The Essential First-Time Chicken-Keeper's Checklist

Photo by Linda Ly

You know you want chickens. You've checked your city municipal code, and your zone is in the clear. Now it's time to spend the next few weeks preparing for a flock of chickens that will call your house home. Bringing home chickens is a lot like bringing home a new pet (but in this case, a few new pets!). Not only do you need to decide which breeds you'd like to raise, you also have to consider where they're going to eat, sleep, play, poop, and how you're going to take care of them. Where to start?

#1 Breed selection. Chickens come in standard breeds, heritage breeds, exotic breeds, and bantam breeds. Many factors come into play when selecting the appropriate breed for your backyard: egg-laying capacity, temperament, size, or even just looks alone (if you prefer more of a show bird than a production bird). Some breeds are friendly and like to be handled, while others are aloof or aggressive. Some don't mind confinement in a small run, while others do best when they're allowed to forage a large yard. Consider your household situation carefully before you pick your breeds.

My Pet Chicken has an extensive list of breeds based on egg color and production, and Dare 2 Dream Farms breaks it down even further with breeds listed by personality, popularity, and noise level.

#2 Raising chicks or pullets. When you first acquire a flock, you typically choose from either chicks or pullets. Chicks range from 1 day to 6 weeks old and require special care from attentive owners. They are too young to survive without heat, so they must be raised in a brooder (a safe, enclosed space with a heat lamp) until they develop feathers. It's a very gratifying experience to raise a chick, but definitely not for someone who's away at the office all day.

Pullets range from 7 to 20 weeks old and can live outside in a coop. They are usually just weeks away from laying, so they're more expensive to purchase (especially as they get closer to egg-laying age). After 20 weeks you have mature laying hens, which are not as readily available from farms or feed suppliers.

#3 Space and coop requirements. A general rule of thumb is to figure 4 square feet of space per bird for the coop, and 8 square feet of space per bird for the run. More is always better; it might not seem like you need all that space at first, but remember that your flock will quickly grow into it.

Whenever possible, try to check out a coop in person; one that's advertised to house four chickens may only be suitable for two or three.

In addition, you will want to provide your chickens with some kind of enclosed area (known as a run) to peck, scratch, and just be chickens all day. Some coops are constructed with runs attached, while others function as coops only, and you'll need to provide a pen or fenced-off area for your chickens to roam. Or, maybe you have a chicken-friendly yard and your flock is lucky enough to have full reign of the entire space! "Free-Range Chicken Gardens: How to Create a Beautiful, Chicken-Friendly Yard" offers plenty of advice and ideas for having your chickens coexist peacefully with your garden.

If you have a large yard, consider housing your hens in a chicken tractor — a portable coop that you move from place to place as your ladies scratch and fertilize the patch of dirt they're on top of. They'll continually have fresh, new ground to explore, while you'll end up with rich, healthy soil in your garden.

If you want to build your own coop, bookmark these inspiration galleries from real-life chicken-keepers on BackYard Chickens, some of which include blueprints and step-by-step photos!

#4 Security. While we're talking coops here, let's talk security. Predators exist in both the country and the city, and you'll want to make sure your chickens are locked up securely at night in their coop. Some people achieve this with automatic "pop doors" that open and close on a timer, while others are already home to do it themselves.

During the day, you'll want to keep an eye on your flock to make sure hawks, cats, coyotes, and other critters don't mess with them. If your neighborhood is known for these natural predators, keep your chickens in a fully enclosed run (with a cover over the top, typically hardware cloth or chicken wire).

#5 Cleaning and coop maintenance. Aside from space, the most important thing to consider when buying or building a coop is having adequate access to clean it. You may think that your little A-frame coop is adorable and such a space-saver, but after a few times of cleaning out the coop on your hands and knees, you'll be over it. Go with a coop that has large access doors and, preferably, enough height for you to stand tall in it (or at least be able to reach across all the way if you have a smaller coop). The design should allow you to wipe or hose down the interior quickly and easily.

The amount of time you spend cleaning your coop depends on the size of your flock, but do plan for routine maintenance (whether it's raking out pine shavings or scrubbing down walls) to keep your chickens (and eggs) healthy.

#6 Watering and feeding. Look into the various options for waterers and feeders that work best for your chickens. Some hang from the ceiling while others sit on the ground. Some can be automated while others need manual refilling. There are water nipples and plastic fountains, homemade feeders and metal troughs. For a look at what's available, check out Orange County-based supplier Kruse Feed, which offers an entire line of waterers and feeders for every type and size of flock.

When it comes to feeding your chickens, many options are available for chick starter, crumbles, layer pellets, whole grains, or even a custom-made feed. While conventional feed tends to be more common (and we have a local mill, Leach Grain & Milling, right in Downey), organic and soy-free blends (like those from Modesto Milling) do exist if you do a little legwork. You can even mix your own feed at home; try this whole-grain chicken feed recipe from Garden Betty (or use the corn-free version to avoid genetically modified corn). Chicks, pullets, and laying hens all have specific protein requirements, so be sure to provide a feed that's appropriate for their age.

#7 Chicken manure composting. Chickens poop. A lot. Most of their droppings occur at night while they're roosting, so chicken-keepers usually spread a layer of pine shavings on the floor to absorb moisture. As the droppings decompose in the shavings over time, they turn into compost.

Composting is an important part of raising chickens and it's also one of the best parts, as the manure is rich in nitrogen and highly beneficial for your garden. But, chicken manure has to age for about six months before it can be used, so you'll want to devise a system for storing and stirring it, much like a mulch pile. Some chicken-keepers use the deep litter method in their coops or runs, which allows the droppings to decompose in place without the need to continuously clean out the shavings.

#8 Healthcare and home remedies. If you don't live near an avian vet, it's even more important to keep a chicken first aid kit in your home. Chickens can be afflicted with any number of injuries large and small, and you'll want to prepare yourself as best you can to keep them comfortable and calm.

Common ailments include chipped beaks, broken feathers, bumblefoot, prolapsed vents, and egg-bound hens, all of which can be remedied at home, even if you're by yourself — as long as you have the appropriate tools at hand. Many items are available from your local drugstore, while others can be obtained easily from a pet or feed store. Grit and BackYard Chickens have helpful information for assembling and using a chicken first aid kit.

#9 The golden years. On average, chickens lay productively for the first five years or so, then gradually taper off and may only lay once a year in their old age. That means within a relatively short period of time, you'll have chickens that aren't laying at all, but continuing to eat and poop to their heart's content. Chickens can live up to an average of 10 years (though some may make it to 20 years!), depending on the breed and environment.

Though it may seem too far off to decide, you do have to start thinking about what you might do with them once their egg production drops. Will you continue to care for them and keep them as companions or garden helpers? (Even without eggs, chickens are the best organic pest control, not to mention they make mean fertilizer machines!) Will you send them to a farm or animal sanctuary where they can live out their golden years? Or (and this is a difficult decision for some, especially if they think of their chickens as pets) will you slaughter them for meat?

#10 Resources. Though it may seem overwhelming at times, the road to raising chickens is an exciting and rewarding one. Just take one step at a time, and make good use of the myriad communities that exist both online and off for backyard chicken-keepers!

BackYard Chickens An extensive online community featuring user forums, photo galleries, and a frequently updated learning center — everything you need to know about raising chickens in your own backyard.

Dare 2 Dream Farms This Lompoc-based chicken ranch (previously profiled here) offers an online care guide to help new owners feed, house, protect, and care for their small flock.

My Pet Chicken A one-stop shop for chicks, coops, accessories, gifts, and books, this website also provides a detailed Q&A for everything from vaccinating birds to collecting eggs.

Los Angeles Urban Chicken Enthusiasts This 1,200-member Meetup group accepts enthusiasts from all over Southern California (not just Los Angeles) and organizes local meetings, workshops, and potlucks for both new and experienced chicken-keepers.

Backyard Poultry If you prefer tangible information at your fingertips, this bi-monthly magazine presents feature articles and personal stories on chickens, ducks, guineas, and other small-flock fowl.

About the Author

Linda Ly runs the award-winning blog Garden Betty, which chronicles her adventures in the dirt and on the road. Her first book, The CSA Cookbook, will be out March 2015.
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