Backyard Chickens: A Beginner’s Guide

Once you fall in love with chickens and decide to take the plunge, your next thought is going to be- how do I get started? [If you’re considering raising your own meat birds, this is not the guide for you] If your backyard chickens will be pets, there are a few things you should know.

In this series, I’m sharing my experience and knowledge after raising chickens for five years in an urban farm setting. Urban chicken keeping is gaining popularity so while many of these concepts won’t be applicable to everyone, newbie chicken enthusiasts enthralled with the idea of their own backyard flock needn’t learn lessons the hard way.

My goal is to offer a pet-focused view on raising backyard chickens and all of the challenges and rewards that come along with it. Part one is a guide on what to expect with your backyard flock.

1. You Will Lose Some, and it Will Hurt.

When asked about getting started with chickens this is always my first warning. Chickens are prey animals so it’s critical for new chicken tenders to understand that predators that can injure or kill a chicken are everywhere.

If you have the space, a predator-fortified run is the best way to keep your flock safe. Free range is great, but the risk of predator losses increases exponentially. Chickens are regularly killed by domestic animals like dogs and cats- both pets and strays, and wild animals like raccoons, opossums, raptors of all kinds, minks, foxes, coyotes, and bears.

We made it through our whole first year of chicken keeping without any predator losses though seasoned chicken tenders (pun intended) warned me that just because I don’t see predators doesn’t mean they’re not there- and they were right. We’ve had run ins with a raccoon, an opossum, have daily sightings of hawks, and have seen foxes wandering our streets at night and we’re in the middle of a big city.

Predators vary by region so the best way to learn about predators specific to your neck of the woods is to find people local to you with livestock and ask for advice.

2. Not All Predators are Visible

Now that you’re aware of predators, let’s discuss the microscopic ones. Pests like lice and mites, worms, mosquitos, and flies can all be dangerous for your chickens.

An undetected mite infestation can leave your birds anemic, weak, underweight, and malnourished. Lice can do much of the same, plus they can transfer to humans.

Worms will steal nutrients from your chickens making it so no matter how much they eat, they can’t get what they need. Mosquitos and flies can both transfer or spread disease; plus, flystrike. Yuck.

Depending on the climate where you live, these pests can be seasonal, or season-less, as it were, and remain a problem throughout the year. Unfortunately, my warm climate allows for pests year-round.

In warmer climates with a lot of rainfall, you should consider a twice annual worming of your chickens. You may also want to consider a twice annual general delousing for mites, lice, and other biting insects (more on that later).

I use “consider” because most of the treatments for these pests come with an egg withdrawal time. This is a non-issue for me because I don’t eat my chickens eggs. However, if you’re going to be relying on your flock to provide you with eggs it’s something to note.

Which brings me to number three…

3. Your Mileage May Vary

Keeping chickens is a centuries old practice. You will hear advice from people who’s grandparents had chickens 80 years ago. However, it’s important to consider circumstances. For the vast majority of people, chickens are food animals. They’re raised for eggs for a few years, and then processed for eating and/or cold storage. I’m not saying that’s wrong- to each their own- but their advice may not fit with your ideals.

Often in flocks that are being raised for food, treating for pests, illnesses, and injuries is impractical or uneconomical. These treatments can involve the use of chemicals or antibiotics which require either egg withdrawal time, meat withdrawal time, both, or in some cases can render the eggs and/or meat unfit for human consumption indefinitely.

This is where old wives tales and pseudo-science comes in. This is also where you need to learn to listen to your gut. If someone is giving you advice that doesn’t make sense, or simply doesn’t sit right with you, you don’t have to take it. I will often ask about a person’s flock when I’m being given advice that doesn’t seem right to me. It’s important to keep in mind that just because your chickens are pets, it doesn’t mean that everyone with chickens sees them as pets.

4. Spend Time with your Flock

This is the number one way to keep your flock healthy. Get out there and spend some time with them. Learning your chicken’s habits, personalities, and general behavior will help you spot any deviations from the norm. It’s a sad truth that chickens try to hide illnesses and injuries so they don’t become easy(er) prey. I know each of my birds personalities and I know when something is off.

When you’re just starting out with your flock it can be difficult to identify abnormalities in their behavior. Generally speaking, watch for signs of lethargy, being fluffed up, carrying wings low, limping, not eat or drinking, isolating themselves, or seeming listless. These are all signs of a larger issue.

Outside of the health benefits of spending time with your flock, they’re so dang cute! I regularly spend hours in my backyard with my dog, a glass of wine, a gorgeous sunset, and my chickens. You may be surprised to find how much you’ll enjoy watching them peck around, talk to one another (and you!), sun bathe, take dust baths, and explore.

5. Give your Flock Lots of Love

Getting your flock used to human contact not only makes your experience keeping chickens more fun and engaging, it also comes in handy if they’re sick or injured. Trying to treat a gnarly, bloody wound on a chicken that’s thrashing around like a wild animal is not my idea of a good time. Plus, there is nothing like the feeling of a bunch of fat little puffs running over to you when they see you.

This also ties in closely with #4. Handling your chickens is a great way to conduct quick health checks. How do their feathers feel? Is their crop full, or empty? Too hard, or too watery? How do their feet look? Any odors coming from mouth or vent? How heavy do they feel? How is the color on their comb? It can sound crazy at first, but picking up your chickens and giving them a good once over is the first step in catching issues early, and noticing patterns that could be related to illness.

If your flock is taking some time to warm up to you, bribery always works. Chickens are food motivated, so all you need is a bag of dried mealworms and you’ll have them eating out of your hand (literally) in no time. To get them used to being handled, shake a bag of mealworms when you go out into their area, call them over in whatever fashion you’d like (I just say “chick chick chick chick chick” on repeat and they come running), and drop a handful of mealworms on the floor. When they’ve identified that it’s food, and that it’s delicious, they’ll be ravenous for more.

Repeat this step daily, scattering the meal worms closer and closer to your feet until they’re comfortable enough to walk all over your feet and not run when you move. Then, repeat the same process (shake the bag, call them over), but only scatter a little bit on the floor. The rest, hold in your hand and have them eat from it. When they’re comfortable with that, try to have one sit on your lap or let you hold them while they eat. Once that’s easy, keep reinforcing the handling by offering less treats for free; meaning, no mealworms on the floor. If they want them, come and get them.

6. You May Not be Able to Find a Vet

This was one of the most difficult things for me to tackle. In my area, there are no livestock vets. There are a few vets that will agree to see chickens- mostly exotic vets or adventurous avian vets- but they don’t specialize in chickens.

While specializing in chickens may not seem important, it makes a big difference in treating them. The first time I had to deal with bumblefoot, I was terrified. I called every vet in my area asking if they’d see a chicken. After calling over 20 vet offices, I finally found one that would agree to see Daffodil for her bumblefoot. When I made the appointment, the receptionist gleefully told me that the doctor is known as the “Chicken Doctor.” I was so relieved!

Imagine my disappointment when I brought Daffy in and he made light of being called the “Chicken Doctor.” Apparently, he agreed to see a chicken once- earning him that nick name. He had no idea what bumblefoot was, and wasn’t sure how to treat it.

Chickens live in a vastly different environment then exotic birds like parrots that are kept in cages and have a controlled diet. They’ll eat things like rocks, screws, wood chips, sticks, bugs, rats, mice, snakes, lizards…. which all have varying effects on their health and digestive system. They’re exposed to the elements, and share space with wild animals. A vet that doesn’t have hands on experience treating chickens may not know how to troubleshoot a health issue; especially if they don’t have a flock of their own.

While seemingly scary, it’s also incredibly empowering. Trust me- you have the ability to successfully treat your flock- whether it’s an illness or an injury. You just have to be prepared.

7. Get a First Aid Kit Together BEFORE your First Emergency

Because vet options may be limited in your area, you’ll want to get an emergency first aid kit together. The best time to do so is before you have an issue. In addition to controlling costs by buying supplies gradually over time, you’ll have exactly what you need when you need it. Not having to run out and hit 3 or 4 stores to collect supplies to treat an open wound or a bird that’s extremely ill increases the chicken’s chances of survival and allows you to act fast.

As in #3, your milage may vary in terms of what you’ll need to keep on hand. I’ve got a comprehensive post in the works outlining my recommendations for a useful first aid kit based on my own beginner’s experience. For now, you’ll want to ensure you have the following (contains affiliate links):

8. Start Small and Resist Chicken Math

Chicken math happens to the best of us. Sort of like cats, if you already have a flock it’s super easy to add. The biggest leap is when you’re just starting out with a new flock. When we first got our flock, we bought a coop from our local feed store, along with chick starter feed, a heat lamp and bulb, waterers and feeders, treats, bedding, and grit.

All of that was needed for our four chicks. It would have all still been needed if we had gotten 8 chicks. or 12 chicks. or 24 chicks. Two years later, I’m glad that we started out with four. It was the perfect number for us (again, your mileage may vary) to get used to having a backyard flock. We were able to manage their care requirements which were new to us, bond with them, get them used to being handled, and made the adjustment period of adding new animals to our family manageable.

If I could offer a general guideline on when to expand your flock, I would recommend resisting the urge to expand until you have dealt with either your first illness, your first injury, or your first loss. As a new chicken keeper, those are the three scariest circumstances you’ll have to deal with. And believe me, you will have to deal with all three at some point in your chicken keeping journey.

Injury and loss will show you what you’re truly made of and if you can tackle the unique challenges of having pets that live outside. Juniper was both my first serious illness, and my first loss. And losing her broke my heart. Prim (more on her story soon) was my first serious injury and 3 months later, she’s still recovering.

I don’t mean to sound like an alarmist, but your flock is at risk of being attacked 24 hours a day; there is no grace period. There are day time predators and there are nocturnal predators. There are also incurable, contagious illnesses your entire flock can contract. There are illnesses that can result in an extreme emergency within 24 hours.

If you’re a new chicken keeper, catching illnesses as early as possible is your best bet to save your birds life. This skill is heavily reliant on your ability to spend time with your flock, knowing them well enough to detect small changes in their behavior, and being able to handle them; all of which is made much easier with a smaller flock.

9. Have Fun!

Chickens are funny, intelligent, loving animals that make great pets. Often dismissed because they’re widely used for food, they have unique personalities and develop bonds with one another, other animals, and people. They provide you with opportunities to learn new things- like how to dislodge a stick from a chicks throat, how to fish a chicken out of a lake, how to successfully stop the bleeding when your rooster rips his nail clear off…. this list goes on.

Ultimately, chicken keeping won’t be for everyone. It can be physically and emotionally challenging. It can also require you to be home at dusk to close them up for the night, and to peel yourself out of bed early on a Sunday morning to let them out of the coop before your roosters start to brawl in close quarters. But they will make you laugh daily, and will charm you with their antics.

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