Rookie Chicken Mistakes
Reading Time: 5 minutes
The pandemic and supply chain interruptions have ratcheted up a closer connection to our food sources. Victory gardens were the hottest thing last spring, and baby chicks sold out nationwide.
This means a lot of new chicken owners are learning as they go. How can you do best by your new feathered friends? Avoid these rookie chicken mistakes:
1. Failing to check local regulations. Sadly, not every location permits backyard chickens. Even fewer will permit roosters. You don’t want to invest in a coop, fencing, feed, and chicks only to be fined for keeping unpermitted fowl.
If your town permits chickens, sweeten the deal for your immediate neighbors by offering a few free eggs.
2. Thinking predators won’t come. You’d be surprised what prowls suburban streets in the dark of night. Rats, opossums, foxes, coyotes, weasels, raccoons, skunks, dogs, hawks, owls … all interested in eating your birds.
If hawks are a problem in your area, overhead mesh can protect your ladies from aerial attacks. Or try crisscrossing your yard (above head height) with wire strung at about two-foot intervals, especially if you tie something shiny and fluttery at each wire intersection.
Elevate your coop off the ground to prevent pests from digging from below. Additionally, your coop should have no holes. Skunks and opossums take advantage of any opportunity.
A particular note about weasels: These wily and vicious predators can slip through the tiniest crack and can devastate a flock. Forget chicken wire; that wouldn’t even slow them down. Instead, install hardware cloth to reinforce vulnerable areas or cover a ventilation window.
3. Wrong-sized coop. A rule of thumb is to provide three to four square feet of coop space per adult bird. However, this is simply a rule of thumb. Factor in nest boxes, roost bars, feeders, and waterers. Birds that are largely confined need more indoor space. Birds with adequate outdoor space will be comfortable in a smaller coop (since they’ll mostly use it at night or for laying eggs).
Overcrowding chickens is cruel and counterproductive. Stressed birds lay fewer eggs, and they may eat what eggs they lay. They may pick on each other. Cramped quarters also lead to diseases.
On the other hand, your birds don’t need a mansion. In colder weather, chickens keep warm by huddling together; a huge coop deprives them of that.
Given a choice between an elegant, decorative coop, and a strong practical one, opt for defense. Your hens don’t care how the coop looks, but they care very much if a raccoon or fox gets inside.
4. Too small a yard. A chicken’s job is to scratch and look for food, and she can’t do it if she can barely flap her wings, much less dig up worms. You don’t have to give your entire backyard to the birds, but it helps their physical and emotional health to give hens room to do their job. Chickens can scratch the lushest lawn into bare dirt in days, so cage them in a “chicken tractor,” which can be moved every day or three. Your hens will thank you with increased egg production.
5. Failing to provide proper nutrition. While chickens have been domesticated for a long time, commercial feed is a recent development. Nonetheless, don’t depart too much from balanced commercial nutrition, especially if the ladies aren’t able to forage for biota (bugs, worms, etc.) on their own. Speaking from bitter experience, it’s best to feed baby chicks commercial chick starter. We failed to do this one time and lost half our chicks to horrible crippling nutritional deficiencies. And of course, clean fresh water at all times is essential.
6. Neglecting proper rooster ratios. Hens don’t need a rooster to lay (infertile) eggs, but if you can keep a rooster, make sure your rooster-to-hen ratio is correct.
The ideal ratio is one rooster for every ten hens. With too few hens, a rooster’s excessive libido may result in exhausted ladies — injuries, loss of feathers, and slower egg production. Too many hens mean not every hen will be fertilized. Too many roosters and they’re more likely to fight.
7. Not counting your chickens every night. A hen may go missing because she was busy in a far corner of the yard, she is sitting on eggs somewhere secluded, or she slipped into a neighbor’s yard. But a hen left unprotected overnight is vulnerable to endless predators looking for an easy meal.
If you can’t find a hen, it may mean a daytime predator already got her and you’ll need to beef up daytime security. As the saying goes, it’s always better to prevent than to cure.
8. Not preparing for roosters. If you order straight-run chicks from a hatchery or incubate your eggs, statistically, half the resulting chicks will be male. Even if you live in a place where roosters aren’t a problem, suddenly having five or ten budding boys can be problematic. Taking care of them usually involves putting them in the freezer. Specialty butchers can take a live bird and return him as a frozen meal (or you can learn to do it yourself). Trust me; tender young roosters are delicious.
9. Mixing chicken ages/sizes. Chickens are intensely clannish, and the term “pecking order” originated for a reason. Introduce new, smaller, or younger birds by separating them in a cage-within-a-cage (such as a wire dog kennel). Give the chickens a couple of weeks to get used to each other in close-but-separated quarters. When you do release the new birds into the main flock, keep a sharp eye on them. Everyone will have to reestablish the pecking order, so be sure no one gets picked on to the point of injury, misery, or death.
Interestingly, chicks hatched by a broody hen have no problem integrating with the flock because the mother protects the chicks until everyone gets used to them.
10. Accidentally providing escape routes. Chickens may not be the brightest animals on the planet, but they’re surprisingly innovative when it comes to escaping a yard. If you leave anything leaning against a fence, they’re likely to flap their way upward until they reach the top. A low-hanging branch may provide a roost that ultimately leads to escape.
Conclusion: Everyone learns on the job. No matter how ready you think you are for your flock of chickens, you’re bound to make some mistakes not covered here. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Just do better next time.
Originally published in the February/March 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.