Getting Started with Chickens - aka PandHENic 101

It took years, but I've finally talked my parents into getting chickens! And, from what I'm reading in the headlines, a lot of other folks decided to start raising chickens, too. Since I've been thinking of all the things I need to tell my parents about chicks and chickens, I decided I'd share it all here in case it's helpful to others starting, or thinking about starting, a backyard flock.

We love having chickens. Not just because the of eggs (the eggs are great, though), but chickens are funny little animals. We often watch them doing their chicken things and call it "Chicken TV." So, if you've ordered your fluffy baby chicks or already have them, Congrats! Hopefully you'll find some of the info here helpful as the fluffs turn into weirdo adolescent birds and then finally feather out and start laying.

If you haven't purchased your chickens yet and you're about to stress buy twelve baby chicks because there haven't been eggs in the grocery store for weeks now, I get it. But take a deep breath and maybe hit pause. On a scale of livestock animals you could have, chickens are on the easier end of the scale, but they aren't an instant solution to a grocery store egg shortage (they won't evens start laying until they're at least six months old) and they will require time, safety, space, and money. Think about it and be sure you'll still want them (and be able and willing to care for them) once things start moving back toward "normal" and the grocery stores have eggs again (which could happen before your chickens even start laying).

Here are a few things to consider before you get chickens.

Local Ordinances Regarding Chickens/Livestock

First and foremost, check to be sure that you're allowed to have chickens where you live. Many urban and suburban areas (and HOAs) have regulations about keeping backyard chickens and this may dictate if you can have chickens and how many are permitted to keep. Most, if not all, urban and suburban areas do not allow roosters. If they do allow them, you should consider how much you want your neighbors to hate you before getting one. Luckily, you don't need a rooster -- Hens will lay unfertilized eggs without one.


You should be sure that you can keep chickens protected from predators like coyotes, raccoons, hawks, dogs, and more. This is something to plan on even in urban areas -- Dan lost an entire flock to a raccoon when we lived in Oakland, CA. To keep your flock safe, your coop and run area should be fortified from diggers by burying bricks or wire, and from above with a roof or netting. If you're going to free range your chickens, be sure to think about how to keep them safe when you aren't around. We have two livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) -- I've included a little information about LGDs at the end of this post.


When you first bring your baby fluffs home, they'll need a protected indoor space until they are old enough to go outside full time (more on that, below). And once they're outside, if they are too crowded they can start pecking each other to the point of injury and death. To keep chickens healthy and happy your chicken coop should have two to three square feet of space per bird and a run should have eight to ten square feet of space per bird.

Time Commitment

Caring for chickens doesn't take a lot of time, but it does take some. Like all animals, they need food and fresh water daily. You should also plan to collect eggs daily to avoid having your chickens pick up bad habits like pecking and/or eating them. And finally, what we call "the most dreaded chore" around here, you'll need to clean their coop out and refresh their bedding regularly. (To be honest it's not that bad, but the one of us who does it each time gets major points.)


The upfront cost to starting a backyard flock is not insubstantial -- you've got to buy or build the coop and run, and get bedding, food, a feeder, a waterer. You'll also need a heat lamp and bulb. Not to mention purchasing the chicks themselves. Then there's the ongoing cost of food, chicken scratch, and bedding. If you want to feed your birds organic food, that will cost more. And no, you are not likely break even by never buying eggs from the store again. Don't get me wrong, I think chickens are 100% worth it, but the eggs you get from your flock will likely be the most expensive eggs you've ever eaten. ;)

Ok, you still want chickens

If you're sure you've got what it takes to keep chickens, awesome! Get them! They are the best. If you're wondering what to do next, keep reading...

Care of little fluffs

Baby chicks are the cutest.

Setting up your brooder

When you first bring them home, keep them in an enclosed space where they are protected from drafts and household pets -- this will be your brooder. We have a big wooden bin where we keep firewood in the winter, but in the spring it's often full of little chicks. Plastic bins can work, but be extra careful with your heat lamp -- you don't want to melt the sides of the bin.

We usually spread newspaper all over the bottom of our brooder then scatter pine shavings on top for bedding. This way when we need to clean it out, all we have to do is roll up the newspaper and toss it out.

You'll also want a little feeder and waterer. And we usually provide a shady hiding place by cutting a "door" in a little cardboard box.

Set your lamp up so that its sturdy and won't tip over (fire hazard!). It's helpful to be able to adjust the height of the lamp so that you can keep the chicks warmer or cooler depending on their needs. Since we keep chicks in the garage, and the garage gets hot during the day, we put our heat lamp on a timer so that it comes on at night when it's cooler but not when it's hot out. You'll be able to tell when your chicks are too hot (they will scatter to the edges of their enclosure or in shade you provide) or too cold (they huddle under the lamp).


Unless you know your chicks have been vaccinated for coccidiosis, you should feed them medicated food for the first 18 weeks. It's good to get a feeder intended for chicks because they will kick their food around all over the place otherwise -- and honestly, they will still make a huge mess of everything, but I think it helps.

After 18 weeks you can start feeding them regular layer food. But keep in mind that chickens can start laying when they are around six months old -- You want to be sure they have been off the medicated starter for at least two weeks before you eat their eggs.


We usually tell people they should get one or two more chicks than they think they want to end up with because it's common for chicks not to make it. That said, be sure you have space for them in case they do all survive to adulthood!

The main thing you want to look out for with your baby fluffs is that their wee bums stay clean. If poo dries on their bum it can block their vent, preventing them from pooping. They can and will die from this. We check our chicks daily. If you notice a problem, you'll need to gently wash the chick in warm water, massaging them to encourage them to poop. Once they're all clean, dry them with a hair dryer on low setting. The chicks will not like one thing about this procedure. They will yell and squirm and try to get away, but it's absolutely necessary.

Transitioning from the Brooder to the Coop

When your chicks have grown in their adult feathers (feathered out) they are ready to move outside -- usually when they are around five or six weeks old. Although if the weather's bad (i.e. it's cold at night) you might hold off for a little longer. Some will say that you should move them to their coop (the enclosed portion of their habitat) for a few days without access to their run. I have to admit, I haven't done that. Instead, I take the young chicks on field trips to where they'll live and then bring them back inside after a few hours, working up to them being outside longer and longer. Then, when we move them outside we just check to be sure they've gone to their coop at night. If they haven't, we put them there. We don't allow them to free range until they consistently return to the coop on their own every night. We've never had a problem, but it's up to you how you proceed.

A few more things to keep in mind...

This blog is by no means comprehensive and there are plenty of other blogs, books, and even magazines you can check out for more information. In the meantime, here area few more things to remember.

DO wash your hands

Hopefully by now you're already in the habit of washing your hands thoroughly and often because you'll have to keep it up when you have chickens. You should wash your hands after you touch your baby chickens, grown chickens, or anything in the area where they live to avoid getting sick from salmonella.

We don't cuddle or kiss our chickens and we don't pick them up unless we have to. We are kind to them, we care for them, we talk to them, they follow us around the yard and are pretty darn cute, and we're eternally grateful they live here, but they're not pets.

DON'T wash chicken eggs

It sounds backwards, but to keep eggs fresh you shouldn't wash them. Eggs are porous and when you wash them you can send bacteria into the egg. Keep your nesting boxes clean and your eggs will be clean. If they do need a rinse, do so right before you use them.

When I give eggs away I do wipe them with a damp rag if they have a little muck on them. (And then the rag goes into the wash.)

Storing eggs -- You don't need to refrigerate them

Chicken eggs will stay fresh for up to a month at room temperature. If you want to keep them longer than that, you can refrigerate them for several months.

You can also freeze eggs. We've never done this -- between breakfasts, baking, giving them to the dogs as a treat with extra protein, and sharing with neighbors, we've never had a need to freeze any. Since I haven't tried it myself, here's a blog post that explains how to freeze eggs.

A note about Livestock Guardian Dogs and Chickens

Gus and Gwen are livestock guardian dogs and they guard our chickens. Livestock Guardian Dogs are a group of breeds with specific traits and instincts (i.e. protectiveness, independence, very large/strong, bark to warn off threats, typically gentle/calm but very willing to fight off intruders) bred to guard livestock -- specifically goats and sheep, but with training they can be learn to guard chickens and/or other poultry.

LGD breeds include Great Pyrenees, Maremma, Akbash (Gus and Gwen are mostly Akbash, but also GP and Maremma), Anatolian Shepherd and others. Only dogs that are 100% LGD (pure bred or a mix of LGD breeds) should be trusted as true livestock guardian dogs.

When Gus and Gwen were young we worked with them to teach them to remain calm around the birds and not play with them. Until the dogs were 100% trustworthy they always had on a leash and were supervised when they were with the chickens. Today we don't worry about the dogs harming our chickens whether we are around or not and they regularly chase and fend off coyotes to protect the flock (they likely think they're protecting us too, and that's fine by us), but it took a lot of time and patience to get here. And to be honest, I think we had more to learn than the dogs.


Popular Posts