Raising Backyard Chickens: The Essential Guide for Homeowners

Wed Feb 2 2022

a blue orpington hen wandering in green grass

Picture this: you wake up one sunny morning with an inexplicable craving for an omelet. You head outside, greeted by the joyous clucks of your backyard chickens who you know by name: Henifer Aniston, Eggatha Christie, Yolko Ono, and Hilary Fluff. You open the nesting box hatch and find four beautiful eggs waiting for you like a gift.

It’s the farm-to-table dream, only you don’t need a lot of land to make it a reality.

While keeping backyard chickens is a type of urban agriculture that’s been around for years, it’s gained popularity since the onset of the pandemic . More homeowners are finding that hens make wonderful companions, are easy to care for, and (of course) offer a steady supply of fresh eggs.

But before you take the plunge into urban chicken keeping, do your research to make sure it’s the right fit for you and your family. Let’s explore the pros and cons of backyard chickens, chicken ordinances and permits, coop setup, chicken breeds to consider, and basic care for a healthy, happy flock.

Is the Backyard Chicken Life for You?

Like any animal you bring into your home, backyard chickens require time and money to care for them properly. For chickens, consider how much space you have and whether raising them runs afowl of local ordinances (we couldn’t resist the pun). This list can help you weigh the benefits and potential disadvantages of keeping backyard chickens.

Pros and Cons of Backyard Chickens

Benefits Drawbacks
Fresh eggs Limited egg-producing years
Minimal space requirements Upfront costs
Education for the family Noise
Pest control Chicken coop odors

Fresh Eggs

hand with three eggs and three hens in the backgroundClearly, one of the top reasons people decide to raise backyard chickens is for the eggs. Farm-fresh (or backyard-fresh) eggs have less cholesterol and saturated fat while providing more vitamin A, E, and D, as well as more omega-3 fatty acids. Plus, they’re delicious.

If learning how to raise chickens for eggs is your top concern, you’ll be happy to know that you can expect about five to six eggs per week per chicken (depending on the breed). However, most hens reach their peak production when they’re 30-weeks old. By year seven, you’ll see less than half of your chicken’s original egg production. But remember, your hen is not an egg vending machine, and their companionship is rewarding, too!

Space Requirements

One reason urban chickens are so popular is because chickens generally don’t need a lot of space. Experts typically say you need about four square feet of space in the coop and 10 square feet in the run per chicken, which many backyards can accommodate. Be sure to check your city’s regulations, though. Some towns may require your coop to be a certain distance away from any living space.

Costs

Backyard chickens cost about $69 per month to raise five chickens over five years, and most of those expenses are upfront costs, like chicken coops, waterers, and feeders. Chicken coops alone can cost anywhere from $100 to $5,000. Ongoing costs aren’t usually as steep, but you definitely want to consider how much it might take to bring your chicken to the vet. It’s also worth noting that not all vets are trained in treating chickens.

Education for Your Family

Taking care of an animal can be a great learning experience, and people who learn how to raise backyard chickens report spending more quality time with their children. Depending on their age, your children can help with feeding your backyard chickens, collecting eggs, or cleaning the chicken coop.

Noise, Pest Control, and Odors

First, let’s clear up a misconception: You don’t need a rooster if you want chickens for eggs. Hens naturally lay unfertilized eggs with or without a rooster present. In fact, many towns don’t allow roosters in city limits.

That said, hens can be noisy birds, especially before they lay their eggs. Ever heard an egg song ? Delightful! But your neighbors may disagree, so that’s something to consider.

Both you and your neighbors will likely appreciate that hens are excellent for pest control. Many breeds eat ticks and mosquitoes, as well as slugs, hookworms, grasshoppers, and centipedes.

And if you’re thinking of starting a vegetable garden, you’ll have a nearly endless supply of chicken manure to use as fertilizer. Be sure to clean the coop at least once per week to keep the odor down and keep your chickens clean and healthy.

City Ordinances and Backyard Hens

Your local government may have rules about backyard chickens that:

  • Restrict the number or type of chickens you can have.
  • Require you to get a permit.
  • Limit your chickens’ proximity to your home.
  • Mandate the size and materials of your chicken coop.

For example, a Fort Myers, Florida city ordinance prohibits chicken coops within 300 feet of a dwelling, and homeowners can only have one hen per 800 square feet of their total lot. Orlando allows backyard chickens , but you need a permit and the city only issues 100 of them on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Each city and county is different, so research the ordinances in your area. And while you may hear more about restrictions on dogs, homeowners associations may also ban chickens.

And as long as we’re looking at regulations, you may want to give your insurance representative a call. They can make sure your home insurance protects your new coop.

Chicken Coops: Basic Shelter Requirements

a buff orpington hen with chicks in front of a blue chicken coop with attached run

An example of a coop with a small attached chicken run.

Chickens require a safe, secure, and insulated coop and a secured outdoor area – called a run – where they can peck in peace. A coop should:

  • Provide at least four square feet of space per bird.
  • Offer shelter from the sun, wind, or cold.
  • Have good ventilation to maintain optimal temperatures for your hens – not too hot and not too cold.
  • Provide at least one nesting box for every three hens.
  • Have roosts (perches) where the birds can sleep at night.
  • Have a door that opens into the run.
  • Be predator-proof – foxes, raccoons, coyotes, and dogs prey on unsecured flocks, so keep your girls safe!

A note about the importance of chicken runs: though you may want your flock to freely roam your entire yard, make sure there’s a dedicated outdoor space that’s fully secured with chicken-wire. That’s because ground predators aren’t the only ones who have a taste for chicken – birds of prey have been known to snatch up free roaming hens, too. When you aren’t able to supervise your chickens, it’s nice to know they have access to a sunlit space where predators can’t hurt them.

Finding Your First Backyard Chickens

two Red Star hens, a hybrid breed known for their beautiful color and high egg production.

Red Star hens, pictured above, are a hybrid breed known for their beautiful color and high egg production.

Now that you know you want to raise backyard chickens and it’s legal in your area, it’s time to choose the right breed. Keep in mind that chickens are very social animals – most don’t thrive without a friend. Plan to have at least two birds so they can keep each other company and snuggle for warmth if you live in a colder climate.

As you explore chicken breeds, think about why you’re getting chickens and the environment you’ll bring them into. These questions can help you decide which breed to get:

  • Do my chickens need to tolerate the heat? If so, look for Mediterranean breeds, such as leghorns and Penedesencas. Their small, sleek bodies and large combs help them remain cool in hot, humid temperatures.
  • Do my chickens need to tolerate the cold? Homeowners in colder areas might consider large-bodied breeds, like australorps, Buff or Blue Orpingtons, and Wyandottes. Their thicker bodies are better able to keep them warm in colder conditions.
  • Is egg production important? Australorps, leghorns, and Rhode Island reds are good choices when you want lots of eggs. Each chicken can provide up to six eggs per week throughout the spring and summer months. But if you only want eggs for your family, a medium producer like bantam chickens (which is actually a size, not a breed) may be a good fit because of their smaller eggs.
  • Will children be near my chickens? If so, look for birds with mild temperaments, like australorps and brahmas.

How to Care for Backyard Chickens

two blue orpington hens perched on a roost

If you’re raising your chickens from the time they’re chicks, you’ll need to have the following supplies on hand:

  • A brooder. This can be as simple as a box or a storage bin filled with pine shavings. Just make sure it’s tall enough so the chicks can’t jump out. Chicks are messy little things, so keep their brooder, waterer, and feeders clean. Litter should be cleaned daily, and sometimes more frequently if it gets wet.
  • Food and water dispensers. Fill their feeder with chick starter feed crumbles (found at any farm supply store) and make sure they have access to fresh water. When you first put the chicks in the brooder, dip their beaks in their food and water so they know where to find it.
  • Warmth. Chicks don’t have feathers until they are 6 to 7 weeks old and can’t regulate their own temperature until then. Use a heat lamp or a hen-safe heat plate to keep the brooder warm. During their first week, the temperature should be 95 degrees, and you can lower it by five degrees each week until ambient temperature is reached.

Chicks are usually ready for the coop at about 12 weeks. You can introduce them to the outdoors sooner, but be sure to supervise and limit their roaming area with a pen or mini run.

Once full grown, chickens don’t demand a lot of care, but a consistent routine can keep them healthy and happy. A typical day might go like this:

  • Morning. Let your chickens out of the coop so that they can access the chicken run. Check each hen for signs of good health, such as bright eyes, red comb and wattles, and shiny feathers. Give them fresh food and water, fluff the coop bedding, and look for eggs.
  • Afternoon. Sometimes chickens lay eggs later in the day, so check for them again in the afternoon.
  • Evening. As the sun goes down, your hens will head to the coop on their own, but check for stragglers. Close the door that leads to the run so they are safe from predators. If you live in a colder climate, you may want to give your chickens some scratch grains. This is a combination of seeds and grains, and it can help keep them warm overnight.

At least once a week, clean the coop and chicken run. This is the time to rake the old bedding out of the coop and replace it and to give your feeders and waterers a good scrub.

Common Chicken Problems to Plan For

a hybrid maron hen with an orange neck and black saddle feathers

If you’re a first-time hen keeper, be prepared for a little learning curve. Chickens have some unique quirks that can be alarming to the uninitiated. Let’s look at a few problems to plan for so they don’t take you by surprise.

Predators

As we’ve discussed, though mighty, the chicken is dinner to almost everyone. Even your family dog could accidentally harm or kill them if you’re not careful. Don’t assume that because you’re in the city that a wily woodland creature or a hawk won’t hunt them if given the chance.

Pecking Order

Named for this chicken behavior, a pecking order establishes the flock hierarchy through actual pecking. If a hen jumps her place in line for food, the hen in charge will let her know with a definitive peck. If bullying gets out of hand and your hens have plenty of space, it might be a sign that your hens are bored. Adding toys (yes, hens like toys!) or a “flock block,” a heavy supplement block made with grains that encourages pecking, can help keep them entertained.

Molting

Molting is when your chicken sheds old feathers and grows new plumage. Their first molt usually happens when they’re 16 to 18 months old. The process often takes three months to complete and usually happens once a year. Be aware that it can be really stressful for your birds and may impact egg production.

Broodiness

You’ll know a broody hen when you see one. She often won’t leave her nesting box, puffs up her feathers, and gets feisty if anyone dares to disturb her. Hens get broody when they want their eggs to hatch, so if that’s not in the cards for your girls, you’ll want to intervene. Try removing her from the nesting box, but be careful – broody hens may bite and their beaks are no joke.

Excited for your chickens to come home to roost? Or do you already have a flock? Tag us in photos of your backyard birds on social – we’d love to see them!

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