Chickens 101
Chickens 101
Presented by Laura Karr at the Indiana Organic Gardeners Association on
January 21, 2012  
So, you're thinking about getting some chickens! Here are some things to keep in mind.
Site selection for the “coop”
  • “Virgin ground” (no history of poultry) ideal, but not absolutely necessary or possible
  • High ground – chickens will not be happy or healthy on soggy ground
  • Be sure there is enough space for attaching an enclosed pen to the coop. There will be times when you will not want free-ranging but you’ll want your chickens to have access to the outdoors. A covered pen is best. Enrich pen with perches, logs, etc. A busy chicken isn’t picking at other chickens.
Providing a safe and secure coop
  • Adequate ventilation is critical.
  • Easy access for you for cleaning and twice-daily egg collecting.
  • Size of coop should be based on number of hens you plan to keep.
    • More room is better than less.
    • Coop should be equipped with perches for roosting (7 inches per bird). Perches should be rounded with a flat top.
    • Should have one nest box per 5 hens.
  • Thick bedding (2-5 inches) should be placed on floor of coop and nest boxes. Straw, pine chips or shavings, other clean organic matter is okay, but never use cedar shavings. If you smell any ammonia while squatting in the coop it is time to change the bedding. 
  • Electrical service is helpful for maintaining 14 hr of light during winter and for providing a heated water source.
  • Chicken wire keeps chickens in, but is a poor solution for long-term predator exclusion. Consider hardware cloth, a ground barrier to inhibit digging by predators or scavengers, and electrical fencing/tape (a solar-powered energizer works well).
  • A dark, dusty area in the pen or elsewhere is necessary. Birds use dust to clean themselves (in conjunction with their oil glands) and to control parasites (I add a little diatomaceous earth to the dusting zone to enhance parasite reduction/elimination).
  • For more information on the most humane methods of keeping chickens, please see  
How to get the birds
  • Eggs – are cheaper to buy than chicks, but you will need a good incubator for optimizing hatch, and even then, the shipping process is often hard on the fertile eggs.
  • Baby chicks
    • Ordered from a hatchery – good selection, good survival unless the USPS screws up. 85-95% sexing accuracy, depending on hatchery and chicken breed. You will need a brooding system and, unless it is summer, it will need to be kept indoors (VERY DUSTY!)
    • Purchased from a farm store – you see what you are getting, but selection often limited, you don’t know what/who the birds have been exposed to or fed. Sexing/mixing of sexed birds can be a problem.
    • Purchased from a private breeder or producer: less shipping stress, you can see how they have been treated/kept, no need for a brooder; can get chicks or feathered pullets when you need them. Highest cost per bird, but lowest risk to you.
    • Order chicks with Marek’s disease (viral) and Coccidia (parasite) vaccines. Worth the added expense. Should feed coccidiostat-free feed if you get the Coccidia vaccine.
  • Adult birds from a breeder or producer: avoid this option unless you really know your supplier– those birds are set in their ways and relationships and their laying days might even be numbered.
Feed and water
  • Baby chicks (for laying) should receive a starter ration of 19% protein from 0-6 weeks. Sprinkle a little caged bird grit on the food to get their gizzards off to a good start. From 6-18 weeks, offer an 18% protein grower ration. Start introducing greens and small insects during this time. From 18 weeks on, a layer ration is fed (18% protein with extra calcium). Organic, non-GMO feed is more expensive, but is generally fresher and does not contain coccidiostats or other drugs/antibiotics.
  • Clean, fresh water is needed throughout a bird’s life. When baby chicks arrive you might want to use an electrolyte mix in water for a few days. Chicks won’t need to eat for a day or so, but must be hydrated immediately. Use a shallow waterer and dip each chick’s beak into the water to show it how to drink.
  • Adult birds will eat all kinds of things if given freedom beyond the pen. They love insects and worms, and will even eat baby mice, small snakes and amphibians. Go easy on the treats (i.e., scratch grains and the like)! A fat layer is not as productive as a lean one.
Types of birds
  • Avoid factory breeds and sex-linked birds. They may produce earlier (4-5 months) and produce more, but that won’t last long (good productivity for 12-14 months) and then you are stuck with unproductive birds that will only be good for soup (if you have the heart to dispatch them). I noticed that the one time I had a sex-linked breed, they were not too great at avoiding predators and wandered off alone instead of staying with their cohorts (great for fox bait). They also were pretty clueless about how to forage.
  • Look for medium- to heavy-breed Heritage chickens. They are smart, mellow, love to free-range, and are very tolerant of weather extremes. Wyandottes, Orpingtons, Australorps are some of my favorite Heritage layer breeds. These birds generally begin laying at 5.5-6 months. 
  • For more information on Heritage breeds, see American Livestock Breed Conservancy, or the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities.    
Assorted fun facts about chickens
  • They are in the Phasianidae family, along with quail, grouse, pheasants, peafowl, turkeys, and jungle fowl.
  • Gallus domesticus is a descendent of the Southeast Asian Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus), which emerged as a species nine to ten thousand years ago (the chicken and the canine were probably man’s earliest animal “companions”).
  • One exit hole in chickens: the cloaca (where digestive, excretory, and reproductive tracts meet).
  • Male chickens have no penis. Most male birds, except for the more primitive birds (ratites, storks, flamingos, ducks and geese) do not possess one. Copulation simply involves the approximation of the male and female cloacas, usually while the male stands on the female’s back. Lots of male celebratory dancing and prancing and crowing generally follows (go figure).
  • A hen does not start setting until she has laid an entire clutch of eggs (usually around a dozen to twenty). This permits all the eggs to hatch around the same few days.
  • Chicks are precocious: can walk and follow mom around as soon as they have dried after hatch.In the 1940’s, Mike the Chicken (see lived for 18 months without a head. A true tribute to the power of the brain stem!  
Good Reads:
  • “Chickens in your Backyard,” Rick and Gail Luttmann, Rodale Press
  • “The Chicken Book,” Page Smith and Charles Daniel, University of Georgia Press
  • “Chickens,” Sue Weaver, Hobby Farm Press
  • “Raising Poultry Successfully,” Will Graves, Williamson Publishing
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800 N 200 E, Lebanon, IN 46052
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