Caring for Grown Chickens
Caring for pet chickens is pretty easy! They have the same needs as most any other pet. In this section we’ll fill you in on daily, monthly, semi-annual and annual chores, as well as other nuances of chicken husbandry.
What to Do on a Daily Basis
- Keep feeders and waterers full.
- Make sure the waterer is clean. Chickens will be less inclined to drink dirty water, and a dehydrated bird can very quickly become ill or die.
- Check to make sure they all look active, bright and healthy.
- Collect and refrigerate eggs, pointy side down for maximum freshness.
- If you’ve opened the coop door to let your chickens out, always be sure to close and secure it at dusk (once they’ve all returned!) to make sure predators can’t get in
Keep in mind that you CAN leave your chickens alone for a few days provided they have enough food, water and space for the duration of your trip. The eggs they’ll have laid in your absence should still be good to eat. Fresh eggs keep for several days without refrigeration. Surprised? Consider this: hens lay an average of 10-12 eggs per “clutch” (the group of eggs that a hen sits on to incubate). They lay one egg per day and at the end of a 10-12 day laying period they roll all the eggs together to incubate them. That means the egg laid on day 1 is still good enough on day 12 to become a living, breathing baby chick – so it should be good enough for you to eat too! Egg Tip: Your eggs may have some slight traces of dirt or chicken faeces on them. Resist the urge to scrub them clean! Outside the egg is a delicate membrane called the “bloom” that wards off bacteria and other foreign matter. Scrubbing will damage this membrane. If you’re one of those Type A people that needs perfect-looking eggs, rub them with your fingers very gently under warm water. Then, wash your hands thoroughly.
What to Do on a Monthly Basis
- Change the bedding in the coop and the nest. This is necessary for sanitary purposes. Excessive ammonia buildup is dangerous to poultry and can cause respiratory illness.
- Remove the faeces. We put ours in the compost bin or use it as fertilizer.
What to Do on a Bi-annual Basis Twice a year you’ve got to really scrub your coop clean! Remove bedding, nest materials, feed and water containers. For a cleaner, we recommend a concoction of 1 part bleach, 1 part dish soap, 10 parts water. A strong citrus cleanser will also do the trick. After cleaning, rinse well and let dry before replacing with fresh bedding. Do the same with the feed and water containers: clean thoroughly and rinse well, and replace with a fresh supply. You should be able to do this all in a couple hours!
Foods Chickens Shouldn’t Eat As mentioned in the first chapter, one of the great benefits of having chickens is they take care of your unwanted leftovers! There are a few foods they shouldn’t eat, though (and thanks to our customers for helping us beef up this list over the years!):
- Citrus fruits and peels (they can cause a drop in egg production)
- Any large serving of meat, or meat that has gone bad
- Garlic and onion (unless you want your eggs tasting like them)
- Avocado skins and pits
- Raw potato skins
- Long cut grass
- Chocolate (as if you’d give that up!)
Some garden weeds are poisonous to chickens, like milk weed, and even though chickens will generally know to avoid them, you might just want to keep an eye on them around these plants.
Winter Precautions If you have cold winters, you shouldn’t run into any problems provided you choose the right breed. Chickens adapt to the cold weather over time. Their body metabolism actually changes along with the seasons. That said, if you live in a really cold climate there are a few precautions you can take to make everyone’s lives easier (by which we mean you and your birds!):
- Protect combs and wattles from frostbite by rubbing on petroleum jelly or another heavy moisturizer every few days.
- Make sure the water supply does not freeze! This is very important. Chickens cannot live long without fresh water. If you don’t have electricity in your coop and therefore cannot provide a water heater, we recommend you bring the waterer into your house every night, and return it outside every morning. Check the water once or twice a day to make sure it’s not frozen.
Summer Precautions Excessive heat is a real risk to birds. Make sure they have access to fresh, clean water at all times. You may want to add ice to their water. Some folks like to freeze corn into ice cubes to keep their chooks cool and happy on hot days. Provide them a source of shade outside and as much ventilation as possible inside. We also find that low shrubs for them to get under helps as does allowing them down onto dirt. If you can wet the ground on days you know it is going to be very hot. The chooks will then find their way to the dirt and keep cool. Chooks cannot sweat but hold their wings from their body and pant. Note: Your hens may lay fewer eggs during heat waves. This is a sign of stress, but laying rates will return to normal once the heat has receded.
What to Do if Your Chickens Get Sick Most chicken illnesses are curable if they’re caught in time! If you suspect one of your chickens may be under the weather, take the precautionary measure of isolating it from the rest of the flock. This will help prevent illness from spreading. (And of course, make sure the isolated chicken has access to food and water!) Second, make an appointment with your veterinarian right away. You need to find one that specializes in Avian medicine or farm animals, and we recommend that you find the nearest one prior to getting chickens. The following symptoms indicate illness:
- Mangy appearance
- Visible mites
- Abnormal stool, including blood, visible worms, diarrhea, droppings that are all white. (Normal stool is brown with a white cap.)
- Loss of energy or depression
- Sudden, drastic reduction in position in pecking order
- Loss of appetite
- Stunted growth
A few things NOT to worry about:
- Your chickens’ first eggs will be pretty pathetic! They’ll be small, shells will be weak and some won’t even have shells at all. Don’t worry! This is not a sign of sickness.
- Your chickens will lose and re-grow their feathers once a year. This is called “molting” and is perfectly normal. They won’t lay eggs during this time. (For more on this, see the next chapter.)
- A tiny speck of blood in an egg. This is normal. Don’t worry about it. If it becomes frequent, or if there is a significant amount of blood, that’s another story.
Remember, the most important part of keeping your chickens healthy is disease prevention! Follow the care instructions and coop specifications above and you’ll have a happy, healthy flock. However, as with any animal, there’s still a chance of illness. Since you’ll be checking on your birds daily, you’ll catch the illness early and increase the chance of a positive outcome. If you do decide to keep chickens, common sense should prevail. Thoroughly wash hands after contact, and wear gloves when dealing with their droppings. A healthy dose of hand sanitizer immediately after contact is a good idea too. We also set aside a pair of shoes that we use only for going out to the coop. This pair of shoes never gets worn inside, or for that matter, anywhere else. This prevents the spread of any faeces which may be on the bottom of our shoes.