chickenPoultry: Keeping chickens

Keeping chickens in your garden is a hobby that has many attractions. Chickens are fun and relaxing to watch, and can be left alone to entertain themselves while you're out at work, while dogs may fret and pine, and want to be taken out as soon as you get home.

Chickens can also give you fresh, organic eggs, and provide additional nutrients for your compost heap. But, though chickens are quite low-maintenance, they do need their food and water supply refreshed daily, a sturdy, secure chicken house, regular cleaning, and enough space to forage for  worms and grubs. They're also vulnerable to predators like foxes, so need to be shut in at night, and let out in the morning. And they're vulnerable to pet dogs, your own and other people's. So, as with any pet, the big question is whether chickens fit with your lifestyle at the moment. Can you offer them the commitment, safety and comfort they deserve? How safe is your garden? If you have a dog, how well trained is it to respect chickens as 'not prey'? Sometimes the sensible answer is ... 'maybe later'.

Chicken behaviour

Chickens are descended from red jungle fowl, which live in groups of six to ten adults, and spend over half the day foraging, which means scratching, and pecking for seeds, grass, worms and insects. The natural behaviour of chickens also includes dust bathing, and roosting at night on perches. Hens make nest hollows that they line with grass and feathers. Chicks learn what to eat from older birds. Chicks start aggressive pecking when they're about six weeks. This means they peck at the heads of victims, usually while they're eating. This aggression helps to establish a pecking order, and lessens once the chicks are ten weeks old, and have worked out who stands where in their social world. 

Commercial flocks of chickens aren't able to behave naturally. Broilers, farmed for meat, are designed to put on weight fast, and are fed concentrated diets. They're often living under long hours of artificial light, to stimulate them to eat more. The light means they're less active, and don't rest enough.  They gain so much weight that their skeletons can't support it, and they often become lame. Layers are designed to produce a lot of eggs, and their health problems include osteoporosis, both from continually producing eggs, and because their bones are weakened if they don't have perches to roost on at night. They're usually worn out by the time they are 70 to 72 weeks old, and are killed as no longer productive. A pet chicken can live to about seven years old!

Layers, not surprisingly, can show unnatural behaviour when they're forced to live in unnatural conditions. Feather pecking and pulling, vent pecking, and cannibalism are serious problems in some commercial flocks. This isn't the same as aggressive pecking in red jungle fowl, which is also seen in domestic chickens, and which tends to be worse in larger flocks, where it's difficult for chickens to establish a stable pecking order. Feather and vent pecking can harm the victims, which are more likely to be killed if they're already wounded.

Abnormal pecking can be reduced by keeping chickens in small groups with enough space, by using good-quality litter, and by giving the chickens perches to roost on at night, high enough to avoid attacks from the ground. Chickens also need to live under natural light conditions, with dark at night, and dark in their nest boxes. A good diet also helps, with mash rather than pellets, and chickens need to forage. Nipple drinkers are also preferable to hanging bell drinkers. 

It's clear from research that environmental factors can encourage abnormal behaviour, but feather pecking is also more common in layers than broilers, so there's a genetic component. Furthermore, once chickens start feather pecking, the habit tends to spread round the flock, so if you buy ex-commercial layers you may be buying a whole lot of health and behavioural problems. However much love and care you may lavish on them, they may still be weak, and never develop normal behaviour. The same applies to commercially produced chicks, reared away from their mothers. Chicks need to learn to use nest boxes and perches, and if they've been raised without them, they don't know what to do with them as adults. Chicks raised away from adults are also less able to distinguish between food and non-food, and are less able to cope with dangers like moving cars, and pontential predators.

 Commercial flocks of chickens tend to have very little genetic diversity. It's people who keep backyard and show chickens who are preserving genetic diversity, by keeping a wide range of breeds that commercial farms don't consider, because they see chickens as a means of turning feed into meat or eggs. So the chance to preserve genetic diversity is another good reason for exploring chicken breeds, rather than taking on ex-commercial layers.

Choosing your chickens

Assuming that the idea of keeping chickens really appeals to you, and that you can offer them the lifestyle that they deserve, how do you choose your chooks? Generally, it's sensible to aim for youngish chickens, around 16 weeks old, because they are young enough to get used to being handled, are more likely to be healthy, and have many years of egg-laying ahead of them.

Cockerels are usually better-looking than hens, but they have a number of disadvantages. First, they do not lay eggs. They can also be very noisy, and annoy the neighbours. Even in the countryside there are people 'sensitive' enough to complain about the noise that poultry can make. Cockerels can also be partial to attacking human legs, making it necessary to wear wellies when you feed your chooks. And they are not really necessary unless you want to breed from your hens. Please note, keeping more than one cockerel in the same pen is not an option, since they tend to fight.

People obtain chickens from various sources, including friends. Your best bet is to source chickens from someone who lets you see where they live, and check that their accommodation is salubrious, because well-cared for chickens are likely to be healthy. New birds from different sources can learn to get on with each other, but if yours already know each other, the chances are that they will be happy together.

How many chickens? This depends on how much space you have, and what you plan to do with the eggs. Giving chickens enough space, both in the chicken house and in the run, is important because it helps them to stay healthy, free of parasites, and promotes harmony in the flock. Two humans really only need two or three laying hens to keep them in eggs over the summer. Increase the number of chickens, and you need to think of what to do with the surplus eggs (see Laying).

Bantams can be escape artists, and when they're loose, they're vulnerable to dogs and foxes. Larger hens tend to be tamer and more manageable. Some breeds are kept mainly for their looks, whereas others can both look good and are reliable layers.

Breeds of chicken 

Breed is important. The number of eggs chickens lay depends a lot on breed, and some of the more attractive breeds lay fewer eggs. Chicken size varies a lot according to breed, and smaller chickens, ie bantams, tend to lay small eggs. Bantams are usually kept for their appearance rather than for eggs and meat. Temperament, which affects how easy birds are to handle, also varies according to breed, as does the ability to fly. It's well worth spending some time researching breeds and basing your choice on why you would like to keep chickens, whether it's to relax yourself watching them after a hard day at work, or to turn your back yard into a little productive enclave and supply your family with healthy, organic food.

Silkies are one of the more attractive breeds. They were first mentioned in the 13th century, when Marco Polo described them as having wool instead of feathers. They first came to Britain in around 1850. They have fluffy plumage which can be black, blue, gold or speckled brown, and it feels silky when you stroke them. They're good mothers and can begin to lay at Christmas, easily going broody. Some mothers will take to fostering chicks, while others can be highly strung. Hens can foster multi-coloured broods, with more added, and are unable to count, so accept newcomers. Fostering works less well if the initial brood is one colour and the newcomer is a different colour - the newcomer may then be attacked. Silkies tend not to be eaten outside China, since their skin and bones are black, which puts some people off!

Brakels and Campines are also very attractive old breeds. They were once one breed, but had become two by the 19th century. They're silver and gold, with clear silver or gold necks, and barring on their bodies. Brakel males have backs that are clear, while Brakel and Campine females, and Campine males have barred backs. Both breeds were developed in Belgium. Campines have become more popular in shows in the US and Britain, whereas Brakels are less well known outside farms in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.

Bantams tend to be showy birds. They come in two types, bantam breeds with larger versions, and those that only exist in bantam form, or true bantams. True bantams include Rosecombs, Nankins, and Sebrights. Rosecombs can come in black and white, and other colours are being developed. They have big white lobes, and prominent red combs. Nankins are buff and red, and were common in rural England in the 18th century. Sebrights and other breeds have been developed from Nankins, which became less popular because people wanted showier birds. Sebrights have clear lacing and look as though they've been painted. They have dark purple combs, lobes and wattles, which stand out against their lacy plumage.

Chicken houses and runs

Chickens can be kept indoors in large barns, but they are happier and healthier if they can go outside to scratch for food and take dustbaths. It's much easier to keep chicken houses hygienic than barns. You can take off the roof of a chicken house and expose it to sunlight after a good clean, whereas sunlight does not always reach all parts of a barn, and there are more dark, damp places in barns where parasites may lurk.

Wherever chickens are kept, they need a safe, draught-free shelter at night, and somewhere to shelter from the rain in the daytime. You can buy chicken houses ready-made, or design and build your own personalised chicken house. Principles to bear in mind are:

1) Security against foxes and other predators. Foxes can be quite crafty, so make sure than doors for collecting eggs can be firmly secured, as well as the main door.

2) The chicken house has to be easy to clean, for example, slide-out floor panels can be scrubbed and put out to dry easily. Likewise, a lift-off roof makes a small chicken house much easier to clean.

3) At least one nest box for every three chickens.

4) Enough rounded perches for your chickens to roost at night. The height of the perches depends on how high your chickens can fly or jump, which in turn depends a lot on breed.

5) Some ventilation is necessary, though not so much that it causes draughts.

6) Ideally as well, the roof of the chicken house should be insulated to keep it cool in summer and cosy in winter.

A portable, rather than fixed chicken house has the advantage that you can change the position of the run. Some people successfully convert their whole gardens into chicken runs, rounding up and putting the chickens to bed in the evening, should the chooks not go into the chicken house on their own. This is fine if you have a secure garden with a gate that you can lock so the chooks don't get out accidentally, and if you have no delicate plants. Chickens are rather partial to delicate plants and tender shoots, so turning your garden into a chicken run is easier if you specialise in tough shrubs. Should you like growing veggies, either the veggie patch or the chooks will have to be fenced off, because alas, they are not compatible.

Fencing off part of your garden is another option. Bear in mind that small runs are likely to become patches of bare earth and covered with droppings. A portable chicken house and run allows you to change the position every month or so, keeping the ground of the run sweet.

How high should the fencing be? At least two metres, and with some breeds, higher. You may even need to put on a wire mesh roof. Chickens tend not to fly well, but this varies according to breed, and they can jump onto convenient launch-pads that you place in their run, including the chicken house.


Farm supply stores are a good place to shop for chicken feed, as well as food and water containers. The type of feed that chickens need depends on their age and whether or not they are laying. Chicks need special food, as do hens in lay. In addition, chickens need grit to help them digest their food, and access to greenstuff, like the aptly-named chickweed. You will have to supply access to grit and greens if the chickens cannot obtain them naturally. Grit is quite cheap. Hanging a bunch of greenery where the chickens can peck at it helps to keep the greenstuff clean, rather than trampled and pooed on. Likewise, feed and water containers should have a design that prevents chickens from standing in their feed or water and pooing in it. (Chickens cannot help doing this, they constantly produce poo with little control, and do not poo in the more controlled and less frequent way that humans do, one reason why it is not sensible to allow chooks to come into your kitchen!)

Health and hygiene: Prevention is better than cure

The best way to keep chickens healthy is to give them a clean, safe place to live in. Chooks are prone to collecting parasites, like worms and leg mites, but this is less of a risk where they aren't too crowded and have plenty of space. Coccidiosis is a particular risk for birds given access to outdoors. It's a parasite which causes loose stools, because it destroys the chicken's gut wall. Chickens can develop some immunity so long as they aren't overwhelmed by the parasites, which means that hygiene is very important. Likewise, red mites, which can lurk in damp, dark corners of chicken houses and barns, can be kept at bay by thoroughly cleaning the chicken house at least once a month, and then exposing the inside of it to sunlight. Red mites are particularly nasty little beesties which lurk in the chicken house and come out at night to suck your chickens' blood, putting them off laying eggs, and generally making them feel miserable. There are treatments that you can buy to cure chickens with parasitic infestations, but prevention is better than cure. If you do suspect a bird is infected, a vet check is in order, to prevent it spreading throughout the flock. It's also worth talking to your vet about prevention if you plan on keeping a lot of birds.

Ensuring that chicken houses are draught-free, and that chickens have shelter from rain help to prevent respiratory problems, which can afflict chickens. Respiratory diseases can spread. The more chickens you have, and the higher the density of chickens per square metre, the greater the risk of parasites and infectious diseases, so it is safer to keep numbers low. A further peril which can afflict chickens is long grass getting stuck in the chicken's crop. This causes severe discomfort, which can be eased with olive oil and a very gentle massage. This problem can be avoided by keeping grass in the run quite short.

Back garden chickens can have longer, happier and healthier lives than their wild ancestors, because they are protected from many perils. They can also be happier than their commercially farmed relatives, because you can put more effort into giving them a pleasant place to live. After their most productive years have passed, back garden chickens can still be cherished for their interesting characters and for the role they play in the flock as savvy old hens,

Handling: Easy does it

You may just want to watch your chickens, and have no particular desire to touch them. However, it is much easier to catch them when you need to if they are used to being handled. The easiest way to tame chickens is to start out with offering them tasty titbits placed on the ground near you, making no attempt to touch them until they are confident about being around you. Then take it gradually, get them used to being touched before you venture to pick them up. The first time you pick them up, do this for just a few seconds, ensuring that they have titbits on the ground to tempt them to stay near you when you free them, so they are less likely to rush off in a panic. Be patient and they will come to trust you.

Chickens used to humans from when they are young are easier to handle, as are some of the more docile breeds. You may have to 'herd' chickens that are skittish and unused to humans. If so, move slowly and make sure that all potential exits are blocked off so the chooks feel that they have little option but to go in the direction you are herding them.

Always wash your hands after handling chickens because they can pass on diseases to humans. This especially applies to children - it is wonderful when chooks and the children get on, but safety first, since children are especially likely to lick fingers that have been near a chicken's nether regions.


Fresh organic eggs from happy chickens are a wonderful bonus for chicken keepers. How many eggs does a chicken lay? This depends - in summer chickens lay more eggs than in winter, when some chickens stop laying altogether. Moulting, stress, parasites like red mites, and illness also affect laying. Stress can affect both the number of eggs and the quality of the shells. The protective outer coating of shells helps to prevent germs from entering the eggs, so happier chickens lay healthier eggs.

Both numbers and the size of eggs are related to the age and breed of the chickens. Some breeds are more prolific egg layers than others, while younger birds tend to lay small eggs at first, and smaller breeds like bantams lay smaller eggs. Check out the average size and number of eggs that different breeds can lay during peak months, before taking a final decision on how many chooks to take on of a particular breed. Selling surplus eggs involves a lot of red tape, but you can use eggs to cook with, and freeze meals for winter months when you have a dearth of eggs.


Keeping a cockerel with hens means that you will have some fertilised eggs which your hens are likely to want to hatch in the spring or summer, when they get 'broody'. Chicks are enchanting, and great fun to watch, but beware, they can involve you in some tough decisions once they get older. Do you have enough space for more hens? Will the enlarged flock have enough space to live in comfortably? And what do you plan on doing with the young cockerels? Keeping them in the same pen is not an option, because they are likely to fight. Some chicks can be kept to replace chickens lost to predators, disease or old age. However, there comes a time when you need to limit numbers, and this especially applies to cockerels, which need a separate pen for each bird.

The decision whether or not to let your chickens breed depends a lot on why you want chooks. Do you want them purely as pets, or do you want to supply your family with healthy, organic food? Pets, by definition, are not raised for eating. We keep pets because we enjoy being around them. However, raising chickens both for eggs and meat does have advantages. You have access to high-quality meat, and you can give your chickens much happier lives than they would live on purely commercial chicken farms. This is really about how you feel when you take on chooks, and if you see them purely as pets, it's simpler to stick to hens, leaving cockerels to farmers.

See also:

Further reading:

Branciari, R., Mugnai, C.,Mammoli, R.,Miraglia, D.,Ranucci D., Dal Bosco A., Castellini C. (2009). Effect of genotype and rearing system on chicken behavior and muscle fibre characteristics. Journal of Animal Science, 2009 Dec;87(12):4109-17. doi: 10.2527/jas.2009-2090. Epub 2009 Aug 14

Jensen P1, Keeling L, Schütz K, Andersson L, Mormède P, Brändström H, Forkman B, Kerje S, Fredriksson R, Ohlsson C, Larsson S, Mallmin H, Kindmark A. (2005) Feather pecking in chickens is genetically related to behavioural and developmental traits. Physiol Behav. 2005 Sep 15;86(1-2):52-60.
Mills, Daniel (ed) (2010) The encyclopedia of applied animal behaviour and welfare. CABI Publishing
Schütz KE, Forkman B, Jensen P. (2001) Domestication effects on foraging strategy, social behaviour and different fear responses: a comparison between the red junglefowl (Gallus gallus) and a modern layer strain. Appl Anim Behav Sci.74, 1-14.