Caring for chickens in your back yard: ten questions to ask yourself before you start.
Caring for chickens isn’t hard, but it is a commitment. Ask yourself these questions to see whether you’re ready.
If you’re not sure what caring for chickens entails, these questions will help you think through some important issues and prepare for your flock so that it will be a positive experience for both your chickens-to-be, and your family.
They’re ten questions, based on what I would have liked someone to talk me through when I first started caring for chickens.
There may well be solutions to any which are sticking points. But it’s better to find out now.
So if you answer “No” to even one of these questions, you need to consider what the solution could be before the problem arises.
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1: Is it legal in your area?
This is a deal breaker. If it’s not legal to keep poultry in your area, it’s not legal – simple. If you don’t know, you need to find out. Different regions, cities, towns, neighbourhoods – even different houses in the same area – have different rules.
If it’s not legally permitted there are ways of taking action to change the law. Never try to hide them – someone is bound to tell.
2: Do you have the general commitment to care for chickens?
It’s genuinely lovely to see chickens wandering round your land, foraging for food. It’s calming, and it’s entertaining.
But you know the phrase “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas”? The same applies to poultry. Caring for them is a lifelong commitment.
Like any creature, they have some basic requirements you just can’t ignore – food, shelter and warmth for starters. You can’t give them a bag of food and tell them to help themselves, or expect them to live in trees and fight for their food.
They need the proper feed, which costs money, they need occasional treats, they need clean water providing every single day. They need a coop – and coops come at a price.
And it’s nice to wander round to your coop on sunny days, but how about other weather? Rain, hail, snow – it has to be done.
They can live for four years or more – some for as long as ten – and they will be your responsibility for the whole of that time.
Here’s my advice. If you’ve just decided you want to raise your own, wait a while. Think it over. Read whatever you can about what it takes.
3: Can you afford to keep chickens?
Unless you want show standard birds, hens aren’t very expensive to buy. But coops, runs, feed, veterinarian’s bills and everything else that goes with them are.
If you’re expecting your hens to pay for themselves by giving you an unending supply of fresh eggs, don’t be fooled. They probably won’t. They can stop laying in the winter. They can stop laying because of heat, or stress, or age, or just because.
And their food costs a lot.
Then there is the fact that you will become addicted, no matter what you think now about how you’ll resist. Chicken pictures, pottery, jewellery, kitchen gadgets, garden ornaments, books … been there, still doing that!
Then the time will inevitably come when you want to hatch your own – and I guarantee, you will want to! More expense. Incubators, candlers, brooders, chick starter feed … the list can be endless.
4: Do you have time?
They don’t need taking for walks, but caring for poultry does still take time.
Their chicken house and run need to be cleaned daily in order to avoid disease. Feeders and waterers must be kept clean and full.
Each bird needs to be checked regularly for signs of mites, disease and injury. You need to have somewhere for a sick hen to be kept in isolation and she will need checking multiple times each day.
Your flock needs to be safely roosted at night, and let out early in the morning.
All this requires time and energy. Yes, you’ll get a lot of enjoyment back in return but…
Will you be as available as they need you to be?
5: Is your family committed to caring for chickens?
Because, make no mistake about it, they need to have some commitment too.
Having chickens is wonderful for children. It’s one of the things I believe passionately about. A flock can give kids a sense of responsibility. It can teach them about caring for other living things, about where their food comes from, and they’ll also learn sometimes hard lessons about the cycle of life and death.
But what about the wider implications for the family? What happens when you all want to go away somewhere for the weekend – who will you leave caring for the girls? What about when you’re ill and someone needs to get out of bed early in the morning to let them out of their coop?
Make sure you discuss it fully with your family – and make sure everyone is committed.
6: Do you have space for chickens?
Chickens don’t need an awful lot of space – it’s not unknown for them to be kept inside an apartment. But they’re birds, and apartments are not ideal. They need room to live, roost and forage.
So caring includes being sure you have space for them.
Free ranging is ideal but not always possible. Even in rural Italy with forty acres of land we have difficulties with this because of predators.
So: are you able to guard against predators?
Do you have somewhere you can fence off? Do you have the equipment necessary to build a 7 foot high fence, dug at least one foot underground to stop predators digging through or climbing over?
In terms of outside space you will need at least four square feet per bird. If they’re kept confined, about ten square feet.
And if you want to avoid your grass being ruined, you’ll need space to move them round regularly.
Do you have that much room? And, if you have predators too, do you have the necessary space to keep the flock safe?
Read also: Maintenance of common chicken farm equipment
7: Are you keen on pristine flower beds and an exquisite lawn?
If so, chickens may not be for you.
They love gardens. They love flowers best of all. But your version of caring for gardens and your flock’s ideas will not necessarily be the same.
This is what mine did to my lovely potted plants. They used them as dust-baths.
They’ll also decimate grass very quickly. They love nothing more than scratching about in it looking for bugs. They can turn a lovely green lawn into a mud-bath within a couple of days. Trust me – I know from bitter experience.
Are you prepared for that?
8: Are your neighbours prepared?
You’ve always got on well with your neighbours. But how will they feel about your flock living next door, even if you only have a few?
Do they know anything about poultry? Are they worried (mostly unnecessarily) about rats, predators, mites, crowing roosters, bird flu? Do they have dogs themselves who may find your flock makes a nice lunch? Can you protect your flock from them?
If you’re buying chicks it’s fine – you can choose a breed where you can tell males from female at hatch. But if you’re hatching the chances are 50/50 that you’ll get rooters. And roos make noise. A lot of noise.
9: Will your other pets get along with your girls?
Some cats and dogs get along perfectly well with poultry. But it’s always risky.
Our greyhound is programmed to chase – it’s what he used to do for a living before we knew him. If he could get to our hens he would kill them. He sees them as lunch.
Luce (pronounced Loo-chay), our Maremma, on the other hand, is a Livestock Guardian Dog.
Her job is to look after the flock. They are her family and she would do anything to protect them. It’s what this type of dog has been bred for, for generations.
She doesn’t have a single sign of prey instinct in her – but that’s very unusual in most dogs.
How will your family pet react to having some newcomers in the yard? Will caring for your dog mean you can’t properly protect your flock?
Do you think you’ll be able to train them to live together in peace, or can you keep them apart whilst ensuring they all have a good quality of life?
It’s not easy, but – with careful planning – it can be done.
10: Are you prepared to lose your girls to predators?
This can be a real problem. You love caring for your flock. You get to know them. You find that each one has her own personality. You name them all and you spoil them with treats.
Then one day your neighbour’s dog, or yours, or a fox, or a raccoon, or a buzzard, gets in and kills one or more.
I’ve had mine killed by uncontrolled domestic dogs, pine martens and foxes. In fact one summer my entire flock was wiped out by a fox family who dug under a fence which was buried 12″ into the ground.
I can tell you now – it’s heart-breaking, it’s not easy to resolve and it can be expensive. The 7 foot high chainlink fence I had put round our (admittedly very large) run cost around $4,500.
It took me a good year to get over it. I resolved never to keep chickens again if I couldn’t care for them properly – hence investing in the fence, and in a Livestock Guardian Dog.
How will you deal with it? Do you have the time, the inclination and the money? How will your kids feel if their pets are killed? Is it really worth the heartache?
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