In recent years, keeping a chicken coop in the backyard has risen from the realm of the bizarre, through the slightly eccentric, and into the almost banal. Concurrent with the proliferation of the chickens themselves has been the proliferation of online articles about keeping them, a cavalcade of information that ranges from the genuinely helpful to the overwhelmingly technical to the downright false.
While it’s easy to get lost in the weeds, the actual must-know information needed to start a successful flock is delightfully straightforward, and is detailed below.
Choosing Your Chickens
Probably the first (and most important) decision any prospective chicken owner needs to make is what breed(s) of backyard chickens they’re going to raise. At first glance, this might seem like a fairly simple, binary choice between layers (for eggs) or broilers (for meat), but chickens have actually been bred into a dizzying array of options, which vary by purpose, productivity, personality, breed history, size, color, and hardiness, as well as a variety of other characteristics.
Most first-timers, though, only really need to worry about a few of these potential variables; considerations like finding a rare or historic breed or building a particularly striking flock can come in later – the same way parents teach their teens to drive in the family station wagon before they get behind the wheel of a vintage sports car.
People looking to build their first, “station wagon” flock will need to consider first and foremost the purpose and productivity of their backyard chickens: Are they building a flock of layers or broilers? Or do they want dual-purpose birds – productive egg layers that are also good meat birds if needed? How many eggs a week do they want from their birds?
Although egg production varies by individual and can be influenced by factors like diet and living conditions, some breeds tend to be more productive than others; some average two eggs a week, others six.
“Production” strains, bred, as the name suggests, for high egg production, will tend to be at the higher end of this spectrum, while historic heritage breeds are more likely to lay eggs less frequently, but over a longer period of time.
As a general rule, birds will produce (and live) longer if they’re producing eggs at a lower volume.
Coops and Runs
After choosing what kind of birds they want, chicken keepers will have to think about where they want to house them. The chicken coop, as a concept, should be familiar from Foghorn Leghorn, and while there are now a lot more choices in materials and appearance beyond “small wooden house with a gabled roof,” the design specs of the interior have remained pretty constant.
If the chickens have a run or other place to move around outside, they’ll need four square feet of space per bird; if they don’t get their exercise outside, they’ll need 10 square feet apiece. (Of course, these specs vary by breed as well: Brahmas are the Great Danes of the chicken world and will definitely need extra space, while small bantam birds can get by with less.)
Building the chicken coop
In terms of furniture, the main requirements for a chicken coop are perches – high places where the birds can sit and sleep for the night – and nesting boxes – boxes full of straw, wood shavings, or another soft material where the birds can lay their eggs.
The perches, which can be as simple as a 2×4 nailed to some posts, should always be higher up than the nesting boxes, because chickens will always sleep in the highest available spot – a defense against predators – and hens sleeping in nesting boxes is a recipe for a nasty cleaning job.
Luckily, perches and nesting boxes are often included with the coop, but feeders and waterers are not. There are a variety of different kinds of these, all with their own benefits and drawbacks; trough feeders, for instance, are ideal for chicks and bantam birds. The rule of thumb for feeders and waterers is to have at least one for every eight birds in the flock.
Besides the coop, most chicken owners will also want a run, a fenced-in outdoor area where the chickens can move around and get their exercise. Here again, the space requirements will vary by breed, but a flock of standard birds will likely need 15 square feet of space each.
Many pre-fab coops come with their own run attachments, but for people who want to build their own, it’s usually as simple as calculating how much space the birds need and enclosing it with a fence.
Mistakes to Avoid
Of course, keeping backyard chickens requires more than just purchasing the necessary equipment, and once the initial serotonin rush of cradling adorable chicks is over, there are a number of pitfalls first-timers might stumble into.
The first is failing to account for predators; this is particularly common amongst urban and suburban chicken keepers, who tend to forget they share their space with wild animals. To keep out skunks and other burrowers, all fences and walls around the backyard chickens should be sunk at least 12 inches into the ground.
Aerial predators – mostly hawks – can be deterred with commercial predator deterrents, but also by hanging something shiny around the coop that will move in the wind, like old CDs or reflective tape.
Another thing first-timers tend to forget is that their birds need more than just chicken feed; they also have nutritional needs that can only be met by supplements.
The first of these is insoluble grit, which takes the place of the dirt and small pebbles a bird would digest in the wild to help grind up and digest their food. The second is calcium carbonate, which gives hens the nutrients they need to put strong shells on their eggs.
While these aren’t the only things a prospective chicken keeper needs to know, they’re a good first step on the long, delightful, sometimes exhausting, ultimately rewarding adventure of chicken keeping.