Kelly Liston

A Practical Guide to Keeping Chickens, Chicken 101 - ohlardy.com

When I first got chickens, the #1 question that my friends and family asked was, “Do you need a rooster to get eggs?” The answer is no. I usually like to respond with something cheeky, like, “Do you need a man so that you can ovulate each month?” Nope, us ladies do that all on our own. And so do the hens – almost every day.  The only time you would need a rooster is if you want to have baby chickens! Since most municipalities outlaw roosters within city limits, put your dreams of growing a lovely chicken family on hold.

Now, if you are anything like me, I didn't know much about chickens. I am going to go through just a few of the common terms associated with chickens to get you up to speed.  Some of these may be familiar to you, some might not!

The Bits and Pieces

Labeled Chicken Parts

Comb – The red fleshy part that sits on their head like a hat.  Shape and size vary from breed to breed.  Another fun tidbit, when my hens are getting ready to lay an egg, their combs are bright red.  Almost glowing!
Shank – The part of the chicken's leg that is between the thigh and the foot.
Vent – This is the chicken's bottom.  The vent is where eggs and other waste products descend and exit.
Wattle – The red bits of flesh that dangle on either side of a chicken's beak.  Did you ever watch Ally McBeal?  John Cage had a “thing” for a woman's wattle.  Not the same.  Again, size can vary between breeds.

Boy or Girl?

Chick – A cute baby chicken, of course!
Pullet – A young female chicken that is less than a year old.  A chick becomes a pullet when she has all of her feathers.
Cockerel – A young male chicken that is less than a year old.
Hen – A female chicken that is at least one year old.
Rooster (or Cock) – A male chicken that is at least one year old.
Flock – A group of at least three chickens.

The Digs

Coop – This is the chicken's house!  It is usually comprised of a hen house and a run.
Run – This is an enclosed outdoor area for the chicken to roam about and be safe from predators.
Henhouse – The sheltered “house” within a coop where the hens sleep and lay eggs.
Nest Box – The little space within a henhouse where a chicken can lay her eggs.
Perch – Typically a bar or branch secured inside the henhouse where the chickens can sleep.  They like to be up off of the ground while they sleep.  Unless your hens are like mine!  3 sleep in the nest boxes, 2 on the perch, and 1 high up on top of the door that goes into the coop.  Go figure.

The Things They Do

Pecking Order – Yes, this is a real thing.  Within the flock, the hens figure out amongst themselves who is top dog.  It isn't permanent and can change quickly.  For example, one of my hens was sick and I had her removed from the flock for 24 hours.  When I removed her, she was the boss.  When I brought her back, she had been replaced.  It is very interesting to watch!
Dirt Bath – This is how the chickens clean themselves.  They dig a nice hole in some dirt (or in my raised beds next to my Rosemary!!), lay down in it, roll all around, and kick it up onto themselves.  When they are done, they pop up and shake it all out.  Think Pig Pen from The Peanuts.
Brood – This is when a hen sits on her eggs and tries with all of her might to hatch them.  It is kind of sad because they will never hatch.  Broody hens are undesirable because they may get nasty (they DO NOT want you to take their “babies”) and they completely stop laying eggs.  Fortunately I have only had one hen get Broody and she wasn't too nasty.
Preen – Another way chickens clean themselves.  They run their beak through their feathers to “comb” them and clean them off.  For some reason, my hens congregate at my backdoor every morning at the same time to preen.
Roost – The act of a chicken sitting on a perch and sleeping at night.

Hens Preening at the door

Breeds

While all chickens look like chickens, they don't all look the same.  This is the fun part!  When setting up your backyard flock, you get to choose from a myriad of breeds, the hens that will best suit your backyard!  Is it most important that you have chickens that are excellent egg-layers?  Or, is it MORE important that you have chickens that lay green and blue eggs?  What about how they look?  Do you want a variety of pretty looking hens?  Brown ones or black ones?  Speckled or stripes?  Bottom line, there are lots of breeds of chickens and it is really fun to go “shopping.”  For our purposes here, I will outline good egg-laying breeds that are suitable for a backyard flock.  Remember, these aren't the ONLY hens that are great for the backyard.  Since most of us want chickens so that we can eat their eggs, these few breeds will certainly fit the bill!

Collage of Hens Breed

Most Chicken Keeping beginners have MANY questions.  I will be addressing most of those questions in the upcoming posts.  But those FAQs that fit Chicken 101, I will answer here.

How long do chickens live and how long will they give me eggs?

  • Life span can vary from breed to breed, but generally speaking a happy and healthy hen will live on average for 8 to 10 years.
  • Hens will start laying eggs around 5 months of age.  Their peak production is in the first two years of their egg-laying career.  After that, it slowly declines into old age.  At this point, when a laying hen is “retired” you can simply keep her as a pet (because she has become one), give her away, or you can eat her!  Most people tend to keep their chickens until the natural end of their life, but I know many people who have made excellent soup from their devoted hens.  And for that delicious broth, we thank them.

What do we feed our hens?

  • Chickens eat “chicken feed” which you can find at any local feed store.  There are two different types of feed – grower and layer.  The growing chicks get the grower feed and as soon as they start laying they switch over to the layer feed.  The chicks need more protein than the grown hens and the grown hens need a lot more calcium to support all of the egg-laying they are going to do!
  • Chickens also love to eat real food.  Most kitchen scraps can be thrown out for your hens to enjoy.  My hens, in particular, love tomatoes, grapes, blueberries, bread, and apples.  Keep in mind that foods like onions, garlic, and cabbage may change the flavor of the eggs they are laying.
  • Also, use common sense here.  Don't give your chicken anything YOU wouldn't eat.  If it smells and looks gross, throw it away.  Your chickens won't want it either.

Can chickens get sick?

  • Sure!  I have had hens that seemed to have a little cold.  A chicken sneeze is kind of cute!  If you have a hen who seems ill, it is a good idea to separate her from the flock in her own little chicken hospital complete with lots of water with a little apple cider vinegar mixed in.  I have also heard of people putting some crushed garlic into the water to help kick a cold.  There are lots of resources out there to help sick hens and I will refer to them in an upcoming post!  Bottom line, if the cold is contagious, it is best to try to keep the rest of the flock healthy.

Aren't chickens smelly?

  • Well, they can be.  That is, if you don't keep their coop clean.  Being a responsible chicken keeper means making sure that their living space is clean.  If cleaning the coop isn't a priority for you, their house will start to smell.  So clean that coop!!

Where can I get chickens?

  • Your local feed store typically carries several breeds of chicks for you to choose from!  They also have feeders and waterers to help you get started.  You can also search online for hatcheries that have a good reputation.  The cool thing about buying from your local feed store is that you can buy 3 or 6 and that is it.  With hatcheries they typically have a minimum order of around 25 (depending on the hatchery of course).  I will highlight several ordering options in the upcoming resources post!

Will my chicken do well in hot/cold weather?

  • Cold weather tolerance varies from breed to breed.  That being said, there are a lot of chicken breeds that do well in cold weather.  As long as they have all of their feathers, they should do fine.  Of course, if you have a blizzard going on, keep your chickens in shelter.  Their little wattles and combs can get frostbite.
  • Warm weather tolerance also varies by breed.  The hens that I have purchased have done well in our hot summers.  They don't like it, but they are okay.  I do my best to give them lots of opportunities to cool off during the warm months.  I have misters set up and I lay out some frozen water bottles for them to sit next to.  They cool off through their feet, so if they can stand in some water, they will be pretty happy about that!

If you are anything like me, you probably have more questions!  Great, ask away!  Chicken 101 should give you enough info to get you going on your chicken journey.  Start looking at breeds, figure out what your priorities are!  Do you want colorful eggs, or colorful chickens?  Take good notes and stay tuned!

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Next up: All About Chicks!

And in case you missed it: Part One – An Introduction

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40 Comments on “A Practical Guide to Keeping Chickens – Chicken 101”

      1. My chickens do the same thing at my back slider door. They line up and preen and nap there. Your photo looks just like my situation. lol I don’t mind it as I actually enjoy watching them as I’m in the house but it’s the poop! Like you, I wish they could be grass trained. lol I’m constantly washing the back step area down as I’d hate to accidentally step on a “surprise”. I wish there was something creative I could think of to do.

      2. great stuff, my wife and I are in ahwatukee, she has been all over the web and found blogs from you and another. Pretty interesting actually that its such a big thing here in Phoenix. Any tips for first-timers? Also, do you have instagram or Facebook for us to follow?

  1. What do you use if/when your chickens get “dirty butts” (feathers that cover their vent area are gross & poopy, instead of looking clean and fluffy. I have put D E in the coop and dust areas, raw vinegar in water. So far only 3-4 have it but trying to prevent spread.

  2. This has happened to me a few times, but it usually resolves itself. I find that the hens that don’t roost on the perch get poopy butts because they are sitting where they poop. Check to see if your hens are roosting. Also, I try to keep the nesting boxes free of poop because they can sit in it there, too.

    Lots of owners trim the butt feathers a bit to keep it mess free and so that they can see the vent and make sure nothing is stuck to that or there aren’t any other problems. Hope that helps!

  3. 1. Do the hens ruin your landscaping/flowers, etc?
    2. Curious about any damage to my beautiful, stained wood french doors and glass. I have heard hens like to hang out by the back door. Will they peck it?
    3. Do your hens prefer to poop on your porch rather than the grass?
    4. Have you posted a pic of your coop and run?

    Sorry to bother you. I have to figure all of this out before my husband puts the kabosh on this fun! I could ‘win’ this but it is always better if it is ‘win-win!’ Then I can share the work load…hehe.

    1. Hi Julie! Okay, to answer your questions:
      1. They haven’t ruined my flowers or landscaping. They don’t really like what I have. That being said, my kids planted a sweet potato to watch it grow. As soon as they found that, it was gone! They do walk and trample on everything, but it hasn’t had a bad effect on my landscaping.
      2. Yes, they peck at my door. And walls. But my back doors (where they like to preen) aren’t damaged. They were picking at one part of a wall, but I have since covered it up and they have moved on and forgotten about it.
      3. My hens don’t have a pooping preference. They poop everywhere, whenever they want. I wish they were grass trained. 🙂
      4. I will be posting a video of my coop and run in the post all about coops! Stay tuned. 🙂

      I hope that helps! Keep in mind that your hens can be cooped up all day, as long as their run is big enough to support however many hens you have. They don’t need much space. Again, I will cover that in my coop post.

  4. Thanks for the great intro. My wife and I are hoping to get some chickens in a year or two once we’ve bought a house (and so have a yard).

    One correction: What do we feed our hens?
    Most chicken scraps can be thrown out for your hens to enjoy.

    I assume that’s supposed to be “kitchen scraps”?

  5. What do you do about the pecking order? Should we protect the chickens that are getting pecked at?
    When chickens “yawn”, is there something to be worried about?
    Thanks in advance!

    1. As for the hens getting pecked, if it gets bad there is a product called Rooster Booster you can get. It is this lotion that you can put on their feathers and the other chickens think it smells bad.

      As far as the yawning goes, are there any other symptoms? Typically I see yawning after they eat. Perhaps they are adjusting their crop and moving food down. If there are any other symptoms, it may be something else.

  6. I want chickens so bad! I used to have about a dozen growing up, and I miss those eggs! Where do I look to see if chickens are allowed where I live? Thanks!

    1. Where do you live? If it is a big municipality, I may be able to tell you. If not, I googled “Phoenix City Code” and once I found that website, I found the chapter on animals. Typically chickens are mentioned in a section like that. Let me know where you live and I may be able to save you some searching.

  7. Wow, very informative!

    Do you know if it is safe to handle chickens and care for them and their coops while pregnant? I know your not supposed to clean kitty litter, wondering if its the same for chickens…

    Will their poop desolve in grass? If I let chickens roam my yard, will it still be sanitary for the family to be walking on?

    Thanks!!!
    Michelle recently posted…Part 1: Combating Infertility: HolisticallyMy Profile

    1. I am pretty sure that women on farms decades ago didn’t get rid of their chickens when they became pregnant. 🙂 I handled my chickens and cleaned their coop during my entire last pregnancy. I did use common sense, though. I wore a mask while cleaning out the coop and washed my hands after cleaning and handling the birds. The danger with kitties is Toxoplasmosis, but I am sure birds can have weird things in their poop, too. If you are real concerned, contact your physician and ask them for some research. OR, do what I didn’t do, and insist that your hubby have coop cleaning duty!

      As far as the poop in the grass, it will “dissolve” if the birds are scratching it in, and it breaks down when the lawn is watered. But it will also sit there waiting to be stepped on, too. 🙂 I have washed plenty of kids feet that happened to wander into chicken poop and dog poop, too, for that matter!

  8. Great little article! I grew up with chickens, and am excited to be able to have them again. We currently have 5 New Hampshire Reds (though I think one may be a little roo…they are still too young to tell!) and 2 Araucanas. Going to pick up a few more this weekend, Buff Orpingtons, Australorps and probably a couple more Araucanas. 🙂
    Nichelle recently posted…Being PreparedMy Profile

    1. You should know if you have a Roo before 20 weeks. They usually start crowing before then. 🙂 Enjoy your chicken shopping!

  9. We had chickens when i was a kid and we ORDERED more then 3 to 6 chicks at a time there..They will call you to go pick them up..You can also order just hens or hens and as many roosters as you want or just order chicks and get whatever hatches..also,when hens fight if they draw blood they can and often do peck the injured one to death..best to pen the injured until they heal separately.My neighbor has hens that would peck the roosters to death..very weird..They were Rode Island Reds..Ours were to and we gave him at least 3 large roosters that they killed..Also I found DIATOMACEOUS EARTH..You get it from the feed store..I paid 19.99 for 25lbs.You put in where they dust themselves and it kills the lice that they get..It is also good for worming animals.It is all natural and can be used in your home too.I sweep it in my carpets to kill fleas that may come in on the dogs or cat..Can be used on the pets and is safe around kids too..

    1. Great tips! Yes, injured hens can get pecked to death. I find that a product called Rooster Booster applied to the feathers (and separation) helps prevent that.

  10. I am 110% new at raising chickens. I plan to get 3 when I move to a house (instead of apartment) with a yard in June! I was going to buy some already laying hens off of Craiglist locally so that I don’t have to raise them. But I do have a few questions. I hope you can help!

    1. I want the tractor style coop so my chickens can eat from various areas of grass in my yard (which isn’t fenced and isn’t big…I’m just out of college and renting!). They are so expensive online though. Do you know simple/easy/cheap ways to build one?

    2. You say your chickens come up to your door. I thought they always had to be in the coop…or is that just when you don’t have a fenced yard and/or other pets that could get them? My new place will not be fenced AND there’s a dog….or more around the neighborhood. How do they not get away?

    3. I plan on also growing a garden. I was going to put 3 ft of chicken wire around my garden just to keep neighborhood animals out. But I did hear that chickens do great things in the garden. I was planning on putting them in the garden for an hour or so every so often. But will they fly out?

    4. I live in hot & humid south Louisiana. However, it does get cold (very randomly and sporadically) btwn October – February. Which breeds would be good for my climate? I was planning on freezing their water feeders to keep them cool as well.

    Thank you for the help!

    1. Hi Savannah!

      1. Just from a quick google search, I found that there are lots of people building chicken tractors! Here is one example: http://www.backyardchickens.com/t/172799/our-hoop-house-chicken-tractor that you can check out. I would just make sure that when you build it, you make it easy to move.
      2. My hens come to my door because my backyard is fenced in. They have a coop that they sleep in and lay eggs in, but free range in the yard during the day. If you do not have a fence, you will need to keep them in your tractor all day. Just make sure it is big enough for them to be happy. You can see http://ohlardy.com/a-practical-guide-to-keeping-chickens-the-scoop-on-the-coop for some general guide lines to coop planning.
      3. YES! Chickens can be great for gardens. And they can be destructive. Since you have the fence issue, I would construct a tall fence around your garden. I have had a chicken scale a 6 foot wall. Also, let them into your garden about an hour before dusk. They won’t stay long (because they will want to go to bed) so any damage will be minimal. Keep a close eye on them too. They LOVE tomatoes. They will eat any goodies they find.
      4. I always put a frozen water bottle into the water (like a giant ice cube) to keep it cool. Leghorns do really well in warm weather. So do Minorcas and Buttercups. That being said, I live in Phoenix and I have had a Welsummer, Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Rock, and Easter Eggers all do fine. Don’t get me wrong, they are HOT, but they have made it. Typically the medium weight birds (5 pounds or so) do better than the heavy breeds (7 pounds) in warm weather.

      Don’t hesitate to ask more questions if you have them! Happy chicken planning!

  11. Love your little chickies! I have a 3 month old pullet who started sneezing. No runny nose, or cough. How much apple cider vinegar should be added to the water?

  12. Our chickens have stopped laying and are digging a huge hole. They are 1 yr. old
    Any ideas why?

  13. What breed would you recommend for large eggs? I also hear some chickens can be meaner than others, Thanks for all your great info

  14. Yeah! We’re in Phx too! I have 5 Ameraucama 6-7 weeks old that I hope we’re ready for this weekend. I’m so happy, excited and thrilled. I’m slightly worried about the coop from the place in Glendale that was over priced and not completely ready for them. Love your website! I will try & keep you posted since we’re possibly neighbors. Thank you for all your wonderfully helpful info. I hope we talk soon.

  15. So I have about 26 layers of mixed breeds and 2 roosters of the same breed. Will the 2 roosters breed with any of the hens when mature? One of my boys asked me this question and I did not know how to answer that. I had chickens growing up, but we never let them hatch eggs. I do not know the process on this. It is something that we would like to try at some point. And the other question he asked is what will the chicks typically look like? So the roosters are the Barred Rock and the hens are any where from the same to the Americana, black sex link, black australorp, isa brown, rhode island red, and buff orpingtons. If you can refer me to a site or have information for me on this I would greatly appreciate it. Thank you.

  16. Hi. Have another question. When my husband built the coop, he made it so that the chickens have a little door that I open and it is a ramp for them to walk down to the outside so that I can close it when I clean the coop so they cant come in. He says I should leave that door down all the time for them even though they probably wont go outside, but I do have 1 female duck that lives with the girls. They do have a fence all around them and on top so nothing can get in to get them.

  17. I loved reading your article.. it has helped out a lot.. My one question is do they need a light in the coop? We had one in there to keep them warm the last two weeks but now its 60 at night. Their only 5 and 6 weeks old.

    Thank you so much for all your help
    Shellie

  18. Pingback: Meet Our Feathered Flock | Wayfaring Wybles

  19. We have chickens that have lost their butt feathers. We see no sign of mites. Why could this be?? I hate this :-((

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