Clucker Keeping 101
Well hell, you have found yourself wanting to keep Cocks and Cluckers! Before you rush off to buy chicks or chickens, take a gander (get it a male goose?) at this nifty guide to keeping the Cluckers happy and healthy. Also, we cuss here.
It's not all chicken tutus and cuddles.
Believe it or not, chicken keeping is not what you see on Instagram. It's messy, it can be tiring, and it's a lot of work to establish a routine. You need to put in tons of research and work before you impulse buy chicks somewhere (We've all been there). You need to ask yourself questions and see exactly what you want out of your feathered floofs before you get them. Some questions to ask yourself:
Where am I keeping them?
What am I using them for? (Meat, Pet, Eggs?)
What breed am I wanting?
Can I give them the time and attention they need?
Do I want a certain egg color?
How many am I gonna get? (Always plan for more. Chicken math always sneaks up on you.)
Do I know what they need and can I provide it?
If I am in city limits, am I allowed to have them?
Can I commit? (It's okay we all struggle with commitment in some way)
These guys are gonna grow quick so make sure you're prepared there. I always recommend going big or going home. Again, chicken math is a real thing. I'm also gonna say here that if you've never owned chickens before, don't go all in and try and hatch your own on your first go around. Eggs take a certain finesse and experience with grown birds and chicks is going to be needed before you hatch. If you go ahead and hatch first time (Rock on High Speed) don't get discouraged if it doesn't go very well.
Life cycles of Chickens
Chick: 1-4 weeks
21 days curled up in an egg that you're continually getting too big for is rough. You're gonna need a brooder, a heat source, and their food and water. Make sure you throw some type of bedding in the brooder about 3 inches deep. Pine or hemp works great. Chicks need grip or risk injury to their legs. Chicks also need to be maintained at a temp of 95 degrees their first week and then bumped down 5 degrees every week until you hit 5 weeks of age.
Teenager: 5-17 weeks
Your chicks' feathers are gonna look like you royally messed them up with hair clippers. They get really awkward looking (but didn't we all look awkward as teenagers?). You're also gonna have the pecking order beginning during this stage. Around week 16, you're gonna notice your cluckers begin adult behaviors (Nothing wrong with a little bump and grind) just be prepared for crows and for your boys to learn their breeding stance. Watch them, they can sometimes cause injuries by falling off the hen (LOL) or by being too rough with the hens. Seriously when they come into hormones they'll be breeding 20+ times a day. (poor ladies)
Adult: 18 weeks to 6 years.
Congrats! You got your cluckers to adulthood! Get ready for all the fun stuff that comes with it......Eggs and babies if that's in the cards for you. Remember! A hen's first year is going to be high production and then she will taper off. A rooster will be more aggressive his first year and it will taper off (Thank you hormones). Keep this in mind that you'll get a real feel of your bird's temperament their second year. Also, LOL molt seasons. Get ready.
Elder birds: 6 years plus
Some breeds of chicken can live for a long ass time! Keep this in mind when choosing your breed. Most breeds stop laying around this time, and you'll see many roosters around this age lose interest in the ladies. They'll move slower and are more susceptible to injury and illness.
Where should I get my chicks?
I am always going to preach to go local when you can but I also know that not everyone lives in farmland either. Two great tools that even I have used are the Livestock Conservancy breeder directory (Click the hyperlink it'll take you straight there)
AND Murray McMurray Hatchery. Now if you do go local there are a few things to keep in mind.
STAY AWAY from free chicks or chickens. That's sketch and more time than not, it's a shitty person trying to pass off a sick bird. (Not saying that's the case ALWAYS but it is a majority of the time.)
NPIP isn't a 'have to have' but breeders who participate in the National Poultry Improvement Program are tested regularly for Salmonella and Avian Flu. Some states have more tests they require but the basic tests are those. DO NOT BUY ACROSS STATE LINES FROM SOMEONE WHO IS NOT NPIP. Again, that's sketch and they should know better.
Do they participate in local poultry community or did they just say "fuck it" and throw a bunch of chickens together in pens to sell? If you want quality birds, ask to see at least pictures of the setup. Are the parents in good conditions? Don't get in a hurry to get chicks. Make sure you get what you want from a reputable chicken tender.
You got chicks now what?
Yay! You committed (I'm so proud of you). Get those cluckers home and put them in your brooder. There's tons of debate over heat lamps vs. heat plates and my personal opinion is do whatever the hell you want to. My preference though are the heat plates from Cozy Coops. Make sure you have room temperature water available and food. Oh I forgot. Make sure your actual storage container has some high sides or those cluckers are going to fly out within the first two weeks. I use old water troughs I find cheap online. Make sure you're keeping the brooder clean as a build up of ammonia can cause respiratory issues in chicks (and even grown birds). Keep in mind you can do everything right and your chicks might get sick or hurt. Let's get into it.
Common chick ailments
When you get chicks, no matter where you get them from, they can get sick or hurt. I'm going to cover some of the most common ailments here. Remember too that some injuries and illnesses can overlap each other so make sure you're comparing information from many different resources (I am partial to the Merck Vet Manual) and do not use just this guide as a "one size fits all".
Shipping distress: If you have chicks shipped to you, you run the risk of them having shipping distress.
Signs/ symptoms: loud, distressed peeping, no peeping at all, hunched down into themselves, lethargy, general malaise.
The Fix: first thing to do is ensure that the chicks are warm. Remember, we need a temp of 95 degrees to keep them happy. Get them some room temperature water and if they aren't drinking yet, a drop of poultry Nutridrench will hopefully perk them right back up.
Possible complications: Pasty Butt, death
Pasty Butt: This is where the chick's vent gets clogged from poop that sticks to it's feathers surrounding the vent. It can have a sudden onset due to stress or overeating. Sometimes illness can cause it but it's less common.
Signs/ Symptoms: a lump of poo stuck to the backside not to be confused with their navel. (the navel is small and more on the stomach away from the vent.)
The Fix: Wash that clucker's ass. I'm serious. Take the chick and wash it's backside under some lukewarm water. Peel it off gently until you can see the vent. Ensure that you dry the chick off before you put it back in the brooder. (I use the blow-dryer) If the pasty butt becomes recurrent, wash it off and put a nice amount of petroleum jelly (if you're in a pinch) or Vaseline. Add probiotics to their water. You can get a small pack of it for .99 cents at your local feed store. Also, look at your brooder temperature. It may need adjusted.
Possible Complications: missing butt feathers and a raw ass. Death if not treated in time.
Coccidiosis: This disease needs to be treated quickly in chicks. It's a pretty common intestinal disease cause by several species of parasites that keep the chicks from absorbing their food through damaging their intestinal lining.
Signs/ Symptoms: diarrhea (can cause pasty butt), poor overall appearance, lethargy, blood in their poo, decreased growth rate, and ruffled feathers.
The Fix: 1 tablespoon of Corid (Amprolium 9.6%) to 5 gallons of drinking water. Give for next 5 days. You can find this at your local feed store over the counter.
Possible Complications: death if not treated in time, intestinal damage.
PROTIP: Keep Corid, probiotics, electrolytes, and poultry Nutridrench in your chicken First Aid Kit.
Slipped Tendon/ Splay leg: Slipped tendon can be Manganese deficiency or a genetic abnormality but more often than not, it's an injury incurred due to slippery surfaces in the incubator or brooder.
Signs/ Symptoms: Your cluckers are doing splits or not walking right. Swelling in the hocks. Their leg will be bent and won't straighten even if you try to help it. The hurt leg may turn backwards or rotate outwards. and the chick won't walk on it's feet but it's hocks.
The fix: You're gonna have to make a splint of some sort. I've seen people make them out of everything. Band-Aids, rubber bands, tape, and others. There's a plethora of pictures online of how to splint it.
Possible Complications: loss of leg, death if not helped to get food and water, and muscular issues later down the road.
Some brooders I've had over the years.
Pinterest is going to be a great resource to inspire all things chicken coop. It can be simple or elaborate, the possibilities are endless! Find what works for you but don't overwhelm yourself in the process. It can be very easy to over plan and then you have a bunch of things you don't need. Now that you have your breed and quality, lets go over coop necessities.
Roost bars: Even over thousands of years of domestication, chickens still like to sleep up high as a way to protect themselves from predators. You want to make sure that you have roosting bars in your coop so that your birds can stay up off the floor and out of bacteria. Chickens will look for the highest spot to perch at night so offering a bar that's higher than your nesting boxes is going to be best practice. You also want to make sure you make these out of wood so that your birds can have a grip on them.
Vents: You want to make sure that your coop has good air quality. Remember, ammonia buildup can lead to respiratory illnesses. When your chickens poop, ammonia is released from it. You want your vents positioned in a way that the coop doesn't get too much airflow. Too much airflow, especially in winter months can lead to illness and cold injuries.
Nesting Boxes: Nesting boxes are where your chickens are going to lay their eggs. We don't want the cluckers to be roosting here so the nesting boxes should be installed lower than the roost bar. Chickens like to lay in dark, private places so keeping the nesting boxes in the darkest spot of the coop is beneficial. They should have some type of bedding material so that your eggs don't crack when they're laid. A multitude of fancy nest boxes are available for purchase but you can build one just as easily. Rule of thumb is one nest box per 3 hens but more experienced keepers will tell you they all will lay in one box no matter how many you have. Still offer a multitude of boxes to meet this ratio.
Housing: You want your coop to be sturdy and protected from the wind. A drafty coop can mean sick chickens in winter months. Insulation will help with this. Depending on how many chickens and the breed you have, you want to have at least 4 square feet of space per (standard) bird. If you're doing the heavy breeds they need 8 square feet of coop space.
(Lets do math ugh *insert eye roll here*)
If I want 20 chickens, they need to have 4 square feet of coop space each. So I will need a coop that's 80 square foot. (4x20) See that wasn't too bad.
Free range vs. Chicken run: Depending on which option you go with, you can bypass this part. If you're free ranging, congrats, move on from this part. If you're building a run, stay put. There are many pros to having a run, predator protection being one of them. Time for more math. Standard chickens need a run space of 8 square feet. Heavier breeds need 15 square feet.
So, If I want 20 heavy breed of birds and they have to have 15 square feet of run space, I need a run that is 300 square feet. (15x20)
Thank God, the math is done.
Dust bath: If you're free ranging, watch your garden and skip this part. Chickens don't bathe with soap and water like we do. They take dirt baths! Ensure you have a place where they perform this important hygiene habit. A good mixture of ash, dirt, sand, and herbs all mixed together in a kiddie pool or even a tire laid in the run is beneficial. If you don't add one and they're run is natural ground, they'll make themselves one no worries.
Sunning Spots: The nice old game of "Is it sunbathing or is it dead?". Don't freak out the first time you see your chickens partaking in this behavior. Chickens needs the age old Vitamin D just like we do. Chickens love sunlight and sometimes they do it just cause it feels nice or they're regulating their body temperature. Free ranger chicken tenders don't have to worry about this as much as chicken run chicken tenders do.
Food and Waterer: This is kind of a given regardless. Make sure your cluckers have uninhibited access to fresh water daily and food. Some people ferment feed, I don't. You can find my homemade feed recipe in the blog if you wanna home make it or visit your local feed store. Find what works best for you.
You got the coop and now you wanna bond.
Holding a chicken is pretty easy especially if you've handled them since they were chicks. A couple of highlights here. Never flip a chick or chicken on it's back. You'll compress their lungs (Which run on their ribs towards their back) and you can trigger tonic immobility. Wash your hands before and after handling your birds. FUN FACT- Chickens can recognize faces and caregivers. They'll associate you as a caretaker after a while and pretty soon, if you free range, you'll have a posse of chickens following you everywhere. Lets move on to treats!
Foods that are TOXIC to chickens
uncooked beans and lentils
Garlic and onion
Avocado pits and skits
Rhubarb and rhubarb leaf
raw potatoes and peels
chocolate or candy (kind of a given but covering just in case)
Moldy or rotten food
Try to stay away from these things. I think that covers a lot on the basics of having cluckers. Make sure to follow @Marissasmesses on tiktok for daily updates/ info on chickens. Until the next time!