“I need help from a chicken guru,” It was a friend planning for chickens.

I’ve keep 63% of my of chickens alive over the past six years. I don’t know if that’s “guru” status in the homesteading world, but if I calculate that as a baseball percentage, I’m batting at record level, so let’s go with that, instead.

Here are the lessons I’ve learned.

Lesson one secure the coop–today!

This beautiful hen got out through a gap where the sun cover was secured. She died. I saw the gap. I failed to recognize it as a threat. This was my fault entirely. She squeezed out, and got picked off at the edge of the woods.

Check your coop and run from time to time. My chickens dig–they’re not trying to escape, they’re just looking for worms and making a dust bath, but some of the holes are near the edge of the run. This makes them easy dinner for any predators that dig.

Check for new gaps you might not have noticed before. One of my new hens was eaten by a hawk recently. The hawk got in through a gap in the top tarp and behold, a headless bird. That tarp has now become a strong mesh netting.

I do a periodic inspection from the outside and inside of the coop and run now, and keep some extra mesh, fencing, and wire on hand.

Lesson two: chicken behavior

Chickens have personalities. Some are mean. My first group was all the same variety so it was tough to see the personalities–Loud Chicken, Mean Chicken, Egg Eater, Green chicken (it had green hue in the sun), Gold chicken–they all had a place in the flock. I just didn’t realize it because I didn’t spend enough time hanging out since they were “dual purpose chickens” and I didn’t want to be caught off guard when they turned into dinner.

The more you learn about chicken behavior early into your chicken career, the less stress you’ll have when you realize some of the odd things they do.

Integrating chickens:  You can’t just dump new chickens in with the flock safely. There’s a pecking order and they really do peck. Chicks can get hurt. Integrate them slowly, while watching. It’s best to integrate pullets that are big enough to fend for themselves in a flock, and integrate a group into another group so they’ll have friends at their back.

Egg eaters and cannibalism: This seems odd, doesn’t it? Chickens will eat dead flockmates and break and eat their own eggs. The best way to keep this from happening is to be present. Check eggs often, keep laying space clean, and keep food and water fresh. The less cranky a chicken is, the less they’ll do these things. However, once an egg eater, usually always an egg eater. We had a terrible one, and since all the chickens looked alike, we couldn’t identify the right one.

You can train a chicken.  They’re easy to train. They know who feeds them. They’ll usually come when you call if you’re the treat giver.

They are slobs. Try to clean up after them as well as you can, and keep the inside of the coop dry, especially in winter.

How many chickens do I need?

Depends. Are you supplying your full year of meat and eggs? For meat, decide how many chickens you’ll eat and get that many. Meat chickens are pretty quick to raise–seven to eight weeks, generally.

Egg chickens will lay for a few years then slow down. We get one egg per chicken in the summer, and a few less eggs than chickens in spring and fall. It’s winter now and we’re getting one or two eggs a day.  Half the flock is older birds, and it’s winter–egg productivity depends on the length of the day.

Some Obvious Facts about Chickens Smart People Overlook:

More people are getting backyard flocks this year. Ordinances are changing to allow a few hens in many urban and suburban towns. People want to source their food better, and Covid shocked people into wanting to produce their own food. Still, there are a few things even smart people forget when they get their first chickens:

Chickens are birds. This may seem obvious, but if you’ve never owned a bird, you may not know birds poop automatically–where ever they stand it falls thanks to gravity. They don’t have a sphincter–the muscle that controls the bowels. I had parakeets when I was in high school. I let them fly around the room–and cleaned accordingly.

Many people in the chicken forums want to treat their chickens like cats and dogs. Chickens can be trained and they will imprint to you if you handle them from birth. They’re safe to hold, and technically they can come in your house–there are even chicken diapers. I see tons of photos with toddlers and babies. It’s cute, but that brings me to my second point, why I will not have a house chicken.

Chickens carry funguses and bacteria like histoplasmosis, salmonella, avian flu, campylobacter, and E-coli. These can be in their poop and on their feathers. I would certainly not have my young children cuddling the chickens, and if they did, I’d teach food and farm safety–washing properly especially.

50% of all chickens are roosters. Again, this is math, not rocket science. But, a lot of people go to their local store and buy their first “straight run” (non sexed) birds then get surprised when their neighbors hate them. Roosters are loud. We had to give ours away.  Even if you can have roosters, they sometimes get mean. Be aware of this if you have roosters and small children.

There are two types of chickens, egg layers and meat birds. Technically, there are also show birds and combination chickens. For the most part, you’ll see meat and egg birds. Research the right type when getting your first birds. Meat birds are bred to be raised and eaten–they don’t do well long-term. If you’re in doubt, go for combo birds or egg layers.

Chickens live for about five to ten years, unless they are meat chickens, in which case they live about seven weeks. Egg chickens start laying at about 5 or 6 months of age and stop laying anywhere from age 5-7. Most chickens slow down laying in the winter.  Prolific egg-laying breeds can lay an egg a day almost all year.

Eggs come in lots of colors. We see brown and white in the stores, but there are blues and greens, and all shades of browns. There are also speckled eggs. Each breed lays a specific egg.

Chickens don’t have teeth. They swallow food whole and it gets ground up in the gizzard, a strong muscle that grinds and mixes the food with digestive juices and stones–that’s why you see chickens eating small stones and rocks.

Here’s a few questions to ask yourself before you jump into raising chickens.

Can I have them?

Some places have laws. You may have a cap on the number you can have, need a variance, have a no rooster law, or obnoxious neighbors.

Do chickens fit with my lifestyle?

Chickens are the easiest of the farm animals–they’re pretty much entry-level creatures which may lead you on the road to wanting a goat or potbellied pig. But, they still require care. The good news is you can take a day off–you should collect the eggs daily, but if you went overnight for a weekend away, nothing bad will happen to your chickens. Chickens give you a little bit of freedom that others don’t give.

Can I care for them?

Chickens can go to the vet but you won’t want to pay that price unless you have a flock-wide problem or a beloved pet chicken. There’s a learning curve.  I had to learn to diagnose weird behaviors like cannibal-egg chickens, chickens pecking each other, mites, and learn how to treat treating pecking wounds.

Also, different types of chickens need different food–there’s chick food, layer food, and finishing food for meat birds. This isn’t rocket science, but you have to know little things like when to give oyster shells (calcium), what scraps they can eat, and how to change their diets as they grow.

Do I have a chicken sitter?

You’ll need one for vacations or any long period you can’t be with your birds.

Do I want to lose my lawn or build a run?

Lots of people want to free range chickens since they provide “natural fertilizer” and eat ticks. But what they don’t tell you is they eat pretty much everything–they can destroy a lawn or patch of grass in no time.

When I expanded the chicken coop run to add to my flock, they destroyed all the fresh grass day one. If you’re The Lawn Ranger, you’re going to need a dedicated chicken run or a “chicken tractor,” a mobile pen that you move often.

Am I looking to save money on food?

You may think having chickens will save on your budget but there’s a setup cost. Over time, I’ve bought two dog kennels worth of fence panels, wire, mesh, the coop itself. It probably cost about $1500 altogether. Then, there’s the cost of food and care. Chicken food is about $13 for a fifty-pound bag, way cheaper than dog food, but it’s an offset against the price of eggs. I use a couple bags of food and a $7-10 bag of flakes (wood chips for the nesting area) per month.

The question to ask myself is this… do I eat $30 worth of eggs a month? Even on a heavy egg salad and omelet month, I use about 4-6 dozen eggs per month. At grocery store prices (~$2.99) that’s about $17.97 and if I say $3-4 farm-raised prices, it’s $18-24 a month. So, I’m not making my money back.  It’s fine, but know that.

Are chickens good for self-reliance?

Yes. We’ve already discussed the cost of eggs. This year, it was tough to find eggs as shelves cleared. This has only happened once in my lifetime with the pandemic, but eggs were rationed items during the War when Victory Gardens pulled many of our grandparents through. They’re nice to have at my doorstep and the quality is so far above store egg quality, I can’t even compare.

What’s the bottom line?

The bottom line is that you should only have chickens if you want them, understand the costs and the care, and have a space that allows them. You also have to know what your responsibilities will be and the type of chickens you want. Chickens are amazing, but they do take some work.

I am glad the panemic brought some positive attention to chicken keeping, but I encourage you to do your homework and research the logistics, breeds, and the time commitment before you jump in.