by Jane W
My interest in chickens began at age three when my grandmother would allow me to gather eggs from the nests in the chicken house at their farm. I learned from her to be observant and gentle with animals. When my own child reached that age, I wanted to share some of that magic with him and began considering raising chickens.
As an avid reader of Mother Earth News, Organic Gardening magazine and other Rodale Press publications (click here to see a full listing of Rodale Press books at Amazon.com), I felt I had enough information to begin.
I knew I had to protect the chickens from the weather and predators so I purchased a large roll of one inch chicken wire and 1 X 4 X 8 boards to fence a small area outside an old building that had previously been used as a chicken house on our “postage stamp sized” farm in the mountains of Virginia.
When the outdoor ” cage” (it was covered with wire also, so hawks could not fly in and so the chickens could not fly out) was finished, I built nest boxes out of scrap 2 X 4s and plywood and filled them with hay, and built a small ramp for the chickens to use to enter and exit the building through a 8 X 8 inch hole in the outside wall.
A heat lamp was hung from the existing light socket, automatic feeder (this automatic feeder at Amazon.com is awesome), and waterer, and the four chickens I purchased from the local flea market were added. I realized after a few days that chickens do not pick a nest as their own and use that one for themselves. They pick a “community” nest or two.
It is not necessary to have a nest for each chicken which can save a lot of work and money if you have a large flock of chickens. It pays to spend some time in the chicken house in the mornings when the hens are laying to see how many nests are being used at the same time. Some chickens will wait their turn for a chosen nest if it is busy instead of using another nest.
I would wear a mask ( you can get seriously sick from breathing dust from chicken droppings) and gently rake and sweep up the hay, shavings and droppings on the floor (this was composted along with the horse and cow manure from the barn and later used on the garden as “organic fertilizer”) , wash out and refill the waterer and feeder and observe the chickens.
I got the hens used to me reaching under them to gather the eggs and I never got seriously pecked. Some would gently peck at my hand but I never got injured. One hen would even hop on my lap to be petted if I squatted down.
The chickens settled in pretty well. However, I soon realized, all I needed to know about them wasn’t in the neat little articles I read in magazines. A few days after settling the chickens into their home, my son left the gate open to the fenced outside area and the chickens all got out. The herding dog we had, thought it was great fun to chase them and the chickens ended up in a tree.
Who knew chickens could fly! I put the dog in the house and used a broom to encourage the chickens to come down out of the tree and back in their yard. This took at least an hour and I began to realize “chicken training” and “dog training” were both in order.
On another day later that week, the dog was taken in the chicken yard on a leash and properly introduced to the chickens and not allowed to chase them or be aggressive toward them. Over the next week, they became used to each other and the “chasing game” never happened again. My neighbors, all over 80 years of age, had first-hand experience with chickens and suggested clipping the wing feathers on only one wing of the hens.
This created an imbalance so the chickens could not fly easily. The chickens could still run and escape any threat when outside their area, but not get 12 feet up in a tree. To do this you hold the chickens upside down by their feet. They essentially “go to sleep” and are easy to handle this way.
If you run after a chicken, it will outrun you and unless you have a net (which I did have later to catch the roosters). The easiest time to catch them is when they are on a nest after laying. Just slide your hand under them and grab both feet at the same time, They will flap their wings and try to get away, but holding them by the feet with their heads hanging down will stop this readily and you are ready to work on a calm chicken.
It is best to have a helper to do this. One person holds the chicken and the other cuts the feathers. Take one wing, spread it out and using scissors, carefully cut the feathers a few inches from the wing itself. Chickens do get mites and this is a good time to dust them with organic insecticide to prevent them. This process has to be repeated every few months, as the feathers do grow back.
I also began scattering feed in the chicken yard while clucking and calling to the chickens instead of just using the auto feeder and waterer. This both encouraged the chickens to scratch and eat natural feed, such as bugs and worms and weeds, but to also eat small grains of sand and dirt which they need to process their food.
Chickens that are only feed chicken feed have to be provided something like oyster shell which not only helps with their digestion but also provides calcium which helps them form hard egg shells. Chickens that naturally forage for food, better meet their nutritional needs without supplements. Being able to call the chickens to me instead of having to chase and herd the chickens back into the chicken yard saves a lot of time and work.
Eventually, at the urging and help of my neighbors, I was able to allow the chickens to free range in the garden and barnyard during the day and call and gently herd them into the chicken yard before dusk… chickens really do go to bed just as the sun is setting and it is best to get them into their area before then.
They will roost (sleep) wherever, but once they are allowed to sleep outside of their nesting area, they will lay eggs elsewhere also.
Finding an egg in the barn in the haystack, possibly weeks after it was laid, is not a good thing. I was careful to not let the chickens out until all eggs were laid for that day, so early afternoon until about an hour before dusk was long enough. Also, eggs need to be gathered each day and not left in the nests for long periods of time as some chickens will peck at the eggs and once a chicken cracks and eats some of it, it is almost impossible to stop this.
Many animals will eat eggs and eggs can draw animals such as fox, raccoon, snakes, opossum, and hawks to your area and potentially put your flock at risk. Chickens in the garden need to be supervised to be sure they are not eating the vegetables and fruits themselves.
I was usually hoeing weeds, loosening and bringing fresh soil up around plants, or picking vegetables while the chickens were enjoying their time in the garden. If I saw a chicken eating something it shouldn’t I would simply correct that behavior and encourage the chicken to move away from that area.
I found the chickens would follow me and “work” where I was working. If I was in the barn cleaning out a stall, the chickens were there, because I was uncovering bugs and worms for them!
I had read that modern chickens did not have a nesting instinct anymore because they had been caged and not allow to raise chicks for generations. By this I mean, they did not lay a number of eggs and sit on them and keep them warm until they hatched into chicks. Grandma called this “being broody”. I did not have a rooster, so the eggs my hens were laying were not fertilized.
I could not add to my flock by this method, so I decided to buy an incubator with an automatic egg turner and buy fertilized eggs from the flea market to incubate. This was a fun experience and was not too labor intensive. If I had not had the automatic egg turner I would have had to manually turn the eggs once or twice a day which was more time consuming than anything.
Keeping the temperature and moisture levels correct was relatively easy; waiting for the 20 some days till the eggs started hatching was the hard part! Once the chicks starting hatching young and old would spend hours watching and listening to a chick peep while still in the eggs and peck a hole in the eggs shell large enough to get out. It was tempting to try and help a chick get out of the shell, but it is better to leave it up to nature in this case.
Don’t expect all of the eggs to successfully hatch. That is not natures way, hard as it is to see an animal perish before it actually lives. Once the viable chicks have hatched, keeping them fed and watered in a cardboard box with a heat lamp (or old fashioned light bulb that gives off heat) until they started sprouting their big chick feathers.
At this time they could be put in a small bottomless cage on the ground during the day for several hours at a time. They need to be back in the box and under the heat at night even in summer.. Some people advocate clipping the beak of young chicks so they will not peck and injure each other. This can be done with fingernail clippers but I never had to do it to my chicks.
I think overcrowding and not handling the chicks could possibly be contributing factors. I handled all the chick by picking them up and cupping them in my hands and never had any aggressive chicks to deal with.
One thing I did not know is that day-old chicks get very tired very easy and will fall asleep and spread out like they are dead. I had a couple fall asleep with their head in the water tray and felt like I saved a few from drowning by picking them up out of the water. They do stop this after a couple of days after hatching, but it pays to keep a close eye on them or remove the water when you cannot watch them the first couple of days after hatching.
The box itself should be large enough so the heat lamp or light you have over the cardboard box will not heat the entire box. The chicks will move toward and away from the heat as they need it so be aware of whether or not your chicks are getting too hot or cold.
Once the chicks are losing their “baby feathers” and growing their larger feathers I introduce them to the other chickens by putting them in a wire box in the chicken yard. Chickens have a pecking order and you don’t want to risk a small chick being injured by a big chicken by just turning them loose to defend themselves.
After a few days of their being in the chicken yard for a few hours protected by their wire box, I release them in the chicken yard with the other chickens. By this time they have long legs and heads nearly as large as adult chickens. I have never had a problem with a chick being caught and injured by a larger chicken.
I did find that after a year of being “free range” chickens that natural instinct kicked in with one of my hens. She was sitting on about four eggs one morning and was a little more bothered than usual when I went to get the eggs.
I had kept one rooster from the chicks I had hatched and wondered if he was doing his job. He was certainly a good alarm clock, crowing and flapping his wings while on the highest spot he could find in the chicken yard every morning. I left those eggs for the “broody” hen and she successfully hatched 8 chicks. I was very happy to see that natural instinct would take over if given the chance.
I failed to mention the wonderful eggs we got from our chickens. I learned to make many things I would not have learned to make without them. Everything from mayonnaise to angel food cake to quiche became things enjoyed by my family as well as by the helpful neighbors. I was able to barter eggs for butter with one neighbor that had a milk cow.
I no longer have the chickens, that farm or the neighbors but still, have the incubator. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about chickens and maybe someday soon I will start another flock. In the meanwhile, I hope my experiences will be helpful to any of you with chickens or thinking about getting started with chickens.