How to Care for Chickens

Six Parts:Choosing your chickensHousing chickensDaily routinesFeeding chickensChicken healthEnrichment for chickens

Chickens are one of the most commonly kept birds. They're kept for their eggs, their meat, their bug-eating abilities, their fertilizing benefits and even for their companionship. If you're keen to keep chickens, you'll be wanting to know how to give them the best of care.

Part 1
Choosing your chickens

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    Check that you are allowed to keep chickens before even deciding to keep them. If you live in an urban environment, it is probable that there are restrictions on chicken ownership, either in terms of the amount of chickens or even whether it's allowable at all. Call your local municipality or check out the relevant website and find out what rules are in place governing chicken ownership.
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    Decide what it is you want from your chickens. The breed of chicken is important because some chickens are better egg producers, others are better as meat chickens, while some chickens are great for showing and having as companions. Do some background reading on the different types of chicken breeds to get a good idea of the profile of each kind; your local library should have a decent book with both photos and descriptions, or check online sites devoted to chickens.
    • The Leghorns are the best "egg machines". Rhode Islands are good too, along with Plymouth Rocks. Hens usually start laying around 5 to 6 months of age and are good layers for two to three years, after which the laying will drop off dramatically.
    • If it's your first time with chickens, a dual-purpose breed may be the easiest, so that you can get a supply of eggs, followed by some chicken meat or a beautiful pet.
    • Aside from breeds, you can also choose chickens for less "scientific" reasons, such as because you like how the chicken looks (for example, the cute Bantams often melt the heart), the neighbors have spare chicks going for free or you just happen to want the same chickens you grew up with.[1]
    • You can also rescue hens from factory farms. At around 18 months, hens take a natural break from egg laying. In the factory context, it is cheaper to buy new pullets than to have these hens waiting around. Given the hens will lay for a good 18 months to 2 more years once the laying resumes, you can rescue these hens for next-to-nothing and give them a good home.[2] Check with your local animal welfare agency to see if they rescue these hens for adoption.
    • Chickens have two sizes. These are known as standard and bantam. Within the standard, there is a lot of size variety, broken down to heavy, medium and light. Bantams consist of small and light chickens and "true bantams", the latter term referring to the fact that the bird has no standard equivalent. Standard birds will eat a lot and produce medium to large eggs, while bantam birds will eat less and produce smaller eggs, which may be a more economical choice for you.[3]

Part 2
Housing chickens

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    Give the chickens adequate housing. Chickens need a safe place to roost at night, away from predators, distractions and cold air. Providing housing gives them a place to settle in for each night, and to lay eggs in during the day. They may also like to eat food inside their shelter.
    • A chicken coop, shed or shelter should be fairly large. If it is a permanent coop, making it a size you can walk into will ensure a lot of space for the chickens, and makes it easier for you to clean and place feed inside. Alternatively, use a mobile coop that can be moved around a yard and set down over new areas of grass on a regular basis; there are many good mobile coop designs available, such as the A-frame chicken ark.
    • If you have predators in the area, such as foxes or coyotes, the shelter will need to be predator-proof. You will need strong wire or boards to prevent persistent predators from finding their way into the coop. Be sure that there are no gaps in the fence and that you have completely chicken wired. If the predators are very persistent, electric wire fencing is probably the most secure option.
    • Add a gate or a door for access to and from the chicken house. This should be solid and have a very sound catch or lock, so that predators cannot gain access through it.
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    Consider whether the chickens will be constantly housed or whether you'll let them out during the day to roam the garden or yard. If you don't let the chickens out, the housing will need to be a lot bigger than for roaming chickens, and must include chicken runs. If you do let your chickens roam, expect lots of poop, digging and munching of anything they come across; if you don't mind this, free-range chickens will appreciate your generosity.[2]
    • Keep the run over grass as much as possible. This gives the chickens a chance to forage for bugs and worms and to exercise on a nice texture. Moreover, grass is essential for chickens (see below).
    • A run that can moved around is the best option, as it renews the grass the chickens forage in and gives the ground underneath it a chance for a regular break from the chickens.
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    Make the floor of the housing suitable for the chickens. Put items on the floor that help to keep it clean and prevent soil from being the only thing under the chicken's feet. For example:
    • Put a layer of newspaper covering the floor of the house and then cover it with wood shavings, sawdust, or any other suitable material. Wood shavings are considered an ideal choice by many chicken owners.[4] Don't add any hay or straw at this point.
    • Add a few handfuls of straw or pine needles and strew it around on top the the bedding. Hay is not usually absorbent enough to be effective as floor bedding but you might like to experiment.[1]
    • Clean out regularly; clean out the whole lot and replace with completely fresh bedding, at least weekly.
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    Bear in mind some important points when choosing housing. When choosing or building a coop, the following considerations should guide your choices:[1]
    • Chickens need ventilation but cannot cope with drafts. The ventilation is essential for removing ammonia and carbon dioxide build-up inside the coop, so ventilation holes high up where they cannot cause drafts, are an important part of any coop design. Ventilation also reduces the likelihood of respiratory diseases.[5]
    • Removable perches are important. That way, you can regularly remove them, wash and disinfect them and replace them clean. This assists with lowering the potential for disease.
    • Place egg laying boxes so that they can be accessed from the outside as well as inside. There will be plenty of times when you wish to access eggs without disturbing the whole hen house.
    • Nesting boxes should be dark, above the floor and have a ridge or lip to stop the hens from scratching out the nesting bedding. Nesting boxes should always be located well up off the ground, giving the chicken security and a bird's eye view of what else is going on in the coop; remember that she will feel vulnerable and exposed during laying, so the more you can do to reduce this fear, the better.

Part 3
Daily routines

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    Be punctual and regular about rounding up and releasing outdoor chickens. Stick to very regular times for rounding up and releasing, allowing for seasonal changes, so that the chickens know when to expect you. This is even more important as darkness falls and predators may be lurking around waiting; even if the chickens have helped themselves to returning to their coop, an open door is an unwanted invitation for a predator to enter.
    • Round up outdoor chickens every night into the coop. Always count the chickens before closing the doors; keep an eye out for any laggards or escapees. Close the door of the house at night and switch on any electric fences or activate other defenses you've put in place.
    • Let the chickens out again in the morning. Keep the coop door tied or blocked open, to allow the chickens access to the coop at any time.
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    Collect the eggs each day. Use a small collecting basket or box and go around collecting the eggs. This is a great task for the kids to do.
    • If you can, collect the eggs once in the morning and once at night. This will ensure that all eggs are picked up while fresh. However, once a day is also fine if that is all you can manage, provided the eggs are not left sitting in hot weather all day long.

Part 4
Feeding chickens

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    Have at least two water feeders. Try to use the type that lets you fill the tube, while the outside area gradually fills up over time. Put one right outside the house and the other next to the food. Keep it off the ground, away from litter and soil.
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    Provide appropriate feeders. Food feeders that are filled from the lid, allowing the feed to filter down slowly into the tray around it are the best to get. Fill it and place it a little way away from the house on flat ground. If feeding in the house, choose a suitable feeding location. Again, the feeders should be off the ground, away from litter, chicken feet and dirt.
    • Just fill the containers whenever they empty.
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    Feed the hens well. Good eggs come from good food; what you put into the chicken is what you'll get back out. For eggs high in protein, the diet must be protein-rich and well balanced. For meat, more carbohydrate along with the protein is needed, to promote growth. Commercial layer's rations can be purchased from feed stores, and they are the result of many years of careful research, so are good for the hens. It is also a good idea to supplement any commercial food with a range of natural foods, for variety.
    • Provide laying hens with about 100g/3.5 oz of dry food per bird per day.[1] However, this is a rough average, as a larger hen may need around 125g/4.5 oz of feed per day, while a small and light hen might only need 25g/1 oz per day.[4]
    • For egg-laying, the hens need calcium; without it, the shells will be brittle. Add some grit to the feed for this purpose.[5] Grit is especially important if the chicken is unable to access it in any other way.[4]
    • If growing food for chickens, wheat and barely have higher levels of protein than corn but corn is easier to grow.[1] You can also purchase grains instead of growing them yourself. Always combine grains with a high-protein mash, so that you can be reassured that the chickens are getting sufficient protein.
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    Ensure that chickens have access to grass. Grass forms an essential part of a chicken's diet and its nutrient content changes with the seasons.[4] Hence, either allow chickens to roam and find the grass, or shift runs or coops to cover fresh grass on a regular basis.

Part 5
Chicken health

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    Clean the chicken house once every week. Chickens are prone to many diseases, of which a lot can be attributed to poor hygiene. Hence, it is important to clean out the house with regularity, including disinfecting perches, cleaning out nesting boxes and cleaning and disinfecting eating and watering containers.
    • This is a great task for pocket money earning; show the kids how to clean properly, impressing upon them the importance of good cleaning for the sake of the hen's health. Keep a watchful eye on the cleaning processes until you're sure the kids know how to do it properly.
    • Always wear gloves. It is a good idea to wear a respiratory mask when raking or shifting chicken droppings and feathers, to prevent fine bacterial or other particles from being breathed in.
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    Be aware of the typical parasites that can bother chickens. These include lice, mites, ticks, fleas and worms. There are herbal, natural, veterinary and commercial treatments available for different infestations, but it's always best to talk to your veterinarian or pet health specialist first. If reading up on treatments, be wary of information for treatments that is older than a decade or so, as it may well be suggesting toxic solutions; as for antique books on chicken raising, treat them as lovely collectibles but not as useful for resolving what ails your chickens.
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    Expect laying hens to go off laying for around eight weeks/two months after molting. This time will increase as the hen ages.[5] Chickens also stop laying as much or at all when the daylight hours go below 14 hours and the days are colder and if their nutrition levels fall.[2] Artificial lighting can stimulate more laying.
    • Molting occurs usually in summer or autumn (fall). Laying ceases until the feathers have grown back. As well as seasonal molting, it can be triggered by heat, stress or dirty drinking water.[3]
    • Expect laying to drop temporarily if the coop is moved or if the hens have been scared by predators.
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    Know what to do with "broody" hens. Sometimes hens will go into a mode of brooding but not laying; some breeds are more prone to this than others, such as the Rhode Island Reds. This natural behavior will cause the bird to stake out a nesting box and fail to move from it, sitting on her batch of eggs constantly. Unfortunately, the behavior can result in aggressiveness from the bird, which can cascade into crowding when other birds try to share the nesting area, pecking at other birds and breakage of eggs, or attempts to eat eggs.[5] When a hen behaves like this, shift her out of the nest box and into her own separate place in a different part of the coop.[5] Leave her be there for a few days and it will pass, after which time she should be okay to return to the rest of the flock. She should be back to laying a few weeks later.
    • Other alternatives include picking her up several times a day and putting her down somewhere else, breaking up her nest and removing the eggs so that she can't return to her cozy spot and either adding frozen water bottles to the nest or dunking her backside in cold water, to cool her down (broody hens run a higher temperature).[2]
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    Beware the pecking order when introducing new hens. Hens peck one another to ensure that the social order is defined. The more a hen is pecked, the lower her social order. Hence, when you want to add new hens to the pen, try doing so by allowing them to see one another behind fenced off areas, to allow for familiarization without being able to get at one another.[2] Another alternative is to slip in new chickens after dark; they will all wake up with one another, none the wiser.[2]

Part 6
Enrichment for chickens

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    Allow chickens to roam and forage. This is the easiest and best form of enrichment for chickens, as they will pass many a pleasant day simply wandering about finding bugs and feed around the garden or yard.
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    Hang a vegetable from the top of a run or inside the coop. This will give the chickens both something to peck and eat. Hang it at a height that is just above the hen's head; the hens will jump and peck at it, providing a source of activity as well as the food. One note of caution: Once you introduce this activity in a coop where chickens do not roam outside, it must be kept up regularly as it will become a source of expected stimulation. If it is removed after the chickens are habituated to it, they may take out the pecking on other chickens or their own feathers.[4]
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    Have at least two to three chickens. As with most birds, chickens are highly social and get bored and lonely without company of their own kind.
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    Ensure that your chickens have the opportunity to dust bathe. This is a natural behavior for chickens and it helps them to get rid of parasites from their body.[3] It's also a lovely chance for chickens to sunbathe comfortably.
    • Dust baths should be sheltered from rain or other water sources.
    • Insect repellents can be added to dust baths to help ward off mites, etc. This can include derris dust or rotenone powder; powdered quassia chips; charcoal or coal cinders; dried leaves from bamboo, white cedar or neem trees; diatomaceous earth, dolomite or lime; dried or powdered wormwood, pennyroyal, tansy or pyrethrum.[3]


  • Keep checking feeders, especially water ones.
  • The suggested feeders and accessories are the best.
  • Do not overcrowd your chickens.
  • Eggs can be tasty, but never eat deformed or slightly crushed ones.
  • Be sure there is a reasonable ratio of male to female birds if you are breeding chickens. Breeding requirements are not covered in this article.
  • It's a good idea to learn first aid for chickens; read up on possible ailments and the recommended treatments for issues such as broken legs, egg bound chickens, wounds, crop bound and calluses. Some things can be treated by you, while other things will need further veterinary attention.


  • Do not feed chickens cat/dog food.
  • Watch out for foxes or other predators local to your area.
  • Many urban environments have banned the keeping of roosters. Be sure to check out the rules before investing in the chickens.
  • Keep an eye out for Marek's disease; it is one of the deadliest diseases chickens can catch and it can be spread throughout all of your chickens very quickly.[6] It tends to infect smallholder chicken farmers who do not vaccinate the chicks against this disease. Signs include leg paralysis, spotty or greying irises in the eyes, swollen legs and wings, depression and sudden death, but as these symptoms can also be caused by other diseases, have a veterinarian visit and test the birds.[6] Since vaccination is the only form of prevention, and the chickens are likely to die painfully, remove diseased birds immediately and humanely destroy them.[6] Clean out the housing thoroughly, housing the remaining birds separately away from the original housing. Seek your vet's advice immediately.
  • Do not overfeed by adding extra food.

Sources and Citations

  1., Practical Smallfarming
  2., The Beginner's Guide to Keeping Chickens"
  3. Moore, Backyard Poultry Naturally
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Categories: Chickens