Raising Chickens For Dummies book cover

Raising Chickens For Dummies

By: Kimberley Willis and Robert T. Ludlow Published: 12-05-2019

Your hands-on guide to modern chicken-raising methods

Thinking about raising chickens? You've come to the right place! This new edition of Raising Chickens For Dummies provides the most up-to-date, thorough information on the many aspects of keeping chickens in your backyard. Inside, you'll find hands-on, easy-to-follow instructions on choosing and purchasing chickens, constructing housing for your birds, feeding your chickens for optimal health, combating laying issues, controlling pests and predators, optimizing egg production, and much more.

Raising chickens on a small scale is a popular—and growing—pastime. If you're interested in keeping chickens as pets or as a source for eggs, Raising Chickens For Dummies gives you plain-English explanations of everything you need to know to about caring for chickens. Inside, you'll learn about basic chicken biology, breeds, and behavior, which chicken breed is best for you, how many you need, ways to spot healthy chickens, how to build a chicken coop, best practices for mating your chickens, how to incubate eggs, how to hatch and nurture chicks, manage laying hens, collect and store eggs, and butcher meat birds.

  • Offers practical advice on choosing and purchasing chickens
  • Helps you construct the right housing for your chickens
  • Provides tips on feeding and caring for your chickens
  • Includes top tips for raising healthy chickens

Whether you're a first-time poulterer or you've been raising chickens for years, this comprehensive guide provides practical how-to advice for keeping chickens in virtually any backyard.

Raising Chickens For Dummies (9781119675921) was previously published as Raising Chickens For Dummies (9781118982785). While this version features a new Dummies cover and design, the content is the same as the prior release and should not be considered a new or updated product.

Articles From Raising Chickens For Dummies

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36 results
Raising Chickens For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheet / Updated 02-24-2022

Raising chickens can be fun and rewarding. Whether you’re raising birds for their eggs or for their cackling companionship, caring for your birds is an everyday project. Raising happy and healthy birds means knowing how to take care of baby chicks and what to feed them as they mature.

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Consider Your Neighbors When Raising Chickens

Article / Updated 06-23-2021

So, what exactly do we mean by "neighbors" in this context? Neighbors are any people who are in sight, sound, and smelling distance of your chickens. Even if it’s legal in your urban or suburban area to keep chickens, the law may require your neighbors’ approval and continued tolerance. And it pays to keep your neighbors happy anyway. If neighbors don’t even know the chickens exist, they won’t complain. If they know about them but get free eggs, they probably won’t complain then, either. A constant battle with neighbors who don’t like your chickens may lead to the municipality banning your chickens — or even banning everyone’s chickens. Regardless of your situation, the following list gives you some ideas to keep you in your neighbors’ good graces: Try to hide housing or blend it into the landscape. If you can disguise the chicken quarters in the garden or hide them behind the garage, so much the better. Don’t locate your chickens close to the property line or the neighbor’s patio area, if at all possible. Keep your chicken housing neat and clean. Your chicken shelter should be as tidy and clean as possible — we're talking five-star resort cleanliness standards here. Store or dispose of manure and other wastes properly. Consider where you’re going to store or dispose of manure and other waste. You can’t use poultry manure in the garden without some time to age because it burns plants. It makes good compost, but a pile of chicken manure composting may offend some neighbors. You may need to bury waste or haul it away. Even if roosters are legal, consider doing without them. You may love the sound of a rooster greeting the day, but the noise can be annoying to some people. Contrary to popular belief, you can’t stop roosters from crowing by locking them up until well after dawn. Roosters can and do crow at all times of the day — and even at night. Roosters aren’t necessary for full egg production anyway; they’re needed only for producing fertile eggs for hatching. If you must have a rooster, try getting a bantam one, even if you have full-size hens. He will crow, but it won’t be as loud. Don’t keep more than one rooster; they tend to encourage each other to crow more. We don't want the boys getting too rowdy. Keep your chicken population low. If you have close neighbors, try to restrain your impulses to have more chickens than you really need. Two hens for each family member works well for egg production. The more chickens you keep, the more likely you will have objections to noise or smells. Confine chickens to your property. Even if you have a 2-acre suburban lot, you may want to keep your chickens confined to lessen neighbor complaints. Foraging chickens can roam a good distance. Chickens can easily destroy a newly planted vegetable garden, uproot young perennials, and pick the blossoms off the annuals. They can also make walking barefoot across the lawn or patio a sticky situation. Mean roosters can scare or even harm small children and pets. And if your neighbor comes out one morning and finds your chickens roosting on the top of his new car, he’s not going to be happy. Cats rarely bother adult chickens, but even small dogs may chase and kill them. In urban and suburban areas, dogs running loose can be a big problem for chicken owners who allow their chickens to roam. Free-ranging chickens can also be the target of malicious mischief by kids. Even raccoons and coyotes are often numerous in cities and suburban areas. And of course, chickens rarely survive an encounter with a car. You can fence your property if you want to and if it’s legal to do so, but remember that lightweight hens and bantams can easily fly up on and go over a 4-foot fence. Some heavier birds may also learn to hop the fence. Chickens are also great at wriggling through small holes if the grass looks greener on the other side. Curious little rascals. Be aggressive about controlling pests. In urban and suburban areas, you must have an aggressive plan to control pest animals such as rats and mice. If your chickens are seen as the source of these pests, neighbors may complain. Share the chicken benefits. Bring some eggs to your neighbors or allow their kids to feed the chickens. A gardening neighbor may like to have your manure and soiled bedding for compost. Just do what you can to make chickens seem like a mutually beneficial endeavor. Never butcher a chicken in view of the neighbors. Neighbors may go along with you having chickens as pets or for eggs, but they may have strong feelings about raising them for meat. Never butcher any chickens where neighbors can see it. You need a private, clean area, with running water, to butcher. If you butcher at home, you also need a way to dispose of blood, feathers, and other waste. This waste smells and attracts flies and other pests. Those of you who raise meat birds and have close neighbors can send your birds out to be butchered. Finally, don’t assume that because you and your neighbors are good friends, they won’t care or complain about any chickens kept illegally.

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How to Get Rid of Your Chickens' External Parasites

Article / Updated 06-20-2021

Chicken parasites are a given in most backyard coops. External parasites — lice, mites, fowl tick, and chiggers — are the creepy-crawlies found on the outside of the chicken, so common that earlier poultry tenders didn’t even bother treating chickens for them. That said, these pests can cause anemia, damaged feathers, weight problems, poor laying, or — in young birds — death. Signs of external parasites include: Seeing them crawling on the chickens or in the coop Being bitten by them yourself Noticing chickens with broken, chewed-looking feathers and reddened skin patches Seeing chickens doing a lot of scratching and picking at themselves A drop in egg production Anemia with pale combs and wattles A fluffed-up or sick appearance Help your confined chickens keep parasites away by giving them a large, deep box of sand to wallow in. Dust smothers and dislodges the parasite and cleans the body of oils, dust, and debris that some parasites feed on. Free-range chickens make their own wallows. Also, don’t let wild birds nest or roost in chicken shelters. Many people today are still willing to let nature call the shots, and they don’t worry about treating their chickens for parasites. If your chickens are acting healthy and producing as you want them to, you may decide not to treat them for parasites. For those with small flocks that are handled frequently and that are confined at least part of the time, parasites may be unacceptable. Most external parasites that affect birds don’t live on humans, but a few will take a bite out of you if they get on you. You don’t want parasites on you, and you may want your chickens to be as comfortable and healthy as possible. You also may want optimum production. These are good reasons to choose to treat your birds for parasites. Chicken lice Lice are long, narrow, tiny insects that move quickly when you part a chicken’s feathers. The eggs are small dots glued to feathers. When your chicken has a heavy infestation, you can see the lice scurrying around on the bird. Unlike human lice, chicken lice don’t feed on blood; they eat feathers or shedding skin cells. There are head lice, body lice, and lice that live on feather shafts. To control lice you have to treat the birds directly — treating the environment doesn’t work. Permethrin, natural pyrethrum, and carbaryl dust are effective insecticides for lice, but you must consult a vet for the correct way to use them on chickens. Chicken mites Mites are very tiny rounded insects that can be seen only through a microscope and that will also bite humans. The most common mites in backyard coops are Northern Fowl mite, Common Chicken mite, Scaly Leg mite. Some types of mites feed at night on the birds and then hide in cracks of the environment during the day; others stay on the birds. They can cause anemia, decreased egg-laying, and damage to skin and feathers. Some types even invade the lungs and other organs. Heavy mite populations can cause death. Both the birds and the premises need to be treated for mites. Permethrin and several other good treatments exist. A good treatment for Scaly Leg mites is petroleum jelly, linseed oil, or mineral oil applied liberally to the legs; these products smother the mites. Ask a poultry expert or vet for other treatment recommendations, because many good treatments aren’t registered for use with chickens. Fowl tick and chickens Ticks cause anemia, weight loss, decreased egg production, and general weakness in chickens. In the South, where this type of tick is most common, it can cause serious illness and even death in chickens. If you suspect ticks, go out and get a chicken several hours after dark and examine the skin closely in a good light. When filled with blood after their nightly meal, they’re large enough to see easily. Ticks are difficult to control. You don’t treat the chicken; you treat its surroundings. This means spraying housing and treating pasture areas and trimming or removing weeds and debris around poultry housing. Ask a vet for recommendations on tick control products. Chickens and chiggers Chiggers are nasty little bugs that don’t mind feeding on humans as well as chickens. Chickens get chiggers when they roam grassy areas or come into contact with hay or straw that’s infested with them. Chiggers cause great distress to chickens. They may appear ill and have no interest in eating or drinking. Their feathers appear fluffed up, and they scratch their skin a lot. Young birds sometimes die from heavy infestations. The control of chiggers is the same as with ticks: You treat the environment. In addition, any hay or straw stored close to chickens may need to be moved or destroyed. Don’t try to eliminate parasites by spraying your housing with old-time remedies like kerosene or fuel oil. These products are environmental pollutants that cause more harm than good, and using them this way is illegal. They also can have toxic effects on your birds because they can be absorbed into your bird’s skin.

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9 Signs of a Healthy Chicken

Article / Updated 06-18-2021

How do you know if your chickens are normal and healthy? Here are nine signs. Eyes: Chicken eyes should be clear and shiny. When a chicken is alert and active, its eyelids shouldn’t be showing. You shouldn’t see any discharge or swelling around the eyes. Nose: Both nostrils should be clear and open, with no discharge from the nostrils. Mouth: The chicken should breathe with its mouth closed, except in very hot conditions. If cooling the bird doesn’t allow it to breathe with its mouth closed, it is ill. Wings: Most chicken breeds should carry their wings close to the body. A few breeds have wings that point downward. (Study breed characteristics to see what is normal for your breed.) The wings shouldn’t droop or look twisted. Sometimes droopy wings are a sign of illness in the bird. A damaged wing that healed wrong won’t affect the laying or breeding ability of the bird. But some birds are hatched with bad wings, which is usually the result of a genetic problem. These birds should not be used for breeding. Feathers: In general, a chicken shouldn’t be missing large patches of feathers. Hens kept with a rooster often have bare patches on the back and the base of the neck near the back. These patches are caused by mating and are normal. But you should never see open sores or swelling where the skin is bare. Sometimes birds lose feathers, particularly tail feathers, when they're captured. If the bird appears healthy otherwise and the skin appears smooth and intact, it’s probably fine. A healthy bird has its feathers smoothed down when it is active. Some breed differences are noteworthy — for example, a Frizzle with its twisted feathers will never look smooth. A bird with its feathers fluffed out that isn’t sleeping or taking a dust bath is probably ill. Feet and toes: The three front toes of chickens should point straight ahead, and the feet should not turn outward. The hock joints shouldn’t touch, and the toes shouldn’t point in toward each other. Chicken feet shouldn’t be webbed, although occasionally webbed feet show up as a genetic defect. You shouldn’t see any swellings on the legs or toes. Check the bottom of the foot for swelling and raw, open areas. Vent: The feathers under the tail of the chicken around the vent, the common opening for feces, mating, and passing eggs, should not be matted with feces, and you shouldn’t see any sores or wounds around it. Mental state: The chicken should appear alert and avoid strangers if it is in a lighted area. Birds that are inactive and allow easy handling are probably ill. Chickens in the dark, however, are very passive; that's normal. Activity level: Here again, differences exist between breeds, but a healthy chicken is rarely still during the daylight hours. Some breeds are more nervous and flighty; others are calm but busy. In very warm weather, all chickens are less active.

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More Than You Need to Know About Chicken Feathers

Article / Updated 06-18-2021

Feathers cover most of the chicken’s body. Most breeds of chickens have bare legs, but some have feathers growing down their legs and even on their toes. Other variations of feathering include muffs, puffs of feathers around the ear lobes; beards, long, hanging feathers beneath the beak; and crests or topknots, poofs of feathers on the head that may fall down and cover the eyes. Some breeds of chickens appear fluffy, and some appear smooth and sleek. Chickens with smooth, sleek feathers are called hard-feathered, and birds with loose, fluffy feathers are called soft-feathered. A feather mutation can cause the shaft of the feather to curl or twist, making the feathers on the bird stick out all over in a random fashion. Talk about a bad hair day! These birds are called Frizzles. The Frizzle mutation can occur in a number of chicken breeds. Birds shed their feathers, beginning with the head feathers, once a year, usually in the fall. This shedding period is called the molt, and it takes about seven weeks to complete. The molt period is stressful to chickens. Types of feathers Contour feathers are the outer feathers that form the bird’s distinctive shape. They include wing and tail feathers and most of the body feathers. Down feathers are the layer closest to the body. They provide insulation from cold temperatures. Down feathers lack the barbs and strong central shaft that the outer feathers have, so they remain fluffy. Silkie chickens have body feathers that are as long as the feathers of normal chickens, but their outer feathers also lack barbs, so the Silkie chicken looks furry or fluffy all over. Feathers also vary according to what part of the chicken they cover. The following list associates these various types of feathers with the chicken’s anatomy: On the neck: The row of narrow feathers around the neck constitutes the hackles. Hackle feathers can stand up when the chicken gets angry. These feathers are often a different color than the body feathers, and they may be very colorful in male birds. In most male chickens, the hackle feathers are pointed and iridescent. Female hackle feathers have rounded tips and are duller. On the belly and midsection: The belly and remaining body areas of the chicken are covered with small, fluffy feathers. In many cases, the underside of the bird is lighter in color. On the wings: Chickens have three types of feathers on the wings. The top section, closest to the body, consists of small, rounded feathers called coverts. The middle feathers are longer and are called secondaries. The longest and largest feathers are on the end of the wing and are called primaries. Each section overlaps the other just slightly. On the legs: Chicken thighs are covered with soft, small feathers. In most breeds, the feathers end halfway down the leg, at the hock joint. In some breeds, however, the legs have fluffy feathers right down to and covering the toes. On the tail: Roosters have long, shiny, attractive tail feathers. In many breeds, the top three or four tail feathers are narrower and may arch above the rest of the tail. These are called sickle feathers. Hens have tail feathers, too, but they are short and plainly colored, and they don’t arch. Anatomy of a feather Feathers are made of keratin, the same stuff that comprises your fingernails and hair. Each feather has a hard, central, stem-like area called a shaft. The bottom of the mature shaft is hollow where it attaches to the skin and is called a quill. Immature feathers have a vein in the shaft, which will bleed profusely if the feather is cut or torn. Immature feathers are also called pinfeathers because when they start growing, they are tightly rolled and look like pins sticking out of the chicken’s skin. They are covered with a thin, white, papery coating that gradually wears off or is groomed off by the chicken running the pinfeather through its beak. When the cover comes off, the feather expands. When the feather expands to its full length, the vein in the shaft dries up. New feathers, old feathers Chickens can lose a feather at any time and grow a new one, but new feathers are more plentiful during the molting period. The age of a chicken has nothing to do with whether a feather is mature. On both sides of the shaft are rows of barbs, and on each barb are rows of barbules. The barbules have tiny hooks along the edge that lock them to their neighbors to make a smooth feather. When chickens preen themselves, they are smoothing and locking the feather barbs together. Feathers grow out of follicles in the chicken’s skin. Around each feather follicle in the skin are groups of tiny muscles that allow the feather to be raised and lowered, allowing the bird to fluff itself up. How feathers get their colors The color of feathers comes both from pigments in the feather and from the way the keratin that forms the feathers is arranged in layers. Blacks, browns, reds, blues, grays, and yellows generally come from pigments. Iridescent greens and blues usually come from the way light reflects off the layers of keratin. The way the light reflects off the feather is similar to the way light reflects off an opal or pearl. Male chickens generally have more iridescent colors.

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Common Chicken Illnesses and Treatments

Article / Updated 06-18-2021

Serious illness is unlikely in a backyard chicken flock, especially if you vaccinate the chickens. All the same, it’s good to be aware of illnesses in case you're ever wondering, is my chicken sick? Diseases can spread from wild birds and pests, so keep an eye out during your daily health checks for the symptoms listed below. Avian Pox/Fowl Pox: Symptoms: White spots on skin; combs turn into scabby sores; white membrane and ulcers in mouth, on trachea; egg laying stops; all ages affected. How contracted: Viral disease; mosquitoes, other chickens with pox, and contaminated surfaces. Treatment: Supportive care, warm dry quarters, soft food; many birds with good care will survive. Vaccine available: Yes; recovered birds are immune and do not carry the disease. Botulism: Symptoms: Tremors quickly progressing to paralysis of body, including breathing; feathers pull out easily; death in a few hours. How contracted: Caused by a bacterial by-product and by eating or drinking botulism-infected food or water. Treatment: Antitoxin available from vet, but expensive. If found early try 1 teaspoon Epsom salt dissolved in 1 ounce warm water dripped into crop several times a day. Vaccine available: None; locate and remove source, usually decaying carcass, carcass near water, or insects that fed on the carcass or the water the carcass is in. Fowl Cholera: Symptoms: Usually birds over 4 months — greenish yellow diarrhea; breathing difficulty; swollen joints; darkened head and wattles; often quick death. Does not infect humans. How contracted: Bacterial disease; wild birds, raccoons, opossums, rats, can carry. Also transmitted bird to bird and on contaminated soil, equipment, shoes, clothing contaminated water and food. Treatment: None — destroy all infected birds if recovery occurs the bird will be a carrier. Vaccine available: Yes, but only your state's agriculture department can administer it. Infectious Bronchitis: Symptoms: Coughing; sneezing; watery discharge from nose and eyes; hens stop laying. How contracted: Viral disease; highly contagious; spreads through air, contact, and contaminated surfaces. Treatment: Supportive care; 50 percent mortality in chicks under 6 weeks. Vaccine available: Yes. Give to hens before 15 weeks of age because vaccination will cause laying to stop. Infectious Coryza: Symptoms: Swollen heads, combs, and wattles; eyes swollen shut; sticky discharge from nose and eyes; moist area under wings; laying stops. How contracted: Bacterial disease; transmitted through carrier birds, contaminated surfaces, and drinking water. Treatment: Birds should be destroyed as they remain carriers for life. Vaccine available: None. Mareks Disease: Symptoms: Affects birds under 20 weeks primarily; causes tumors externally and internally; paralysis; iris of eye turns gray, doesn’t react to light. How contracted: Viral disease; very contagious; contracted by inhaling shed skin cells or feather dust from other infected birds. Treatment: None; high death rate and any survivors are carriers. Vaccine available: Yes, given to day old chicks. Moniliasis (Thrush): Symptoms: White tacky substance in crop; ruffled feathers; droopy looking; poor laying; white crusty vent area; inflamed vent area; increased appetite. How contracted: Fungal disease; contracted through moldy feed and water and surfaces contaminated by infected birds. Often occurs after antibiotic treatment for other reasons. Treatment: Yes. Ask a vet for Nystatin or other antifungal medication. Remove moldy feed and disinfect water containers. Vaccine available: No. Mycoplasmosis/CRD/Air Sac Disease: Symptoms: Mild form — weakness and poor laying. Acute form — breathing problems; coughing; sneezing; swollen infected joints; death. How contracted: Mycoplasma disease; contracted through other birds (wild birds carry it); can transmit through egg to chick from infected hen. Treatment: Antibiotics may save birds — see a vet. Vaccine available: Yes. Newcastle Disease: Symptoms: Wheezing; breathing difficulty; nasal discharge; cloudy eyes; laying stops; paralysis of legs, wings; twisted heads, necks. How contracted: Viral disease; highly contagious; contracted through infected chickens and wild birds and is also carried on shoes, clothes, and surfaces. Treatment: None. Birds under 6 months usually die; older birds can recover. Recovered birds are not carriers. Vaccine available: Yes, but the U.S. is working to eradicate the disease. Omphalitis (Mushy Chick): Symptoms: Newly hatched chicks — enlarged, bluish, inflamed naval area; bad smell; drowsy, weak chicks. How contracted: Bacterial infection of naval from unclean surfaces or chicks with weak immune systems. Can spread from chick to chick on contaminated surfaces. Treatment: Antibiotics and clean housing sometimes help, but most chicks will die. Remove healthy chicks immediately to clean quarters. Vaccine available: None. Use caution handling — staph and strep that cause this disease may infect humans. Pullorum: Symptoms: Chicks are inactive; may have white diarrhea with pasted rear ends; breathing difficulty; asymptomatic death possible. Older birds — coughing; sneezing; poor laying. How contracted: Viral disease; contracted through carrier birds and contaminated surfaces, clothing, and shoes. Treatment: Destroy all infected birds — birds that recover are carriers. Most chicks infected will die. Vaccine available: No vaccine, but there is a blood test to find carriers. While the U.S. is trying to eradicate this disease, buy chickens from Pullorum-negative flocks only.

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Basic Chicken Behaviors

Article / Updated 06-11-2021

Watching a flock of chickens can be as entertaining as watching teenagers at the mall. Chickens have very complex social interactions and a host of interesting behaviors. And like most domesticated animals, chickens prefer to be kept in groups. A group of chickens is called a flock. Knowing a little about chicken behavior is crucial to keeping chickens. Hopefully, knowing a little bit about chicken behavior may sway you if you’re sitting on the fence about whether to raise chickens. Raising chickens is a fun hobby, even if you’re raising them for serious meat or egg production. When the power goes out, you can go back to the times of your forefathers: Sit out on the porch and watch the chickens instead of TV. Sleeping chickens When chickens sleep, they really sleep. Total darkness makes chickens go into a kind of stupor. They’re an easy mark for predators at this point; they don’t defend themselves or try to escape. If you need to catch a chicken, go out with a flashlight a couple hours after darkness has fallen, and you should have no problem, providing you know where they roost. Chickens also sit still through rain or snow if they go to sleep in an unprotected place. Because they’re vulnerable when they sleep, chickens prefer to roost (perch) as high off the ground as they can when sleeping. The more “street-savvy” birds also pick a spot with overhead protection from the weather and owls. Chickens like to roost in the same spot every night, so when they’re used to roosting in your chicken coop, they’ll try to go back home at nightfall even if they’ve managed to escape that day or are allowed to roam. Socializing behaviors With chickens, it’s all about family. If you don’t provide chickens with companions, they will soon make you part of the family. But chickens have very special and firm rules for all family or flock members. Chickens in the wild form small flocks, with 12 to 15 birds being the largest flock. Each wild flock has one rooster. Ranking begins from the moment chicks hatch or whenever chickens are put together. Hens have their own ranking system, separate from the roosters. Every member of the flock soon knows its place, although some squabbling and downright battles may ensue during the ranking process. Small flocks make chicken life easier. In large flocks of 25 or more chickens and more than one rooster, fighting may periodically resume as both hens and roosters try to maintain the “pecking order.” The dominant hen eats first, gets to pick where she wants to roost or lay eggs, and is allowed to take choice morsels from the lesser-ranked hens. The second-ranked hen bows to none but the first, and so on. In small, well-managed flocks with enough space, the hens are generally calm and orderly as they go about their daily business. Roosters establish a ranking system, too, if there’s more than one in a flock. A group of young roosters without hens will fight, but generally an uneasy truce based on rank will become established. Roosters in the presence of hens fight much more intensely, and the fight may end in death for one of the roosters. If more than one rooster survives in a mixed-sex flock, he becomes a hanger-on — always staying at the edge of the flock and keeping a low profile. If you have a lot of hens and a lot of space, such as in a free-range situation, each rooster may establish his own separate flock and pretty much ignore the other rooster except for occasional spats. How aggressive a rooster is depends on both the breed and the individuals within a breed. When a rooster becomes aggressive toward humans, the best option is the soup pot. A rooster always dominates the hens in his care. Sorry, no women’s lib in the chicken world. He gets what he wants when he wants it. And what he doesn’t want is a lot of squabbling among his flock. When he’s eating, all the hens can eat with him, and no one is allowed to pull rank. If squabbling among hens gets intense at other times, he may step in and resolve the problem. A rooster can be much smaller and younger than the hens in the flock, but as long as he’s mature, he’s the ruler of the coop. But it’s not all about terrorizing the ladies. The rooster is also their protector and guide, as well as their lover. He stands guard over them as they feed, shows them choice things to eat (usually letting them have the first bites), and even guides them to good nesting spots. Roosters tend to have a favorite hen — usually, but not always, the dominant hen in the flock — but they treat all their ladies pretty well. They may mate more frequently with the favorite, but all hens get some attention. Romance between roosters and hens Roosters have a rather limited courtship ritual, compared to some birds, and the amount of “romancing” varies among individuals, too. When a rooster wants to mate with a hen, he usually approaches her in a kind of tiptoelike walk and may strut around her a few times. Usually a hen approached this way crouches down and moves her tail to one side as a sign of submission. The rooster jumps on the hen’s back, holds on to the back of her neck with his beak, and rapidly thrusts his cloaca against hers a few times. He then dismounts, fluffs his feathers, and walks away. Boastful crowing may also take place soon after mating, although crowing is not reserved just for mating. The hen stands up, fluffs her feathers, and walks away as well. Both may preen their feathers for a few minutes after mating. A young rooster may mate with several hens within a few minutes of each other, but usually mating is spread out throughout the day. A rooster may mate with a hen even if he’s infertile: Fertility drops as roosters age, and cold weather also causes a drop in fertility. The celibate hen — living without a rooster Hens don’t need a rooster to complete their lives — or even to lay eggs, for that matter. A hen is hatched with all the eggs she’s ever going to have, and she’ll lay those eggs for as long as the hen lives (or until she’s out of eggs), whether a rooster is around or not. The number of eggs a hen lays over her lifetime varies by breed and the individual. After the third year of life, though, a hen lays very few eggs. Of course, without a rooster, no babies will be hatched from those eggs, but the eggs that you eat for breakfast don’t need to be fertilized to be laid. Hormones control the egg cycle whether a rooster is present or not. And fertilized eggs don’t taste differently — nor are they more nutritious — than unfertilized eggs. Is a hen happier with a rooster around? She probably is because it fits the more natural family lifestyle of chickens. But hens are pretty self-sufficient, and if they’ve never known life with a rooster, they really don’t know what they’re missing. Bath time for chickens Another interesting behavior of chickens is their bathing habits. They hate getting wet, but they sure do love a dust bath. Wherever the coop has loose soil — or even loose litter — on the floor, you will find chickens bathing. Chickens scratch out a body-sized depression in the soil and lie in it, throwing the soil from the hole into their fluffed-out feathers and then shaking to remove it. They seem very happy when doing this, so it must feel good. In nature, this habit helps to control parasites. In the garden or lawn, these dust-bath bowls can be quite damaging, but you can’t do much about it except put up a fence. If your chickens are confined all the time, they’ll really appreciate a box of sand to bathe in.

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The Parts of a Chicken's Head and Neck

Article / Updated 06-11-2021

The most significant parts of a chicken’s head are the comb, the eyes and ears, the beak and nostrils, and the wattles and the neck. Following is a closer look at each of these parts, from the head down. The chicken's comb At the very top of the chicken’s head is a fleshy red area called the comb. The combs of Silkie chickens, a small breed, are very dark maroon red. Both male and female chickens have combs, but they’re larger in males. Baby chicks hatch with tiny combs that get larger as they mature. The shape of the comb may not be totally apparent in a young chicken, but you should be able to tell whether the comb is upright, rose-combed (a crumpled-looking comb tight to the head), or double. Credit: Illustration by Barbara Frake Different breeds have different types of combs. Depending on the breed, the comb may be floppy, upright, double, shaped like horns, or crumpled and close to the head. These differences in combs are a result of breeders selecting for them. Chicken breeds with small combs close to the head were often developed in cold countries. Large combs are prone to frostbite in cold weather, and parts of them may turn black and fall off. Conversely, large, floppy combs may help chickens cool down in hot, humid weather. The comb acts like the radiator of a car, helping to cool the chicken. Blood circulates through the comb’s large surface area to release heat. The comb also has some sex appeal for chickens. The eyes and ears of a chicken Moving on down the head, you come to the chicken’s eyes. Chickens have small eyes — yellow with black, gray, or reddish-brown pupils — set on either side of the head. Chickens, like many birds, can see colors. A chicken has eyelids and sleeps with its eyes closed. Chicken ears are small openings on the side of the head. A tuft of feathers may cover the opening. The ears are surrounded by a bare patch of skin that’s usually red or white. A fleshy red lobe hangs down at the bottom of the patch. In some breeds, the skin patch and lobe may be blue or black. The size and shape of the lobes vary by breed and sex. If a chicken has red ear skin, it generally lays brown eggs. If the skin patch around the ear is white, it usually lays white eggs. A chicken may occasionally have blue or black skin elsewhere, but the skin around the ear will still be red or white. This coloring can help you decide whether a mixed-breed hen will lay white or brown eggs, if that’s important to you. Three breeds lay blue or greenish eggs: the Araucana, the Ameraucana, and the Easter Eggers. Those breeds have red ear-skin patches. The beak and nostrils of chickens Chickens have beaks for mouths. Most breeds have yellow beaks, but a few have dark blue or gray beaks. The lower half of a chicken’s beak fits inside the upper half of the beak. When the bird is breathing normally, you should not see a gap where daylight shows between the beak halves. Also, neither beak half should be twisted to one side. A bird’s beak is made of thin, hornlike material and functions to pick up food. Beaks are present on baby chicks, and a thickened area on the end of the beak, called the egg tooth, helps them chip their way out of the eggshell. Chickens also use their beaks to groom themselves, running their feathers through their beaks to smooth them. Chickens don’t have teeth, but inside the beak is a triangular-shaped tongue. The tongue has tiny barbs on it that catch and move food to the back of the mouth. Chickens have few taste buds, and their sense of taste is limited. At the top of the beak are the chicken’s two nostrils, or nose openings. The nostrils are surrounded by a raised tan patch called the cere. In some birds, the nostrils may be partially hidden by the bottom of the comb. Birds with topknots have much larger nostril caverns. The nostrils should be clean and open. A chicken’s sense of smell is probably as good as a human’s, according to the latest research. The chicken's wattles and neck Under the beak are two more fleshy lobes of skin, one on each side. These are called the wattles. They’re larger in males, and their size and shape differ according to breed. The wattles are usually red, although in some breeds, they can be blue, maroon, black, or other colors. The neck of the chicken is long and slender. It’s made for peeking over tall foliage to look for predators. The neck is covered with small, narrow feathers, called hackle feathers, that all point downward.

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What to Feed Your Chickens When

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

If you’re raising chickens, remembering what feed you need for different types and ages of chickens can get confusing. What you feed a young layer is different than what you feed a mature meat bird. The following table gives you the essentials: Chicken Type (Age) Feed Protein Ratio Pet, show, and layer chicks (0 to 6 weeks) Chick starter 18 to 20% Pet and show chicks (6 weeks on, if not laying) Chicken feed 12 to 14% Laying hens (6 weeks until laying begins) Layer finisher or grower 12% Laying hens (through laying years) Layer feed 16% protein + correct calcium and mineral balances Meat birds (0 to 6 weeks) Broiler or meat bird starter 23 to 24% Meat birds (6 weeks to butchering) Broiler grower-finisher or meat bird grower-finisher 18 to 20%

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How to Start Your Chickens Off Right

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Raising chickens means taking care of them from the time they’re little puff balls with feet. To start your chicks off right so that they grow into healthy adults, make use of the following tips: Brooder: Confine the chicks in a brooder with solid sides about 18 inches high to keep out drafts. Make sure the brooder is near a heat source, probably a heat lamp. Give each chick 6 square inches of floor space and put the brooder somewhere dry and safe from predators. Brooder floor: Cover the floor of the brooder with pine shavings or other absorbent bedding. Do not use cedar shavings or kitty litter. Do not use newspaper. For the first two days only, cover the litter with paper towels or a piece of old cloth to keep chicks from eating the litter until they find the food. Temperature: For the first week chicks must be kept at 95° F at all times. Drop the temperature 5 degrees a week until you reach the surrounding room temperature outside the brooder or 60° F. Feed: Use baby chick starter feed for all chicks except meat bird chicks, which need meat bird starter feed. For the first day or two, sprinkle feed on a white paper plate or some white paper towels to make it easy to find. Also have feed available in feed dishes. Water: Baby chicks need water in a shallow, narrow container so they can’t drown. Dip their beaks into the water gently as you put them into to the brooder so they know where it is. Always have water available. Handling: Don’t handle baby chicks too much. It stresses them, makes them grow poorly, and may kill them. Troubleshooting: Contented chicks are fairly quiet, spread out over the brooder eating, drinking, and sleeping. If chicks are peeping loudly and continuously, something is wrong (they're probably too cold). If they are against the brooder walls spread out and panting they are too hot.

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