure every day for damage.
Taking care of chickens also means observing them every day for signs of sickness.
Common diseases of backyard chickens include:
- External parasites, such as red mites which live in their bedding and feed on their blood. Chickens living in a red mite infested coop might become anaemic and irritable, but you can protect them by keeping their home scrupulously clean.
- Internal parasites like worms, which cause decreased egg production, and make chicken more vulnerable to other diseases.
- Viral and bacterial infections.
- And nutritional deficiencies.
Since chickens are prey species, they will try to conceal any sign of vulnerability due to illness for as long as possible.
This means a lot of sick chickens don’t see a vet until they’ve reached the end stages of a disease and can’t be saved.
How To Take Care Of Chickens
So there you have it, lots of food for thought and practical advice about the daily business of looking after chickens.
Chickens require more investment than many people realise, but they’re also far more interesting and entertaining than we usually give them credit for.
Well worth the time and effort, we think!
Do You Keep Backyard Chickens?
Are they practical poultry, or pampered pampered?
What are your top tips for taking care of them?
Let us know in the comments box down below!
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Reference & Resources
- Barber, Basic Guide for the Backyard Chicken Flock, The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, 2010.
- Wilson et al, Poultry Management Specifications, The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, 2003.
- Wieland & Nolden, Backyard Chicken Basics, University of Minnesota Extension, 2011.
- Frame, Basics for Raising Backyard Chickens, Utah State University Extension, 2010.
- Frame, Housing Backyard Chickens, Utah State University Extension, 2008.
- Kenyon, Red Mites In Backyard Chickens, In Practice, 2017.
- Whitehead & Roberts, Backyard poultry: legislation, zoonoses and disease prevention, Journal of Small Animal Practice, 2014.
- Behravesh, Do Backyard Chickens Pose Any Health Risks to Humans? WSAVA Clinicians’ Brief, 2018.