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Table of Contents >> Chapter 8
Chapter 8: What to expect the first year and beyond
Chickens change the most during the first year of life. They start out as adorable little fluff balls requiring constant care and monitoring. Within just 5 weeks they are ready to make the transition to "outside" (the coop that will become their full-time home) and a fairly self-sufficient life.

At 3-6 weeks old, they become mangy and diseased-looking as their fuzzy covering begins to shed and is slowly replaced with mature feathers. Their wattles and combs grow and turn a deeper red. Cockerels (young roosters) make their first attempt at crowing. At 20-25 weeks old, pullets (young hens) lay their first eggs, which will be small and weak-shelled. Over time they will lay more frequently, the eggs will become larger and the shells harder. By 6 months, the pecking order, which governs who gets to pick on who, will be established and combs and wattles will be fully formed. What a busy six months!

After this tumultuous time, your chickens' world will slow down. Egg production will slowly but surely decline while egg size will get larger, at least through the second year. They'll continue to molt once per year, and once again they won't lay eggs during that time.

Other behavioral and physical issues to be aware of:

Broodiness
Your hens may go "broody" at any time in their life. This is when they stubbornly insist on sitting on eggs in order to hatch them into baby chicks. It doesn't matter if the eggs are fertilized or not; some hens will even go broody on golf balls or wooden eggs!

If you have a rooster and want baby chicks, great! But if you don't have a rooster, there are several reasons why you won't want broodiness. First, a broody hen gets grumpy when you try to collect the eggs from underneath her. She might even peck you, so beware! Second, because the eggs are not fertilized, the heat of your hen sitting on them will cause them to decompose at a faster rate - and you want to eat them, don't you? Third, a broody hen plucks out her own breast feathers to line the nest. Ouch! And all for nothing! Finally, a broody hen will just sit and sit on her nest, not eating or drinking as much as she normally would. This will weaken her and deprive her of much-needed nutrients.

To prevent this habit from forming, collect eggs every day. Hens are more likely to go broody on a nest full of eggs.

If a hen has ALREADY gone broody, there are several tactics you can use to break her of this habit. Start by repeatedly removing her from the nest. When Sammy, our Salmon Faverolle, went broody, we'd remove her and carry her around for 10 minutes or so, twice a day. We had to do this for two days before she stopped. For birds that are more determined to be mommies, ice cubes or an ice pack in the nest will usually do the trick. In rare cases, more extreme measures are necessary! Our Australorp, Sweetie, determinedly sat on and melted every ice cube we put under her for a whole week. In the end, we had to put her in "solitary" to break her! (With access to food and water, of course...) When she finally laid an egg again, we knew she was good to go back in the coop.

Molting
Once per year, every year, chickens will shed and re-grow some of their feathers. This process is called "molting". This usually happens in summer. During this time they may look a little ratty, and they definitely won't lay eggs. Not to worry. This isn't a sign of illness! The feathers will grow back and your bird will look better than ever.

(If, however, it takes a long time for the feathers to grow back, this could be a sign of parasites or other illness. You should be able to tell the difference because a sick bird behaves differently from the rest of the flock in other ways too. As always, if you're unsure, consult your vet.)

Introducing new birds to the flock
We get questions about this all the time! Let there be no doubt: adding new birds to your pre-existing crew can be stressful, both to you and the birds. Your flock, peaceful because every hen knows her place in the pecking order, will be thrown all out of whack by the addition of newcomers. Every hen and roo will once again have to vye for his or her spot on the pecking order. At times it can seem like all-out war! The good news: it only lasts about a week, and there are a few things you can do to make it much easier on all of you.

Two things to consider first, however. One, if you've purchased adult birds or adopted a stray, quarantine them for four weeks first. You'll need this time to make sure they don't have any infections or communicable health issues that the rest of your flock can catch. Even when you are buying adult birds from an individual you trust, it is usually a good idea to quarantine simply because the stress of a new environment can sometimes cause the bird to get ill with something he or she had been previously fighting off - or it may be that the bird was ill but was not to the point, yet, of showing symptoms. It could also be that the person you purchase from just doesn't have eyes as good as yours, to catch things like avian lice or mites. Keeping them in another area first will have you waging a smaller battle than if you had to try to eradicate parasites from your entire flock. The quarantine is a good idea because if the new birds are ill, you can get a diagnosis and treat them while avoiding exposing your established flock to an illness!

Second, make sure the chooks you're introducing are old enough to defend themselves against the larger birds in your flock, certainly no sooner than 6 weeks.

Now, onto the introduction: the most important peace-making technique is to allow the birds to see one another, and even be in the same SPACE together, without having physical access to one another. This will allow them to work out the pecking order through subtler cues. If you have a run, you can achieve this by putting the new birds in the run with your old-timers but separating them with chicken wire, hardware cloth, or something else that'll do the same job. (Making sure, of course, that they all have access to food and water.) Do this for a week before introducing them to the flock.

After that first week, when you're ready to make the transition, we've heard that it's easiest to first introduce the new birds once they're all sleeping - the idea being that upon awakening your resident flock will notice the new guys but be too groggy and interested in eating to attack them right away. We're not sure about this because we haven't tried it, but heck... it's worth a try, right?

A few warfare-alleviating tactics we can say with certainty that reduce fighting all involve distraction. If your girls have nothing better to do they'll chase the poor newcomers and pick on them relentlessly. Distract them and you'll find they're much less mean. Tried and true distraction techniques include:

  • Hanging a half a head of cabbage just out of reach so the chickens have to jump to get at it, an odd but miraculous solution;

  • Adding large branches to the run and even inside the coop if possible, making pursuit more difficult and giving the newcomer(s) a place to hide;

  • Adding dead leaves, grass clippings, pulled weeds and/or table scraps to their run, giving them plenty to dig through.

An even better distraction: letting them range freely! Your flock will be far too interested in the prospect of all the worms, pebbles, bugs and weeds they can get their beaks on to bother with one another. They won't go back in the coop until dusk, at which point they'll be settling in for a night's sleep and won't be so motivated to harass one another. (Though we don't recommend you do this until any newcomers have spent at least 2 days inside the coop, so they know it's "home" and to return there every night. Otherwise you may have a runaway bird on your hands!)

We also recommend you read the fabulous resource our friends at BackyardChickens.com have written on introducing new chickens to your flock, here.

Picking
Bare skin year round is concerning and is usually caused by chickens "picking" at one another. It's almost always the result of high stress levels. Many experts recommend you de-beak the birds (trim the pointy end of their beaks so they can't injure one another), but we don't: it cures the symptoms but not the underlying problem. Happy chickens don't pick one another! So figure out why they're not happy. Do they have sufficient space? Are there enough feed and water containers to go round? Enough nesting boxes? Could they have worms, lice or other parasites? Talk to your vet if you can't figure out. If you don't take care of the problem, you run the risk of escalation to the point of cannibalism (seriously).

Winter Egg Production
Due to fewer daylight hours in the winter, your chickens' egg production will decrease. If you wish for more eggs, provide your girls supplemental light during the otherwise dark morning and early evening hours.

Some people feel that reduced production during the winter provides your chickens with a much-needed vacation. They say it results in better laying in the spring. To our knowledge there is no data to support this claim.

Life span
How long chickens live is still a bit of a mystery! It's common for a hen to live 8-10 years, but we've heard one report of a chicken living 20 years. The older they get, of course, the fewer eggs they lay, but think of all their other valuable functions besides being a loved member of the family: tick-eating, mosquito-eating, and fly-eating, not to mention they're still fertilizer machines!


So... WELCOME TO THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CHICKENS!

We're so excited that you've made the decision to raise chickens. It's one of the most enjoyable, rewarding pastimes we can think of. Each of our girls has their own personality, and it has been a joy getting to know them all, not to mention the fabulous, flavorful, fresh eggs! We hope you enjoy your experience with chickens as much as we have.

If there's anything we've left out - any questions left unanswered or stone left unturned - please don't hesitate to ask us! We can always be reached at info@mypetchicken.com.



Chapter 7: Caring for your Chickens References & Resources