What DO chickens really need? I ask myself this questions daily. I've been keeping chickens in town for four years—just a year or so before the big chicken craze hit this country. My neighbor across the street had been raising chicks from eggs for 3 or 4 years before that. We would go over and visit her brood. She would encourage us to just DO IT. I was hesitant. I wanted to do it right. . . I'd witnessed too many sad situations where ignorance was misery for animals. (A good overall book on raising and housing chickens is Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow. It's worth the money, just buy it.)
We finally borrowed an incubator and fertile eggs from a friend and managed to hatch our first bantam chick. We named her The Budge. (That is short for bugerigar, or parakeet for those of you who are not bird fanciers.) We brooded her in our basement office. My husband, an extremely patient man, listened to her cheep nonstop for weeks. I would sometimes come down to find him holding the tiny chick in his lap, gently rubbing the top of her head with the tip of his finger to quiet her. Chickens really need company. We had to supply that care and attention because hers was the only egg that hatched.
Our second batch of chickens are the five Dominiques that we now tend. We also brooded them in the basement (but not in the office this time!). I got them from a farm supply store in an adjacent county. I had already successfully brooded a chick, so I knew what to do and had the brooder set up and at the right temperature so I could pop the chicks into it as soon as I got home. I transported them home in a small pet carrier lined with paper towels and swaddled in several thick towels with the car heater on high. I sweated all the way home, but they were just barely warm enough. Chicks need warmth as much as they need food and water.
Chickens need a safe, dry, draft-free place to roost and get out of the weather. Most breeds can handle some cold weather (mine handle very cold weather). People wack together some pretty pitiful hovels to house their chickens and then wonder why their feet freeze or the racoons get in and kill them all. Building a stout and (in our area a well-insulated) properly ventilated coop is a must, because we have hot, humid summers; long, cold, and snowy winters; and plenty of vermin and wandering dogs. (Our neighbors call our hen house the "Robo-Coop" but we prefer to think of it as our "Litltle Fort Knox.")
My husband built a mobile coop from plans I found ina book by a wonderfully precise British fellow by the name of Michael Roberts (Poultry House Construction, Gold Cockerel Books) (www.goldcockerelbooks.co.uk). They lived in this coop on the backyard lawn until they got too crowded and started picking feathers out of each other because chickens need adequate space.
We detached the coop section from the mobile coop and put it in the fenced poultry yard that used to be our backyard vegetable garden. They lived in the yard, retiring to the little coop at night, until my husband finished building the permanent coop adjacent to it. As soon as I moved the pullets into the chicken yard, the aggressive behavior stopped. My chicken yard is a fenced 15- by 20-foot space surrounded by a 1- by 2-inch wire mesh fence with 2-foot high chicken wire partially buried around the bottom to reinforce and exclude digging predators. I also have poulty net over the top because we have red tail hawks that love to snack on birds. (One day shortly after installing the netting, I found one of these hawks roosting on the peak of the coop roof surveying my chickens. It swooped down, was brought up short by the netting, and flew away in disgust!)
I bed my chicken's yard with seedy hay and straw. This provides them with plenty of material to scratch and peck because chickens need things to do. Boredom can lead to all kinds of bad habits. Leading causes of cannibalism in chickens are inadequate nutrition, crowding, and boredom. You don't think of chickens of having enough brains to get bored. I think that so much of their behavior is hardwired that they have plenty of space left over to think of other things like: "Where's my snack?" and "What have you done for me lately?"
Chickens need decent food and fresh water at regular intervals. They can get along on scraps and odds and ends, but that is just survival—don't expect peak egg production and lots of wonderful tasting meat. Water is especially important. Chicks' growth is slowed if they don't get enough water, and hens may go into a molt and stop laying if they are deprived of water for a day and a half according to The Chicken Health Book by Gail Damerow (Storey Publishing, www.storey.com). (This is another book that is worth owning.) When the weather is hot, chickens need additional cool water fonts and shade.
I'm about chickened out (please ignore the pun) for now. And I haven't even mentioned that chickens need a place to take their daily dust bath! Maybe that will be the subject of another chicken blog! Begonia.
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