Recently in Backyard Flock Category

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Bungie the rooster.  He's a handsome boy.  Too bad my picture is sub-par.  He wasn't cooperative and I didn't have time to coax a good shoot from him before taking him to the farm store to be sent to the farm, where it is to be hoped he'll have plenty of girls and no soup pot chasing him down.

Chickens are very difficult to sex when they hatch.  Experienced poultry people can tell the difference between the girls and the boys much better than most but no one is capable of being correct one hundred percent of the time.  If you live in a rural area where you're allowed to have roosters this isn't likely an issue you'll lose sleep over, however, for everyone raising a flock of chickens in their own back yards in suburban or urban  neighborhoods, it is almost a certainty that roosters won't be allowed. 

When you purchase chicks from the farm store they are sexed with the best accuracy possible, and yet, there is ALWAYS a risk that one or more of your chicks will turn out to be boy.  It's a good idea to find out, before you buy them, what your farm store's policy is on returning boy pullets.  Some won't take them back so if you end up with a rooster you'll need to be prepared to donate it to a farm or eat it for supper.  In my experience most farm stores selling chicks know that roosters are a problem for most of their customers and will take them back.  Some will even give you your money back. 

Bungie turned out to be a glossy preening gorgeous model of a boy.  Our farm store doesn't really take roosters back but John the chicken man took ours.  We were sad to have to give him up because he was gorgeous and we actually like roosters, but they aren't allowed, and he started practicing his crowing so we had to whisk him off.

Roosters don't start crowing for at least two months.  Depending on the breed and the individual they may not start crowing until they're three or four months old.  Bungie was a bit precocious in my opinion.  Little upstart!  Experienced poultry farmers like to tell you that until the bird crows you can't know if it's a rooster.  In our fist flock we had a hen that was acting like the boss of the whole group, herding the others around, posturing, and generally acting like a chest thumping boy and when I called the farm store they told me it was too early to tell.  I brought Lucy in and showed her to them and the chicken expert shook his head and told me she wasn't a rooster.  I told him of her decidedly masculine behaviors and he explained (somewhat patronizingly) that some hens will behave in a very dominant fashion and that that wasn't a sure way to tell a hen from a rooster before they've fully matured.

Two days later Lucy discovered his magnificent voice and began to practice his crow nonstop.  I brought him in to the farm store and they bought him back.  It wasn't kind of me but I was a little smug.  Maybe he didn't know for sure that Lucy was really Lucius, but WE did.

Our friends John and Jin were the first to tell us that Bungie might be a rooster.  They have a lot of experience with Ameraucanas and have noticed that the roosters always have a wider comb base which you can see even when they're very young.  We wouldn't have known by that indication but sure enough, there were other indications to make us suspect that John and Jin were correct.

So how can you tell a hen from a rooster before they reach full maturity?  I'll include John and Jin's tip, the rest of them are my own observations.  The only two times we had a rooster in our flock we knew it before they crowed.  So here are some things to look for:

How to tell a hen from a rooster:

  • In Ameraucanas the male chicks will have a wider comb base than the females.

  • Roosters generally have longer feathers around their necks than hens do.  You may start to notice a difference between two and three months of age. 

  • They like to thrust their chests out.  It is exactly the same type of gesture as a man pounding his chest.  They look like they're puffing themselves up to look more manly. 

  • They will charge at the females (using their chest thrust) to herd them.

  • They may appear to fluff up their neck feathers and in addition to this some will have a distinct way of twitching their heads as they walk about importantly.  That one's easy to spot but difficult to describe. 

  • Pushy, bossy, important, preening, puffed up, strutting, herding... these are all things you will find yourself saying about a hen who is really a rooster.

Obviously the gold standard is the moment the dudes roll out the voice.  I happen to love the sound of roosters crowing but there's no getting around the fact that most people don't enjoy it, so I hope that all of you with new flocks this year have only hens!
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If you have (or are thinking about getting) a backyard flock of chickens you should consider the possibility of letting your flock free-range.  Chickens are foraging animals and thrive best when they can hunt for insects (and lizards!) and greens which no chicken run provides.  Being able to scavenge the lawn for worms, to pluck at grass and weeds, and to explore is deeply satisfying to them. 

We let our first flock of hens free-range a couple of hours a day (the last couple of hours of daylight) and they loved it.  It was wonderful to sit out in my garden and listen to the hens scratching, cooing, and scuffling.  If I was doing yard work they would follow behind me to see what interesting activity I was up to. 

By the time we got our second flock of hens we had a dog.  The dog went wild when she saw the birds in the coop the first time and Philip had to train her to not get excited around them.  Between that and the fact that the yard wasn't properly fenced, we never let this flock free-range.  Naturally I was scared of the dog killing the chickens because I've known quite a few chicken-killing dogs.

At our current house the fencing isn't an issue and we've been wondering for a long time whether or not our dog might be trained not to kill the hens if we let them out.  So we planned to do some experiments with the dog and the birds this summer but in the end the whole question of the dog versus the hens was effortlessly answered while Philip was working on building the new coop one evening.  He had to have the chicken run door open for some reason, the dog was close by, the access was there, and nothing happened.  The chickens ventured out and our dog continued to watch them with no more than casual interest. 

Just like that we are now able to let them free-range and I can tell you that they are very excited about the yard!

It worked for our flock this time, but will it work for yours?  There are some things you need to consider before letting your flock free-range in your yard:

  • Fencing: especially in a suburban environment, you need to make sure your fencing is secure.  It should be 6' tall (most hens won't fly such a tall fence, though it isn't impossible because chickens did start out as jungle birds who lived in the trees) and it should not have any gaps in it big enough for the chickens to get out through.  It is equally important that no neighborhood dogs can get in to your chickens.

  • Dogs:  if you have a dog you need to make sure of your dog's feelings about the chickens before you simply let them out.  A dog who wants to kill a chicken will accomplish the job so quickly you will not likely have time to save the situation.  If anyone has any tricks or tips on training dogs to be mellow about chickens please share! 

  • Mess:  Chickens poop, a lot.  They do it whenever they need to and don't care where it lands so your yard will be scattered with their droppings.  I have never minded this.  They tend to prefer being in the dirt, the lawn, or under foliage rather than on pathways and decks, so I don't mind a little mess from them.

  • Scratching:  Chickens forage by scratching at the ground with their strong clawed feet.  This is how they unearth seeds and grubs.  They will make holes in the garden.  They can be quite devastating to shallow rooted plants.  One of their favorite things to do in the warm weather when it's hot is to find a shady spot in the dirt and dig themselves a shallow hole to dust themselves up in.  I find this charming except when they unintentionally expose the roots of nearby plants. 

  • Snacking:  While it's true that chickens will often hunt down your slugs and snails and also enjoy plucking at a wide range of weeds, they really have an all-inclusive palate.  This means that they will equally enjoy snacking on young vegetable seedlings, flowers, rose leaves, and peck around any available fruits or vegetables. 

  • Getting them back in the coop:  Come dusk most chickens will automatically find their way back to the safety of their coop.  They are almost night blind so as the light begins to fade they will wander closer back to safety until they put themselves to bed.  Letting your hens free-range puts a responsibility on you to make sure that they've all made it back into the run and/or coop before dark and that you LOCK them in.  Sometimes a hen will get flustered and not find her way back before it's too dark and she'll just settle down right wherever she is and hope for the best.  The best does not usually come to hens sitting out all night without protection.  Weasels, snakes, skunks, and most of all, raccoons all want to eat your birds and they are just waiting for an opportunity to snatch them.  Nightfall is when most of them come hunting*.  So if you can't commit to locking your birds in at dusk every single night, you should not let them out.

  • Birds of Prey:  Although I haven't personally had a problem with chicken hawks or other birds of prey, you need to know if that might be a problem where you live as Belinda pointed out in the comments.  A large hawk can carry a chicken away, but especially vulnerable are smaller breeds such as banties.  If you don't know if you have such birds of prey in your area, ask the poultry experts** at your local farm store.

With my first flock I started off letting them free-range all day long but after experiencing the damage they did to my most tender vegetable plantings I decided to only let them out during the last two hours of daylight (generally when I liked to be in my garden too) so I could watch over them and scare them off of any fresh plantings.  This served me very well.  The girls got some well deserved foraging in and some freedom but didn't have enough time to do much damage.  The reason I let them out at the end of the day, instead of in the morning, is because not all chickens are easy to catch when they don't want to be caught, but all chickens naturally return to their roost as it darkens which cuts down on work for me.

If I had a bigger property and could fence off my vegetables I would let my flock free-range all day.  But even a couple of hours a day will improve the quality of life your flock enjoys, not to mention the vastly improved quality of the eggs they reward you with.  It's true!  The more your birds get to forage on weeds and bugs and dirt the richer their yolks will be. 

Not everyone who keeps chickens will be able to let them free-range.  What can you do to improve your flock's quality of life in a run?  Here are three things you can do:

  • Weed toss:  When you weed your yard, toss the fresh weeds into the chicken run.  The bigger the pile you give your flock the happier they'll be scratching around in it, eating the leaves (rich in vitamins!) and looking for any attached bugs.

  • Be sure to give them straw in their run: This gives them a satisfying feeling of digging, which makes a nice rustling noise as they work through it.  When it's time to put new straw in the run I bring it in a big chunk and don't spread it around.  The birds like to do this themselves and you'll find they do a great job of distributing it around the run.

  • Kitchen scraps:  I think if birds can't go looking for treats it's important to give them treats from the kitchen.  No grains (except fresh corn!) because if you feed them commercial feed they're already getting all the grain they need, and avoid giving them potatoes.  Otherwise you can give them anything.  You'll probably find that they have preferences (mine won't eat carrots but LOVE turnips, for example).  The scraps will enrich their diet, which will enrich their eggs, and it's a way to compost some of your kitchen scraps.

There are two sounds I like best in the world:  the first one is the sound of my kid laughing, the second one is the sound my chickens make when I toss them watermelon scraps, a quiet clucking and cooing which I think is more soothing than the sound of fountain water in a garden.

*Though my friend lost a hen to a raccoon during the day time!  This is pretty rare but it can happen. 

  • **This will be the person in charge of ordering and caring for the chickens the farm store sells.  They are nearly always people with strong experience in raising poultry and can answer most questions you might have about keeping hens.
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Proper Heating For Chicks

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And what to do if you overheat one.

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Chicks have very specific heating requirements.  When they are allowed to hatch with their mother they spend most of their time nestled under her where they are warmed by down.  As they age they'll venture out more and more.  When they first hatch they aren't able to regulate their own body heat.  So if you are raising chicks from a feed store, without a mother hen, it's important to simulate the heat they require.  For this you will need a heating lamp. 

The general guidelines are this:

  • For the first week of a chick's life the warmest spot in its box (or tub) should be at 95 degrees.  The box should be large enough that they can get out of the heat for breaks, to cool down.
  • Each week you should lower the general temperature by 5 degrees.
  • The best way to monitor the heat level is with a thermometer which should be placed to the side rather than directly underneath the lamp for a more accurate reading. 
However, if you don't have a thermometer you should do the following:

Start off with the heat lamp about 28" from the bottom of the area in which you are keeping your chicks.  Measure it with an actual ruler.

  • Keep a fairly close watch on the chicks to see where they spend most of their time.  If they remain constantly huddled right under the lamp, then there isn't adequate overall heat and you should lower the lamp by one or two inches. 

  • If the chicks are huddled as far away from the heat of the lamp as possible, then it's too low and should be raised by one or two inches.
  • In an ideally heated environment your chicks will be scattered throughout their quarters feeling comfortable enough to explore all corners.

What to do if you overheat a chick:

Last weekend we discovered one of our chicks collapsed.  In fact, we were sure she was dead because she seemed sunken, she wasn't moving, she was limp, and her eyes were closed.  While we were sadly trying to figure out where we would bury her, a sad office to perform on a mother's day, Philip jumped out of his skin when he felt her move a tiny bit.  She still seemed lifeless but he'd felt the tiniest movement of breathing. 

When chicks are tiny they are fairly fragile so we really had no hope that she would make it.  I took her with me into the house, wrapped her in a dry washcloth, planning to simply hold her until she died.  Thinking she would be more comfortable if kept warm, I proceeded to wrap her in a heating pad. 

Her beak started opening and closing very slowly, which seemed hopeful so I ran to get her some water to see if she'd drink and once I dunked her beak a couple of times and saw her throat make a swallowing motion, I ran to call the farm store for advice.  The first thing John the chicken man asked me was how low my heat lamp was.  He said it sounded like the chick was overheated. 

I measured how low my heat lamp was and discovered that I had it at 12" above the litter which was way too low!  I was really worried about not keeping the chicks warm enough and because I couldn't find my thermometer I was overcompensating.  In effect, I had cooked my littlest chick. 

On discovering that Mo was dying of heat exhaustion, I immediately removed her from the warmth of the heating pad and continued to force her to drink tiny droplets of water.  While the odds were clearly against her, when I heard her peep for the first time that morning I knew she had a chance. 

If this ever happens to you I would like to offer the following suggestions on how to revive a heat exhausted chick:

  • Remove the chick from the source of the heat immediately and if you have other chicks then adjust the heat lamp so that the other chicks are out of danger.
  • Don't bury a chick immediately on finding them collapsed.  With a large chicken it's easy to tell when they've stopped breathing.  One week old chicks are so small it isn't easy to tell.  Try the following tips before giving up.
  • Fill a very small cup (I used a demitasse) with cold water.  Gently dip the chick's beak into it being careful not to submerge their nostrils which are about halfway up their beaks.  Wait a couple of minutes before trying again.
  • If the chick's throat swallows the droplets of water, then she's still got a chance.  Keep doing this for a half an hour or so.
  • If your chick, at this point, starts showing stronger signs of life, I suggest adding a pinch or two of sugar to the water.  This can help give the chick added energy to help revive her.
It took Mo 1 hour before peeping. It took her 2 hours before she started trying to sit up and opened her eyes again.  It took fully four hours after we found her for her to stand up on her own again.  It took five hours for her to start eating scratch again and walking around.

  • Whenever you have an injured or sick bird it is imperative that you remove them from the rest of their flock.  Birds are not kind to injured flock members.  So if you are nursing a small chick back from heat exhaustion, you need to create a separate space for them to recover in.  We put her in a very small box with some food and some litter and set that near the heat lamp in the bigger box where the other chicks were, being careful not to put her directly under the lamp.
  • During the time she was in the separate box I gave her frequent drinks of water by hand because  I couldn't fit a watering dispenser in the little box.  Chickens are thirsty birds, making sure they have fresh cool water is very important. 
  • When I reintroduced her to the rest of the chicks I kept a close eye on them to be sure she wasn't being picked on dangerously.  I didn't consider her safe until I'd spent some time with them to watch the other chicks.
We were very lucky.  I know that in a similar scenario we very well might have lost her.  John the chicken guy advised me to get a replacement chick just in case, and we did that.  But I'm happy to say that Mo, a week after her near death experience, has continued to prosper and it seems she's going to make it.


Other articles on raising chickens:

Caring For Chicks: The First Six Weeks

Choosing Chicken Breeds For Backyard Flocks
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Backyard Flock: meet the new chicks

Our flock of hens is down to three and they are four years old now which means they're middle aged and though ours are all still laying very well, we wanted to add to our flock so that as our older hens slow down their laying we'll still have plenty of eggs.  So we brought our new flock home and here they are:

Anna portrait 2.jpgWe've had ameraucanas before and love them.  Not just for the colorful eggs they lay but because they're cool looking and our experience is that they have great personalities.  We have never had a pale one, which in some places are referred to as lavender Ameraucanas*. 

Bungie portrait 2.jpgThe naming of new chicks is a very important ritual.  You can name your chickens anything you want but there is a strong trend towards giving them antiquated women's names like Doris, Flora, or Dottie.  I like this trend but my son and husband feel no need to name them according to anyone's tradition.  I originally let Max (my son) name two of them and was going to let Philip name two of them as well but had to revoke his naming rights after he named our littlest chick.  We originally meant only to get 6 chicks.  We ended up with one extra because we almost lost our Speckled Sussex and the farm store suggested  a back up bird

Anyway, the naming frenzy got out of control and here are some of the names brainstormed between my guys:  Doo-boy, Carlito, Boo-doy, Leroy, Larry, Carl, Bouffant, Curly, Spikey, Lemon-boy, Turd (what is it with 9 year old boys?!), Jumpy-jump, and Blackie. 

Curly-sue portrait 2.jpgI'm willing to bet that no one can guess who named which birds.  Naturally if you're a farmer who has more than a small flock you don't indulge in the great chick naming event.  It's too bad, I must say it adds some lively fun to family life and my kid is much more interested in chicks he gets to take part in naming than chicks he doesn't.  It becomes more personal to him.  Naming is not recommended for those birds being raised for meat.  We raise ours for the eggs, the manure, and the pleasure of having them around.

Dimity-Jane second p 2.jpgWe have a favorite Looney Tunes cartoon which I think is called "The Stranger" and is about a chick who is adopted by a mother duck who tries to raise the chick with her own ducklings.  The animators did an amazing job of capturing the distinctive way chicks have of moving.  If you haven't seen that cartoon I suggest trying to get your hands on it.  (We have it on a disc of a cartoon collection.) 

Bob portrait2.jpgBob is difficult to photograph.  She's not very cooperative and her head being so dark adds another challenge.  We've never had Australorpes so we're pretty excited to have two of them.  Of course, any or all of these chicks could turn out to be a rooster, in which case we'd have to sell them back to the farm store.  Hopefully we'll end up with at least one Black Australorp. 

Drusilla portrait 2 .jpgI'm curious to see how different Bob and Drusilla will turn out.  Drusilla has a lot more yellow on her but I thought the grown Australorps are all black.

Mohawk portrait 2.jpgThis is Mohawk who had a very stressful weekend during which she very nearly signed off after becoming cooked by the heat lamp.  My next chicken post will give some tips about reviving chicks that have collapsed from overheating.  It is amazing that she made it.  She's still a little ruffled looking but she's completely recovered. 

Mo 2.jpgTaking pictures of the chicks in their box is hard.  The lighting is tough on the pictures.  This is Mohawk just after making her full recovery. 

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Drusilla being manhandled by me.  Chicks don't naturally like being picked up.  Unfortunately for them there isn't an animal on earth that wouldn't like to sink its teeth into a baby chick, humans being no exception other than their willingness to plump them up first.  The birds know their position and are therefore suitably skittish around anything not them.  We make a practice of handling our chicks a great deal.  They run, they scuffle, they peep, but in the end they will be forced to suffer our gentle assaults.  Over time they become used to our voices; learn that we are the strange beings who bring treats like snails and greens and best of all in the entire world...watermelon, and will come running when they hear us. 

*Only pure bred Ameraucanas are called "Araucanas".  Ours are not pure bred.  The kind we got is an Ameraucana or sometimes they're referred to as "Easter Eggers". 

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Caring For Chicks: The First Six Weeks

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How To Care For Chicks For The First Six Weeks

Raising your flock of hens from day old chicks is rewarding, easy, and inexpensive.  A chicken is most vulnerable for the first six weeks of its life which is the general length of time it takes for a chicken to develop their first feathers.  Before they feather out they cannot regulate their own body temperature and are sensitive to both the cold and to overheating.  The most difficult part of raising chicks is managing the temperature in their pen.

To raise chicks you will need:

Housing: Big aluminum tubs are great for raising chicks in but you can also use a large cardboard box, a wire brooder, or a bunny hutch.  If you use a wire cage of any sort you need to make sure the gaps between wires aren't so large that your chick's feet can fall through them and get stuck.  I've used a large cardboard box (which had to be replaced a couple of times since chicks spill their water frequently) and I've used a tin wash tub.  The wash tub was the best.

Heat Lamp: you can get these hat the hardware or feed store for pretty cheap.  You need a lamp that can clamp (or hang) above the chicks' living space.  The red bulbs that the feed store sell are best but we've done fine using regular 100 watt bulbs.

Feeder: I definitely recommend that you buy one of the aluminum feeders that are made for chicks.  It keeps their feed cleaner and makes it harder for the chicks to knock it over.  It's is a small round (or sometimes long triangular) dish with a top on it with circles cut out so the chicks can get to the feed.  All feed stores carry them and they aren't expensive.

Waterer: Again, I recommend you get one of the small plastic waterers that are sold in the feed stores.  You don't want to put a bowl of water in with your chicks for two reasons, the first of which is that they will spill larger quantities of water all at once requiring more frequent litter changes, and the second is that you don't want to provide water in which the chicks could drown.

Litter: Use only pine shavings.  Cedar is unhealthy for them.

Feed: Buy chick feed from your farm store that is formulated especially for them.

Thermometer: You can get a thermometer at most dollar stores or supermarkets.  You want an outdoor type of thermometer (not a cooking thermometer).  This is the easiest and surest way to manage the temperature in your chicks' environment.

To set up your chick's environment you need to clamp the heat lamp to one side of the box, wash tub, or cage in which your chicks will live.  If you're using a box or a wash tub you need to cover the floor with about an inch of pine shavings.  This will help absorb their droppings and the water they will inevitably spill.  Place their feeder and waterer on the opposite side of the space from the lamp.  If their water gets too warm they won't drink it.  Chickens are very thirsty creatures and need constant access to fresh cool water.  Place the thermometer somewhere between the side with the lamp and the side with the food.  Now you are ready to add your chicks!

Temperature:  Chicks need access to heat.  For the first week or so of their life they need the temperature to be between 90 and 100 degrees.  After that you should lower the temperature by 5 degrees each week.  You can do this by raising the heat lamp higher each week (you may need to clamp it to something other than the edge of the cage/tub/box in order to lessen the heat enough as they get larger).  You can tell if they are too hot because they will huddle together in the farthest spot away from the heat source.  Likewise, if they are too cold they will all huddle tightly together directly under the lamp.  Ideally you should see your chicks spread out in their pen, some in the warmer spots and some in the cooler moving freely all over their space.

Food and water: It is important to check their water a couple of times a day.  Chicks are messy babies and tend to stand in their water, spill it into their chips, and drink it too.  The water will get dirty frequently so you must keep your eye on it to prevent them from drinking water with their feces in it.  It is sometimes helpful to put their water and food on a brick in their pen to help keep it cleaner by raising it up.

Changing the litter: You should change the litter every other day.  I have always had very messy chicks who spill a lot of their water so if you notice the pine shavings are getting wet near the water you need to remove the wet shavings and add some more dry.  This means I was removing some shavings every day but I only did a full clean out every other day.

Handling Them: Handle your chicks as often as possible.  You can try to train them to perch on your finger (set them on your finger over and over again and eventually as they get used to it they may comfortably stay put).  Small children should be supervised while handling them because they don't always understand how fragile the chicks are but encourage them to hold the chicks while you are there with them.  Always wash your hands after handling them.  Chicks are birds and everyone likes to eat birds so they will try to get away from you, it's their instinct.  What you want is for them to eventually feel comfortable enough that when they are full grown it will not be difficult to catch and hold them.  Remember that some chickens are always going to be shy and some will become very curious and friendly.

One of the biggest common dangers that can occur in chicks is "pasting up".    Pasting up is when a chicks feces sticks to their vent and dries there preventing them from eliminating which, if not caught, will kill them.  So every day you need to check their bottoms for pasting up.  If you see that one of them has poop stuck to their vent gently wash it off using a warm damp washcloth.  It may take some time to clean it up and the chick will not enjoy the activity- but it's important to take care of it as soon as you see it.

It's good to remember that sometimes chicks die.  Not because you did something wrong but because they were too weak, or the travel from the hatchery made them sick.  Most vets won't treat chickens but if you see that any of your chicks aren't thriving, call the feed store where you got them and ask for the person who is in charge of the chickens.  I have always found those people to be very helpful in determining what's going on with a chicken's health.

When your chicks begin to develop their feathers you can let them play a little bit outside on really warm days.  If you do this, be sure that you can pen an area off for them so they are easy to catch and bring inside when it's time.  Be very careful of predators like your cats and dogs who would love to catch themselves a little chick-snack.  Chicken hawks aren't uncommon either so don't leave your chicks unattended!

Chicks are funny to watch.  I never cease to enjoy seeing them fall instantly to sleep no matter what they're doing or where they are.  They'll be walking around and suddenly their head will drop to the side and their eyes will close.  The first time I saw my chicks do this I though they were dying or dead!  Spend time with them and enjoy their funny antics.  If you have any questions you can feel free to ask me any time or don't hesitate to call your feed store.

More information on raising chickens:

Choosing Chicken Breeds For Backyard Flocks

Choosing Chicken Breeds For Backyard Flocks

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Choosing Chicken Breeds For The Back Yard Flock

Choosing what breed of chickens to get for your first flock can be confusing.  There are a lot of different kinds to choose from and how will you know which ones are going to be right for you?

Start off by answering the following questions:

How many chickens will you have?

Are you raising chickens for meat, eggs, or both?

Are you planning to butcher your hens when they stop laying?

How important is it that your hens be friendly?

The number of chickens you will have can influence your choice of breeds.  For example: if you are on a city lot that only allows three hens then you will want to make sure you get breeds that are known to be excellent layers.  If you are able to have more hens than you strictly need to keep your family in eggs you might want to choose a few excellent layers and also choose a couple of heirloom breeds for the enjoyment of variety.  In my own flock I have three excellent layers and one that isn't as prolific but is much prettier than the others to look at and this gives me pleasure every day.

It is important to know what your purpose in raising hens is.  If you plan to raise them just for butchering you will want to purchase only game breeds such as Old English Game or Cornish Game.  If you want to have hens that lay well but can be butchered after they slow down you will want to be sure to get a dual purpose breed because these are breeds that not only lay well but make good table birds.

Most people who are starting back yard flocks of chickens, especially in urban environments, are doing it for both eggs and family enjoyment, not usually for butchering.  If this is your purpose then it's important to choose poultry breeds that are known to be friendly.  I am going to make some personal reccommendations but it's really important that you understand that a breed description is only general and that hens, like people, can be highly individual.  I have heard stories of Rhode Island Reds being mean but the two I've had weren't at all mean, though they are both fairly shy.

The specific suggestions I'm going to make are suitable for families who are wanting great egg production from friendly birds.  If you need more information on game breeds or layer breeds I am going to include links at the bottom of this post to some great breed information sites that can help you pick what birds you want.

My favorite picks for small(ish) back yard flocks:

Buff Orpingtons- these are a golden colored dual purpose breed that lays well and has a sweet docile disposition.  Cora, our Buff Orpington, was so sweet you could pick her up and carry her around.  She was huge and funny and we loved her.  Lays large pinkish-brown eggs.

Ameraucanas*-this breed is an excellent layer of green eggs (only the purebred ones lay blue eggs) and is a very strong forager.  They are friendly and curious to people but bossy to other birds.  Our Easter Egger (see footnote), Claudine,  was great at foraging, leading the flock, and loved her sun baths.  Lays green medium sized eggs, often with double yolks.

Black Sex Links- this is a hybrid breed that is sexable at birth so you aren't at much risk of ending up with a rooster.  They lay incredibly well, are friendly, pretty, sturdy, and not skittish.  Lays large brown eggs.

Golden Sex Links- this is the same as the Black Sex Link but is golden in color.  Excellent layer of large brown eggs.  friendly, curious, loves kitchen scraps, not bossy.  Ours has been a great addition to our flock.

Plymouth Barred Rock- this black and white striped breed is very pretty.  They lay moderately well.  In general the breed is known to be docile, easy to handle, and friendly.  Ours (Flower-bud) is quite shy and skittish but we love how pretty she is and she lays medium sized pinkish-brown eggs so how can we really complain?  I love having at least one striped or dotted hen in the flock.

Rhode Island Reds- this is an excellent layer of large brown eggs.  They are active but generally docile, though the cocks in this breed are notorious for their aggressiveness.  Our own experience is that ours are a little shy but will not be mean if you are quick enough to pick them up and they will come around and be calm if you spend some time with them quietly.

Most of the breeds I've just mentioned are readily available in feed stores.  If you get confused when faced with choices at the feed store never hesitate to ask for advice from whoever is the chicken expert.  And be sure you already have their nursery set up before you bring them home!

Here are some fantastic on line resources for reading about poultry breeds:

Henderson's Chicken Breed Chart


Backyard Chickens

*Also known as Araucanas.  The truth is that mostly what you find in the feed stores are mixed breed versions of these birds, not purebreds.  Which is fine by me since I don't need papers on my chickens.  Just so you know, if you're buying a bird by either of these names, what you're really buying is what is known as an "Easter Egg" hen.

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