Whether you allow them to range free or keep them in a coop and run, caring for backyard chickens is relatively easy. As long as they have access to clean water, food, shade, and shelter, they’ll go about their business without much fuss. The rewards of caring for your own feathered flock are many, and you may find yourself bonding with your birds as you would with any other pet. Their insatiable curiosity and amusing social habits are always entertaining. Besides all their bug-eating and egg-laying benefits, chickens are just plain fun to have around.
Be sure to check local ordinances before you decide to raise a backyard flock. Some towns and municipalities don’t allow chickens, while others restrict the size of the flock and whether roosters are permitted. You may also want to let your neighbors know, appeasing any concerns with the promise of fresh, organic eggs.
Chicks should be ordered in early spring. They can be bought either at the local farm supply store or from catalogs and online suppliers. Ordering online has the advantage of variety, although most hatcheries require you to order a minimum of 25 chicks, as they come cheeping in the U.S. mail, huddled together for warmth. The least expensive orders are straight runs, which are usually half roosters, half hens. Since a flock needs only one rooster to produce fertile eggs, a “sexed” run of all females and one male is best. If you just want a laying flock and don’t plan on breeding chicks (or if roosters would unnerve the neighbors), order a sexed run of only females.
Your baby chicks will need close attention and care for the first few weeks, so be sure your schedule fits theirs. It’s important to have your brooder box set up before you order. This is an enclosed space for day-old chicks with a water fountain, feeder, and heat lamp. It can be as simple as a large cardboard box with wood shavings or paper towels as bedding, but be sure to change the bedding regularly. The brooder box needs to be draft free and placed somewhere in the house or garage where it can be checked on easily at least a half-dozen times a day (although chicks are so adorably fuzzy and cute you may find that they monopolize your time!).
Baby chicks need a steady heat source for the first few weeks of their lives: 95 degrees for the first week, 90 degrees for the second, and so on, reducing the temperature by 5 degrees each week. Keep a thermometer in the brooder to monitor the heat. Extremes in either direction could be fatal. An infrared lamp (250 watts) is a good heat source, and its red spectrum is less disruptive than white light.
Baby chicks can be chaotic and messy when it comes to drinking and eating, so invest in a waterer and feeder designed specifically for them. The waterer should be filled a few times each day, as 95 degrees and no shade brings on thirst. The feed you’ll need, usually called starter feed, is a finely ground mash, or crumble, that’s medicated to prevent certain diseases in young chicks. You can even feed them the odd bug or two, which they’ll love!
By the second week, your chicks will be strong and curious enough to flap out of their brooder box, unless the top is covered with netting or chicken wire. If you find a chick poking around in your sock drawer, you know it’s time to put the roof on.
Once your chicks are a few weeks old, and if it’s warm enough outside, you can bring them out for a little romp in the garden. Be sure they have access to water and shade and protection from drafts and predators. Until fully grown (and their sharp beaks are at eye level with the family cat), they’re on everyone’s meal plan.