Ten top tips to chuckling chicks

Chicken egg So you want to keep chickens? Another hamster’s made a desperate bid for freedom and is lost somewhere in the house, the budgies have fallen off their perches for the final time and you’ve tried dogs and cats (unfortunately at the same time, hence their untimely demise). The kids think they’ve got a hot line to pet heaven and you’re after something a bit more resilient and productive. Welcome to the whacky world of winged wonders!

Keeping chickens as pets is great fun. They have very definite personalities, children love them and you get a free supply of superb eggs to boot! So here’s an easy guide to why you should keep chickens (or hens or cockerels), how to look after chickens and keep them healthy.

A bit of history before we start the guide. The chicken is actually a mini dinosaur… chickens have similar origins to the dinosaurs and originated in the foothills of the Himalayas in South East Asia. They were first domesticated around 7000BC, originally used for religious sacrifice, cockfighting and as an alarm clock.

It’s thought the Egyptians were the first to breed for eggs and the most prolific of layers will produce an egg most days. Considering the amount of energy it takes that’s nothing short of a miracle. All chickens are descendants from the wild form called red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus), a bird that still runs wild in most of southeast Asia.

Here’s a guide on how to take on and keep your chickens chuckling. Have fun!


1. What’s the commitment?

Your chickens will live about 4 to 5 years, so although you’re not going to grow old together you are taking on some responsibilities.

When going on holiday, assuming you’re not taking the chickens with you, you’ll have to arrange for someone to stock up food and water, collect eggs and check all is OK.

If you’re keeping the girls in your back garden you should consider where to keep them… chickens love to scratch around and taste interesting looking green things so if you give them free range they’ll also scoff everything that looks mildly tasty and scratch up things in general. Best if you can give them their own part of the garden as a run where they can dust bathe, search for titbits the other girls have missed and generally do chicken type things. A caged run can be moved around the garden, which means no more grass cutting… but it’s not the most caring way to keep your chickens.

If they’re on an allotment you’ll definitely need a well protected chicken run with two metre high chicken wire fencing, the bottom dug into the ground. You’re going to have to pop up several times a week to replenish things, clean out and check all is OK. That includes winter when it’s freezing cold. If you work during the day winter visits may well be in total darkness.


2. How much does it cost?

More details on the kit you need below, but cost can range from next to nothing to £100s.

If you’re keeping chickens in your back garden, can get your hands on bits of spare wood for free and can handle an electric drill without maiming yourself the only cost is a few screws, a bit of chicken wire and some effort. Even the chickens can be had for next to nothing if you’re happy to rescue a few ex-battery hens from a fate of occupying the inside of a cat food tin.

Alternatively you can go for the designer method by buying stylish equipment to complement your back garden and purchasing interesting breeds… and taking out a second mortgage on the home in the process.

See more info below and useful links.


3. Equipment

As a minimum you’ll need a des res for the girls to safely rest at night. This should include boxes for laying eggs. Additional considerations are…

  • A chicken run, which means posts and chicken wire plus entrance. You need to give your gorgeous girls enough room to roam about in. Ideally the run will allow two chickens at least 50 square metres, more if possible. If kept in a back garden with a restricted run allow them out as often as you can to have a scratch around and a dust bathe, so long as you’re not too precious about the results. Chickens love looking for titbits so if keeping in a restricted area wood chips are a good flooring to use.
  • Make sure the bottom of the chicken wire is dug well into the ground to deter foxes.  Dig as deep as possible, but more importantly lay the bottom part of the wire level with the surface running out from the fence, so the bottom is in an L shape.
  • Somewhere shady and sheltered for the chickens to rest during the day if it’s hot and sunny or wet and windy… often chicken coops are built on legs for this purpose.
  • Water container, preferably enough for a couple of days at least.
  • Food container, again to hold at least a couple of days supply and to be secure from birds and rodents… I made my own economy version rat proof chicken feeder that works very well.
  • A bin to keep food supplies secure.

Here are a few photos of my set up…

If money is no object try an Eglu from Omletvery stylish but will set you back several hundred pounds. Alternatively try the also very stylish and less costly recycled plastic models at Green Frog Designs.


4. Beauty parade

So it’s time to choose the girls… what to look for?

Some breeds are easier to handle and less temperamental than others, worth considering if you’re hoping your children will want to take care of the chickens, feed them by hand and pick them up. The rate of egg production varies between breeds, with the most prolific likely to lay an egg most days. Check how generally healthy the stock of chickens appears. And finally the looks… do you want the archetypical chicken or something more exotic?

Best idea is to find a reliable and established local supplier by asking a few people who keep chickens where’s best to go. The breeder needs to be reliable to ensure the chicks have had all the required vaccinations. If you’re at a bit of a loss pop up to your local allotments and ask around. Once you’ve chosen a supplier see what chickens are for sale, ask a few questions, and consult a list of chicken breeds.

You’re after point of lay (POL) pullets… that is young hens about 4 or 5 months old who are just about to start laying. That means you’ll get a full life of laying and you know you’re buying hens. If you buy cockerels by mistake you’ll have a long wait for that first egg!

Don’t be tempted to go down the ‘cute’ path by buying fertilised eggs or chicks… unless you know what you’re doing and are prepared to have 50% cockerels.

The final option is to rescue ex-battery hens, typically one year old birds. They’ll look a bit the worse for wear when you get them and may behave a bit strangely at first… so would you if the only world you knew was a cage the size of an A3 sheet of paper shared with six other hens, never having seen daylight. They may also stop laying for a few weeks while they get used to their new surroundings. But for all their initial appearance they are not unhealthy… just unfit and in need of time to adjust. Typically ex-battery hens are docile and will live anything from three years to much longer. Do get advice from a reputable supplier on what to expect and their special initial needs such as feed.

And the cost? Ex-battery hens can be bought for a small donation. At the other end of the scale more exotic birds can cost £50 or more. Expect to typically pay £10 to £20 for the more popular breeds.

Being offered a cockerel? The cost will be much lower but check out the section below.


5. Routine care

The basics are to ensure there’s enough food and water. Don’t underestimate the latter… make sure enough is supplied for hot summer days, and on cold winter days the water supply may be frozen over.

Additionally you need to ensure your flock is secure. Although a pet crocodile might be the exception, other pets such as dogs and cats normally get used to the chickens being around without too much trouble. You will need to ensure your chickens are protected against foxes.

Collect the eggs regularly to stop a chicken getting broody and to make sure they don’t get damaged.

The odd treat is nice. Mine get mixed grain and hurtle across the plot if they hear the shake of a plastic bag that just might contain cooked spaghetti… use the dried type that doesn’t include egg.

Remove any droppings from the nesting boxes daily if you can, and clean out the chicken coop weekly. Chicken droppings are great for the compost heap, having just about the highest nitrogen content of any recyclable pet waste.

Give your birds a weekly health check… just watch to check they’re all performing normally and none are scratching or appear a bit docile for example. See the section on common problems below.


6. Handling

It’s best to handle your chickens regularly right from when the start so they get use to you. To pick up a chicken use two hands to take hold on both sides where the wings are, lift her up and hold against your side with one hand underneath, fingers placed either side of her legs.

If your chicken is a bit nervous keep your hand or arm over her outside wing, the inside wing being against your side. Holding your chicken at an angle so she’s partially on her side can help calm her down.

Don’t chase your beauties around… it’s not a good idea to grab tails or wings. The result of this is a nervous chicken who may be put off laying. To catch a flighty bird manoeuvre her into a corner and take hold from there. Alternatively by catching her unawares and coming in from above her natural tendency will be to squat down on the ground making it easy to take hold.


7. Egg production

You don’t need a cockerel for eggs to be produced… chickens will do this regardless.

If all is going well you’ll receive an eggy present most days from each chicken. The rate of production will decrease as the girls get older or in winter. Lack of water, being given a fright or moulting can also mean slower laying. If you’re missing a few eggs it might also be worth checking if one of the chickens has found somewhere else in the garden to lay, or if rodents are helping themselves.

Less eggs may mean a health problem… check out the section below.


8. Raising chicks

You can use an incubator to raise chicks but it’ll cost a lot of money and time… and mother hens know how to do it best.

Something’s happening when one of the girls goes broody… you may at first think you’re one down until you realise the missing chicken is sat in one of the nesting boxes, bum planted firmly on a batch of eggs. If you don’t want this to happen see the section below on common problems.

Mum-to-be will sit on the eggs for 21 days. When they hatch it’s best to separate mum and chicks from the rest of the crowd for a couple of weeks.

New born chicks have their own internal food supply that’ll last about 3 days, but you should start to offer high protein chick starter feed from the beginning. Make sure mum isn’t scoffing it all… if this happens separate the chicks feed off in an area only they can get to.

Make sure any water provided isn’t too deep, otherwise a chick might drown.

Leave the chicks with their mother for 6 to 8 weeks, and from 6 weeks onwards feed the newbies growers meal.

And before you start the whole process see the next section about cockerels.


9. Cockerel considerations… or don’t call me Shirley

If you are interested in raising chicks first consider what you’re going to do with the cockerels. Each batch of eggs will contain about 50% cockerels… and if you ever get an egg from a cockerel please let Guinness World Records know.

So let’s confront an obvious option. Most of us will be in the category of eating chicken so long as it’s nicely packaged. If you intend to raise the cockerels (or for that matter chickens) to eat…

No name

Believe me, it’s really hard to serve up Clarissa on a bed of potatoes for Sunday lunch… the whole family will probably never speak to you again if you do. But don’t be squeamish about eating your own birds. They taste miles better than anything you can get in the supermarket. Ask around other chicken keepers, particularly on the local allotment, for help on how to dispatch a bird heading for the oven. It does take some skill to do it humanely.

I have a cockerel, Sampson, given to me free otherwise he was heading for the chop. He’s funny… he’ll find a titbit such as a juicy worm and then, rather than scoff it himself, will make a special call to let the girls know he’s found something for them. He’ll then sit back and watch while his girls dash across to be the first to the treat. I find his crow restful and supposedly he keeps the girls better behaved with less squabbling. If you do have a cockerel there’s no difference to the eggs if you keep taking them promptly.


10. Common problems

Chickens are generally healthy and problem free, probably one of the least troublesome pets to keep. The only general routine is to check once a week that all appear healthy and to worm your chickens once every 6 months… the treatment is available from your vets, pretty low cost and easy to apply.

Generally you’re more likely to have trouble if you keep a large number of birds or don’t give your girls the attention they deserve. The information below is about the most common problems, but if you suspect a bird is unwell or suffering from parasites there’s a more detailed guide at Urban Chicken.

Here are some of the things you’re most likely to encounter…

If you don’t want a chicken sitting on eggs you’ll find it a struggle to persuade her since all her hormones are saying it’s the right thing to do. I’ve found the best solution is to make up a box with a small gauge chicken wire floor and keep her in there for a few days. The airflow supposedly cools her underside and cures the problem. It’s being cruel to be kind since otherwise she’ll sit in the nesting box for 3 weeks… after 4 or 5 days in the brood box she’s cured. Make sure food and water left in the box are on a secure base so she doesn’t accidentally tip them over.

Escape from Alcatraz
Occasionally you might get a bird determined to fly over the chicken run wall. You can stop this by clipping her wings. Trim her primary feathers on one wing as shown below. This does not hurt the bird in any way.

clip feathers

Pecking order
There’s a very definite order of ascendency in a flock and there’ll sometimes be one timid soul who’s picked on by the others. Is there enough room in the run? Providing plenty of distraction can help in the form of a cabbage hung up to peck, things to perch on and anything else they can explore. If there’s one particular hen that’s doing the bullying remove her to a separate run for a week or so.

New kid on the block
If you have to introduce a new chicken to the brood it’s best to keep her separate but close for a few days until each have made their acquaintance. Nevertheless she’s still going to have a tough time initially… the phrase ‘pecking order’ very definitely comes from chickens and she’ll have to fight for her place over the first week or so.

Once a year each chicken will lose it’s feathers and grow new ones. Normally this doesn’t mean she goes completely bald… the feathers are lost over 4 to 6 weeks. During this time she’ll stop laying, and if unlucky enough to pick winter time to moult she’ll be a bit fed up. High protein feed is available to help with the extra energy taken up producing a new look. Never clip the bird’s wings while moulting.

If you leave chicken feed freely available you may attract rats, mice or wild birds so use a container that keeps the feed secure, such as my DIY rat proof chicken feeder. If you have a rat problem they may also steal eggs. Collect the eggs promptly.

Encouraging wild birds to share your chicken space is not a great idea since they can carry infections.

Colds and runny noses
Generally not serious and just needs a bit of TLC.

Sooner or later one of your girls is going to move on to pet heaven to join the massed ranks of hamsters, budgies, dogs and cats you’ve already despatched there. If you have a chicken in distress and can’t diagnose the problem do take her to the vet. If not treatable the vet will send her gently to sleep and dispose of her for a small cost.

If a bird pegs it unexpectedly, say through old age, you can put her in a plastic bag and pop her in the refuse bin. Alternatively you could bury her in a favourite spot and make a shrine as I did here…

Never eat a chicken who’s passed on.


Hope you enjoy your chickens!


  1. Another great article - really enjoying your blog! I've thought about getting a couple of chickens in the past and this was really useful as a guide to the work/commitment involved. Thanks.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks Shameless... all feedback very welcome! Regards, John


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