Guest post by Hilary Kearney of Girl Next Door Honey
Having your own flock of backyard chickens is incredibly rewarding and beneficial but it is easy to get caught up in the excitement of this increasingly popular hobby without doing the proper research to prepare yourself! I’ve compiled a helpful list of things you should know before committing to getting chickens that will hopefully help you to know what to expect but if there’s one thing I have learned, chickens will always find a way to surprise you!
1) You should never have just one chicken. They are social animals and they need companionship.
2) You don’t need a rooster to get eggs. Your hens will lay with or without a rooster. If you have a rooster your eggs will likely be fertilized but there is no difference in nutrition or taste.
3) Chickens can be noisy. Usually they are the noisiest right after they have laid an egg. This is called their egg song. It is that classic ‘buck-buck-buck-buck-buck-bugawk!’ chicken call most of us know but in person it can go on for 10 minutes or more and be extremely loud. The rest of the time the noises they make are usually softer cooing and clucking noises but it sometimes depends on the breed. In my experience Rhode Island Red hens have been the quietest, while Brown Leghorns have been the loudest. Of course, all chickens have their own personalities so sometimes the breed won’t matter at all.
4) Chickens will poop a lot. Some people see this as a con, but really it is a pro. Chicken poop is one of the best things to put in your compost pile and it will help enrich your soil greatly. You just have to get a system down for how to deal with it!
5) Chickens like to dig. This behavior is called ‘scratching’ they use their clawed feet to dig for bugs and other tasty treats found in the ground. My yard is composed of very hard clay, so I was amazed to see the difference after letting the chickens free range. They have completely softened up the ground! Now they are excavating the hillside. If you have a manicured yard you may want to think twice about letting your chickens have full access to it.
6) Chickens can live 8-10 years but as they get older their egg production slows down. Typically an egg laying breed will lay at a productive level for 5-7 years but you never know. When you get chickens you are making a commitment to take care of them. Some people eat their chickens once the egg production slows and some people re-home them, others keep them on because they consider them to be pets or they feel that they have earned their stay by laying all the years before. Make sure you think about this aspect of keeping chickens so you can make a responsible decision.
7) Chickens need healthcare. Just like cats and dogs, your chickens can get injured or become sick but unlike common household animals chickens can be difficult to treat because most vets don’t know anything about chickens. The vets who do are specialty vets and their bills can be quite costly! Many people prefer to try to treat their chickens themselves using home remedies. Either way, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with common chicken illnesses and to prepare a ‘chicken first aid kit’ so you have it on hand in case of emergencies.
8) Chickens are excellent managers of food waste! This is one of my favorite things about chickens. I often collect food that would otherwise be thrown out to give to my chickens like the leftover white rice from a dining experience at Chinese restaurant or the lettuce used for display purposes on a catering tray. Chickens can eat almost anything and there are only a few things they cannot eat. Familiarize yourself with the chicken treat chart as a starting point!
9) Chickens will bully each other. Have you heard the term ‘pecking order’? Well this is a real thing. It is the chickens’ way of organizing the social hierarchy of the flock. It is most common when introducing new chickens to the flock because they have to re-establish everyone’s position in the flock. For this reason, I try to introduce new chickens in bonded pairs so that if one of both is picked on they at least have each other. Usually it settles down after a few weeks and the chickens will be at peace but it can sometimes be an ongoing problem that can get quite violent. My top hen is appropriately named ‘Xena’.
10) Chickens have personalities! Your friends might start to think you are turning into the ‘crazy cat lady’ of chickens but each chicken really does have their own individual personality. Some are sweet, some are cranky, and some are aloof. I think it’s impossible not to personify them! One of the best things about having backyard chickens is getting to know them all. I love to just sit in the garden and spend time with my hens. They never fail to make me laugh.
To learn everything you need to know about sustainable chicken keeping, watch for upcoming classes on backyard chickens from The SD Sustainable Living Institute and for more helpful tips and inspiration click here to follow our chicken board on Pintrest!
Hilary Kearney is an artist, beekeeper, gardener, chicken lover, knitter and self-diagnosed shop-a-holic. She’s a San Diego native with a degree in Fine Art from The University of California Santa Cruz.You can follow her beekeeping adventures and support her local honey business on her Facebook page: Girl Next Door Honey.