Even during this time of social distancing and concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, small farms, homesteads and backyard hobbyists are planning for the arrival of this spring’s batch of poultry chicks.
For some people, this will be the first time they’ve purchased chicken, duck or turkey chicks to raise for meat or egg laying . For others, it may be the first time they are adding new chicks to an existing mature flock. In either case, there are a few things to consider as you prepare to welcome new chicks.
Don’t overthink it
“Having [poultry] is a lot simpler than many people think,” said Maine homesteader Crystal Sands who has raised chickens and ducks on her family farm for the last six years and writes about raising her poultry at Pajamas, Books and Chickens.. “In the immediate all you need is a brood box, bedding, water, food and a heat lamp.”
With those supplies on hand, Sands said, the chicks’ immediate needs of warmth, food and hydration are met.
As for a brooder — basically a heated space for baby chicks — it doesn’t need to be fancy, but it does need to be warm. Brooders can be purchased from farm supply stores or can be made out of things like large produce boxes or plastic totes. What they all need to have in common is sides tall enough to prevent the active chicks from hopping out and enough space to let them move about freely as they grow.
It’s also important to place the brooder itself in a heated space either in the home, garage or an outbuilding.
“Chicks grow fast but need to be under heat for the first six to eight weeks,” said Lisa Steele, a poultry expert and Maine homesteader who has written several books about keeping poultry and also writes the website Fresh Eggs Daily. “So be prepared to have them in your mudroom, spare bathroom [or] laundry room for a while.”
The brooder should have several inches of bedding on the bottom, like wood shavings. Unless it has built in feeders and waterers, it also needs a sturdy, level surface on which to place food and water containers. A thin, flat board works fine for this.
For the first two weeks the chicks need a heat source capable of keeping the temperature between 95 and 100-degrees Fahrenheit, like a poultry lamp with a 250-watt bulb. After two weeks the heat source can be turned down — or elevated if using a 250-watt heat lamp — to bring the temperature to between 90 and 95-degrees for the next two weeks. After another month, or when the ambient outside temperature hits the 70s, the heat source is no longer needed.
Moving into a coop
The birds can move into the coop at about three-months of age.
“Ultimately you need to be thinking about a coop for the birds,” Sands said. “And you should start planning and setting it up before it’s actually needed.”
Pre-built coops can be purchased at farm supply stores. If you already have one, an unused garden shed or even a child’s playhouse can be a perfect chicken, turkey or duck coop.
The general rule of thumb is two- to three-square-feet of indoor space for each bird with eight- to 10-square-feet per bird in an outside run. More space is always better as cramped conditions can stress the birds out, leading to pecking and even death. And remember ducks are going to want access to water in which to bathe, play and swim. A child’s wading pool works really well for that.
Coops should always have several inches or more of clean, dry bedding on the floor, places for the birds to perch at night and nesting boxes filled with bedding and straw. These boxes can be made of old scrap lumber or even old desk drawers. Coops should also have a secure door to close down at night to keep predators like coyotes or foxes away.
“Everything wants to eat chickens,” Steele said. “There are predators everywhere in urban and rural areas.”
Slow introductions are best
If the move into a coop means new chicks are joining an established flock , it’s important to not just toss them in and hope for the best. Older birds are likely to attack and even kill the newcomers.
In her six years of raising poultry, Sands said she has developed a system that is 100 percent effective.
“When the little ones are big enough to be outside and hang out I put up a temporary fence in the run to keep them apart,” Sands said. “This allows them to see each other and get used to each other without actually making physical contact.”
At night they can go back into their respective and separate sleeping quarters.
It can take time for them to get truly accustomed to each other, and Sands suggests waiting 12 weeks before mixing the two flocks together. The best way to do that, she said, is to wait until all the birds are sleeping and then gently pick up the younger ones and set them down in the permanent coop.
No roosters required
One of the biggest misconceptions Steele hears from people new to chickens is the notion the birds won’t lay eggs without a rooster in the flock.
“You don’t need a rooster for your hens [or other egg-laying poultry] to lay eggs,” Steele said. “But those eggs will never hatch into chicks.”
Still, just because you don’t need one doesn’t mean you don’t want one. Steele has one rooster at the moment which she plans to use to fertilize eggs so she can hatch out the chicks. Sands likes to hatch out her own chicks so she does have a rooster or two on her homestead to mate with the females and fertilize the eggs.
“Roosters have their pros and cons,” Sands said. “A good rooster can provide flock protection.”
As for the cons? “It can be hard to find a good rooster,” Sands said.
Roosters can be very aggressive to hens and toward people to the point of attacking and harming or even killing female members of the flock and harming people.
“If you know you don’t want a rooster, it’s worth paying a bit of extra money to make sure you are getting chicks that are sexed and are all females,” Sands said. “Straight runs are cheaper, but there will probably be some roosters among the chicks you buy.”
Straight runs are sold “as hatched” meaning they are a mix of male and females and is not an issue if raising some of the rapidly maturing breeds like Cornish Cross for meat who are butchered before the rooster’s hormones fully kick in and they start acting aggressively.
Patience is a virtue
Most of the people Steele hears from are interested in getting chickens or ducks for their eggs. But many are also under the impression those eggs are going to start coming far sooner than they really are.
“They won’t start laying eggs until they are about five months old,” Steele said. “So today’s spring chicks won’t be providing food for your family until fall.”
That means there’s a lot of routine chicken care and coop maintenance, including regular feeding, watering and cleaning, for months before any eggs will appear in the nesting boxes. But there is also the simple joy that comes with safely interacting with your flock and watching them go about their daily routines hunting for bugs, scratching at gravel or taking a dust bath.
“Chickens are fairly low maintenance,” Steele said. “But you do need to be home by sunset to lock them in for the night and they need to be fed and watered and — once they start laying — the eggs need to be collected on a regular basis.”
Wait, what is going on with my birds?
For the most part, having poultry is fairly routine. As long as your birds get fresh food and water daily, have a clean living space and are secure from predators they are all set. However, there are a few things to watch for that can confound a first-time poultry keeper. Here are some of the more common things your birds might experience.
Eventually your chickens will molt and it can change their appearance to such an extent it’s disturbing even to experienced owners. But it’s nothing to worry about. Molting is the natural seasonal shedding of old feathers and re-growth of new ones and is something every chicken experiences. It’s often not pretty as the process can leave birds with loose scraggly-looking feathers or bald patches. But fear not, soon shiny new feathers will grow in.
There may come a time when you notice an egg-laying hen sitting in the same place for days at a time on a clutch of eggs or even on a pile of small rocks. This behavior is known as “going broody.” It’s an extension of the chicken’s natural instinct to sit on eggs, but a broody hen is taking it to the extreme, and it’s a habit that needs breaking. Among the ways to break the behavior is removing the broody hen from the coop and placing her in some sort of chicken solitary confinement away from the other hens for a week or so. A large dog crate or a rabbit hutch make good temporary coops for broody hens.
If you are collecting eggs one day and notice an egg-shaped mass of tissue, pus and yolk-like material, you have just found a lash egg. This is typically a symptom of the bacterial infection Coliform salpingitis. While it is a serious health issue, it can be successfully treated with antibiotics.
Poultry can get sick or injured. To avoid running to the vet whenever a bird has a minor wound or appears under the weather, it’s important to have a fully stocked poultry first-aid kit on hand. For more serious conditions, or if you are unsure of what is going on with your birds, make sure to have the phone number of your veterinarian as part of that kit.
Know the laws
Before you buy any chicks, make sure they are allowed where you live. It is important to check local ordinances, which may limit or ban which animals and birds are allowed. In Bangor, for instance, backyard chickens and other animals aren’t allowed in most of the city.