It’s been about eight months since I first got my five chickens. Looking back on these eight months, I have learned so much. My chickens, Rosa, Marge, Gladys, Denise, and Megg, have been my much needed garden companions during quarantine. Although it is such a joy to find fresh eggs in the nest box every morning, there a few things I wish I really understood before getting chickens. Here are ten things to consider before getting chickens.
1. They Poop… A lot
I was told this before I got chickens but I really didn’t realize how much chickens poop until I got them. When they were first in the brooder, I cleaned it out daily and was always surprised by how much they poop! I’ve read somewhere that chickens poop something like 5 times per hour…! It makes sense since they grow so fast and produce an entire egg per day. Naturally, they need to consume quite a bit. As for keeping up with poop cleaning duty: once you settle in to a routine, it becomes second nature. It’s really important to keep your coop, hen house, and run clean because pests, diseases and bacteria can lead to fatal diseases and illnesses within your flock. I also shifted my perspective to consider that one of the most important purposes of my chickens is to produce compostable manure. It’s extremely important that you compost the manure before adding it to your garden. Chicken manure can contain harmful bacteria if ingested (more on that later).
In the coop, hen house, and run I use a combination of fresh herbs from the garden, straw, pine shavings, and shredded brown bags (like the ones they give you at the grocery store). When it is time to clean everything up, I load up my wheelbarrow with the poop, decomposed herbs, straw, shavings, and brown bags. Whenever I add new kitchen compost scraps to my bin, I add a few shovelfuls of chicken manure and bedding.
I also feed my chickens kitchen scraps such as lettuce, herbs, celery, and chard. By feeding them chicken scraps, I am not only feeding them, but also the chickens break down the kitchen scraps into the manure I then compost!
2. Predator Paranoia
When I first considered getting chickens, I was told that everything wants to eat your chickens – opossums, raccoons, cats, dogs, hawks, foxes, squirrels and coyotes. Just to name a few predators… I got to work right away researching “predator proof” coops and runs. That’s when I came across an article that said, “if a toddler can get in to your coop, a raccoon can too.” Reassuring, right? What kind of toddler are talking here? How savvy are they? At the beginning, when the chicks were still in our bathroom tub in their brooder, I would have fears that a cat or rat would chew through the window screen and attack them. Paranoid, right? It doesn’t stop there. I worry whenever someone brings their dog over that their dog will somehow jump in to the run and take one of my chickens. Whenever I see a cat or racoon on our security camera, I always think that they are for sure after my chickens. The only way I am able to quell my paranoia is by ensuring that the coop and hen house are secure each night at sunset.
3. When They Will Start Laying Eggs… You Just Don’t Know
At around sixteen weeks old, I started checking the nest boxes every day to see if “today was day” that my chickens would start laying eggs. What I wish I understood from the get-go better is that it doesn’t really work that way. Sure, chickens can start laying that early but it won’t be that much of a surprise. At least that was how it was for me. Each of my chickens, before they started laying, exhibited similar behavior patterns. First, they would go in to the next box for prolonged periods of time to check it out. They’d even sit in their for a while… but no egg. They also got less flighty around me and even started to do a “submissive squat.” Once they start laying it might not be routine at first. Some eggs might come out a little wonky or they may lay them where you can’t find them. It’s not clockwork or an exact time, each chicken is different. The best advice I can give when it comes to knowing when your chickens will start laying is: to be patient, give them a safe and clean place to lay their eggs, feed them layer feed at the appropriate age and offer free choice calcium if necessary.
4. You Can Get Sick
I got sick from my chickens within a month of having them. If you don’t believe me, check out this article from the NY Times: Backyard Chickens Carry a Hidden Risk Salmonella. While I didn’t get salmonella, I did contract campylobacter and h. pylori. During the beginning months of the COVID-19 pandemic, contracting a digestive illness was less than ideal. It was difficult to get an appointment and my doctor even initially dismissed my symptoms as possible COVID-19 symptoms – yikes! It is so important that you always wash your hands after handling your chickens or related equipment. I also take the extra precaution of changing my shoes or clothes if I have been handling my chickens or cleaning their coop.
5. They Can Be Noisy
While roosters are pretty much banned in most urban areas for their noise level, hens can be noisy in their own right too. Hens actually have an “egg song” believe it or not. Not all hens perform an egg song, but yours might! I have two chickens that do an egg song either before or after they lay an egg. It is a hen’s way of saying either “something is about to happen!” or “something just happened!” My hens will also make some noise when they are bored, want treats, or if one of the other chickens is doing something they don’t like. My hens also make a sharp, quick noise if a large bird flies over head. Most areas have regulations on how far you ought to keep chickens away from your own residence as well as neighboring residences. It’s always good idea to give your neighbors a heads up and it never hurts to give them some eggs to ease things.
6. It’s A Lot of Eggs
Seriously, a lot of eggs. In our house of two we have more than enough eggs to feed ourselves happily. I’d say I get at the very least three eggs per day. I end up giving a lot of our eggs away to friends, family and neighbors. It is so rewarding to be able to share eggs with others and one of the main reasons I wanted to raise chickens in the first place.
7. You’ll Want More
I definitely fell down a chicken breed rabbit hole after getting my first five. There are so many beautiful breeds out there. There are breeds with distinct personalities, plumage, egg color, or general size. It is so hard to narrow down your flock selection. I have a Buff Brahma, Rhode Island Red, Olive Egger, Easter Egger and Cuckoo Maran. I have my eyes on other breeds to add to my flock in coming years as my current flock goes in to egg retirement.
8. Time & Cost Commitment
While the upfront cost of chickens is relatively low with hatching chicks some places under $5.00, the long term cost and time commitment is quite substantial. With feed bags typically costing over $20.00, treats around the same cost, coops, coop maintenance, chickens aren’t “cheap.” Add that to the time commitment – letting your chickens out every morning, putting them away at night, cleaning, feeding, refreshing their waterers – it’s no small order. I will say though that chickens are SO WORTH IT! They lay fresh eggs daily, they produce a massive amount of compost, they make great garden companions, they eat a lot of the garden pests such as cabbage worms and aphids. For more on how much it cost to build my coop check out my post: Backyard Chickens & Coop FAQ.
9. Establish a Support Group
Before I got chickens, I set myself up with a support group of sorts. I interviewed a couple local gardeners on their experience with chickens and to acquaint myself with raising chickens in an urban area such as Los Angeles. For that interview check out my post: Getting Chickens: Interview with Local Gardeners. I am indebted to my support group for all of their advice along the way. Whether it’s a minor behavior quirk, or a questionable poop, or just a check in, I highly suggest setting yourself up with a support group to bounce your questions off of.
10. They Have Personality
Your chickens will have personalities! Not every one of your chickens will want to be held or even come near you. Some may become escape artists while others may be dust bath queens. The range of personalities my chickens have was such a surprise to me. They make me giggle, frustrate me, follow me around, are extremely curious. To me, my chickens make excellent companions that I want to be around.