Sunday, February 17, 2013

New to Backyard Chickens? What I Wish I'd Said...

4 Chesapeake Hens and Hampton Road Hens appeared at the Chesapeake Central Library last night. The library staff were surprised by how many people showed up! Many of them were adults looking for more information about backyard chicken-keeping. Families were supposed to preregister, but a front-page article in the Chesapeake Clipper hadn't mentioned that fact, so folks just showed up. The librarians were gracious about it, though, and managed to find a room big enough to hold us all.

Standing Room Only Just for the Adults! The Youngsters Got to Ask Questions, Pet a Chicken, and Go to Storytime
 Our time with the youngsters took about twenty minutes of our scheduled hour, and then the rest of the time turned into a question-and-answer and information sharing-session with the adults. It went well, and we talked up many of the great aspects of having backyard hens. But I wish I'd had time to answer some of the inquiries at greater length, and to warn folks of some potential problems to avoid.

Our Intrepid Team of Presenters Sport Our Hampton Roads' Hens New T-Shirts!
1. We told folks to read up. There is great information online. Hopefully participants picked up flyers that the library had printed up for us that had further resources. We also directed them to books that the library had available. My personal favorite book is City Chicks by Patricia Foreman. Backyard Poultry Magazine and Mother Earth News are great resources, too. Good websites are and a popular blog called "Fresh Eggs Daily." But here are some additional ideas or precautions I would have shared if given enough time:

2. Be sure you are getting hens. Roosters are illegal here in Chesapeake in residential areas. There are three ways to be sure you are getting hens:
  • get sex-linked hybrids if you are getting chicks. There is no mistaking the sex of the chick because the boys and girls have different coloration upon hatching;
  • get your chicks from a reputable hatchery and order hens only, but realize these hatcheries have *at best* a 98% rate of accuracy at sexing chicks, so plan out what you will do in case you get an unexpected rooster;
  • skip the chicks and get pullets or grown hens. These will be easier to start with than chicks are, anyway. Pullets are hens that are just about to lay or just starting to lay. You will get your eggs that much faster, and even though they cost more up front, they require less in terms of specialized equipment, feed, and care. You will also get your eggs faster. The downside is that you miss the fuzzy cuteness of chicks, and your birds might not be as tame or used to being handled as you would like.
  • if you decide to hatch your own chicks from eggs, read up on this process carefully, and decide what to do with the roosters that *will* turn up, because there's no way to sex eggs. 
  • DO NOT BUY "straight-run" CHICKS. This means these chicks are not sexed and will contain a large percentage of roosters;
  • deciding what to do with the roosters does *not* mean turning them loose, since they can't fend for themselves, nor does it mean keeping them, which will be noisy, illegal, and possibly dangerous if the birds are mean. Nor does it mean hoping for a farmer out in the country who will want them to raise and not to eat. Line someone up in advance, because it's not that easy.
  • While finding roosters a good, last-minute home sounds good, it's unlikely. Realize that unwanted roosters often become people's meals. Also, remember that slaughtering the birds is illegal in residential areas, so if you decide to slaughter and eat them, be sure to know how to do this humanely and where to do this legally. (And only eat healthy birds, not sick or diseased ones).
3. Chicks need specialized care: extra protection from drafts and predators, the correct levels of warmth, and specialized feeders and watering equipment. Again, read up on raising chicks before you do so.

4. Regarding coops, we mentioned a variety of websites and plans available online, and that coops can even be purchased online, but we should have taken time to go into more detail about basic coop requirements besides fresh feed and fresh water daily, including fresh water in winter, when water tends to freeze. Here are other ideas:
  • For optimal mental and physical health, be sure your birds have enough room. Here is a summary of my own research on this topic.
  • Your birds will be happier if they have perches to roost on. Be sure they are free of splinters, which can cause bumble foot.
  • Be sure your coop is dry, ventilated yet not drafty, and sturdy enough to provide protection from vermin and predators. This includes rats (at night, when the chickens can't see), possums, hawks, owls, raccoons, weasels, dogs, and any other creature that likes chicken because they "taste like chicken." Books and online resources have lots of advice on how to protect your flock. Harvey Ussery's book, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock has some great suggestions. A pop-hole with a sturdy cover that locks up tight at night and hardware cloth across any openings, even small ones, should be standard on your coop. Chicken wire is meant to keep chickens *in,* not predators *out.* Dogs and foxes will dig under fencing and your coop, so plan for that, too, when you are thinking about protection.
5. If you plan to keep your birds as pets, line up a good avian veterinarian before you need one. I recommend Dr. Poutous at Midway Veterinary in Chesapeake. Even if you consider your birds livestock, you will need to read up on how to keep them well fed and healthy, how to administer basic medications such as de-wormers, and how to prevent and treat common diseases. If you wish to keep them healthy and not pay for veterinary services, you'll need to know how to do more yourself. Lining up an experienced local chicken-keeper as a mentor is a great idea!

6. If you have young children or family members with compromised immune systems, realize that hens can harbor and shed some diseases, most notably salmonella, while showing no symptoms. Supervision of young children, gloves and hand-washing, and other common-sense precautions should be followed. This is especially true of handling chicks, which tend to shed salmonella more than grown birds. All birds will shed the virus when stressed, however. Gail Damerow's Chicken Health Handbook has loads of information about chicken care. Harvey Ussery's and Pat Foreman's books have suggestions, too.

7. I almost forgot! Be a good neighbor, and make sure you only feed your hens what they'll eat during the day. At night, pick up any uneaten food. Store scratch and feed in vermin-proof containers, such as in a heavy metal trash can with a bungee-cord on top. Mice and rats are not naturally attracted to chickens, but they can be attracted to leftover feed, to food scraps lying around, and to the warmth and darkness of a coop. They can also slip through very tiny holes. And rats will sometimes attack chickens at night. The hens can't defend themselves because they are night-blind. Be a good friend to your neighbors as well as to your hens, and keep the place clean (updated 5:31 PM).

If you're an experienced flockster and  notice that I forgot anything basic and important for beginners, please post a comment for our readership. Thanks!

**Update on 4/15/13: We DID say this at the meeting, but this bears repeating: there is a three to five foot setback from the coop to the property line. Be sure to be a good neighbor and implement the setback. The hens must also be kept in the backyard.

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