The Hen -All Grown Up

It is always a good idea to learn some of the anatomy terms for your chickens. I have used these terms to describe my chickens if they are sick or hurt, or to distinguish from different breeds, etc.
A wonderful book for this is called The Field Guide to Chickens, by Pam Percy. She explains all the different combs, colors, patterns, breeds (and more) of chickens.
Here are some common terms to know of the chicken anatomy starting from head to feet:

-Comb: Located on top of the head. It is red and "meaty" looking. There are many different varieties of combs in shape and color. The comb plays a role in attracting a mate, it helps cool the body temperature in hot weather, and is an indicator of overall health.
-Wattles: Located under the beak. Red and meaty looking. Has same qualities as the comb. Visit this site for further information: http://communitychickens.blogspot.com/2011/01/chickens-comb-more-than-fashion.html
-Earlobes: Located behind the eyes. Generally, earlobe color indicates egg color. White earlobes for white eggs, and red earlobes for brown eggs.
-Primary feathers: These are the feathers on the very end of the wing. They are also called flight feathers. If you cut these, it will usually prevent a chicken from "flying".
-Hackle feathers: The hackles are the long pointy feathers around the neck.
-Saddle feathers: The longer feathers falling on the sides of the chicken just before the tail feathers.
-Crop: Is the part of their chest that bulges out slightly to the right. This is where they store their food before it is digested.
-Vent: The hen and rooster's reproductive organs are located inside the vent. (The egg of the hen comes out of this hole, but through a different tube than the poop would travel through, so the egg is sanitary). It should look pinkish/yellow and clean.
-Hock: The ankle, located in the middle of their leg that bends, this can get sprained or broken. 
-Shank: The shin, in human terms. The chicken leg has scales, and come in many different colors.
-Spur: Most prominently on roosters. Looks like a giant claw on the inside of the leg. Used as a defense mechanism. The hen usually just has a little knob for a spur.
-Toes: Chickens have between 4-5 toes.

"Healthy chickens…
Sugar, 5 months old
  • When fully grown the chicken should sport a nice firm comb
  • The comb will be bright red when the chicken is in lay.
  • The eyes should be beady and bright.
  • A healthy chicken will be perky, lean and active.
  • Scales on the legs and feet should be smooth and not lifting.
  • The colour of the legs is a good indicator of whether the chicken is laying. If they are very yellow then she is probably not laying eggs yet. If they are pale almost white then she probably is.
  • When you pick your chicken up her body should be plump and firm, but with no flabbyness.
  • You can examine your chickens eyes and nose to check there are no discharges.
  • The vent (the chickens all-purpose exit point) should be moist and white, with no lumps, crustiness, bleeding etc." -http://www.keepchickens.info/health/


Chicken poop is one of the best sources of nutrients for your garden or yard. It also saves you money from buying fertilizer at the store, and is much more environmentally friendly since it is organic fertilizer.
I collect the poop/grass/leaves/etc from the run every month or so and the poop/shavings every couple of weeks. I shovel it all into a wheelbarrow and poor it into our compost.
Making a compost is very simple. And very beneficial to have along with chickens and a garden (even if you don't have a garden you can still use compost and chicken poop for your plants and trees).
Here is a link to learn how to build a compost: http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/dg5553.html
and learn all about starting a compost:

Chicken Proofing Your Yard

If you have decided to let your chickens be able to roam around your yard then be sure to remember this: chickens are notorious for messing and demolishing the yard from all their scratching around. I definitely recommend putting fencing around your beloved flowers/plants or gardens. If you have a patio in your backyard, I definitely recommend fencing that off too. They will poop all over it!
the extra foot of chicken wire added
I use 3 foot high chicken wire (but I definitely recommend it be at least 4ft high for standard breeds) and staple it to sturdy posts spread a few feet apart. Make sure the wire is touching the ground so the chickens can't escape. They will try to dig under the fence. If you are in an area where bobcats, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, or other critters are known to come out in the day and have access to your yard, then you should definitely use 6 foot high fencing or more and possibly with an electrical wire around the perimeter to deter them. And always keep an eye on the chickens.
Naughty chicken!
One of my hens (Henrietta:), would constantly fly up onto the fence (and coop!) between our yard and the neighbor's driveway-not good! To discourage her from doing this, I added another foot high of chicken wire on the fence. This worked for me. I think it's because the added wire confused her because she couldn't see a surface for her to jump up on. I haven't had any problems since.

(click on pics to enlarge)

Introducing Chicks to the Coop and Run

When the chicks are 8 weeks of age, they are now old enough to live outside in the coop and run. It is a very simple transition when introducing the chicks to the coop. There are two ways to do so:
1. We had already built the coop and run when the chicks were only a couple weeks old. So during the eighth week, I let the chicks out for some "play days" for a couple of hours during the afternoon. This will let them adjust to the great out doors smoothly; and its really fun to watch them play around in it too!
2. The other and "easier" way is to just let them out when the time comes and hope for the best. This works fine also, it just depends on how much time you want to spend with them. Be sure to transition them in the afternoon. And check on them often.

You may need to put the chicks in the coop when its dark, since they won't really know where to go for the first night. Have plenty of shavings on the coop floor and in the nesting boxes so they can stay warm-since they may or may not perch at first.
They now use adult feeders, but make sure they are low enough for them to eat out of. You will still need to feed the chicks the starter crumble until 4-5 months. Then you can mix half and half crumble and pellets, until you're out of the crumble, then use only pellets.
Many people have also put the light you used in the chick box to help the chicks stay warmer the first few nights. I didn't do this and they were fine, but they also were all feathered out-no bald spots or fuzz. And the nights in Santa Barbara are very mild.

My Coop/Run Pictures

My run (ideal for 2-3 chickens) and coop (big enough for 10 chickens)

orchard area for them to roam

The run
fenced in chicken area, leads to the orchard

(You can click on the pics to view larger)
Nesting boxes
the coop

You can also see more good coop ideas on these links:



The Run

Along with a coop for the chickens, they also need a spacious area outside for them to roam. There are three options for an outdoor area for the chickens. You can either let them be free roaming in the backyard; you can build an enclosed run attached to the coop; or like me, have an enclosed run attached to the coop and a more spacious fenced off area around the coop/run. A enclosed wire run with a roof is much safer than letting your chickens roam freely, but the more room the chickens have to roam and scratch around, the happier and healthier they will be. So it's up to you!

If you do decide to have a run, then consider this:
-Size. If the run is not big enough for the chickens, they will start hen pecking each other because they are bored. Hen pecking is when chickens will peck each other pulling the feathers out and causing the skin to bleed, this can then result in cannibalism. To prevent this, make the run as big as you can possibly afford. The more space they have, then there is less chance of them having problems like hen pecking. I think a good rule of thumb is to make the run at least 4 times bigger than the coop. I also made the run tall enough for people to walk in, to make it easier to clean.
-Perches. I have two perches in the run so the chickens can have a break if they're getting picked on.
-Treats. If your chickens don't have access to grass or foliage, then I recommend giving them plenty of fresh veggies, fruits, seeds, etc, so they can get the nutrients they need to be healthy and have healthy eggs.
-Ground. The chickens will need dirt in the run so they can take dust baths. I give them mowed lawn clippings (fertilizer/pesticide free), fallen leaves from our sycamore trees, and wood mulch-which are all great ground coverings. I also use the run as a compost. I put in all our leftover garden greens, weeds, fruits, veggies, etc, which will make the dirt rich with nutrients to use for your plants or garden. Never use hay/straw (it attracts mites/lice and gets moldy), gravel, or sand as the main ground cover. 
-Wire. Welded wire or regular chicken wire are good coverings for the run. I have welded wire since we've got predators like bobcats, coyotes, and raccoons. You can either lay chicken wire across the run around one foot deep and attach to the sides of the run (then cover with dirt); or insert wire, wood, concrete, or cinder block a foot deep vertically on the sides of the run. So predators can't dig under.
-Roof. Many people will put a roof on the top of the run instead wire, which is great. I think this is a good idea if you live in an area that snows/rains regularly. Since I only have wire, I put plastic over the top of the run when it's raining.

The fencing I use surrounding the run/coop is regular chicken wire 3ft high (but I think it's best to use at least 4-5 feet high fencing). I have to clip their wings so they don't fly over. Though letting the chickens roam freely is more risky safety wise, it makes them a lot happier to have more space to move about and be chickens. And it also keeps them very occupied throughout the day so I don't have to worry about them being bored, which will lead to problems. Make sure you don't have any poisonous plants in the chicken area. And make sure the chickens won't be able to easily escape under the fencing.

The Coop

My coop is very simple. I used recycled wood for the walls, have only a dirt floor, and got tree branches from the beach for the perches. But I had to buy corrugated plastic (or metal) for the roof, pine shavings, and feeders. But of course each coop, if custom built, will have to be somewhat different from the other. But this can be a general guide if your planning to build a coop:

The purpose of the coop is for protection from predators and weather, laying eggs, and a place to sleep at night. Here is what to consider:
-Predator proof. My coop is made of wood with a plastic (but I like metal better) corrugated roof. Mine just has a dirt floor, with wood boards placed about a foot deep underground so predators won't be able to dig. Or you can place chicken wire on the floor and cover with dirt or pine shavings. Or you can build an elevated wood floor, which would probably be safest, but for me, it's easier to clean a dirt floor than a wood floor.
-Ventilation. I have small wire windows (with shutters) around the coop sides for air to flow through. And I open the human door to the coop during the day when I let them roam around in our fenced in orchard. I use pine shavings to cover the poop from the night before, to decrease smell and flies.
-Doors.  The hens have a little doggy door so they can go in and out of the coop/run as they please. And I have a door people can walk through for both coop and run. Both doors have a secure latch that predators can't open.
-Perches. I have one perch 2 feet above the ground and another around 4 feet above the ground perpendicular to it. I would say 10 inches of length for each chicken on the perch. So you may need multiple perches to have enough room for the chickens. I use round natural branches for the perches that are around 2-3 inches in diameter. Or you can use cut wood. Have it be between 2-3 inches in diameter also, and a good inch or two deep, and sand it to prevent splinters.
-Nesting boxes. I have one nesting box for every 3 hens. My boxes are 14"L x 14"W x 14"H. I basically cut out part of the wall of the coop and attached one row of 3 nesting boxes (already made). The chickens have access to them, without the boxes taking up room in the coop. The roof for the boxes flips up so you can easily collect the eggs from the outside, and latches when closed to be predator proof. You can stack rows of nesting boxes on top of each other, making the bottom row around 1 foot above the ground, and the rows above need a perch attached so they can easily fly up and get in the box. I use plenty of pine shavings in the boxes, and replace shavings every month or so. (Do not use hay, it attracts mites and lice, I speak from experience). 
-Feeders. You will need one pair of feeders for every 10-12 chickens. I have attached mine to a chain hooked on the ceiling. The feeders are raised off the ground up to the chicken's chest. I thoroughly clean and scrub the water feeder every time I need to refill it. (You can find chicken feeders at Island Seed and Feed, or La Cumbre Feed).
-Size. My coop is 6 feet x 5 feet. This will hold up to 10 chickens. You can add a foot in length and width for every 4 more chickens added. And add another nesting box too.

Ordering kit coops online can be risky, so I definitely recommend custom making your own coop, which isn't necessarily more expensive. It actually can save you money because you can make a sturdy, thrifty, and simple coop that will work perfect for you and your chickens. If you need help you can contact me and I would love to help you create your own coop!


Chicken Food Do's and Don'ts

Do give chickens:
-leafy veggies (lettuces, spinach, tomato leaves, cabbage, sour grass, mustard flower, etc.)
-fruits (berries, apples, pears, citrus fruits, cucumber, melons, etc.)
-breads (plain), plain pancakes/waffles, rice, oatmeal, pasta
-seeds/crushed nuts (unsalted, unflavored)
-bugs, worms, snails, slugs, etc.
-weeds, mowed yard grass (don't give them anything that has been sprayed with pesticides or chemical fertilizer)
-scrambled eggs-a great source of protein
-crushed dried egg shells- great source of calcium
-dairy (cheese, milk, yogurt)

Don't give chickens:
-rotting, moldy food
-breads with jam, butter, honey, etc.
-salted, dressed, chocolate, frosted or sweetened foods
-cakes, dyed foods, or any desserts

-wild mushrooms, moss, unknown wild berries
-leaves/flowers from unknown plants

Sexing Chicks

Make sure that you buy sexed chicks, and ask specifically for females. Believe it or not, there are professional chick sexers, that have a very keen eye in determining the sex of the chick right after its birth. Many people will buy in bulk, and in some cases over half of the chicks turn out to be males. And in most neighborhoods, roosters are not allowed. So if you want, here are some ways to determine if your chick is a male or female:

pinker comb
hackle (pointy neck) feathers
spur development
and of course, crowing (which starts around 3 months of age)

yellower comb
rounded feathers

If you are suspicious of one of your chicks being a male, then either get another opinion, or wait until you can actually see and hear the difference. This site will help guide you:

Raising Chicks

Raising chicks is so much fun! But the first thing you need to do is to figure out how many chickens you want. I usually recommend one chicken per family member to start out. But many others get more because they are big egg eaters or want to sell the eggs too. You need at least two chickens, since they are flock animals and need a buddy. How many you get also depends on how much space you have (which you can learn about in the "Coop and Run" posting).
I have ordered my chicks from Island Seed and Feed in the past. People can also buy chicks from local backyard breeders, just make sure they are legitimate responsible breeders.
 For the first 8 weeks, the chicks will need:
-A box. It is important to have adequate spacing and protection for the chicks while inside. For my five chicks, I used a big cardboard box that was around 4ft Lx2ft W (which could probably hold up to 12 chicks) that I divided to make a smaller space when the chicks were very small. Then over time I increased their space as they got bigger. This was so they wouldn't stray too far from the light and get cold. It is also a good idea to have some type of covering on the box so other pets can't get in and the chicks can't get out (chicken wire is good). Keep them in a room with warmth and no drafts.
-Light. You will need to get a heating lamp (like for reptiles, or any lamp that produces heat) and put it over the chicks' box so they can stay warm but without coming into contact with it. Ways to tell if there is too much heat is if the chicks are far away from the lamp and spread out when they are sleeping and ways to tell if there is not enough heat is if the chicks are huddled together directly under the lamp constantly.
-Food. The chicks will need Chick Starter Crumble (I use organic) for the first 5 months, buy in bulk. You also need a food and water feeder made especially for chicks. I would say one pair of feeders for every 10-15 chicks. Refill the water everyday with tap water. As the chicks grow bigger, you will need to raise the feeders from the ground.
-Shavings. Pine shavings are best to use as ground cover. You will need to clean out the poop and shavings every week, or so, to keep the air clean for the chicks. Pile up 2+ inches of shavings in the whole box.

Other things to know:
-Sickness. A common problem chicks get is "pasty butt". This is when poop dries on their vent (butt), making them unable to excrete the rest of the poop. Check them everyday for this. To fix this, get a warm wet cloth and gently rub or pick off the poop. Also, some chicks may get bullied, which prevents them from eating, so hold each chick everyday to make sure they are the same weight. If one is lighter, then separate it from the others and give it its own stash of food, or add another feeder. For more serious problems you can go to this site:
Which you may want to read before getting your chicks to be able to spot problems before hand.
-Handling. If you want tame chickens, talk to and hold them often throughout the day to get them used to people. Hold one at a time cupping them with both hands. Don't squeeze them, they are very fragile. Always be calm and quiet. And wash your hands before and after handling them to prevent spread of disease.

What Breed?

Most feed stores will sell common breeds like the: Rhode Island, Ameraucana, Australorp, Leghorn, Brahma, Orpington, Rock, Sex Link (hybrids), Star, and Easter Eggers. But as these breeds become more popular, many other breeds become more rare and endangered. So, if given the opportunity, I definitely would encourage anyone to buy chickens from a responsible breeder who sells less common breeds. They can be more expensive, but can add a great variety of colors, patterns, size, combs, personalities, eggs, and more to your flock. The brown and white chickens aren't the only ones. There are literally hundreds of different kinds to choose from!
Something to think about before you buy chickens is your situation. Whether it financial, family, neighbors, location, etc. 
If you are financially tight, then the cheapest way to get chicks is to go to a local feed store. Or you can have a batch shipped out to you. But the only problem with this is that you usually have to buy 25 or more chicks (that is A LOT of  chickens!) and some might be roosters, and they are sometimes not quality bred (my Brahma doesn't have leg feathers, my Ameracauna was sick, and my friend's chicken had a crooked beak, or there could be hybrids). So again, I prefer buying from legit local breeders, and if you don't want to deal with the whole chick process, you can buy your hens as adults, usually from $10-30 each (which I don't think is any more expensive considering all the money spent on raising chicks). 
Another cheap way to get some chickens is to rescue ex-battery hens. Although they will be injured and sick, with some TLC, they can recover and will obviously lay very well (they won't be older than 1 1/2 years old). They also generally have good personalities (probably because they are so happy! to be able to actually live as a chicken, have room, be outside). 
Also decide how many you want. I have eight for a family of five. If you're big egg eaters, I would think 2 hens per person is good. But I started out with five chicks, and over the years some have died, and I've bought more. You will need to get at least two, and when adding more, you need to buy two at a time. And you will probably want to buy more once you discover how much fun it is to keep chickens! As a beginner, I would recommend 4-5, so it's not too overwhelming or expensive. 
Consider your neighbors. Make sure your neighbors are okay with daily clucking (the girls are very proud when they lay their eggs :). It's the worst when you've got a complaining neighbor and have to get rid of your chickens when you've become so attached to them. 
Also look at your location. You may have to get specific breeds depending on where you live weather wise. If it's cold and snowy often, look for breeds that are cold hardy. And the same with hot weather. And decide how much space you have for the chickens. Chickens need room to roam and occupy themselves. Many people will try to sell coops/runs that say it can hold twelve chickens, but I think humanely should only hold four chickens. (I think making your own coop and run is better). The more freedom chickens have to roam, then the happier and healthier they will be.

Good websites to go to find what breeds you want are:

Egg Nutrition Facts

"Eggs from hens raised where they can eat seeds, grass [or veggies] and bugs are far more nutritious than eggs from confined hens in factory farms... research shows that eggs from hens raised on pasture have:

1/3 less cholesterol
1/4 less saturated fat
2/3 more vitamin A
2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
3 times more vitamin E
7 times more beta carotene
4 to 6 times more vitamin D"

Details of the research are available at www.MotherEarthNews.com/Eggs

I now absolutely refuse to eat store bought eggs, because my hens' eggs are so much more healthy and flavorful. The yokes are orange! -Compared to the pale yellow yokes from factory eggs. You can really see and taste the difference!

Although now, since it is more widely thought that orange yokes are healthier. Factories/commercial farms are smartly taking advantage of this and adding omega 3 fatty acids (what makes the yoke orange) so people think it's healthy. Not true. If you see the chicken that egg came from, you will never want to buy commercial eggs (or meat) again. Growing your own eggs is much more humane and healthy because your chickens are actually getting all the nutrients required to really make her healthy and the egg healthier, not just orange. If you can't have your own chickens, buy local. From neighbors, farmers markets, etc.


Chicken Pro's and Con's

Keeping chickens is a wonderful experience, even though there are some not so wonderful things about them. But in my experience, it's totally worth it! There are much more rewarding positives than negatives about keeping backyard chickens:

-Loud. Whenever my girls lay an egg they are very proud and have to tell the whole world about their accomplishment. So make sure your neighbors are okay with the sounds of farm life.
-Predators. Chickens have many predators: foxes, dogs, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, hawks, sometimes cats, skunks, bobcats, etc. Make sure your chickens are safe from these critters.
-Roaming. Chickens are natural foragers and will often escape or get lost roaming. Solution: a spacious enclosed run, or a fencing system that keeps them where you want them to be.
-Flies are attracted to poop and pooping is one of the things chickens do best! Solution: fly traps, keeping the chicken area dry, frequently cleaning the run/coop.
-Money. While buying a chick costs about $4-7, taking care of chickens can cost hundreds or even thousands. A good idea, if money is an issue, is to go thrifty and buy used equipment for your hens. Growing your own veggies for the chickens is another great way to save $.
-Naughty. If you decide to let your hens roam freely in the yard, be sure to fence your lovely flowers or gardens so they don't demolish them. They also can fly/jump higher than you would think, so you may want to clip their wings. Or, a solution, you can just keep them in a spacious enclosed run. 

-Eggs. Backyard chicken eggs are much more nutritious than commercial farm eggs, if your hens have access to veggies/fruit and seeds. You can taste the difference!
-Fun! It is so relaxing and entertaining to watch "the girls". They have a lot of personality, and can make wonderful pets for kids.
-Experience. Having chickens is such a great way to start your own urban backyard farm. It is not only a great learning experience, but a great way of therapy. 
-Eco-friendly. Having your own chickens and eggs saves lots of energy, since you aren't encouraging commercial farming, which is inhumane and wasteful. 
-Fertilizer. Chicken poop is one of the best fertilizers for your plants, garden and compost. Go organic!
-Pest control. Chickens are omnivores, so they love eating bugs, worms, spiders, snails, etc. (Mine have even eaten mice!)
-Spreading the news! Since I have gotten chickens, many people have become very interested in raising their own backyard chickens.

What to know before getting chickens-

Many people assume that chickens are simple creatures, so it must be simple to keep some right?
Well in a sense, yes, it is easy caring for them, if your up for the commitment! (And you will see that chickens are in fact quite smart). You should know that if a chicken doesn't die from predators or sickness, they can live up to 10-15 years. Some might lay up to that long, while most decrease laying around 5 years, and will only lay a couple a week, instead of almost every day when they are young. Also, keeping backyard chickens won't save you any money. After building the coop and run and getting all the equipment for raising chicks, you will then have to buy feed for the hens once every month or so (depending on how many you have), shavings for the nesting boxes, seeds, etc. But don't let this dissuade you! You can save a lot of money by collecting used (and clean) wood and wire for the coop and run, or find a shed or used coop off of Craigslist. Chickens also need space, so make sure you have enough in your yard. Chickens also take time. You will need to clean out their coop often and watch them for irregular behavior or sickness.
I definitely recommend buying these books before getting chickens, which have helped me so much in caring for chickens:
"Keeping Chickens", by Jeremy Hobson and Celia Lewis
"The Field Guide to Chickens", by Pam Percy

If you have any questions, please email me (gracie.rid@gmail.com), and I would love to help you start your own flock of backyard chickens!