The Pros and Cons of Keeping Backyard Chickens
It takes more than pluck to raise these birds. Keep in mind these challenges — and risks
An increasing number of people are crying “fowl” when it comes to supermarket eggs and embracing the trend of keeping live chickens in their backyard. After all, there’s a certain appeal to a pet that provides breakfast daily.
But while keeping chickens may seem quaint, it’s a bit more complicated than you might think. There are infections, predators, coops, cleaning regimens and town ordinances to worry about. Know the risks, and how to safely care for your new investment, before putting your eggs in this back-to-the-land basket.
A word on salmonella
Chickens may transmit diseases to people. The most common is salmonella infection, says Pam Nixon, assistant barn manager at the Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Nevins Farm. The bacterium may linger in chickens’ feces and bodies, as chickens constantly come into contact with their droppings.
Salmonella infection can lead to diarrhea, fever, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and headaches within six to 72 hours of contact, and it may last for two to seven days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most people recover without treatment, but the infection may be fatal to children under 5, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Read how to avoid getting salmonella from backyard poultry here.
Related: When to Take a Sick Pet to the Vet
Are chickens for you?
- You’d like to take part in the grow-local and slow-food movements but don’t have the land, time or money to run a small farm. Having a handful of egg-laying hens allows you to participate without moving or drastically changing your lifestyle.
- You want to be sure you’re eating eggs or meat from humanely raised chickens. “Most commercial eggs come from chickens that are crammed into tiny cages without room to turn around or stretch their wings,” says Ludlow. “Even ‘cage free’ chickens are raised in what most would consider a very uncomfortable environment.”
- You’re looking for a pet that requires less maintenance than dogs and cats and should be kept outside.
- You’d like to own what Ludlow calls a multi-purpose pet. “Chickens eat the bugs and weeds in your yard, generate fantastic fertilizer and, of course, are a pet that makes you breakfast.”
So you want chickens. Now what?
Check your local ordinances. Some towns forbid keeping any livestock, others may be OK with chickens but not roosters, others may accept all animals, says Nixon. If it’s a go, Nixon offers these how-to tips.
Get coop-smart. Make sure to get a coop big enough for the number of hens you plan to have. Calculate three square feet per standard-size chicken and 1.5 square feet per small, bantam-size chicken. If the coop is too tight, they may get sick or start pecking at each other. A perch increases coop space, strengthens chickens’ muscles and makes them happy, as chickens (especially younger ones) enjoy grasping things with their feet.
To avoid a damp coop and sick chickens, the coop should be well ventilated. But don’t place it in a windy spot. Make sure your coop is weatherproof, providing shade in hot weather and warmth in cold weather. Chickens are sensitive to extreme temperatures.
Provide bedding. Nixon recommends pine shavings. Don’t get cedar shavings, which carry toxins, or hay, which tends to flatten out and hold more dust.
Let them roam and run. Chickens need time outside to experience the sunshine, scratch and dust bathe. Letting your chickens roam in your yard will help control ticks and other bugs. Dust baths help chickens rid themselves of external parasites. Get a covered chicken run so they can still go outside on a rainy day. Chickens should not get too wet or be confined for long.
Protect them from predators. Check with your local animal control office about what type of predators are in your area and how to keep them away. These may be rats, raccoons, hawks, foxes, possums, coyotes, fisher cats, outdoor cats and even your own dog. You coop should have flooring. Predators will dig through dirt and attack your chickens.
The chicken comes before the egg. Try to rescue adult hens or buy pullets (young hens) at least 4 months old, so more of their definitive plumage is showing. Both of these tactics will ensure you get hens and not roosters. If you end up with an unwanted rooster, take him to an animal shelter. “Sexing chickens is not an exact science,” warns Nixon. Mistakes can be made when separating girls from boys.
Give them a proper feast. You can buy bags of chicken feed online or from animal feed stores. Feed your flock in an enclosed space, like their coop or chicken run, so only the chickens can access the food. Don't leave your bag of feed lying around out in the open. Keep it sealed in critter-proof containers. Get a poultry waterer and hang it right above the chickens’ neck height. “Chickens drink by gravity,” says Nixon. So if they have to reach down really low, they will spill more water, creating the perfect environment for mold and disease. Check the water daily and change it if it’s dirty or if you see debris in the water tray. Don’t leave it for longer than a week.
Clean house. Keep clean all areas accessible to chickens, such as the coop, perches, the run and your yard. Pick up poop regularly and replace shavings.
Part of the fun of keeping chickens is learning how to properly care for them, says Nixon. Read books, attend courses and events, talk to fellow chicken owners and enjoy being a part of the community.