Introduction to Chicken Keeping

Hens are bossy, demanding, endlessly curious and easily gratified. They are comical to watch, make great friends to your children, provide amusement for you, and supply eggs for the table. I’ve enjoyed keeping chickens for more than fifteen years. Currently, I have nineteen hens, divided into two flocks, that live in separate coops and fenced yards. The hens in the Big Barn are young and in the prime of their egg laying years. The chickens in the Little Barn are old and no longer lay eggs. I’m not a real farmer and can afford to keep hens that are not laying daily, and so my chickens are dual-purpose – egg layers and pets. My hens live in my backyard, which is also where I have flower, vegetable and herb gardens for pleasure and for use in my kitchen. I manage my flock so that I can enjoy the company of the hens, but also have a beautiful and serene yard. What I’ve learned over the years about a life with chickens, I share here on the HenCam. You can find detailed information in the FAQs; what follows is a quick overview to get you started.

You don’t need a big flock to get eggs for your table (many breeds lay 5 eggs a week), but it is best to have a minimum of three hens, as they are sociable creatures who like the companionship of others of their kind. In the winter they fluff up next to their friends, and in the summer they’ll dust bathe in groups. If the idea of a rooster keeps you from having chickens, don’t worry. You don’t need to have a rooster around for the hens to lay eggs, in fact, “the girls” appear quite content to not have a male in their midst, constantly trying to mount them. I don’t keep roosters as I’ve no desire to deal with the crowing or aggression. My hens do fine without a roo, and I have no problem with bullying in my flock despite not having the male “leader.” Some people do like having a rooster, with his big personality and voice, around. It is possible to find a nice (though not quiet) rooster, so never settle on one that attacks people!

You’ll need to provide your chickens with a henhouse to give them shelter from inclement weather, a place to lay eggs, and a safe haven to spend the night. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or huge, although a fanciful coop can be a feature of your garden design. It is essential that the coop is large enough. Too many of the prefab coops currently being marketed are way too small, with no windows or adequate ventilation. Plan on a minimum of 4 square feet per chicken of interior floor space, and another minimum of 8 square feet outside. For details about coop design see my FAQ.

The more space your chickens have, the healthier and happier they’ll be. The term pecking order definitely originated with poultry. Chickens peck at each other for all sorts of reasons, but mostly to keep the other girls away from their treasures, be it a glistening drop of rain or a juicy bug. Given enough space, these little spats are harmless, but when chickens are crowded they become ruthless and might even peck each other to death. (I have more about pecking and aggression in a FAQ.) Hens can also become aggressive when bored. A bare dirt pen, or long stretches indoors in cramped quarters, will bring out the worst in them (no different than us!) That’s why I have a compost pile in the chicken run, (see this FAQ) and recommend treats like pumpkins and cabbage to keep them busy.

Inside the henhouse you’ll need roosts, which chickens sleep on. They should not sleep on the floor or in nesting boxes! You can see the angled ladders that my hens use, on the cams. Nesting boxes should be low and located out of direct sunlight if possible. I like the metal boxes, as they are easy to clean and don’t harbor mites. However, wooden ones will do. I keep my hens bedded with pine shavings which are absorbent and easy to keep tidy with a fine-tined pitchfork and a kitty litter scoop. Feed and water needs to be kept dry and clean. I prefer both to be indoors. Use a gravity flow water dispenser designed for chickens. You’ll also need a hanging feeder for the food. The majority of the hen’s diet should come from laying hen pellets. Although chickens go crazy for scratch corn, it is fattening and can upset their calcium balance. Instead, make sure that they have greens and other vegetables. Hulled sunflower seeds are a welcome occasional treat.

During the day the chickens need access to sunshine and an outdoor run. They need a place to dust bathe (FAQ here) and protection from predators. Chickens enjoy free-ranging, and it’s the best life for them. However, it’s not always practical or safe. Chickens tear up plants, eat everything from flowers to tomatoes, and will quickly turn a small lawn into packed dirt. Where I live, there are hawks nesting in the trees in the woods behind my house, foxes that hunt day and night, and other predators. My hens stay in their spacious pens, except under my close supervision.

When you have chickens you have losses. Predators and disease will thin your flock. I detail what to do in case of illness, and how to protect against predators in my FAQs. Even healthy hens have comparatively short lifespans, although a few sturdy chickens will live to be 8 or even 12 years of age. By the time they’re five they rarely, if ever, lay eggs, but they’ll be familiar faces in your backyard, and, I think, nice to have around. As you begin your chicken keeping life, think through how you’ll incorporate these animals into your day, even when they no longer provide eggs for the basket that you carry to the kitchen. Plan the coop and pen so that you get the full benefit of keeping hens – companionship as well as eggs. Don’t tuck the coop away out of sight, or make it so small that you can’t interact with the girls. Lastly, a word of caution – once you get a few hens, you’ll likely want more. Have fun!