Caring for chickens in your back yard : ten questions to ask yourself before you buy a single one.

Caring for chickens isn't hard, but it is a commitment. Ask yourself these questions to see whether you're ready.

I know you'll find, like me, that having a flock - no matter how small - is a great experience. They're fun, they're great stress relievers and they produce the most fantastic, healthy eggs.

My hens happily rootling in our orchard - one of the great pleasures in life is watching them.

Chickens in the orchard

But they are, like any living creature, a responsibility.  Before you move on to thinking about the exciting bits - which breed, what kind of coop and what to call them - you need to think about what caring for your 'girls' will mean for you and your family.

If you're not sure what caring for chickens entails, these questions will help you think through some important issues.

Have a look at these questions, based what I would like to have known before I started caring for chickens!

There may well be solutions, but if you answer "No" to even one of these questions you need to consider what the solution could be before the problem arises.  

If you need any help with that, either contact me and Claudia Chicken (who has a lot of things to say about this particular subject) or come and visit us on our Facebook page.  

I'll give you all the help I can!

Here are the questions I cover.  If you want to skim, click any one to go straight to that section.

This is a deal breaker.  If it's not legal to keep poultry in your area, it's not legal - simple.  If you don't know, you need to find out. Different regions, cities, towns, neighbourhoods - even different houses in the same area - have different rules.

Chickens in a Florida neighbourhoodSome areas welcome poultry - does yours?

If it's not legally permitted there are ways of taking action to change the law.  Never try to hide them - someone is bound to tell.

Wherever you live, this page about poultry law worldwide should help.

Question 2 : Do you have the general commitment?

You know the phrase "A dog is for life, not just for Christmas"?  Well, the same applies to poultry.  Caring for them is a lifelong commitment.

Like any creature, they have some basic requirements you just can't ignore - food, shelter and warmth for starters.  You can't give them a bag of food and tell them to help themselves, or expect them to live in trees.  They need the proper feed, which costs money, they need occasional treats,they need clean water providing every single day.  They need a coop - and coops come at a price.

And how about going out to that coop in all seasons?  Rain, hail, snow - it has to be done.

A coop in snow - but the flock still has to be fed!The flock will still need feeding and keeping warm - especially in extreme weather.

They live for four years or more - some for as long as ten - and they will be your responsibility for the whole of that time.

Some advice here.  If you've just decided you want to raise your own, wait a while.  Think it over.  Read whatever you can about what it takes.

If you're still as sure in a month's time - do it.

Question 3 : Can you afford it?

Unless you want show standard birds, hens aren't very expensive to buy.  But coops, runs, feed, veterinarian's bills and everything else that goes with them are. 

If you're expecting your hens to pay for themselves by giving you an unending supply of fresh eggs, don't be fooled.  They probably won't.  They can stop laying in the winter. They can stop laying because of stress.  And their food costs a lot.

Then there is the fact that you will become addicted, no matter what you think now about how you'll resist.  Pictures, pottery, jewellery, kitchen gadgets, garden ornaments ... been there, still doing that!

Two wooden hens as garden ornaments.

Then the time will inevitably come when you want to hatch your own - and I guarantee - you will want to!  More expense.  Incubators, candlers, brooders, chick starter feed ... the list can be endless.

Are you ready for it?

Question 4 : Do you have time?

They don't need taking for walks but caring for poultry does still take time.  

Their chicken house and run need to be cleaned daily in order to avoid disease.  Feeders and waterers must be kept clean and full.  Each bird needs to be checked regularly for signs of mites, illness and injury.  You need to have somewhere for a sick hen to be kept in isolation and they often need checking multiple times each day.  They need to be safely roosted at night and let out early in the morning. 

All this requires time and energy.  Yes, you'll get a lot of enjoyment back in return but -

Will you be as available as they will need you to be?

Question 5 : Is your family committed to caring for chickens?

Because, make no mistake about it, they need to have some commitment too.

Having chickens is wonderful for children.  It's one of the things I believe passionately about.  A flock can give kids a sense of responsibility, it can teach them about caring for other living things, it teaches them where their food comes from and they'll also learn sometimes hard lessons about the cycle of life and death.

But what about the wider implications for the family?  What happens when you all  want to go away somewhere for the weekend - who will you leave caring for the girls?  What about when you're ill and someone needs to get out of bed early in the morning to let them out of their coop?

Make sure you discuss it fully with your family - and make sure everyone is committed.  

Our friend's children love caring for their hens - will yours?

Children love caring for chickens

And if it's your kids who are desperate for chicks because Jimmy down the road has some and they're so cute - remember that kids are easily distracted - and that little chicks grow into big hens.  Not to mention roosters.

Question 6 : Do you have space?

Chickens don't need an awful lot of space - it's not unknown for them to be kept inside an apartment - but they're essentially birds, and ideally they do need room to 'rootle'.  So caring includes being sure you have room for them.

A cute coop, but do you have room for it?A cute coop - but do you have the space?

Free ranging is ideal but not always possible - even in rural Italy with forty acres of land we have difficulties with this because of predators.  So : are you able to deal with that? 

Do you have somewhere you can fence off?  Do you have the equipment necessary to build a 7 foot high fence, dug at least one foot underground to stop predator digging through or climbing over?

In terms of outside space you will need at least four square feet per bird and if they're kept confined, about ten square feet.  And if you want to avoid your grass being ruined, you'll need space to move them round regularly.

Do you have that much room?  And, if you have predators too, do you have the necessary place to keep the flock safe?

Question 7 : Are you keen on pristine flower beds and an exquisite lawn?

If so, chickens may not be for you.  They love gardens.  They love flowers best of all.  But your version of caring for gardens and your flock's ideas will not necessarily be the same.

This is what mine did to my lovely potted plants.  They used them as dust-baths.

Chickens turn flower pots into dust baths

They'll also decimate grass very quickly.  They love nothing more than scratching about in it looking for bugs.  They can turn a lovely green lawn into a mud-bath within a couple of days.  Trust me - I know from bitter experience.

Are you prepared for that?

Question 8 : Are your neighbours prepared?

Handsome rooster may annoy your neighboursMy Wyandotte roo, Spartacus. He's handsome - but would your neighbours like him?

You've always got on well with your neighbours.  You say a cheery "Good morning" each day.  Sometimes your kids play with theirs.  You admire their garden, and they yours.

So how will they feel about your flock living next door, even if you only have a few?  Do they know anything about poultry?  Are they worried about rats, predators, crowing roosters?  Do they have dogs themselves who may find your flock makes a nice lunch?  Can you protect your flock from them?

If you're buying chicks it's fine - you can choose a breed where you can tell males from female at hatch.  But if you're hatching the chances are 50/50 that you'll get roos.  And roos make noise.  A lot of noise.

If you don't know how your neighbours will react, you need to find out.  And then you need - if you can - to allay their fears.  (I find offering some eggs helps).

Question 9 : Will your other pets get along with your girls?

Most dogs view chickens as lunch.Our greyhound, Nero, views our girls as a potential meal, so we take steps to protect them from him.

Some cats and dogs get along perfectly well with poultry.  But it's always risky.

Our greyhound is programmed to chase - it's what he used to do for a living before we knew him.  If he could get to our hens he would kill them.  He sees them as lunch.

Our Maremma, on the other hand, is a Livestock Guardian Dog.  Her job is to look after the flock.  They are her family.  She would do anything to protect them.  It's what this type of dog has been bred for, for generations.  She doesn't have a single sign of prey instinct in her - but that's very unusual in most dogs.

Maremma Livestock Guardian DogLuce (pronounced Loochay) - my Maremma Livestock Guardian Dog looking after some of her flock.

How will your family pet react to having some newcomers in the yard?  Will caring for your dog mean you can't properly protect your flock?

Do you think you'll be able to train them to live together in peace, or can you keep them apart whilst ensuring they all have a good quality of life? 

It's not easy, but - with careful planning - it can be done.

Question 10 : Are you prepared to lose your girls to predators?

This can be a real problem.  You love caring for your flock.  You get to know them.  You find that each one has her own personality.  You name them all and you spoil them with treats.

One of the worst chicken predators - the raccoon.Racoons are expert coop burglars and have even learned to undo bolts.

Then one day your neighbour's dog, or yours, or a fox, or a raccoon, or a buzzard, gets in and kills one or more.  

I've had mine killed by uncontrolled domestic dogs, pine martens and foxes. In fact one summer my entire flock was wiped out by a fox family who dug under a fence which was buried 12" into the ground. 

I can tell you now - it's heart-breaking, it's not easy to resolve and it can be expensive.  The 7 foot high chainlink fence I had put round our (admittedly very large) run cost around $4,500.

It took me a good year to get over it.  I resolved never to keep girls (or boys) again if I couldn't give them the proper protection - hence investing in the fence, and in a Livestock Guardian Dog.

How will you deal with it?  Do you have the time, the inclination and the money?  How will your kids feel if their pets are killed?  Is it really worth the heartache?

A young fox looking for food.This fox is beautiful - but it killed my entire flock. Could you cope with that?

What to do next.

People often think that caring for chickens just means providing their food, water and somewhere to live.  Well, that's certainly a part of it.

But those things should come only after you've thought first about the overall situation.

Caring for chickens in many ways isn't hard.  They're not demanding creatures.  They don't ask for a lot.  But it's made much easier if you've headed off some of the problems before they arise. 

Two of my hens having a friendly chat."We don't need a lot but we do need time and care" - two of my hens have a chat about their needs.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it's a start.

So sit down with your family.  Brainstorm it.  Talk about what the issues might be for your particular situation.  Don't be over-optimistic and don't bury your head in the sand.

It may never be a problem at all.  But if some kind of crisis arises, the likelihood is you'll have thought through the issue and its possible solutions already.

In terms of caring for any living thing, being prepared is always the best way to start.

Here are some articles about keeping chickens you'll find useful if you're just starting out.

Raising chickens - month by month tasks - link.
All about what chickens eat - link.
5 things your chickens should definitely never eat - link.
The amazing hatching chicken eggs section - link.
Dealing with rats in the chicken coop - link.
Free newsletter. Link.

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Link to Raising Happy Chickens home page.