There are many great “how to” books on raising and purchasing chickens. In fact, GRIT has recently published a supplement titled “Guide to Backyard Chickens” in their Country Skills series that offers a wealth of information for the beginner as well as for the advanced chicken farmer. We purchased our first flock of layers last summer to raise as pets, although eventually we hope to also raise chickens for meat. We don’t have the mind-set yet. We purchased 11 started pullets and 1 cockerel. Throughout our “rookie year,” we’ve found that there are a few things we didn’t find in the books. They are:
1. Veterinarians – Perhaps I was naïve, but I believed getting medical help for any chicken concerns would be as simple as dialing my vet that we use for the cats. Not necessarily so. We have a wonderful vet who cares tremendously about our cats. She doesn’t, however, have any experience dealing with chickens. When we had a chicken suddenly showing signs of severe upper respiratory problems, we didn’t know where to turn. Prior to purchasing your chickens you may want to call around to your local veterinarians to seek out someone you can consult with in case you are faced with a severe medical issue. Find out if they would require you to bring the chicken in, or could they just give consultation over the phone based on symptoms. The only person around that I was able to find who had knowledge of poultry was an exotic bird vet … with exotic prices. She wanted me to catch all 4 pullets who were now coughing and sneezing and bring them to her office. It didn’t happen. It was a 90-degree hot and humid summer day, and the chickens had only been in our care for a few weeks. Being picked up was not anywhere near the top of their list for enjoyment, as chasing them around a small, smelly coop in the heat was not at the top of mine. I took one chicken. My vet that we use for the cats has since told us that she would help in any way that she can as long as we understand that she’s not an expert in poultry.
2. Medications – I had believed we would never give our flock antibiotics, so I didn’t bother looking for sources of medications. Well, it all changes when you have a chicken gasping for air. We were faced with a decision and decided to administer antibiotics. The problem was – where do we get the medications? The veterinarian is a great source, but if you are planning on trying to diagnose on your own that’s probably not an option. There are many companies out there, and I would suggest familiarizing yourself with sources prior to the time when you urgently need them. Which brings the next dilemma. We had to pay overnight shipping in order to get a medication on time. I am now keeping a few basics on hand – a general antibiotic that can be added to drinking water, electrolytes for the summer heat and an herbal-based liquid for coughing and sneezing that I’ve had great success with.
3. Purchase of pullets – We chose to purchase pullets rather than chicks for two reasons. The first, we wouldn’t have to figure out where to raise the chicks without other animals harming them (our cat Caitlin was the main concern), and second, we only wanted a dozen birds. If you decide this is the route for you, there are a few places to look. There’s the mail order companies, local farms, local Universities that have a poultry program, and we’ve also been told that the Cooperative Extension sometimes has birds for sale following their chick-hatching program for elementary schools. Remember that pullets aren’t typically as friendly if they haven’t been held regularly. Ours are coming around … slowly. I had read about keeping chickens from more than one source quarantined, but neglected to do so. It really is important to do. We purchased Plymouth Barred Rocks from a farmer in Connecticut and Araucana’s from the University of Connecticut. We didn’t have the room to keep the two groups separate so we did lose one pullet to pneumonia. We’ve since been fighting upper respiratory concerns in the others, but I think we’re finally winning our battle. Also, if you purchase pullets or full-grown birds, check for mites and lice. When we realized we had them it took a couple of treatments to get rid of them. It was suggested that we give them all a bath. We started and ended with Clyde. He had his day at the spa, and unfortunately the girls are still waiting for theirs. Perhaps in the Spring.
4. Keeping busy – Our chickens are not free range because of our fear that the neighborhood dogs might decide chicken sounds good for lunch. Instead, our flock has an indoor and an outdoor coop and Jay is building a chicken tractor this Spring. Because they don’t have the ability to cruise thru the backyard all day, they get bored. I found that suet holders are a wonderful and inexpensive way to house greens, and it keeps them busy as they’re pecking away at the food inside. Additionally, freezing lettuce and greens into ice seems to be intriguing and keeps them out of trouble.
5. Nothing is off limits – We’ve found that to a chicken, if it’s accessible, then it’s theirs for the taking. Jay built a beautiful chicken coop with two beautiful roosts, a shelf for storage of straw, wood chips and food and a window with a ledge by the roof for ventilation. Guess where they chose to sleep? You’ve got it, the shelf and the ledge. We’ve made it so they can no longer enjoy either, because where they sleep they also deficate which means quite a mess. Jay felt so bad for them he built an additional shelf that’s easier to get at for cleaning. They’re quite spoiled.
All in all, if you can arm yourself with a few good books and do a little research prior, it really is a great experience. We have a lot of fun with ours, and what’s better than farm-fresh eggs? They love to send us off with well wishes for the day in the morning (including numerous cock-a-doodle-doos from Clyde) and greet us when we get home at night. Chickens are very social and love attention. They would chat with me all day if they could.
Our rooster, Clyde, is a wonderful boy and adds a bit of balance to the coop. We’re lucky so far in that he has a great demeanor and personality. We’ll continue with the positive reinforcement in hopes that he stays this way.