As discussed yesterday, the most important part of preparing to bring chickens to live at your home is to provide safe living quarters. If you check the comments on the previous post, you'll see that predators can cause major damage, and let me add, major heartache too. Once you establish your little flock, you'll quickly become attached to them and want to keep them safe. The preparation will pay off later when you know you can put your girls to bed every night and they be safe and sound the next morning. Remember too that if your chooks become stressed - by dogs chasing them, children handling them roughly or thunder, egg production will suffer.
Chickens are real characters and they love to climb. If you can, provide places where they can climb and sit off the ground.
So what chickens should we buy? There is no one answer to that question. It will depend on how much room you have, what you want to chooks for - either eggs or meat,and how much time you have to spend with them. Some people will want to raise their chooks from chickhood and will buy fertilised eggs and hatch them in an incubator; some will buy day old chicks and raise them as part of an exercise in getting to know the chickens before they start laying; some will buy pullets that are e ready to lay and some will get chooks that are proven layers.
Here, from left, we have a buff Sussex, a buff Orpington, light Sussex rooster, Barnevelder rooster, silver Sussex, Rhode Island Red, Australorpe and New Hampshire.
If you want to raise chickens from eggs or from their first days, you'll need to have a bit of time to spend with them. Our local chook lady, Margaret, from whom we bought several strong and healthy Rhode Island Reds and some pretty bantams, hand rears her chickens and early on handles the chicks and carries them around with her while she's in the yard. She works near them or takes them to where she is working so they get used to people. When we buy her chooks they're always very tame and friendly and often let you pick them up. If you raise your own chicks, try to do at least some of that work to get the chicks used to people. You have to be careful, they're very fragile at that age, so it's not a daily task for small children, but they will benefit a lot from being around you and scratching around while you work near them.
If you don't want that added responsibility or don't have the time, buy pullets which are chickens that are almost ready to lay their first egg. They'll be around 20 - 22 weeks of age. Here we pay around $12 - $15 for a pullet and you'll be assured that all your chooks are hens and within a couple of weeks they'll start laying eggs. When a chook is ready to lay, all you have to do is provide a safe nesting area and she will do the rest. You can see they're getting ready to lay when their combs and wattles start growing and becoming red. Those first eggs are really sweet. They'll be little and sometimes they'll be laid with no shell, or a soft shell. As the egg laying progresses, you might get double yolkers or very large eggs but when the chooks hormones settle down, you'll be rewarded with consistently uniform eggs that will provide your family with an excellent source of nutrition.
Chickens are like seeds - it's best to choose heirlooms. Just like seeds that have been hybridised by seed companies so that you have to buy your seeds every year instead of saving your own and replanting, chickens have been modified for the caged poultry industry. The ability to reproduce has been bred out of hybrid chickens so they are egg laying machines that do not take time out during the year to go broody and potentially raise their own babies.. Let me tell you that sometimes having chooks that go broody is a complete pain in the neck, but even if they're not sitting on eggs, they'll rest and replenish the calcium levels. They use a lot of calcium to make egg shells. If you want the best for your girls, you'll be pleased they take that rest. So choose heirlooms if you can and help the pure breeds survive the attacks on their survival by large corporations.
Happily free ranging in the backyard in the late afternoon sun.
Just a word about broody chooks. They usually go broody when the weather starts getting warmer and the potential for it lasts all through those hot months. Just ten minutes ago, I went out to feed the animals and let the chooks out, and Heather is sitting on the nest, along with Germaine and Mary. Mary has been there for weeks, Germaine for a week and now Heather has joined them. It means that while they sit, they won't be laying an egg almost every day and when the other girls come in to lay, they'll steal those eggs and sit on them as their own. When chooks are broody, you have to be vigilant in collecting the eggs as often as possible, and as soon as they're laid. Most of our hens lay their eggs between 8am and 10am. We check the nests at 11am and bring the eggs in. We check again in the afternoon. To stop a chook sitting on a nest, you have to lock them away from the nests, although sometimes, when you do that, they'll lay a little batch of eggs in the bush and try to hide them from you. If you find eggs like this, throw them out because you don't know how long they've been there.
If you have adult chooks and get some chicks or any new chooks, it's wise to keep them separated for a while before mixing them. You'll be able to make sure you're not introducing any diseases from outside and your baby chicks will be safer. This is our coop being modified to what it is now, can you see Hanno on the roof?
Here is a chart of chicken breeds. On this chart you can check their size, whether they're suitable for hot or cold climates and their behaviour. Some breed are flighty, others suit confinement well, some like to free range. If you have a small space, choose bantams, otherwise you go for your preference in colour - both in feather and egg. If you want chooks for meat, choose the large varieties, if you want good layers, go for New Hampshires, Plymouth Rocks, Australorps or Rhode Island Reds, they're all reliable. Never buy just one chicken, go for two at least. Chickens feel safer in groups. A small group would be four to six, a large group would be around 20. Twenty is a good number for a backyard flock if you have the space. That will give you enough eggs for your family and some to sell or give away, but please be guided by the regulations in your area. Apparently chickens can recognise up to 200 other chooks, but prefer small family groups of 20 or less.
Tomorrow I'll finish off the chicken information and answer any questions you might have.