Having covered hen housing and day-to-day care in the first two instalments of this series (“Coming home to roost,” page 28, Dec. 2, 2020, and “The chickens and the eggs,” page 7, Jan. 13, 2021), this final part will delve into the actual procurement of your fowl. Though you may be able to find chickens for sale at other times of year, you will have the most choice in spring, and if you are starting with young chicks, the milder weather makes it easier to meet their need for warm, stable temperatures in their first weeks of life.
One of the first choices you will want to make is the age of the chickens you will be starting with. You may wish to begin with adult hens; this will mean that you should be able to count on getting some eggs almost right away. Another advantage to beginning with adults is that you are able to get birds that have been determined to be hens and not roosters. This is not always the case with baby chicks unless you opt for sex-linked breeds, whose sex can be determined by their colour the day after they hatch.
Whether or not to have a rooster is a matter of preference, or possibly zoning, depending on where you live. A crowing rooster can be a problem if you have close neighbours or light-sleeping family members, and if you have multiple roosters there may be fighting amongst them. If you would like to have another generation of chicks, you will either need a rooster, or a friend who has one who can supply you with fertilized eggs (more on this later).
Another concern with having too many roosters is that your hens may become exhausted by their attentions. Roosters have also been known to pull out hens’ back feathers and tear their skin with aggressive or too-frequent mating. The general rule of thumb is to have 10 hens to one rooster, though as few as four hens might be fine, depending on the breed and temperament of your chickens.
If you elect to go with adult birds, and your intention is to gather eggs, keep in mind that hens begin laying at approximately 18-20 weeks old. Their egg production is likely to begin tapering off around 2-3 years old, but some may carry on laying for years after that, though probably less regularly.
The next common age choice when purchasing poultry is day-old/week-old chicks. The cuteness of chicks at this age is a big selling point, as is the lower price. You are also likely to bond more with animals you are raising from a young age (though even with older chickens, bonding is definitely possible) and raising baby chicks and watching them grow is a lot of fun. On the downside, as mentioned earlier, they need to be kept consistently warm, and safe from anything that might harm them — which may mean keeping them in your house for the first few weeks (this means at least some smelliness and dirtiness). You will also need a heat lamp for them.
You may also choose to purchase fertilized eggs to start your flock, which are even more cost-effective than chicks, though you must expect some losses as some eggs won’t hatch. Hatching them will require an incubator. These vary in price depending on size and quality, but you can expect to spend something in the vicinity of $150-$200 for good quality one that can hatch a dozen or more eggs. If you do decide to go this route, an egg-turning mechanism, either incorporated into the incubator or as an accessory, will save a lot of time and inconvenience and may increase your hatch rate. Hatching your own chicks is a fascinating process but requires more time and patience than purchasing live birds.
Once you have determined the age of the chickens you would like to start with, you can begin exploring the options for where to source them. There are a variety of choices for this, but Dr. Warren Waybright, a veterinarian who mainly deals with large animals but also specializes in poultry, offers the following important advice for helping ensure the health of your flock: “In an ideal situation, a backyard poultry owner would acquire all his or her birds from one source and either breed their own replacements, or if needed impose a quarantine (30 days) before introducing new birds to the flock.”
There are several options for places to purchase your birds. Depending on your location, your local co-op or feed store may sell chicks or laying hens, which is probably the simplest option. The stores usually offer them only a few times a year, so you will need to inquire and probably order in advance. The chickens sold by most feed stores are generally standard-issue laying hens (which may not live as long as heritage breeds, an important consideration if you are intending to keep your chickens as pets), so if you have your sights set on a particular breed, you may need to look further afield, such as a hatchery.
Most hatcheries have websites where you can peruse the breeds they offer and check out their rates and shipping policies. Unless you are going to pick up your birds on site, you will generally have a choice of fertilized eggs or day/week-old chicks, either of which can be shipped to you. By going through a hatchery, you will have a greater choice in terms of breeds and will be able to pick and choose the makeup of your flock.
An excellent local choice for procuring chickens would be a breeder in your region, or a friend who raises chickens on a small scale and is looking to disperse some of their flock. Waybright says that whatever option you choose, his recommendation is to “either to buy from a particular person that maintains a high level of biosecurity and a closed flock, or from a large breeding farm that is capable of exporting. … Places I try to avoid are ones where lots of birds come together and then get dispersed.”
Once you have your flock up and running, apart from the essentials of care that were outlined in the previous instalment of this series, there are some important steps you can take to optimize your chickens’ health. Waybright says that one of the biggest mistakes he sees is a break in biosecurity. “I think a lot of people don’t realize how many poultry diseases there are in common circulation, and even the healthy birds can carry a lot of diseases.” He notes that he often hears of people agreeing to keep their friends’ chickens while they are out of town; he says “this is a great way to swap diseases. Some of the diseases can also do permanent damage to the flock and affect future productivity.”
One of the most important things you can do to keep your flock healthy is to observe them and get to know them. The chickens’ eyes should be bright, and they should be interested in their food and surroundings. Some potential signs of a chicken who is unwell are a pale comb or wattle, coughing, wheezing or a runny “nose,” mangy or patchy feathers (this can, of course, be due to moulting, but you should rule out things like parasites and nutrient deficiencies before assuming this).
If you can pick up your chickens in your hands, this allows you to roughly monitor their weight. Quite often a hen can look perfectly fine to your eye, but picking her up will give you a clear indication of her body condition.
Other steps you can take to keep a happy and healthy flock include keeping their living space clean and making sure they have space to move around, ideally in interesting surroundings where they can dust-bathe, chase insects and forage.
If you do find yourself with a chicken health issue requiring veterinary care, Dr. Waybright says finding that care can be challenging. “Many of the available treatment options are … tailored to flocks of hundreds if not thousands of birds [and] the veterinarians that work for the poultry farms cannot risk seeing backyard flocks due to biosecurity. All of that to say, finding poultry vets for backyard flocks is difficult.” Fortunately, with good husbandry and attention to biosecurity, issues requiring veterinary care are relatively uncommon.
There are many things to consider when taking on a flock of chickens, but whether your birds are pets, egg-producers or ultimately meat sources, preparation and care will ensure your success — and you will grow to really enjoy these endearing and entertaining creatures. They, at least the layers, will likely supply you with more eggs than you will know what to do with in return!