Chickens are one of the oldest types of domestic livestock. They may have been domesticated when someone captured a few fluffy chicks and kept them as pets. Pets in ancient societies were generally only there for the good times and were eaten during the bad times. Someone probably learned that chickens could provide food without being eaten and that helped keep a few of them alive until they quit laying. Any way you look at it chickens have been pets for a long, long time. Even today chickens and scrawny dogs are the pets of choice for poor rural children around the world.
Today’s fad of keeping chickens as pets has produced a lot of new chicken owners and a lot of just silly “information”. While keeping chickens is a great hobby and should be encouraged new chicken owners should realize there is a line between pet chickens and chickens that produce eggs (pet chicken owners shudder at the thought of chickens providing meat, so we won’t go there.) Pet chickens can produce some eggs for you, although the kinds of “cute” chickens favored as pets are rarely good egg layers.
The disinformation being circulated about chickens is typical of any new fad in pet animals. But chickens are animals with natural behaviors that don’t make them good pets for everyone and when we suppress natural behaviors we have unhappy animals. And a lot of the products being sold to new chicken owners are just ways for someone to make money and aren’t necessary or even good for the chickens.
This article is not meant to discourage people from keeping chickens. Chickens make a better pet than pitbulls in an urban environment and are no dirtier than the pigeons and Canada geese we co-exist with in cities and suburbs. But people should have a good clear understanding about what keeping chickens is all about and know the difference between advertising to sell products, myths and anthropomorphism ( attaching human qualities to animals), and solid, factual information.
A dozen eggs of various colors.
Myth 1- A few chickens can provide all your egg needs.
Maybe true, but probably not. Here’s the oft quoted line- “Chickens are the only pet that can make you breakfast”, referring to the fact that you can eat the eggs chickens produce. And chickens do produce eggs that are good for you. But don’t expect pet chickens to provide you breakfast every day unless you can keep unlimited numbers of hens. However most pet chicken owners are limited in the number of chickens that they can keep and unfortunately pet chicken owners tend to gravitate to breeds like Polish, Silkies, Brahmas and other fancy breeds which are not good egg layers.
Here are the facts. Even the breeds of chickens bred to be highly productive egg layers do not lay an egg every day. Productive breeds in their first egg laying season may lay 6 eggs a week. (Production egg layer breeds make just as good a pet as other breeds of chickens, they just aren’t as “cute”.) Most other breeds of chickens lay far fewer eggs a week maybe 3-4 in the spring and early summer. Hens only lay one egg a day. Eggs vary widely in size depending on the breed of chicken. So if you like to have an egg for breakfast every morning you are going to need at least two hens of an egg production breed per person. If you want eggs for baking and giving to friends you’ll need more hens.
After every molt, usually once a year, the chickens will lay fewer eggs. Egg farmers deal with the loss of production by killing the birds off after the second molt. Old time rural chicken keepers put older hens in the stew pot. Pet chicken keepers generally keep older hens, which is fine except that you must expect to get fewer eggs every year or add new hens to your flock. Eventually to get eggs for breakfast each morning you will be feeding a large flock of chickens.
The bottom line- if you truly want chickens for egg production, choose egg production breeds, feed them a simple balanced layer feed, and replace your hens as they age. You’ll need 2 hens of a good laying breed to get 8-10 eggs a week, in average home production. If you keep fancy breeds of chickens you might need 6 hens to get 8-12 eggs a week and in winter production might be lower than that. Adjust your chicken flock to meet your expectations for eggs.
All eggs taste the same.
Myth 2- Some eggs taste different or are better for you
All eggs, whether blue, green, brown or white taste the same, despite many claims to the contrary. They are equally nutritious if the hens are fed a similar diet. Tiny eggs from bantam breeds are just as good for you as bigger eggs. And you don’t need roosters to get eggs, and there is no difference in nutrition or taste in a fertilized egg and an unfertilized one. Egg yolk color can vary according to what diet hens are eating. Hens eating green things have deep yellow to orange yolks.
Fresh eggs do taste different –better- than eggs from hens kept in tiny cages and that travel long distances and sit for weeks in a store. Pet chicken owners need to remember though that good egg production will only happen when hens are fed a balanced diet designed for egg production and too many treats or expensive rations designed more for their owners than the hens will slow egg production.
Don’t pay large amounts for hens that lay dark brown eggs, olive eggs or whatever color is trendy at the moment, unless you just like the look of the breed and aren’t concerned about egg taste. When eggs from chickens fed the same type of diet are cracked and cooked, no one can tell what color the egg shell was or any difference in flavor.
A young hen.
Myth 3- Chickens are vegetarians
That one is truly laughable. Chickens will happily and hungrily gobble down any meat they come across whether it is bugs or meat from the Kentucky Fried Chicken bones. They will eat their own eggs without a blink. They will eat mice and snakes if they catch them. They will eat dead animals. ( Not a great idea to let them.) In nature wild chickens eat just about anything. Can you feed chickens a vegetarian diet? Sure and they will eat it; maybe do well on it if it’s well balanced. But they don’t need a vegetarian diet nor do they want it.
Don’t pay more for a vegetarian feed. There is some concern among people that animals that are fed protein from other animals may transmit strange diseases. But that is true only for animals designed by nature to be vegetarians, such as cows. Modern feed producers are prohibited from adding poultry by products (meat) to poultry feed to prevent poultry disease transmission. And as a matter of food security meat from ruminant animals such as cows and sheep isn’t allowed in poultry feed either. But fish meal and pork products can be used. Everything is highly processed and cooked.
As far as organic feed goes- it will cost you a lot more. If you can afford it and think it’s a good idea it won’t hurt the chickens. Most commercial chicken feed, whether organic or not is perfectly safe.
Pet chicken owners are suckers for claims that their chickens need things like expensive freeze dried mealworms. They are sold all kinds of expensive chicken treats now. Chickens don’t need those treats. If you want to give them a good treat give them half a melon, some ham bones to pick or left over bread. If they don’t get out of a pen throw them some dandelion leaves. They’ll be just as happy.
Too many treats lower egg production and make hens fat, which is not good for them. One good thing a modest amount of treats can do is train your birds to come back inside their coop when you want them too. Chickens learn well when a food reward is given.
Happy chickens on pasture.
Myth 4- Chickens can be happy in small coops
Most of the cute plastic or pre-fabricated wood coops being sold at exorbitant prices are for the convenience of humans and reflect what humans think chickens like. A chicken can live in one of those things – they can live in small wire cages too. But most of these aren’t really chicken friendly and don’t give the chickens enough room to be comfortable. Some are sold with the idea you will move them around the yard for the chickens to graze fresh grass every day. That might work if people actually moved them every day- but will you? And what about winter? It’s not humane to keep chickens in those small pens through a typical 4-5 month winter.
Each adult hen needs at least 3 square feet of space for humane housing. More would be better, but this will work, especially if they get out to roam a bit once a day. Chickens like to roost off the ground at night, and feel safest when they can. A coop should provide a roost 3 feet of the ground at minimum, so those plastic igloo things just aren’t happy places for chickens. Most people who like keeping chickens will gradually expand their flock, so start with extra space.
Chickens do need to be in a fenced area for their own protection and you and your neighbors will want to keep them out of certain areas. If you want to make your neighbors mad let your chickens stray into their well-kept yards. Let them sit on their porch rail and poop or walk across the picnic table. It’s as bad as if you let your dog have the run of the neighbor’s yard.
But a corner of a shed or garage to roost in with a box for egg laying, and a fenced back yard would be better than some of the expensive small coops on the market. Better yet would be a small shelter and a secure, large fenced run. Chicken coops can look nice, there are hundreds of fancy coop pictures on line but they must address chicken needs before human needs. That’s enough space for normal chicken behaviors, a roost off the ground and protection from the elements and predators.
Myth 5 – Chickens are great for the garden
Another great big laugh and one of the most prevalent myths on chicken keeping is that chickens are great for the garden. Chickens can only be let in the garden after everything is done for the season – and in flower beds that still might not be a good idea. Chickens are terribly destructive in gardens. They eat seed, pick flowers, scratch up big holes and leave unpleasant droppings that can carry food borne illness, along with the fertilizer.
Yes chickens eat some bugs but they also eat strawberries, take bites out of each tomato and gobble up flower blossoms. Chickens make great big holes for dust baths, as bad as a digging dog. Chickens don’t belong in the children’s sandbox or playhouse either. Chicken droppings can carry salmonella and other unpleasant illnesses.
You can save your chicken manure, let it age for 6 months and then use it as garden fertilizer. But don’t add fresh manure to your garden, it will burn your plants.
Youth poultry show.
Myth 6- Chickens are cuddly house pets
Chickens should never be kept in the house. It’s the reason why rural third world people get diseases like bird flu, because they are in close contact with chickens for long periods of time and chickens wander through homes and roost inside. Chickens cannot be housebroken. Chicken droppings are messy, they stain and they are smelly. Many people live with other pets that aren’t housebroken but chickens carry some pretty serious diseases in their droppings and feather dust.
Putting a diaper on a chicken is just silly and uncomfortable for the chicken. If you must have chickens inside, even baby chicks, confine them to a room away from eating and food prep areas and wash your hands frequently. Chickens have different ideas of bed time and wake up time from humans too and you will be upsetting their normal body rhythms when they are kept in the home. It’s not healthy for them or you.
While you might see pictures of chickens who appear to be cuddling with their humans it’s the rare chicken who likes being held or touched. Many become tame enough to follow you around, eat from your hand and maybe occasionally jump up on a knee in search of treats but they do not enjoy being held. A chicken is dinner for many animals and their instincts tell them something that is holding them is up to no good. While they may learn to tolerate it, it’s very stressful for them.
Chickens are fun to watch; they can provide as much enjoyment as a reality TV show but don’t try to “tame” them into cuddly pets. Some people think handling young chicks frequently should tame them, and it may condition some individuals to accept the handling, but most will never like it. Some breeds are calmer than others, but no breed is cuddly and don’t let people tell you that is so.
Chickens can make good pets for children if everyone understands the limitations of such a relationship and respects the chickens desire not to be handled. Children in particular should not be cuddling chickens. They should not be kissing them or rubbing their faces on them. Once again, chickens carry salmonella and other disease organisms that can cause serious illness. And the stress caused to the chickens by too much handling often makes them ill.
If children are taught to watch and not handle chickens, if they are taught to wash their hands after feeding or interacting with chickens there is little chance they will become ill from them. Older children can exhibit chickens in shows or teach them tricks if they learn proper handling and sanitation procedures.
The fact that more and more people are keeping chickens as pets and to provide eggs is probably fueled by both our desire to be in control of some of our own food production, and the fact that some famous people decided to keep chickens. It’s been a big boost to the people who sell chicks and chicken supplies but some people are taking advantage of newbie chicken owners. It’s actually a good trend as it gives people a better sense of where food comes from and makes them aware that chickens are creatures with fascinating behaviors and complex social systems that need humane treatment.
Like all fads there is a downside to the keeping chickens movement. More and more chickens are showing up in animal shelters or worse, being turned loose to fend for themselves. Before you embark on a keeping chickens for pets or eggs project, make sure you do the research and know that you can be a responsible chicken owner and that the endeavor really fits your lifestyle.
Before you get chickens read the highly rated, bestselling, chicken book for beginning chicken keepers- Raising Chickens for Dummies. You can buy it here. http://www.amazon.com/Raising-Chickens-Dummies-Kimberley-Willis/dp/0470465441
You may want to read these articles also.
Raising Bantam Chickens http://usedview.com/article/raising-bantam-chickens
How to Care for Chicks http://usedview.com/article/how-to-care-for-baby-chicks
Keeping chickens humanely http://usedview.com/article/keeping-chickens-humanely-at-home