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
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.
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.
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!
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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For everything you need to know about chickens, check out Oh Lardy's Guide to Keeping Backyard Chickens!
Next up: All About Chicks!
And in case you missed it: Part One – An Introduction