By Lisa H Feinstein DVM MPH
I have had the pleasure of raising chickens for the last 12 years. Not only do they produce fresh, organic eggs, they are also fun and personable. Each one has a unique personality. They all know me and follow me around in my yard. I let them out during the day and they come to me when I call them in to the coop. I even have a female wild turkey that wandered into my yard and has become a trusted part of my flock. She lays a giant turkey egg about three times a week, and it makes a great fried egg in the morning.
If you are interested in getting chickens, I offer a few pieces of advice to keep them safe and happy.
1) Buy Rhode Island Reds baby chicks from Grifs. They are non-broody and have been bred over time to be very friendly with people. They lay large brown eggs and will learn to trust you and follow you. Other breeds are more scared and difficult to gain the trust of humans. I also have an Aracuna who lays a blue egg.
2) Another reason to buy from Grifs is that they sell female chicks which will become hens. You do not need a rooster to have eggs, nor do you want a rooster. Roosters can be aggressive, will make your eggs fertilized, and worst of all, will cock-a-doodle at 4 in the morning. Sometimes a chick ends up being a male and grows up to be a rooster, and I have had to find homes for them.
3) Feed chicks something called Starter when they are young and then Egg Layer when they are mature. Provide fresh clean water every day, the chickens tend to dirty it rather quickly. The feed should be high protein (13 to 15%) and calcium for good egg production. I get mine from the Cooper City Walmart. I also supplement with cracked or whole corn (Walmart feed section) and I feed them table scraps. They eat almost everything such as fruit, vegetables, left over bread, popcorn or rice, and corn cobs.
4) They also love grazing on grass so let them out when you are home so that they can graze, get some exercise, and have a dust or sun bath on the ground. Their favorite food in the yard is a tasty fat grub or beetle and when one hen scratches at the ground and finds one, they all try to steal it.
5) Build a secure coop for them that shelters them from rain, sun, and most importantly, predators. Walk around the coop with an acute eye to check for any way a raccoon might get it in, if there is, they will find a way. I lost 2 chickens from a coop I thought was secure but, it wasn’t. The chicken wire or chain link has to be tight and strong and the holes no bigger than a baby’s fist. The perimeter has to be lined with stones so that a predator can’t dig in and the door has to be secure so it can’t be pried open by dexterous raccoon hands. You can buy ready-made coops or build one yourself. Just make sure it has some perches and nest boxes and is protected from the elements and predators.
6) If you let your chickens out to graze during the day, predators can get them during the day. I have lost chickens to hawks, raccoons, dogs and even feral cats. I have learned the hard way and now I only let them out when I am home and can hear any distress calls. They can’t fly that well so unfortunately, they are easy prey. Also they can fly enough to get over a fence into the neighbor’s yard, but they sometimes have trouble getting back into my yard. It is for these reasons that I have had to be very protective of them while still letting them out because they need some yard time.
7) As far as veterinary care, chickens are hardy and don’t require much. However, I dewormed them once when one defecated a large round worm (I used piperazine). I have also had to suture bite wounds when they have been attacked, they do amazingly well. Just make sure you use medications that are safe in chickens and you don’t eat that chickens eggs during that time. For other medical concerns, I have asked a bird veterinarian (like Dr. Flinchum) and consulted with online forums.
Chickens can live up to 12 to 14 years in a happy, safe environment. If your house and yard are zoned to allow you to have chickens, you should consider having them. I am sure you would enjoy them.