So you’re finally taking the plunge and joining the ranks of chicken owners across America. Congratulations! Keeping a microflock of chickens will bring a great deal of enjoyment, amusement and satisfaction to your life, in addition to those delicious fresh eggs.
Keeping chickens is not without its negatives, however. And new poultry owners occasionally find themselves blindsided by ramifications they were unaware they would encounter. Make sure you enter the world of flock ownership with eyes wide open by giving these four points your full consideration.
Can You Handle the Inconveniences to Your Schedule?
Owning a backyard flock involves a major restructuring of your—and your family’s—schedule. Forget sleeping in or spending a leisurely morning in bed, checking the news or reading your notifications. Your morning priority must be releasing your chickens from their coop.
They don’t need to be let out at daybreak—especially since predators are still skulking around at that hour. But your birds should be released before mid morning to provide them with the daylight exposure necessary for egg production and to prevent the stress and negative behaviors that come from being enclosed with limited space.
It doesn’t matter if it’s pouring rain, if it’s blizzarding or if it’s 0 degrees F out. You still need to open up the coop and let the chickens decide if they want to come out or not.
Closing up at night can be more disruptive to your schedule than the morning release, since the length of day changes throughout the seasons. It’s not so bad during the summer, when sunset occurs around 9 p.m. You’ll just have to cut short outings to evening ball games and concerts and opt for the late showings at movie theaters.
As the days grow shorter, however, time management becomes much more challenging. This is especially true if you work a 9-to-5 job outside the home, as it will already be dark when you leave work.
If your children have afternoon or evening activities, you’ll need to find a way to lock your birds up before attending their games or school plays. And yes, you’ll need to let your friends and family know that no, 6 p.m. is not a good time to meet for dinner because that’s around when you have to lock up the flock.
Just this past Thanksgiving, I had to explain that a 4 p.m. dinner time wouldn’t work for us because sunset was just past 5 p.m. and we’d have to leave dinner in order to lock up our chickens.
You can press your luck and return home to lock up your chickens after nightfall. But I’ll guarantee you’ll make that mistake only once. There are simply too many climbing, digging, leaping and swooping predators around—even in the suburbs—to risk your flock’s slaughter.
Even if you work from home, you cannot allow yourself to get too caught up in a task or activity that you miss lock-up times. I made this mistake once. I was fully in writer mode, working on an article—and went outside just as the sun was setting … and just as a Cooper’s Hawk swooped down on my beloved Silkie hen, Natalya.
My scream scared away the hawk, but Natalya was mortally injured and died in my arms. Nothing—not work, household projects, phone calls, a good book—comes before lock-up.
And then there’s vacation. Unlike dogs or cats, you can’t bring your flock to a kennel. You’ll either have to hire an animal sitter or train a trusted friend or relative to care for your chickens while you’re away… and you’ll have to impress upon them the importance of release and lock-up times.
My family has not gone on a vacation together in almost a decade because one of the six of us always has to stay behind and take care of our animals. We just don’t feel it’s right to impose on our friends for the length of time a vacation lasts.
In short, when you own chickens, your chickens dictate your schedule. If you find this difficult to accept, you may wish to reconsider keeping a flock.
Can You Provide for Your Birds’ Well-Being?
It’s not enough to let your birds out in the morning and lock them up at night. Raising chickens involves keeping them healthy and watching out for their safety and well-being.
This can involve trudging out to your coop several times a day in sub-freezing weather, hauling 5-gallon buckets of warm water to thaw out and refill frozen waterers. It can mean setting up misting hoses in 100-degree F temperatures to relieve your panting hens. It can mean running in a torrential thunderstorm, trying to round up birds who didn’t have enough sense to seek shelter inside their coop.
It most definitely means stumbling around with a flashlight in total darkness, hoping to locate that one adventurous chicken who didn’t make it back in before sunset.
Keeping your birds healthy also involves regularly cleaning out their coop, routinely providing them with fresh bedding, and thoroughly scrubbing the waterers and feeders, which can get rather nasty if left unsanitized for too long.
You’ll also need to be willing to dispose of entire sacks of feed if they’ve gone musty or if the sack shows signs of rodent contamination or insect infestation. It may seem like a waste of money and may involve dashing out to your nearest feed store for more. But offering your flock spoiled or soiled feed can have grave consequences for your birds.
If any of these undertakings seems extreme, you may not be ready to take on keeping a chicken flock.
Can You Manage the Emotional Aspect of Flock Ownership?
Chicken owners often share funny photos or amusing stories about their chickens on social media. It’s often these heartwarming posts that make us long for a flock of our own.
What rarely gets mentioned, however, are the negative emotions we experience as poultry keepers.
Resentment is common. Having to modify our lives, our routines and our schedules in order to be up early for release and at home for lock up can be very frustrating and can quickly sour the entire chicken-keeping experience.
Stress is also frequently experienced. I know of several backyard flock owners who rehomed their hens because the stress of dashing home from work every evening, hoping to find their chickens alive, was just too much for them to handle.
Many of us become very emotionally attached to our chickens. They’re not just egg layers. They’re our pets and companions.
The grief of losing one of our cherished birds—to predators, injury, accident or other reason—can be overwhelming. If you are not at a good place with your own mental and emotional well-being, now may not be the time to introduce chickens to your life.
Can You Tackle the Foul Side of Fowl Keeping?
It goes without saying that rearing chickens is far from being a squeaky-clean hobby. Dealing with our flock’s feces is pretty much a daily occurrence … and that’s the easy stuff. A good number of poultry keepers also have to deal with worms (both in those droppings and in the birds themselves), poultry lice, mites and other parasites.
If any of our birds’ bottoms are coated with diarrhea, especially that caused by coccidiosis, we have to carefully bathe them to remove the stuck-on excrement. There’s also the regular removal and disposal of soiled coop litter, which can be dusty, soggy, ammoniated2 and in various stages of decomposition.
For me, the most unpleasant part of chicken keeping is without a doubt dealing with the remains of what were our feathered friends after a predatory attack. This can be very gruesome, depending on the predator.
Raccoon killings are the worst, since those carnivores rip open the throat and torso to feast, leaving the chicken’s shredded corpse behind once they’ve eaten their fill. If the kill occurred inside the coop, there’s a good possibility you’ll also need to scrub blood and gore off the floor and walls.
If handling blood and poop (and worse) makes you squeamish or queasy, you might want to consider a different aspect of hobby farming, such as container gardening, rather than subject yourself to daily bouts of woozy nausea while caring for your backyard flock.