5 Things I Wish I Had Known Before I Started Raising Backyard Chickens

published Oct 22, 2020
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However much research you do, there’s always a certain level of unpreparedness in starting any new venture, and I know I faced a lot of shocks and surprises with my first flock of chickens. Some of them were joyful (Some chickens love to cuddle! Who knew?), but others ranged from the confusing to the unpleasant to the downright dangerous. While it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of information online, it’s important to remember that being well-informed is crucial to raising a healthy flock of happy hens.    

On one level, all the reading in the world can’t prepare you for everything that will happen in your first year of keeping chickens. On another level, though, every piece of information only helps set you up for success with your first flock of feathery friends.   

I’ve been raising chickens for over 20 years and was first introduced to them by my grandad (after his dad taught him!). I’ve kept dozens over the years and at the moment have a flock of 11 hens, including three Silkies.

Here are the things I’d tell any soon-to-be beginner:

There are many, many different breeds of chicken.

Before I started looking for chicks, I knew, vaguely, that different chickens are preferred for eggs and meat (layers and broilers, respectively), and I had at least heard of breeds like the Rhode Island Red and the Leghorn. I had also seen articles online about the insanely expensive Ayam Cemani black chicken and other specialty breeds raised for luxury meat. What I didn’t realize, though, was that there are actually more than 500 breeds of chicken, each bred for a particular combination of flavor, egg production, personality, aesthetic, athleticism, size, hardiness, and just about anything else.

First-timers will probably want a dual-purpose hen, often a heritage breed that was specifically bred to thrive on small farms, like the beautiful speckled Sussex or the aforementioned Rhode Island Red. For experienced chicken keepers looking to expand their flocks, though, there are more options than I, certainly, would know what to do with—birds bred for their beautiful feathers, birds bred to produce colorful pastel eggs, birds bred to have unnerving vocalizations. Anyone brave enough to dive headfirst into the world of specialty chicken breeds will find a rich kaleidoscope of incredibly specific and sometimes delightfully wacky birds to fill their coops.   

Hens don’t lay eggs forever.

The average lifespan of a domestic chicken is eight to 10 years, and most hens start laying at around 18 to 20 weeks old. However, that doesn’t mean your hens will produce five eggs a week every week for eight years. More likely, they’ll maintain that level of production for a few years, then begin to slow down, sometimes drastically, until they stop laying altogether after maybe five or six years.

This isn’t great news for small homesteaders, who might then have several years of caring for a non-producing hen on their hands. For some folks, the obvious solution to this problem is a chicken dinner, while others might consider the hen more a pet than livestock at that point and find that thought unimaginable. Either way, it’s something to keep in mind when starting a flock: Egg production isn’t guaranteed, especially as the years go on. This is why, while the birds in your first flock should all be the same age, maintaining a flock long-term usually requires phasing in new birds two or three at a time, so there are always at least a few young ones to keep egg production up.

Egg laying can be seasonal.

I live in New England, which isn’t a region known for its mild winters, and you can imagine my surprise when the frosts started setting in and my egg supply suddenly dropped off to almost nothing. While there are exceptions—the Brahma, for instance, is noted as a reliable winter layer—most hens drop off production dramatically in cold weather, with some stopping altogether until the weather warms. Unfortunately, there’s not much chicken keepers can do about this winter lull except wait it out.

Anyone living in an area with harsh winters will have to take precautions, though, to make sure their birds don’t suffer in the cold: things like making sure the water in the coop doesn’t freeze over, either by getting a heated waterer or taking it out every night, and applying Vaseline to the birds’ exposed skin to prevent frostbite. 

Chickens need friends.

Sure, we all talk about “flocks of chickens,” but I didn’t fully realize how important a social life was to my hens until one of them was killed by a hawk, and I had to watch the two survivors cope with her loss. I got two new hens that spring (Always introduce new chickens to the flock in twos or threes, so that the “new kid” doesn’t get singled out and bullied by the other birds.), but of course it wasn’t quite the same. Hens are herd animals, in the same way horses and people are, and they form relationships and socialize in many of the same ways.

Ideally, a chicken flock will have at least three birds, so that the hens can have a social life even if two of the three don’t get along. Of course, as in any social group, hierarchies can emerge, and incidents of a flock ganging up on one or two members are unfortunately common. While this issue can usually be avoided by making careful choices about which breeds to house together and making sure the hens have enough space and activity to keep them engaged, if it does arise, the best solution may be to put your bullying bird in a chicken “jail” for a few days—separate from the flock, but still within view—so the flock can reestablish a social order not built around the most aggressive hen.      

Even small flocks can be a risk for disease transmission.

I had, of course, heard horror stories about the avian flu and diseases that originate from factory-farming plants—that was a large part of the reason I wanted to raise my own chickens in the first place. While it’s true that the risk of disease increases with the size of the flock, people can still get sick from the half dozen hens in their backyard.

The most common offender in this regard is salmonella, which, while mostly associated with the relatively mild unpleasantness of food poisoning, can also be much worse, even fatal. Chickens, unfortunately, are carriers for the bacteria, though mostly unaffected by it, and can pass it to their owners either through direct contact, like petting and cuddling, or through their eggs.

Fortunately, a little bit of care and thought in the handling of your birds and their eggs can largely eliminate (or at least severely reduce) the risk. Remember to always wash your hands thoroughly before and after interacting with the chickens, and make sure to inspect and thoroughly clean your eggs before use.

Read more: We Talked to 5 People Who Bought Chickens During the Pandemic: How’s That Going?