Five Things All New Chicken Keepers Should Know

Five Things All New Chicken Keepers Should Know

Getting your first backyard chickens is to embark on a fun new adventure. You will learn a lot along the way. And you will encounter some surprises.

I get a lot of questions from new chicken keepers about things they didn’t know or didn’t anticipate before getting chickens. Often, these worrisome discoveries turn out to be perfectly normal occurrences in the life of a chicken. You may freak out the first time one of your chickens loses all of its feathers, for example, only to find out that all chickens molt annually (see number 3 below).

I’ve put together a list of the things that seem to surprise new chicken keepers the most. Knowing these things in advance of getting chickens may save you some angst, or at least help you be better prepared for what lies ahead.

Five things all new chicken keepers should know

In no particular order …

1. You don’t need a rooster to get eggs.

You don't need a rooster to get eggs

Five hens, no rooster, and a whole lot of eggs.

“How can you get eggs if you don’t have a rooster?”

I get this question a lot. Apparently, it’s a common misconception that a rooster needs to be present in a flock in order for hens to lay eggs. Not true! And that’s a good thing for new chicken keepers because a lot of urban chicken ordinances prohibit keeping roosters within the city limits. While chickens do make great pets, one of the primary reasons to keep backyard chickens is the supply of fresh eggs they provide. It would defeat the purpose if you needed a rooster to get eggs but roosters weren’t allowed where you live.

So how is it that a hen can lay an egg without a rooster? It’s simple. Think back to your middle school health class when you first learned about the human female’s reproductive system. A healthy female of childbearing age will produce an egg approximately every 28 days regardless of whether there is a “rooster” around to fertilize it. A fertilized egg eventually will develop into an embryo and then a baby. An unfertilized egg will be shed during the menstrual cycle.

In a similar process, a hen’s reproductive system produces an egg approximately every 25 hours. The immature egg (the yolk) travels from the hen’s ovary through the oviduct, where it may or may not be fertilized before it is enclosed in albumen (egg white), encased in a shell, and, finally, deposited in the nesting box. A fertilized egg has the potential to hatch a baby chick – provided it is incubated at a precise temperature and humidity level for 21 days (by either the hen or in a man-made incubator). An unfertilized egg will never hatch a chick.

For new chicken keepers who plan to get a rooster, my little biology lesson may raise another question – can you eat fertilized eggs? The answer is yes. The only difference between a freshly laid fertilized egg and a freshly laid unfertilized egg is the presence of the rooster’s genetic material – a difference that is barely noticeable to the naked eye. Fertilized eggs are perfectly fine to eat if they have not been incubated. If you have a rooster and don’t want baby chicks, simply collect your eggs every day and store them in the refrigerator.

2. Chickens can fly.

Chickens can fly

There’s a top on the pen to keep them from flying out, but my chickens still enjoy flying up to the roof of their coop.

Don’t learn this lesson the hard way!

The fact that chickens can fly often comes as a surprise to new chicken keepers. I must admit that before I got my first chickens four years ago, I never thought of chickens as flyers. I mean, I knew chickens could jump a few feet off the ground to get to their roosts at night, but I had no idea they could fly so high as to escape from a six-foot high enclosure. But then Hazel inexplicably went missing from the chicken pen one day. Just when I had about given up all hope I would ever see her again, I found her hunkered down in the garden on a clutch of eggs. Shortly thereafter, we installed a cover over the pen.

If free-ranging isn’t an option for your backyard flock – either because the rules where you live prohibit free-ranging chickens or because of hazards lurking outside the chicken pen – it’s important to understand that you can’t build an enclosure high enough to contain chickens unless you put a lid on it. One chicken keeper I know did learn the hard way. One of her hens was startled by a dog that jumped at the chicken from the other side of the fence. The unnerved hen flew up and over the fence, right into the path of danger. Sadly, the hen didn’t make it.

A cover over a chicken enclosure is a good idea not only to keep the chickens in, but also to keep predators out. But if covering your enclosure is not possible, you have a couple of other options for containing your flock. The first option is to choose larger, heavier, calmer breeds that are less likely to fly. But careful breed selection is no guarantee that you won’t get a flyer. If all else fails, your other option is to clip the chickens’ wings.

Wing-clipping involves using sharp scissors to cut the primary flight feathers on one wing of the chicken, which interferes with the bird’s balance and ability to fly. There are some downsides to wing-clipping of which new chicken keepers should be aware. If done improperly, clipping can cause bleeding, which leaves the bird susceptible to pecking by flock mates (see number 5 below). Also, a chicken that has its wing clipped is more vulnerable to predators because it  has lost a means of escape and is more prone to injury because it may have trouble descending safely from roosts and other heights.

While I have never clipped my chickens’ wings, I am aware of at least one urban chicken ordinance – that of Marion, Iowa – that requires wing-clipping, regardless of whether the chickens are kept in a fully-enclosed pen.

3. Chickens lose their feathers

Chickens lose their feathers

Poor Hazel doesn’t look like her normal spectacular self when she’s molting.

Molting is a normal biological process.

Even if you’ve heard of molting, it can be disconcerting the first time you open the chicken coop and it looks like a feather pillow exploded inside. You’ll find feathers everywhere. You’ll also find that your birds are sporting bald patches, have stopped laying eggs, and generally won’t have much to do with you. Don’t panic. They likely haven’t contracted some horrible chicken disease; they are going through their annual molt.

Molting is a normal biological process when chickens replace their old feathers with a spiffy new coat. The process can take 12-16 weeks, during which your chickens will not lay eggs, may exhibit physical changes like weight loss or pale, shrunken combs, and will not seem like their normal, happy selves. Can you blame them???

A few more things to know about molting: A chicken’s first molt usually occurs around 18 months of age, with subsequent molts coming about the same time every year thereafter, usually in autumn. The molt typically follows a pattern that starts at the neck and proceeds down the body, but tail feathers may come out early in the process.

Feather loss in chickens can occur from other causes as well, such as stress. Feather loss around the chicken’s vent area that doesn’t follow the pattern of regular seasonal molting could be due to excessive mating (if there is a rooster present), pecking by other hens (see number 5 below), or parasites.

For more information, including ways to help your chickens through their molt, see Molting: Why Your Chickens Are Losing Their Feathers.

4. Chickens sometimes lay weird eggs (and other egg issues)

Chickens sometimes lay weird eggs

The strange little egg on the right is known as a fairy egg, which develops without a yolk due to a disruption in the hen’s reproductive system.

Weird egg

The egg on the right is smaller than normal with a rough, raised band, which may be caused by hen age or stress (like an unexpected loud noise) while the egg was developing.

Eggs can create a whole lot of angst for new chicken keepers.

The first thing new chicken keepers should know about eggs is that it always seems to take longer for chickens to start laying than you think it should. I waited seemingly forever for my first three chickens to start laying eggs. When I brought home two 7-week old Easter Egger pullets last June, I expected them to be laying by August, but I didn’t get my first blue and green eggs until late October. Be patient! It will happen.

The second thing to know about eggs is that sometimes they come out weird – tiny, misshapen, or with bumps, ridges, or odd pigmentation. Some eggs may have soft shells. Some may have two yolks or even a whole other egg inside. New or older layers seem particularly susceptible to egg oddities. While abnormal eggs may indicate an issue with the hen’s health, particularly if they occur on a regular basis, the occasional weird egg probably isn’t anything to worry about.

For a good guide on common egg problems and their potential causes, check out this chart.

A final thing for new chicken keepers to know when it comes to eggs is that broken eggs or remnants of eggs in the nesting box probably mean there is an egg eater in the flock. Yes, chickens may eat their own eggs! If you end up with an egg-eating chicken on your hands, you can try the following methods to break her of the habit:

  • Collect the eggs each day as soon as possible after they are laid.
  • Set some unbreakable plastic or ceramic eggs in the nesting box to deter the chicken from pecking at the real eggs.
  • Put curtains over the front of the nesting box so the eggs are out of site (and out of mind) after they are laid.
  • Provide toys or other boredom busters to give the chickens something constructive to do.
  • Provide extra free-choice calcium like oyster shells in case the egg eating is due to a nutritional deficiency.
  • Replace the nesting box with a slanted one where the eggs roll down after being laid.

5. The pecking order really is a thing

The pecking order really is a thing

Introducing young or new birds to your flock can turn your sweet hens into mean girls.

There’s a reason why the phrase “pecking order” is part of our everyday language.

Have you ever described a human social hierarchy as a pecking order? Or a man who was dominated by his female partner as being hen-pecked? Like so many of our everyday phrases that involve chickens, the term “pecking order” describes real life chicken behavior. In any flock of chickens, there is a hierarchical order in which a chicken’s rank is based on who does the pecking and who gets pecked.

In established flocks where the pecking order has been set (usually by the time the chicks reach five to seven weeks of age), things run relatively smoothly. Each chicken knows her place in the order and knows when to exert her dominance over a subordinate or to submit to a superior. Where problems arise is when a high-ranking chicken leaves the flock or newcomers are introduced. Change to the flock’s composition causes disruption in the pecking order and everyone begins jockeying for a place in the new order. Fighting occurs, which is stressful for everyone – the birds and their keeper.

New chicken keepers need to be aware of the pecking order and the problems that erupt when the order is upset. When introducing new birds to one another or to an established flock, go slowly and provide close supervision to ensure no one is bullied away from the feeders to the point of starvation or pecked to the point of injury or death. Provide additional feeders and waterers so underlings are able to eat and drink at a distance from the bullies and, if anyone draws blood, remove the injured bird immediately so it doesn’t get pecked to death.

To learn how I introduced my new pullets to the older hens last summer (without incident, I might add), see Meet Marigold and Betty, My Easter Egger Chickens.

Five things all new chicken keepers should know

My current flock of five hens.

What are some additional things you think all new chicken keepers should know? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.