Before You Count Your Chickens

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Cock-a-doodle-dooo … wait, not quite. Hens are a lot quieter than roosters, and that’s one of the reasons they’ve become the latest popular pet to raise at home. The idea of having backyard chickens is not new, but it’s becoming more appealing for people who want to have farm-raised eggs or just think they’ll enjoy the hobby of keeping chickens. Hens are female chickens, and those that lay eggs are “layers” while those raised for meat consumption are “growers.” Roosters are males and generally are not considered when discussing raising backyard chickens.

As mentioned in Anna West’s article, “Raising Backyard Chickens,” before you ever consider raising your own chickens at home, you should ask yourself some very important questions. Is it legal where I live to keep a flock? How many are allowed in the city ordinance? What happens if one of my chicks ends up being a rooster? Is there a veterinarian locally that sees chickens? What is my purpose in raising chickens? Do I have enough space to build a coop and give the chickens space to roam and graze? Are there predators near where I live that can pose harm to them? These questions bear repeating, because so many people fail to think any of them through before they bring chickens “home to roost,” so to speak.

One common mistake people make is “impulse buying” chicks in feed stores or other retail shops, especially near a spring holiday like Easter. Those chicks may be small and adorable, with their tiny “cheep cheeps,” but are you truly prepared for how fast they will grow and all their various needs? If you ask yourself all of those above questions, and actually responsibly prepare, then you are almost ready to raise a flock!

There are a variety of places to purchase chicks and various breeds to consider. Feed stores are local and an easy place to find chicks, but often the chicks are not sexed and the exact breeds are unknown. There are places to buy online from commercial breeders who come with slightly more guarantees, but best is always to first determine what breed you want, then find a reputable breeder and go visit them. Layer breeds range from heavy, larger producing chickens such as Rhode Island Reds, Leghorns, Plymouth Rocks, etc., to smaller, fancier breeds like Bantams and Silkies, which are generally considered a hobby/ pet breed but can lay as well.

Next, it’s important to consider the housing for your hens. The coop—the enclosed area where the hens will go to sleep, perch, lay, and be protected from predators—can be purchased or you can build it yourself. Size will depend on how many hens you choose to keep, and whether you will be attaching an area for them to graze in or if they will be free-range and go in their coop only at night. The more space the better, as this will allow the hens to cohabitate and decrease the chance of behavior problems such as pecking and disease outbreak, which can often be stress induced. Ventilation, temperature control, nesting boxes, and perches all need to be considered as well.

Chickens also need enrichment in the forms of how they are fed (no, just feeding “scratch” is not enough), toys, activities, things to climb and perch on, compost piles, dust bathing areas, etc. Enrichment also helps decrease behavioral issues, which are common problems in cramped coop settings.

On average, most chickens live less than 7 years. It is important to have a local veterinarian who is familiar with chickens and can recognize signs of disease. A very important concept, often forgotten, is the disease risks these animals can pose to humans if they’re not properly cared for. Zoonotic diseases refers to diseases people can get from animals. With chickens, we worry about Avian influenza (although not a huge risk in the U.S., it still occurs in other countries) and bacterial diseases such as E. coli, salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis, and even West Nile virus.

Outside of humans, we have to also be concerned that these animals do not have the potential to spread disease to larger factory operations, which could affect human consumption. All states have laboratories available to test chickens for diseases that are potentially detrimental. You should talk to your veterinarian about this, especially if any of your chickens appear sick. Signs of illness include lethargy, hunched, fluffed appearance, discharge from eyes and nares, scratching from possible parasites, sores on feet, loss of feathers, etc. Routine flock checks by your veterinarian are essential to maintain optimal health.

On that note, just because TV shows and movies often show chickens being raised together with water birds, such as ducks and geese, doesn’t mean you should; they should always be kept separately. Not only because their needs are different, but also because they can pass parasites to each other that can kill a flock.

If you are serious about raising backyard chickens, do your research first! There are plenty of great websites and books available to guide beginners. Make sure you have a local veterinarian who is familiar with chickens and will perform flock checks. Impulse buys never have a good outcome when it comes to chickens. Raising your own flock can be very rewarding and fun, but preparation is key.

VCA Desert Animal Hospital located at 4299 E. Ramon Road, Palm Springs, CA 92264. Visit vcadesert.com(760) 656-6222.

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