We started raising chickens this past spring. I googled everything I could and then some. Some highly recommended resources include The Chicken Chick and the Backyard Chickens forum. Both have been invaluable. But for all the advice they offered, it often came from sources who had years and years of experience, and consequently sounded like someone who knows exactly what they are talking about. I know nothing. After about 8 months of doing this, I still know next to nothing. But I’ve learned some hard truths they don’t always tell you in forums and guides; things that are common sense to anyone raised around chickens or someone who has been doing it for years, but can come as quite a shock to the Poultry noob, even when you immerse yourself in everything the internet has to offer on the subject.
1) Chickens die. A lot.
We began with six chicks from Tractor Supply. In the process of converting a run down shed into the Taj Mahal of coops (another post on this soon), I decided to let them roam free-range in our two-acre hillside. The FIRST DAY I did this, I arrived home at around 4:30 to see a fox carrying what was the second of my 12-week old friends he’d claimed that day. We would later purchase 10 more Amerecauna pullets from a hatchery. 6 of them died from Marek’s disease, which is awful. We lost one more of the Tractor Supply lot to egg binding.
I learned some lessons through this. Marek’s vaccine is relatively inexpensive and easy to administer. I know how to spot an egg-bound chicken, and treat them accordingly. All this is to say, don’t get TOO attached. Because the next thing I learned is:
2) You’ll need to kill them.
Put aside any fantasy you have of every chicken you get (and name) having a long, happy life and dying a natural death in a white linen-draped nestbox. It doesn’t happen that way. The Marek’s-stricken birds slowly lost the use of their wings, which drooped, and then their legs. I attempted every possible remedy I could find before ending their very obvious suffering. I have a flat board with 2 screws in it, spaced a neck-width apart. Lay the chicken down on it, placing their neck between the screws. One chop with a sharpened cleaver, (I use this one) and it’s over instantly. You’ll read a lot of things online about the “most humane” way to do it. Some suggest carbon monoxide chambers, cervical dislocation, and even putting them in the freezer, but I can’t imagine one more humane than what I’ve been doing. I’ve never second guessed that it was anything but an instant, painless end to their suffering.
3) Mating is really tough to watch.
I have one rooster, and he gets around. When he’s horny, anybody is fair game. When he picks the lucky lady (read: victim), it’s ugly. He pins their wings down, rips their feathers out, bites and pulls their combs (he’s ripped one off before) all in the name of making sweet avian love. Just know that if you have a rooster, you’re going to see something scary at some point. If it gets out of control, or his options are so limited that your chickens are getting “overused”, you can buy them some protection in the form of these saddles. I haven’t used them, but they’re fairly well reviewed.
4) Buy an automatic door.
If you are reading this and aren’t a Perdue farmer, you’ll probably want to let your chickens go outside every day, and put them away at night. Unless you want to walk out to their coop every morning and evening and do this, you need an automatic door.
The Pullet Shut is the best one. Buy it. It’s worth every single penny of the $200 price tag. It’s very easy to install, easy to program, and it’s battery charges with an included solar panel. I don’t even know how people with jobs that didn’t naturally involve working in a chicken coop ever got by before this was invented.
5) Have an alternate coop ready to go.
When your chickens get sick, or injured, or aren’t ready to be integrated into your flock yet, or you need to deep clean your coop, or….you get the picture. They don’t tell you this ahead of time. No one does. But you will need a second home. Even if it’s just a simple coop like this one, or a stock tank like this one with some kind of cover over it, it will be priceless when the time comes.