backyard chickens

9 Things to Understand About Backyard Chickens

Colorful nutrition.

Colorful nutrition.

Having your own small backyard chicken flock is both entertaining and worth the effort for the eggs, but like any project you need to know what you are getting yourself into first.

1.
Know how many chickens you will want. You should get at least two so they have companionship. Understand that each chicken will lay an average of 4-5 eggs per week, depending on the breed of bird and the time of year. A chicken’s egg cycle is related to the amount of light they get, so will lay more frequently in the spring and summer than winter.

2.
Realize a chicken won’t provide you with eggs forever. A bird can stop laying eggs after just a few years, but still live for many years after that. Are you prepared to ‘harvest’ her once she no longer lays and use the meat, or will you just keep her as a pet? Many humane societies are getting increasing numbers of abandoned older chickens. Have a plan before you order those cute baby chicks.

3.
If you choose to keep your chicken as a pet, consider getting a new chicken every few years if space allows. This way you will be staggering the egg cycle ending times. Of course, you need to have enough room and be willing to feed multiple birds that aren’t producing. Do some reading up on how to introduce a new member to the flock before you do so. Some chickens may even stop laying eggs temporarily when a new bird comes in to the pecking order. Don’t introduce a baby into a flock of adults, the result could be fatal.

One of our Ladies.

One of our Ladies.

4.
Get the right breed for your area. Some chickens can take the cold better than others, so consider this when choosing your flock-members.

5.
Know what you will feed your flock. Unless you have a warm year round climate and plenty of room for the chickens to feed, you will need to supplement your chickens’ food. Understand that much of the chicken feed in the U. S. probably contains GMO highly pesticide doused corn. Consider using an organic feed instead, but check on the price before you decide.

6.
You don’t need a rooster to get eggs, you only need a rooster if you want to hatch chicks. Understand that if any company is offering you a free chick with your order, it may very well be a rooster. Only about 1 out of every dozen and a half chicks are male, but since most people don’t want or cannot have a rooster, they can be hard to get rid of. Keep this in mind if you are going to hatch out eggs.

backyard chickens

Chickens and their eggs are what they eat.

7.
Chickens are birds and do what any birds do. This includes flying, eating things you may not want them to, and leaving nasty little droppings. Chicken manure can be composted and used in your garden after it has aged. If you use pine chips in the chicken coop, it will absorb the harsher chemical from the manure, and you can add it to your garden sooner.

8.
Different breeds of chickens lay different colored eggs, ranging from white to shades of brown to even green, blue and speckled. It is fun to have a selection, but understand that nutritionally they are all the same. How an egg cracked open looks and tastes is much more a function of what the bird ate than anything else.

More of our flock.

More of our flock.

9.
Understand any zoning issues where you live regarding livestock, as chickens are considered. Some areas may not restrict you from having a flock, until a neighbor files a complaint. It would be difficult to conceal the fact you have a flock from your neighbors, as chickens do make a bit of noise when they are laying their eggs. I do know of people who say that their neighbors have no idea they have chickens.

Or so they think.

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4 Things to Know About Eggs

There are a few things about eggs that might surprise you.

what do egg labels mean

Can you believe what you read?

1. The term ‘free range’ only means the chickens have access to the outdoors. It does not mean they actually go out.
“What?”
Yep, that’s right. A coop with a window technically has access, yet the chickens may remain indoors and even in cages 24/7, and their eggs can still be labeled ‘free range’.

free range chickens

really free

2. Eggs most likely carry GMO’s and are probably not organic. Unless the farmer is using certified organic and GMO-free feed, the chickens are probably eating corn produced using genetically engineered seed. Even backyard chickens are most likely eating genetically engineered feed. The eggs will contain some of the byproducts of the pesticides.

backyard raised eggs

Know whats in your food

3. Real free range chickens get dirty. If you have your own Ladies, you have probably already found this out. When chickens are allowed to be outside, and the ground is wet, their claws get muddy when they scratch looking for food. When they then go to a nest box to lay, they may walk right over another egg, getting it a little dirty.
Not to worry, this is normal.
Just don’t wash the egg, at least not until you are ready to use it.
Egg shells come complete with a coating to prevent bacteria from getting inside. Washing the egg removes that coating, so just wait until the last minute.

free range chickens

Here's looking at you kid.

4. Color doesn’t matter. Store bought brown eggs are probably no better for you than the white ones. Different breeds of chicken lay different color eggs, that’s all. The egg producer may want you to think they are better so you’ll pay more, but unless there is another reason to buy them, don’t waste your money.

Here the thing:
Healthy, happy, uncaged, free range chickens eating veggie scraps and bugs they find produce eggs that taste different and the yolks are a darker color. They have been found to have a better nutrient content as well. If you are buying eggs labeled ‘free range’ from the market and see no significant difference in the yolk color, they are probably from chickens that only have a window.

If you can buy locally, you are better off. Just don’t assume the chickens really get outside. I know a farm that advertises their eggs as free range, I also know for a fact their chickens have a screened in coop they never get out of. It’s still better than factory farmed eggs, but not free range.

If you are allowed chickens where you live, go for it. Really they take less care than a cat.
If you are not allowed, and not in a homeowner’s association, challenge the ruling and see if you can get it changed.
More and more places are allowing chickens, which is a very good thing.

Here are more posts about our Ladies.

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“So this Guy Across the Road Gets a Rooster, Right…”

Sounds like the opening line to a good joke, doesn’t it?
Well, at first anyway, we weren’t laughing.

free feather from friendly chickens

feathers won't feed the family

Before I go on, a few things about hens:
1. You don’t need a rooster to get eggs, only to get chicks.
2. Chickens lay less as the days get shorter.
3. They lay less when molting or otherwise stressed.
4. They lay more eggs if a rooster is nearby.

We currently have 10 chickens- 5 are too young to lay eggs yet, 3 are molting, and 1 is still upset about the new ladies.
You get the picture.

So it was about a week ago at 4:30 am I was awoken by a loud and irritating sound. Only 17 seconds later, there it was again.
Mandolin mumbled something about a “Rooster” and “Not dawn yet” before rolling back over and putting the pillow over his head.

Actually, there were a few adjectives in there as well, but there’s no need to repeat those.

chickens lay less in winter

slim pickins

If you ever hear a rooster crow for real, and nearby, you’ll understand why many urban settings don’t allow people to have them.
This is no Cock-a-Doodle-Do like in the Old McDonald song, this is more like a Scree-ScreeScree-ScreeSCREECH as the bird builds up the steam to really let the sound out.
Every 12-17 seconds, I timed him.

At first we couldn’t figure out why this new to the neighborhood bird would start his day at 4:30 am, take a break at 5:30, and then resume at 6:00 only to continue on all day long. Even odder, why would we hear him every morning, but some days he was quiet later on.

It hit me one day, much like that startling noise before the dawn has broken.

Some chicken keepers put a light in the coop, to make the chickens’ day seem longer so they will lay more eggs. And perhaps 5:30 is when the guy across the road goes into the coop to attend to the flock.
Hmmm, maybe our hens will start laying more eggs, this has possibilities.
Still that doesn’t explain why he has some quiet days.

The answer is funnier than any joke would be.
We were chatting in the FB group Gardenaholics Anonymous about chickens, when my friend Aud (who knows way more about things than I do) mentioned something I had never heard of.
Rent-a-Rooster.

Yes friends and neighbors, boys and girls, that’s right- if you don’t have a rooster for whatever reason, and want to raise chicks, you can rent one.

“He’s renting out his…rooster?” Mandolin asked, giggling, when I told him.
Boys never actually grow up, do they?

chicken sign

this goes for roosters, too

The next morning around 4:30 he wasn’t laughing anymore.
I do believe he mumbled something about “renting that rooster”, but “only for 10 minutes.”

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Hens and Chicks

With 5 hens in the backyard coop we have too many eggs to eat ourselves, but too few to sell.

The solution? Eat more eggs.
Er..no.
We got more chicks.

chicks in their makeshift coop

aww...they're so cute when they're little

The thing is, hens form a pecking order, and don’t want to let anyone else into that group.

Last fall we moved our hens to their new coop. We also introduced two new hens to the flock, by bringing them into the coop at night when all the ladies are mellowed out.
Chickens really do calm down before they sleep.

Still, a new pecking order needed to be established and as such they chased each other around for a few weeks.
You can read more about that here.

chicks in their makeshift coop

finding one of the roost areas

These little chicklets were far too little to defend themselves, so they had their own makeshift coop for the past few months.
The runs were side-by-side, so each group was familiar with the other.

When they would free range, the hens would chase the chicks just enough to get them to go in a different direction.

hens and pullets

They grow up so fast.

Two months later and the chicklets, technically now ‘pullets’ (between 2 months and 12 months old) have grown, and the nights are getting colder.
It’s time for them to get together.

This change was much easier, only a day of chasing each other and not nearly as nasty as the last one.
The older hens dominate, but everyone gets along.
Whenever there is stress though, the hens don’t lay.

hens and pullets

happy together

So now we have 10 chickens, and no eggs.
Even though it’s only a temporary thing, you’ve got to love the irony.

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How to Test the Freshness of Eggs

So you got yourself some chickens, and just maybe- like me- you didn’t keep perfect track of when the eggs went into the refrigerator.
If it was less than three weeks ago, you’re still ahead of the factory farmed eggs.

Perhaps you know all your eggs are fresh, but you want the freshest to make eggs over or sunny side up- the fresher the egg, the better the result.

home farmed eggs

not the best way to store

Now you can just crack open the egg.
If it smells rotten, oh my- that really has been in there a long time.

If you crack it into a pan or onto a plate, notice how far the white spreads.
The thinner the white or albumen, the older the egg.
This is often how cooks will decide not to use an egg.

But maybe you don’t want to wait to the last minute.
Here’s a simple test you can use:

Carefully place your egg in water.
If it sinks completely, it’s very fresh.

how to test eggs for freshness

the freshest egg

If it leans towards the top, less so.

testing eggs for freshness

not quite as fresh

And if it stands up- still edible but better for baking.

how to test your eggs for freshness

least fresh

If it floats, that’s the worst- crack it open to decide.
And remember you don’t want to do this far in advance, this test is akin to washing an egg. That removes the protective barrier eggs naturally have to keep bacteria out.

‘But GJ, I’m getting more eggs than I can use, they’re starting to pile up- what should I do?’

Glad you asked :-) freeze them.
Freeze them shelled in ice cube trays to use to bake with in the winter when your Ladies are producing less.
Once frozen, remove and bag.

Or make a big batch of your favorite scrambled eggs- with veggies, cheese, whatever- and freeze that in small cups. Make a fritata or quiche and put that in your freezer.
Microwave to serve.

backyard flock

brrr... the ladies as winter approaches

Not only have you saved some eggs, you’ve saved time-
enough to spend a few extra minutes under the quilts on some cold winter mornings.

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Chillin’ the Crib

Chickens can handle the cold, so winterizing a coop is more about you than them.

backyard flock

the ladies as winter approaches

Since my Ladies don’t like to walk on the snow, I cover the first section of their run with some 4 mil plastic (I just use a drop-cloth from the hardware store.)
This keeps the snow from falling, or even blowing in.

chicken run in winter

snow free zone

If anyone besides us could see this, I’d probably try to make it more esthetically pleasing.
Maybe next fall. :-P

Since we only have a small backyard flock and no barn, I keep some straw close at hand and dry in a Rubbermaid storage container.
This one holds almost a full bale.

keeping straw dry

handy is dandy

Nearby is a compost container as well, to put the older straw in as needed.
This is an easy way to have fresh litter handy when the temperatures drop.

for used chicken litter

the garden will be happy

To keep their water from freezing, we have a warmer stand we bought for this purpose.
The plug is securely and safely attached to an outdoor extension.

chicken water system

water won't freeze

And to make feeding easy, we have a large hopper that only needs to be filled weekly.

chicken food hopper

actually it's quite cozy

Of course I visit the girls everyday- to gather eggs and check on them;
winterizing just limits how much time I need to be out in the elements.

chickens ready for winter

Lucy and Nugget ready for the snow

snow on the coop

just in time

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Hen Pecked

We’ve had some of our chickens for a year and a half, and although it seemed that our White Leghorn Pertelote was at the top of the pecking order, and actual order wasn’t too clearly defined.

backyard flock

they look innocent enough

That was until they got their new coop.
I guess the change in environment prompted them to work on establishing a more definitive order, so they promptly started to pick on the smallest lady, our little Americauna Pooka.

She reacted by getting out of the coop, crawling underneath it before it was closed off; and she would sleep away from the rest of the flock.

I admit I felt bad returning her to what I knew would be harassment by the others, but it is nature and she’d otherwise not survive the winter.

backyard flock

Nugget the Not-so-very-nice-as-she-used-to-be

It’s been about 2 weeks now, and although the bottom of the order is known, the top is still be decided.
Our Yellow Leghorn, Nugget (whom we changed her name from Nugget the Hungry to Nugget the Nasty) seemed to be clearly on top.

Up until then, Pertelote pretty much stayed out of the affray.

But then, just when the dust settled and all seemed well, she decided to reclaim her place at the top.

backyard flock

quietly contemplating

And I’ll admit to you in all honesty, that when I saw her go after the very Lady that had chased all the others, I smiled.

Well played, Pertelote…well played.

The Ladies working out their differences in a lady-like way.

Please note that in the film linked above, Pertelote is molting and not looking her best.
She has since regained all of her feathers, and apparently, her confidence as well.

Oh and PS- while they go through this behavior, they just may stop laying.
I almost had to buy eggs from the neighbor.

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Happy Bird-Day

backyard chickens

Sassy

We recently brought home a few more chickens and naming them has been fun… but we have one yet to go.
My FB friend Jack suggested a chicken-naming contest.
Love it!

So far we have:

backyard flock

Nugget

Nugget the Hungry- The yellow Leghorn, Leader of the Pack and the first to the food.

Pertelote the Pretty- Our White Leghorn, named from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Lucy the Loving but Loud- A Rhode Island Red name after Lucille Ball that makes more noise than any of the others.

Pooka- The smallest of the Ladies, an Americauna named for the mythical creature.

Sassy (Short for Sasquatch)- our pretty Brahma that Mandolin thought resembles another creature.

Robin the Hood- our magnificent Black Americauna that flew 6 ft. straight up and a good 20 Ft. away from the coop, the first day we had her. Geez. Mandolin also named her, but not for her amazing feat- he thought she looked like she was wearing a black hood.

raising chickens

Pertelote

And then there’s…

backyard flock

Robin and ?

So leave a comment with your idea for a name suggestion for our latest Americauna.
All I can tell you is that she’s ‘blonder’ or ‘more golden’ than Pooka, yet gentle. She’s also comparatively big.

I’ll let SaveTheWorld choose the name from all those ideas before the weekend is over.
The winning suggestion will receive this Pop-Up Herb Planter!

pop-up herb planter

pop-up herb planter

Hey- it’s just a name for a chicken :-P

NOTE: 11/28/11 Rhanks all for so many great names! SaveTheWorld chose the name Cheese Wiz- so the planter goes to Susan Preston. Congrats Susan!

The first contest.
Follow that Bird -Waylon Jennings sings my fav song from the movie.

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A Better Chicken Coop

Over the past year that we’ve had The Ladies we’ve learned a lot about what they need and like.
Mandolin had built them a basic coop, which sufficed, but we’re looking to expand the flock come spring and it was time for a more permanent structure.

how to build a chicken coop

concrete piers for support

We had 5 concrete piers left over from when we took down an old deck, so started there.

how to build a chicken coop

extra support near the door

This coop is tall enough to walk into, which will make cleaning much easier.

how to build a chicken coop

building the frame

The frame is 2 x 2′s and 2 x 4′s.

how to build a chicken coop

finish the frame

Two roosts were added, at different heights and a foot apart.

how to build a chicken coop

2 roosts

You can see the two 2 x 2′s in this picture. Enough perching room for lots of Ladies.

how to build a chicken coop

another view

The coop is taller on the side where the door is, so that rain and snow will run off the roof.
We used plastic ‘corrugated’ roofing for the top, in a pretty shade of green.

how to build a chicken coop

a window for ventilation

We looked at some finished coops, and they all had some form of ventilation; not only for any gas the chicken waste may give off but also for those dog days of summer.
Mandolin used two old screens on opposite sides of the coop.
Since the cold weather is upon us, he boarded them up for now.

how to build a chicken coop

and another for cross ventilation

I’ve heard and read that chickens will pretty much use the same nest box, but we did put in two just in case.
This coop will be holding about 10 Ladies eventually.

how to build a chicken coop

two nest boxes

It was funny that no sooner had Mandolin added the two roosts, the Ladies began checking out the coop.
I don’t know if they knew it was for them, or if they just were going to take it anyway.

how to build a chicken coop

Lucy checks out her new digs

An early 12″ snow storm came not long after the coop was finished.
The Ladies didn’t mind a bit.

how to build a chicken coop

finished just in time

Because there are many more pictures that would help you to see what we did, I made a video.

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What a Girl Wants

free range chicks
their first day ‘on the range’

We’ve had our Ladies for over a year now and have learned a lot about keeping a small backyard flock.

The most often asked question is ‘don’t you need a rooster to get eggs?’ and the answer is ‘nope’.

You need a rooster if you want to raise chicks; we just want eggs to eat, and we prefer them to be unfertilized.

I understand chickens will lay more eggs if a rooster is around.
We’re lucky there is one across the road whom we hear crowing daily, so I’m thinking that’s close enough.

One interesting fact is that an egg, when freshly laid, is soft; though the shell hardens quickly.
I have a duck egg that is flat on one side, having been laid on a brick.

happy chickens

happy chickens

Here’s what you might be surprised to learn:

Chickens have distinct personalities:
-Nugget The Hungry (the yellow girl) is always the first to get to the feed, and will fly up to try to take treats from me before I get to the rest of the flock. She is so quick to feed she almost always gets food on her.
-Pertelote The Clever (the white chicken) has been the first to find any way out of the enclosed run. She’s also the only one light enough to fly higher than 4 ft., and the fastest and most elusive runner; much to her advantage.
-Lucy The Loving (the reddish-brown named by the readers) knows the sound of my voice, and when I call out “Lucy, I’m home” will come running to be petted.
-Pooka The Pretty (our Ameraucana) is our least smart and most docile member of the flock; she also gives us the prettiest eggs.

chickens love watermelon

a summertime treat

There are some other fun things you might not expect from chickens:
- They LOVE watermelon! They do not like cucumbers, though; and they definitely don’t like zucchini. If Nugget spots red in my hands, she comes running.
- Speaking of which, seeing a chicken run towards you can cause the strangest sensation that you’re in Jurassic Park.
- Chickens will automatically go to their perch as night falls, and will sleep in the same left-to-right order. We sadly lost our Barred Rock chicken M.J. (the first of the five to die, as Mrs. Jones so cleverly pointed out) a few months ago. Now there remains a vacant spot second from the left on the perch each night.
- Chickens can move their eggs. I guess I just never thought of it before, but I found that when they lay an egg outside the nest box, they will move it in- even over rocks or other obstacles if necessary.
- Our Ladies also like bread, but not bread crusts; lettuce, head only- not leaf lettuce; and not surprisingly sunflower seeds. They also do like tuna fish, a lot.
- Happy chickens lay better tasting eggs. When they’re really happy- running around freely- they lay bigger eggs, too.

And like with a lot of relationships-
when the girls are happy, we’re happy.

the song reference

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