If you’ve done some research and decided to start a flock of chickens, you have a few options. I will address the easiest one first.
The Ready-Made Flock
The simplest way to get started with chickens is to buy adult birds that are already laying (or “started pullets” which are female birds nearly grown). Check ads on feed store bulletin boards or look on Craigslist.
Talk to the person who raised them and look the birds over to be sure they appear and sound healthy. Unless it is late fall (and they have begun to molt) they should be fully feathered. Eyes should be clear and bright. There should be no coughing or sneezing sounds. They should be active and alert.
Sometimes the feet of the birds will give you an idea of their age. If you see lumpy, scaly looking feet, you can be sure she is at least a couple years old. Young pullets will usually have smooth thin legs and feet. In some breeds, they are bright yellow when they are young and fade in color as they age.
Food and Water
Find out what feed they’ve been accustomed to and start with that, making any changes gradually to prevent ill effects. How you feed the birds will depend on how you have decided to house or manage them.
If they will be confined to a coop and yard, you may prefer to get a feeder that you fill a couple of times a week. Just be sure it is out of the weather so that rain does not get in and mold the feed.
If you plan to let them free range during the day, you may opt to feed them in their coop in the evening to encourage them to all “come home to roost” in safety. If you sprinkle the feed on the ground, you will reinforce their instincts to “scratch” for insects and other tasty morsels.
It is imperative that your birds always have clean fresh drinking water. There are several different water fount styles available in stores and online. We have even built our own out of 5 gallon buckets inverted into feed pans with a couple of holes drilled into the lip of the bucket below the height of the feed pan.
Your ladies will need comfortable places to lay, often called “nesting boxes.” They can be made from a variety of things. We built some apartment style (about 18” cubed), two stories high along the inside of one wall of the coop- each with a 1 x 2” affixed to the front to prevent nesting material and eggs from falling out.
We’ve cut holes in the side of plastic storage totes and put them on the floor or ground with good success. The main criteria hens are looking for is sheltered from danger or disturbance and they often prefer somewhat dark places. The most popular boxes in our apartment-style set-up are the ones with little curtains partially covering them. One box per 4 or so hens is usually sufficient.
Hens are flocking creatures by nature. A solitary hen will often be nervous and flighty or very attached to the humans since she will feel like she needs to be part of a group. For this reason I think, I have observed a funny behavior among the hens.
Whichever nesting place the top hen in the pecking order chooses the lay in, the others will often use only that one, even if other boxes are available when they are ready to lay. I have seen hens queued up outside a favorite box “with their legs crossed,” waiting their turn to go in. I have also observed hens that could wait no longer go on in and try to muscle out one taking longer than her fair turn. Sometimes they compromise and both stay.
Different breeds will have varying rates of productivity. As a general rule, though, you can expect eggs from each hen about 4 or 5 days out of 7 except during the winter when there are fewer hours of light.
I will discuss ordering and raising day-old chicks in the next installment.