Chickens are curious and friendly animals that are fun to watch, but they require long term, consistent care. In addition, many local governments prohibit residents from having backyard chickens. Before obtaining chickens, you should contact local authorities to ensure chickens are legal in your area. Furthermore, some municipalities limit the number of chickens that can be kept as pets, and roosters are generally not permitted at all, as their crowing can disturb neighbors.
Chicks may be purchased through mail order or local farm supply outlets and are generally sold in groups separated by sex. However, since gender determination is inexact, as the birds grow, some birds initially thought to be females may actually be males. As a result, many young roosters are abandoned at shelters and sanctuaries or left outside to fend for themselves. Since there are so many unwanted chickens, a better option for obtaining chickens is adoption. Adult hens can usually be found through local humane societies or animal control. Chickens often end up in traditional animal shelters, as well. Since hens lay large numbers of eggs generally for no more than 2-3 years, you can also adopt a retired hen (that may still produce a few eggs per week) from a rescue or sanctuary. Most of these older hens would otherwise end up being killed on the farm or sent to slaughter. Adoptable chickens may also be found on flyers in local farm/feed stores, in newspaper’s classified ads, or on websites like Craigslist.
To keep them healthy, chickens need regular daily attention, feed and clean water, and safety in shelters at night. In addition, other considerations include:
Like dogs and cats, chickens must have shelter to protect them from temperature extremes. Hens and roosters with large single combs are prone to frostbite in cooler climates, and all chickens need shade during periods of heat. It is important that the shelter is both insulated and well-ventilated. Straw bedding will add comfort and warmth to a shelter’s floor space, but it should be replaced regularly with new, clean straw.
Chickens need a completely secure shelter at night or they can fall prey to urban wildlife like raccoons and opossums. Dogs may also attack chickens. Chickens must be completely enclosed in a safe henhouse, with four solid walls and a sturdy roof, every night. Predators can also dig under fences and walls, so this should be considered when planning the chickens’ home. During the day, chickens should be kept in a fully-fenced enclosure or yard with proper protection from aerial day-time predators, neighborhood dogs and, in the case of small bantam hens, free-roaming cats.
Hens need an enclosed nesting space (a “nest box”) in which to lay their eggs. They also need an elevated roost on which to perch at night; this is where they prefer to sleep. Hens enjoy loose substrate such as dirt, sand, or peat for dust bathing, and they should also have free access to grass and other vegetation to engage in natural pecking, scratching, and foraging behaviors. Often-used areas may become denuded, and it is important to provide plenty of space, giving them as much room as possible to express natural behavior outdoors. Hen houses, coops, and runs must be kept very clean at all times, for the health of the chickens and the food safety of the eggs.
While it may be tempting to think of a backyard flock as a source of inexpensive eggs, hens, like cats and dogs, require periodic veterinary care. Chickens often carry intestinal parasites which need treatment, and can also become ill or get injured. The need for veterinary care should be considered before the decision is made to keep backyard chickens. Not all veterinarians are experienced with chickens, so be sure to locate an experienced avian/poultry vet in your area ahead of time.
Since chickens require daily care, a designated caretaker must be arranged for vacations and other periods away from the house. Someone must be present to feed and water the hens and to put them inside their secure shelter every evening.
It is a common misperception that chickens can be fed on corn kernels or kitchen scraps alone. Chickens need a balanced diet, like one of the commercially available feeds that have been carefully formulated by nutritionists specifically for adult hens. The protein requirements of chickens change with the birds’ age, so it is also important to feed an age-appropriate diet.
Laying hens also need access to a supplemental source of calcium, such as limestone (available at livestock supply stores). In addition to calcium, hard insoluble granite grit should be fed, free choice, 2 or 3 days per month. Chickens enjoy fresh fruits, grains, vegetables, and even mealworms and other insects, in addition to their regular feed, but certain plants can be toxic. Avoid raw green potato peels, dried or undercooked beans, and avocados. Chickens should receive fresh feed and water daily—discard any feed that is old, moldy, or stale.
The Alabama Cooperative Extension System has published a detailed page on the feeding requirements of backyard chicken flocks throughout their lives.
Chickens can carry and become ill from a variety of infectious diseases. It is important to keep the hens’ environment clean with regular manure removal, and by washing the feed and water containers. You should also avoid mixing birds from different flocks. (Temporarily quarantine any new birds for two weeks and watch them closely for signs of illness or parasites before introducing them into an already established group.) Don’t share equipment with neighbors (each chicken house should have dedicated tools, wheelbarrows, buckets, etc.), because pathogenic organisms can travel on these items. Diseases can spread to chickens from pet birds and wild birds, so limit contact as much as possible.
If you spend time watching and interacting with your chickens, you will find that each one has a unique personality, and they are friendly and curious when treated kindly. They display interesting behavior patterns such as dust bathing and foraging, and their complex social interactions are entertaining to observe. Enjoy their antics, and remember that your hens are completely dependent on you for responsible, committed care for their entire lives.
** Handout adapted from the chicken care guide from the US Humane Society **