Friday, January 28, 2011

Chicken basics

A reader named Christopher had some questions about chickens:

“I am about to retire from the Navy and move back to Texas. My wife and I plan on being as self-sufficient as possible, and one of the things we really want to have is chickens (for the eggs – wife and daughters won't eat anything they have ever named/looked in the eyes).

“So my questions are: are chickens purchased as chicks and if so, at what age will they start to produce eggs? And does there have to be a rooster present for them to start laying eggs?  I know you have experience with this, and I admit to having read many books, but I have never raised livestock at all.”

I thought some good basic chicken information was due, so here’s the skinny.

Most people start by buying day-old chicks from feed stores. Let me clarify: the feed stores receive day-old chicks, and you buy them shortly thereafter. You can also order chicks from catalogs such as McMurray Hatchery, but unless you’re looking for a specialized breed, it’s cheaper to buy them from the feed store because you won’t have to pay shipping.

Chicks are best purchased in late spring to early summer (at least here in north Idaho) because otherwise it tends to be too chilly for them (check with your local feed store about when they recommend you buy chicks for your area). Tiny chicks do not yet have feathers but instead have fuzz, and their ability to retain heat is limited. Prior to buying chicks, you’ll want to get a heat lamp, and a chick feeder and waterer. These are fairly cheap and can also be purchased at the feed store. You’ll also need either a large box (with a plastic trash bag lining the bottom to waterproof it) or a large plastic tub or other means to confine the chicks, since they’ll be indoors at first. (If you have a dog which seems the type to eat chicks, you’ll have to put the chicks in a closed bedroom or cover the container to keep the dog out.)

I’ve used an ordinary gooseneck lamp with new chicks and it’s provided plenty of heat. Here’s the rule of thumb to tell if your chicks are adequately heated.

• If the chicks are huddled in the farthest corner of the tub away from the heat lamp, they’re too hot.

• If the chicks are huddled directly under the heat lamp, they’re too cold.

• If the chicks are halfway between the lamp and the edge of the tub, they’re juuuust right.

Most people buy a bale of wood shavings (fairly cheap) and spread a layer of shavings in the box or tub. The chicks will foul the shavings fairly quickly, so you’ll want to spread a thin layer of fresh shavings every day (it’s not necessary to remove the old shavings, just spread clean stuff on top). The chicks will also kick shavings into their water, so you’ll have to put the feeder and waterer on a block of wood (about an inch high) to help keep it cleaner. Despite this, however, you’ll be changing their food and water a couple times a day.

Be sure to buy chick starter feed for the chicks. This is finely-ground food with necessary nutrients chicks need for proper growth. Many years ago in Oregon I thought I’d save some money and merely grind the adult food into finer grain for a batch of new chicks we got. Big mistake! The poor babies grew misshapen and malformed. Many died, and my husband had to shoot many others because they were so crippled. Only about a quarter of our chicks survived to adulthood. So buy chick starter to feed them!

Speaking of which, expect to lose about ten percent of your chicks for no particular reason. This seems to be the norm, and unless you make a stupid mistake like not getting them the proper chick starter food, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing anything wrong. So err on the side of a few too many chicks rather than too few.

If you don’t want a rooster, buy sexed chicks. However don’t be surprised if you end up with a rooster or two anyway. I haven’t the faintest idea how people sex baby chicks, but it must be difficult to do because it’s not always accurate.

What breed(s) should you get? I like having a mixed flock just for fun, and some people will advocate certain breeds over others, but here are my favorites.

Rhode Island Reds
• Rhode Island Reds are considered the best overall chicken (meaning, good for both meat and eggs). They’re your classic brown hen and lay brown eggs.

• Barred Rocks have black and white stripes and are also excellent dual-purpose birds. They are actually “breastier” for meat than they look. They lay brown eggs.
Barred Rocks

• Black Australorps are handsome all-black birds that lay brown eggs. I just like the look of them and like to have at least a few in our flock.

• Buff Orpingtons are heavy birds with buff-colored feathers. They lay brown eggs.

• Golden-Laced Wyandottes are extremely handsome gold-and-black birds which lay brown eggs.
Black Australorps

• Silver-Laced Wyandottes are also handsome white-and-black birds which lay brown eggs.

• American Araucanas (called “Americanas”) are often called Easter Egg chickens because they lay beautiful blue or green-blue eggs. Lots of fun. They vary in appearance (though most have feather "sideburns" on their cheeks) and tend to be smaller birds, so they’re not great for meat but are wonderful for those beautiful eggs.

• Cornish Crosses are strictly meat birds. They gain weight with a speed and seriousness awesome to behold. Do NOT get these chickens unless you plan to butcher them at a young age.
Buff Orpingtons

Once you have your chicks at home and snug under a heat lamp in a tub or box, you’ll want to start constructing a chicken coop right away. Young chicks need protection against drafts until they feather out, but they start feathering within a couple of days from hatching. Within about two or three weeks, you’ll be able to put them in an outdoor coop as long as a heat lamp is available. And believe me, you’ll be ready. Newborn baby chicks are the most darling things on the planet, but within a short while they start to stink and they get noisy (while indoors, that is). You’ll be more than ready to move them out to their coop at about three weeks of age.
Golden-laced Wyandottes

You might want to fence (with chicken wire) a run or yard for them as well, to keep out predators such as raccoons, coyotes, or skunks. Despite any fencing, I also suggest you lock the chicks inside the coop at night (closing off all access to the chicken yard) because predators can be very wily about slipping inside and raiding the chicken coop. However we don’t have a fenced yard and instead let our chickens roam free-range. It’s up to you. (We still button up the chickens at night though.)

Chickens are diurnal birds (active during the day) and will usually train themselves to come indoors at night, especially with the enticement of some comfortable roost bars and fresh food and water inside. Even with adult birds, I suggest you keep a light bulb on at night or at least in the evening, to encourage them to come inside. (Unless you’re in a cold climate, it doesn’t have to be a heat lamp for older birds, just a light bulb.) We layer our chicken coop floor with hay. It gets dirty quickly, so just layer more hay on top. We give the coop a good deep cleaning about twice a year.
Silver-laced Wyandottes

You don’t need a rooster for hens to lay eggs, but it goes without saying the hens won’t lay fertile eggs, which means you’ll never be able to hatch your own chicks with an incubator or a setting hen. Personally I enjoy the lusty crow of a male and watching him strut around the barnyard, but I understand others may not. If you do get a rooster, a good ratio is about one rooster for every ten hens (give or take).

Araucanas (Americanas)
Hens will start laying at about five months of age. For the first couple of weeks they won’t lay every day, and their eggs will be very small. After awhile they get the hang of it and will lay regular-sized eggs, usually about five per week per bird (give or take). At this point you want to make sure they have laying boxes available. They’re easy to make with just two lengths of pine boards partitioned into about one-foot units. Spread a little hay in each unit and you’ll have happy hens.

When they start laying, you’ll want to either feed them layer crumbles or at least supplement with ground oyster shell for extra calcium (for shell strength). I’ve been known to keep empty egg shells, let them dry for a few days, then finely crush the egg shells and mix them back with the chickens’ food for extra calcium.
Cornish Cross (meat)

I just love having chickens and have been known to take a lawn chair, book, and glass of wine on a peaceful sunny evening and sit outside among them. “Communing with the chickens,” I call it. Chickens will become fond of you, especially if you toss them your vegetable or rice scraps (hint: call them every time you feed them – “Chick chick chick chick chick chick chick chick!!!” – and they’ll soon start running toward you whenever you call) and will cluster companionably around you in the heat of the day or the cool of the evening.

Don’t be intimidated by chickens. Frankly the best thing to do is just GET SOME and learn as you go. They’re the easiest livestock you can get, and nothing beats a breakfast of uber-fresh eggs from your own birds.


  1. And they are hilariously funny. I love chickens! We have had cochin banties for several years now. They make wonderful mothers. My banty hens have hatched and raised young turkeys and also hatchery chicks straight out of the box. They are amazing.

    One important thing with baby chicks that you buy (as opposed to chicks that your hens hatch out) is that they do not know how to drink, don't even know what water is. So when you first bring them home, it's important to dip their little beaks in water first thing, because they will be dehydrated, and they need to know what they can do about it.

  2. You are wonderful. Thank you very much.


  3. Patrice ,
    I hope you don't mind, but a few things I would add are :
    1. do some research on the breeds you want. Check out the temperments of the different breeds. Some make great pets, some like being left alone and are not very friendly. Some Chickens fair better in colder climates and others in a warmer setting. Do you plan on keeping them confined or free range?
    Again, there are breeds that tolerate confinement better then others.
    2. Go to your local feed store , many have books for sale . Browse though them to give you pointers. Some also carry poultry magazines that have good tips on coops and health "how to's " for your girls .
    3. Make sure you keep feed in METAL garbage cans with tight fitting lids if it is to be stored outside/ in your coop. Otherwise rodents will have fun helping themselves to it.

    There is a great forum I belong to. They can answer most all your questions that may pop up along the way
    Welcome to the wonderful world of chickens . I have been raising them for 5 years now and love it. I raise egg layers and meat birds.


  4. BYC is excellent. I learned so much from them there.

  5. Thank you for sharing this information. My husband and I just bought a 45 acre farm and we hope to be in our new house there by fall and have a chicken coop in the spring of 2012. I am a city girl so this information will definitely come in handy. :)

  6. Perfect timing for this article - My sons gave me a chicken coop for Christmas. I can't wait to get my chickens.

  7. You might be interested in a podcast my husband did. This is Part 2 or a 3 Part "Beginner's Guide To Chickens"

    Good Luck with your chickens :-)

  8. Chickens, and chicks in particular, can also suffer in high heat. They can keel over from heat stroke very quickly when the temp. reaches anywhere over about 95F. Texas can get extremely hot in the summer, so keeping them cool enough will also be a consideration. Cross-ventilation in the coop is something to consider when constructing one.

    Need to grab an uncooperative chicken? Paint a 12" ruler with white paint, then hold it straight in front of the beak so that the bird looks down the length of the ruler, the chicken will become "hypnotized" and easier to grab.

    Chickens will eat cooked chicken meat, making them unwitting canibals. They will also eat bugs and grasses, so free-range usually makes them more flavorful.

    Chickens aren't intelligent (they are truly "bird-brained), but they do have
    individual personalities and can be quite fascinating to watch. And the hens are
    usually sweet. Roosters can be mean.

    Given the choice between a conversation with a chicken (here chick, chick, chick) or a progressive - I'd rather talk to a chicken because they aren't hypocrites. And chickens don't lie to you as they smile to your face. (This is not directly towards anybody here, just a general statement of my opinion.)

    Anonymous Patriot

  9. What would you do if the SHTF for food for the chicks. It sounds like you do need special feed for them that may not be available in a grid down situation. I want my chicks (am hoping to move to a little farm this fall)to be safe and healthy, even in a bad situation. Part of my preperation.

  10. Ah, chickens! We retired & moved to the country in '09. We bought a house and 3-1/2 acres of trees. Always wanted to raise chickens so we cleared some space, bought a coop and our wonderful neighbors gave us a 10x10 chain link dog run with a gate. Hubby dug a trench and we cemented the run deep enough into the ground so no critters could dig under it. Put chicken wire over the top and this winter we added a portable roof. One end of the fence was cut to make an opening for the coop's ramp and hatch door. The girls love it! They can go in and out whenever they want. It is very cold here in the winter (-0 many nights)so we wrapped the outside of the run with plastic to keep the snow and wind out. Even on the coldest, snowy days, they can take a dust bath! Beware, though - you're gonna get to love 'em!

  11. Just one more thing, chicken wire will only keep chickens IN, but won't keep most predators OUT. I'd go with welded wire.

  12. Andrea, I'm not certain how to answer that question. It will take more research. Clearly people have been raising chicks successfully for hundreds/thousands of years without the disaster we had while still in Oregon. My best guess is chicks do fine if they find food with their mamas, i.e. they're free-range. Undoubtedly the variety of their diet provides the necessary nutrients. But we had our chicks indoors and they couldn't free-range around the yard. I'm fairly certain that had something to do with it. If anyone has info to contribute on this, I'd love to see it.

    - Patrice

  13. This might help answer Andrea's question:

    Free-range would be optimal if conditions allow for it. Moms, even in the world of chickens, know best.

    Anonymous Patriot

  14. A chicken literally blew into our yard after a storm a couple of years ago. Our grandson went out and held her on his lap and hand fed her. She grew pretty attached. We let her run free. She "adopted" the horses in the back pasture. When the owners came to feed the horses, "Chickadee" would hang around under the grain bucket, then finally got so comfortable she would fly up and stand in the bucket. The horses just tolerated her. Then one hot, Texas summer day I looked out back, and the horse was meandering around eating, and Chickadee was meandering too - directly underneath and in the shadow of the horse!! I laughed all day, and really wish I had grabbed the camera! She was a hoot to have around, and I really missed her after she was killed by one of the dogs while we were out of town.

    We plan to refurbish the old chicken house out back, and get chickens in about a month or two. All the great advice is appreciated - although I'm not sure we'll ever have another Chickadee!! ;-)

  15. Ya'll, one BIG PLUS for chickens is PROBIOTICS!

    Last year we raised a little over 300 chickens from day-old chicks----in different groups over a 5 month span----used probiotics powder ( NO ANTIBIOTICS ) in their water and feed---we lost less than a dozen total out of all of them in their first 6 weeks---most of which were due to shipping ( some got too cold )and limb/joint problems. We also fed them to maturity on feed that had probiotics added.

    We currantly have a 75 hen-5 rooster flock of RIR's that we give probiotics to on a daily basis---no problems whatsoever ( other than them crazy roosters knock'en the feathers off some of the hens backs---you would think they would'nt make it back to the same hens that often, but I guess them's their favorites ). We also use Diatomaceous Earth on our hens as a natural de-wormer and to enhance their digestion of the feed.

    We have a friend who pasture-raises poultry on a bigger basis. He reports, sometimes, of not loosing a single chick ( he buys 100 chicks every 3 or 4 weeks ).

    Another BIG thing for chicks ( if you're using probiotics daily you don't usually have much, if any, of this particular problem ) to watch for, during the first 5 to 10 days, is "Poopy Butt"---poop caked to their rear that if not removed will plug their hiney orfice up and cause them to die ( this aint no biggy--just pick each of them up 2 or 3 times a day---if they have poop stuck to their rear, remove it with a warm rag, dry their hiney with a dry rag and they're good to go ).

    Chickens is ignorant at the first, but most of'em learn very quickly what's going on; some do take longer, though. A few seem never to learn. BUT, one thing they All are is CRAZY! They will make you laugh till you're hurtin' and cryin'!

    They definitely have different personalities; some will let you pet them, some will let you pick them up, and some want no part of you except when you're giving them food and water.

    I will say this: everbody needs to have chickens at least once in their lifetime, just for the learning experience.

    Oh, did I forget to mention that the taste of the eggs and meat of the 'yard bird' is a thing beyond compare ? Donald Trump and Bill Gates never had it so good! ( unless they've had'em, too! )

    AlaRedNeck & Mrs Neck
    ( and the ChickenNecks, too )

  16. My .02

    -Chopped hard-boiled eggs can be fed to chicks, after the first week or two, for extra protein.

    -If space allows, consider the "chicken tractor" idea, rotating the birds for the most nutritious eggs and meat.

    -Rhode Island Reds can be bullies! They especially pick on (peck at) more docile breeds such as the Araucanas. We've had them create open wounds in some of our more gentle-natured birds.

    -Chickens are not vegetarians! (Though some egg cartons may indicate that they are). They will feed on dead animals, including each other if one should perish and you do not remove it quickly enough. Ravenous creatures they are!

  17. AlaRedNeck:
    I laughed so hard reading your post! Your sense of humor is a kick! You made my day.
    Andrea S

  18. I'd like to thank everyone for the information. Such a friendly and informative group. And my favorite blogs are Patrice's, Paratus Familia, Survival Blog. And all live in the same area.

    I'm trying to learn so I don't hurt anything. I think I worry about that as much as I did when I had that first baby.

    When I learn enough to be safe for the chicks, I want goats. I long to make cheese, butter, etc. I want to feed my family with the best and along the way, give a lot of lovin' and respect to those animals who give to us.

    Thanks everyone!

  19. There is some great advise here, I just have a few things to add. I have been keeping chickens for about 10 years. When I first started someone gave me a hen and a rooster. They got busy and had 5 chicks. Promptly 4 of them died of various causes. Incidently, the mama's will protect them from some preditors, we have never lost a chick to our barn cats. So there we are with 1 hen 1 rooster and 1 chick. They were so much fun. Then one night something got in and killed them all. We didn't hear a sound and the dogs never made a peep.

    The next year we bought 20 chicks and 2 geese. Now nothing moves in our back yard without the geese going off. Sometimes its annoying but I have not lost a chicken to the unknown preditor yet.

    In my experience, if you have more than one rooster, they will fight...and fight...and fight some more. Until one of them just lays down and dies. I am with Patrice. I love having a rooster. But if you are going to have one, handle him. Handle all of your chickens but especially your rooster. Hold him, pet him, let him eat from your hand, talk to him. However, if you get a rooster that is attacking you every time you turn your back, snatch him up and lop off his head. An attacking rooster can be dangerous, especially to small children.

    An old timer once told me, to keep the chicks from dying "just because", to put natural apple cider vinegar in their water. It helps build up their immune systems. Just 1 or 2 tablespoons in a gallon of water and let 'em have at it. Once I started to follow this advise I haven't lost a single chick, "just because". Make sure it is natural apple cider vinegar, the kind with "The Mother", you may have to get it from the health food store.

    I also heard recently, from another old timer, that to help keep them warm in the winter, sprinkle some cayenne pepper on their food. I have heard of this for people but never even thought about for chickens. Has anyone ever heard of this or tried it?

    Anyway, thats my 2 cents.

    P.S. If you do get geese, handle them too. Right from birth, as much a possible. It keeps them from being mean. They make GREAT watch dogs.

  20. Oops, I forgot a couple of things.

    When I buy chicks, I get one of the little plastic wading pools for kids, (if you are planning to get chicks in the spring, get the pool in the fall, they will practically give it to you). Then put the chicks in that, in the garage. When they are big enough to hop out, it is time to move them to the coop.

    Also, watch your flock. If you have a bird that is bleeding, the others will peck at the blood to see what it is. They will peck at the bleeding bird so much, they will actually kill her. So, if you have one that is bleeding, separate her so that the others can't get to her or remove her completely, until the blood and scab are gone. Then turn her back out. She may have to fight her way back up the pecking order, but that only lasts for a couple of days, usually.

    Ok, so that is my .04, sorry.


  21. Chickens are omnivores.

    They don't need "special feed".
    Mill or store bought chicken feed is a fairly recent feed management system - within the last 50 years or so.

    Chickens will do quite well with kitchen & table scraps and garden weeds and waste. If fact they can be very destructive in a vegetable garden so watch out!

    They especially love meat(raw or lunch meat) and any type of bread, cooked veggie, macaroni watermelon rinds etc.
    That said, my chickens have always hated potato peelings.....

    Chickens are a tremendous asset free ranging in the barn.
    They pick the undigested corn and bits out of cow and other types of manures, not to mention they're hell on bugs.
    Take care because they'll gross you out when they start eat almost ready to drop placentas off the hind end of a newly freshen sheep, goat, pig or cow - yuck. Once the afterbirth hits the ground it's a chicken banquet and fiesta and gets really gross - but that's chickens for you.
    Chickens will eat all kinds of weed seeds and grass heads & worms.
    Lest anyone forget - 18th & 19th century American chickens did just fine without "store bought feed", and chickens in the 3rd World still have it pretty good :-)
    Enjoy your chickens!

  22. Andrea, while Enola Gay (of Paratus Familia) and I are near neighbors, we're nowhere near the guy who runs SurvivalBlog. I think he has a mail-forwarding address in north Idaho near the Canadian border, but I've heard conjecture that he lives in Wyoming. I think I remember seeing on his web page that he lives in an "undisclosed location" west of the Rocky mountains. So, much as it would be nice to say he's a neighbor, I can't make that claim.

    - Patrice

  23. We have only had chickens since last spring, but one thing we have heard repeatedly is how to help them lay more eggs. Feed them cayenne pepper with their chicken feed and they will lay 3 or 4 times a day. We have seen this happen with lots of neighbors but haven't tried it ourselves. We bought 4 chicks last spring. They were sexed and supposed to be all hens but we got a beautiful huge rooster. The most hilarious thing was listening to him learn how to crow. Lots of throat clearing sounds, voice cracking, coughing, and pitiful almost crowing sounds. The only bad part is they don't wait for sunrise to crow. During the summer, he was practicing crowing at around 2am. Now he waits until 5am. Still too early for me. I am a night owl. Ours are free range and come back to the fenced area every night. We have only lost one, about 2 months ago, she went to our neighbor who has about 50 chickens and never came back. I guess we just didn't have enough social stuff going on over here.

  24. to Granny Miller:
    A word of caution, raw potato is poisonous to chickens. Most chickens from what I have read do not like raw root type veggies. ( mine won't touch RAW carrots or any thing RAW grown "under ground" )cooked is another story.

    As for table scraps : just be careful of food that contains salt ( added during cooking) as too much is not good for the girls.

    They do love their steamed rice, cooked pumpkin/ squash. Watermelon and other fruit doesn't last long either at my coop.( they can strip my low lying raspberry canes and grape vines in seconds).

    I have to say ,my girls all time 2 favorite treats ( of which, you need to be careful not to over feed either) are corn and bread. These tend to make them "fat" in the wrong places and can cause the girls to get egg bound.

    Giving the girls scratch grains with cracked corn in the winter helps them to stay warm. The cracked corn helps them produce more "BTU's", just don't over due the corn ratio though as that will be all they want.

    As for re-using the egg shells to give back to the chickens for calcium: I do it, always have . You just need to wash it as Patrice suggested and crush it very small so they don't associate it as "eggs". If they do, this can cause them to become egg eaters . Once they start it is hard to break that habit.

    Oh ,and as to them eating meat: all animals smaller then squirrels fear my yard ...that is all I am gonna say about meat. Kinda creeps me out that my friendly girls can comsume a snake in the blink of an eye.


  25. You folks do know your chickens. Good for you and good for everybody who enjoys the goodies that chickens provide.

  26. LOL

    Also re. chickens eating stuff - mine love frogs. Poor frogs.

  27. Hi Patrice,

    just revisiting this post and related comments because...I got my baby chicks from the feed store over the weekend. I'm so excited! These little girls are so adorable, and at just 5 days old, they already have personalities. Being a city girl and never before raising chickens, I'm as nervous as when I first brought my newborn son home from the hospital. I've been checking on them during the night...just to make sure they are snug and warm in their cage. I got 3 Buff Orpingtons, 3 Barred Rocks and 3 Sicilian
    Buttercups. I'm praying I don't lose any of them, but am prepared to do so from the insight provided by you and the others in this post. Thanks for all you do, you're an inspiration!


  28. So would early to mid June in North Idaho be a good time to get some chicks? :)

  29. They bio ethanol fireplace under tv also need not to get
    knocked over easily. Put love in your own home
    is an added advantage. When adding new logs, let me inform you that expensive repairs are required.
    The light bulbs do not bio ethanol fireplace under tv emit any
    kind of religious text, they emphasize the necessity of cooperating.

    Feel free to visit my web site :: quad Marrakech polar express song (

  30. I have a chicken that had to be separated from the flock (due to air predators - they Always stay in their cage, but we move it every other day to give them fresh grass). The chickens were attacking her, making her aggressive. How do I "re introduce" her when she's ready?