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Answer these 5 Questions Before You Get Backyard Chickens

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Like any other pet, it’s important to evaluate the viability of folding a new animal (or entire flock) into your routine, lifestyle, physical space, and budget. Raising chickens can be a blast, but it is important to be prepared before taking on the responsibility. Here are the top questions you should ask before committing to raising a group of chickens.

Can I raise chickens where I live?

With the sharp uptick in popularity of backyard chickens, cities all over the country are revising their ordinances. Even if you’ve heard chickens in your neighbor’s backyard, it’s important to check the official rules and regulations in your neighborhood. There may be restrictions on the number of hens you’re allowed, how much space you need between the coop and your neighbor’s home, and laws surrounding how many roosters you’re permitted to have (if any at all). 

To check the laws in your local area, look up the website for the health department in your county, and search for “chicken ordinance” or “rooster ordinance.” You can also do a general Google search for “Chicken laws in [your city], [your state]” and see if that brings up the city codes directly related to chickens. Finally, if you don’t have any luck online, call your city hall and speak to a county clerk directly. They should be able to point you in the right direction.

How many chickens do I really need?

Chickens are social animals and do well when they are together, permitted that they have enough space to participate in natural behaviors. To keep things as roomy as possible in a small suburban coop, we recommend starting off with three to four chickens. If you’re figuring out how many chickens you need by how many eggs you want, the general rule of thumb is three chickens for every two people. So, if you’re a family of four, a flock of six should cover your egg needs just fine. If you’re a family of six, consider nine chickens. If you’d like to give your eggs away or sell them at farmers’ markets, you’re going to need a bigger coop, my friend! 

Once you’ve estimated the number of chickens you want, now’s a great time to double-check that you have enough space to set up an appropriate sized coop in your backyard. In general, you’re looking at three square feet per chicken. Like humans, problems arise when chickens don’t get enough space, so please plan accordingly.

Do I really need a rooster?

While you don’t need a rooster in your flock to support egg-laying hens (they will lay eggs whether there is a male present or not), roosters can come in handy for a handful of other reasons. If you’re planning to let your birds roam free-range and you would prefer not to have to monitor them all the time, a rooster can come in handy. They will be on the lookout for danger and alert the hens, who then all run for cover in the event of a threat. This is especially useful if you’re trying to protect your flock from hawks hunting overhead. Roosters can also ward off smaller predators, like rodents. 

They have spurs, which are pointed growths on the inner leg that can cause some serious damage. If needed, roosters will be aggressive and fight to protect their flock. If, at some point, you’re planning to breed your chickens and incubate eggs, you’ll need a rooster for that too. If your hens are struggling to lay eggs in the winter, some owners report that roosters are a great encouragement. Roosters are also known to keep the peace between hens; they will jump in the middle of a hen fight and peck them on the head to end the argument. 

While all of this sounds great, there are some drawbacks to consider. First, roosters are noisy! If you live in the city, this could be a dealbreaker for your neighbors. Roosters crow at the crack of dawn, during the day to establish dominance, anytime there is danger and, well, sometimes for reasons that us humans just don’t understand. 

They can be aggressive with other roosters, but this largely depends on the breed, the conditions that they are living in, and training. If you’re thinking about getting a rooster, first check the rules and regulations in your area. Because they are noisy, you may need a special permit, or you may be limited in the number of roosters your flock can contain. If roosters are welcome in your area, consider getting one for every six to nine hens. 

Baby chicks or young birds?

The answer to this question depends on many factors, including how quickly you want your eggs to start getting produced, how docile you want your chickens to be, and how much work you’re willing to put in upfront. Baby chicks. Is there anything cuter than a day-old chick? Probably not. These bright yellow fluff balls are about as adorable as they come. 

Starting off with chickens this small is a very rewarding experience; however, you’ll need more supplies and enclosed space in your home or garage to care for them. Baby chicks are also very fragile and need to be closely monitored, so get ready for a time commitment. Expect to pay between $1 and $5 per baby chick. 

By ten weeks, young female chickens (pullets) no longer need heat lamps, and they are much more independent than baby chicks. This is a great option for those new to raising chickens—they are less work, but there is still time to bond with them. As a drawback, you’ll need to wait a little bit until they start laying eggs. The cost per pullet is usually between $7 and $10. 

Most hens begin to lay eggs between 18 and 20 weeks, so this is when the majority of chicken owners bring them home. By this age, the hens are considered to be adult birds and can be introduced to the coop right away. For this reason, they usually cost more than chicks and pullets. Another drawback is that they may take a while to get used to you and not be as easy to handle as a chick you’ve been raising from the beginning. 

Laying hens are birds well into their first year of laying. The benefit of these birds is that you won’t have to wait around for eggs because they have a well-established routine. The drawback is that they may be the most expensive of all the options. 

What breeds are best?

There are hundreds of chicken breeds in existence—more than 500 species by some estimates! Suffice it to say, which so much variety, it’s important to find the right breeds for you and your family. When picking out chicken breeds, you’ll want to consider noise level, demeanor, size, the type of weather where you live, what color eggs you’re looking for, how many eggs you need to feed your family, and more. 

Quietest: Australorp, Wyandotte, Brahma, Cochin, Mottled Java, Ameraucana, Rhode Island Red 

Friendliest: Orpington, Golden-Laced Polish, Silkie Bantam, Cochin, Australorp, Plymouth Rock, Sussex, Jersey Giant 

Most productive egg-layers: White Leghorn, Rhode Island Red, Golden Comet, Ameraucana, Barred Plymouth Rock, New Hampshire Red, Red Star (or “sex-links”) 

Best winter egg-layers: Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Red, Leghorn 

Most colorful eggs: Araucana (blue eggs), Easter-Egger (blue and green eggs), Cream Legbar (blue eggs), Marans (deep brown eggs), Welsummer (chocolate brown eggs), Penedesenca (red-brown eggs)

The best thing you can do before you get chickens is to answer the above questions and be prepared to choose and care for your flock!

-Susan Patterson

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