The My Pet Chicken Guide to Chicken Care

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Table of Contents >> Chapter 7

Chapter 7: Caring for Grown Chickens

Caring for pet chickens is pretty easy! They have the same needs as most any other pet. In this section we'll fill you in on daily, monthly, semi-annual and annual chores, as well as other nuances of chicken husbandry.

What to Do on a Daily Basis

  • Keep feeders and waterers full.
  • Make sure the waterer is clean. Chickens will be less inclined to drink dirty water, and a dehydrated bird can very quickly become ill or die.
  • Check to make sure they all look active, bright and healthy. Make an appointment with your vet if they don't.
  • Collect and refrigerate eggs, pointy side down for maximum freshness.
  • If you've opened the coop door to let your chickens out, always be sure to close and secure it at dusk (once they've all returned!) to make sure predators can't get in. (Tip: if you have a cell phone that allows you to set a recurring alarm, try that as a reminder.)
Keep in mind that you CAN leave your chickens alone for a few days provided they have enough food, water and space for the duration of your trip. The eggs they'll have laid in your absence should still be good to eat. Fresh eggs keep for several days without refrigeration. Surprised? Consider this: hens lay an average of 10-12 eggs per "clutch" (the group of eggs that a hen sits on to incubate). They lay one egg per day and at the end of a 10-12 day laying period they roll all the eggs together to incubate them. That means the egg laid on day 1 is still good enough on day 12 to become a living, breathing baby chick - so it should be good enough for you to eat too!

Egg Tip: Your eggs may have some slight traces of dirt or chicken feces on them. Resist the urge to scrub them clean! Outside the egg is a delicate membrane called the "bloom" that wards off bacteria and other foreign matter. Scrubbing will damage this membrane. If you're one of those Type A people that needs perfect-looking eggs, rub them with your fingers very gently under warm water. Then, wash your hands thoroughly.

What to Do on a Monthly Basis

  • Change the bedding in the coop and the nest. This is necessary for sanitary purposes. Excessive ammonia buildup is dangerous to poultry and can cause respiratory illness.
  • Remove the feces. We put ours in the compost bin or use it as fertilizer.

What to Do on a Bi-annual Basis
Twice a year you've got to really scrub your coop clean! Remove bedding, nest materials, feed and water containers. For a cleaner, we recommend a concoction of 1 part bleach, 1 part dish soap, 10 parts water. A strong citrus cleanser will also do the trick. After cleaning, rinse well and let dry before replacing with fresh bedding. Do the same with the feed and water containers: clean thoroughly and rinse well, and replace with a fresh supply. You should be able to do this all in a couple hours!

Foods Chickens Shouldn't Eat
As mentioned in the first chapter, one of the great benefits of having chickens is they take care of your unwanted leftovers! There are a few foods they shouldn't eat, though (and thanks to our customers for helping us beef up this list over the years!):

  • Citrus fruits and peels (they can cause a drop in egg production)
  • Bones
  • Any large serving of meat, or meat that has gone bad
  • Garlic and onion (unless you want your eggs tasting like them)
  • Avocado skins and pits
  • Raw potato skins
  • Long cut grass
  • Chocolate (as if you'd give that up!)

Also, we hear from chicken pros that Morning Glories and Daffodils are poisonous to chickens, and even though chickens will generally know to avoid them, you might just want to keep an eye on them around these plants.

How to Handle Chickens
Handing chickens is an art, and practice makes perfect! The key is finding the balance between being gentle and letting them know that no matter how much they wriggle or squirm, they're not getting away.

First, put your dominant hand (the hand you write with) on the middle of their back. If you're new to chickens, it's helpful to secure their wings as much as possible with your thumb and forefinger. (Pros don't need to secure their wings at all!) Your other hand will need to take their legs out of the equation. Secure one leg between your thumb and forefinger, and the other between the forefinger and middle finger of the same hand. Then lift them, supporting the lower portion of their body with the heel of your hand and wrist. Your dominant hand should still be on their back. Once you've got them up, holding them close to your body will prevent further wriggling. And again, as you get better at this you won't need that hand on their backs!

Winter Precautions
If you have cold winters, you shouldn't run into any problems provided you choose the right breed. Our customers want to do the very best they can for their flock, and we often get asked whether they should heat their coop during winter. Our feeling is this isn't a good idea. Chickens adapt to the cold weather over time. Their body metabolism actually changes along with the seasons. When you heat your coop, the birds will never get used to the colder outside temperature -- so if the heat were to accidentally cut out causing a sudden change in temperature, you could literally lose your entire flock overnight. We've seen it happen.

That said, if you live in a really cold climate there are a few precautions you can take to make everyone's lives easier (by which we mean you and your birds!):

  • Protect combs and wattles from frostbite by rubbing on petroleum jelly or another heavy moisturizer every few days.
  • Make sure the water supply does not freeze! This is very important. Chickens cannot live long without fresh water. If you don't have electricity in your coop and therefore cannot provide a water heater, we recommend you bring the waterer into your house every night, and return it outside every morning. Check the water once or twice a day to make sure it's not frozen.

Summer Precautions
Excessive heat is a real risk to birds. Make sure they have access to fresh, clean water at all times. Provide them a source of shade outside and as much ventilation as possible inside.

Note: Your hens may lay fewer eggs during heat waves. This is a sign of stress, but laying rates will return to normal once the heat has receded.

Fertilizers & "Turf Builders": Are They Safe?
Heck no! If your birds are free-ranging on your lawn, abstain from applying fertilizers or "turf builders". These products very often contain pesticides, herbicides and other harsh, nasty chemicals. Not only can these cause illness in your birds, but you don't want to be eating eggs containing these materials. Part of the benefit of keeping chickens is the comfort of knowing that those fabulous, fresh, delicious eggs are safe for you and your family. Fertilizers and turf builders negate all that. That said, we understand the pressures of suburban life: if you can't be the only chump in the neighborhood with dandelions and various other weeds, we recommend you use organic fertilizers in the front yard and limit your birds to the back.

What to Do if Your Chickens Get Sick
Most chicken illnesses are curable if they're caught in time! If you suspect one of your chickens may be under the weather, take the precautionary measure of isolating it from the rest of the flock. This will help prevent illness from spreading. (And of course, make sure the isolated chicken has access to food and water!)

Second, make an appointment with your veterinarian right away. You need to find one that specializes in Avian medicine or farm animals, and we recommend that you find the nearest one prior to getting chickens. The USDA also has a free disease-testing service. To find out more, call 1-866-536-7593, or visit their website at This site has great tips for keeping you and your birds healthy.

The following symptoms indicate illness:

  • Mangy appearance
  • Visible mites
  • Abnormal stool, including blood, visible worms, diarrhea, droppings that are all white. (Normal stool is brown with a white cap.)
  • Sneezing
  • Loss of energy or depression
  • Sudden, drastic reduction in position in pecking order
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stunted growth

For a more complete account of poultry illness, symptoms and cures, we recommend The Chicken Health Handbook by Gail Damerow.

A few things NOT to worry about:

  • Your chickens' first eggs will be pretty pathetic! They'll be small, shells will be weak and some won't even have shells at all. Don't worry! This is not a sign of sickness.
  • Your chickens will lose and re-grow their feathers once a year. This is called "molting" and is perfectly normal. They won't lay eggs during this time. (For more on this, see the next chapter.)
  • A tiny speck of blood in an egg. This is normal. Don't worry about it. If it becomes frequent, or if there is a significant amount of blood, that's another story.

Remember, the most important part of keeping your chickens healthy is disease prevention! Follow the care instructions and coop specifications above and you'll have a happy, healthy flock. However, as with any animal, there's still a chance of illness. Since you'll be checking on your birds daily, you'll catch the illness early and increase the chance of a positive outcome.

Dealing with Death
Losing a pet is always terrible, and chickens are no exceptions. If you've lost your bird due to old age or a predator attack, bury it as you would any other pet: a full funeral, bagpipes, the works. Dig a hole several feet underground to prevent anything from getting at the corpse. If, on the other hand, your bird displayed signs of illness or died suddenly, for no apparent reason, you'll need to investigate. Either contact your veterinarian, or call the USDA for free testing: 1-866-536-7593.

What About Bird Flu? (Aaah!)
Bird flu is this year's SARS. Nobody knows whether the dangerous A(H5N1) strain of bird flu will mutate into a form readily transmissible from human to human. It's a scary prospect, and the media love to speculate. If it does happen, officials may recommend that all pet birds be culled. However, in that case, we're all in trouble regardless of whether we have pet chickens or not — because the danger of getting bird flu from your chickens will be just as great as you getting it from your loved ones and perfect strangers. Given all the unknowns, everyone must research this matter for themselves and make the best decision for their own family. Visit for the most up-to-date information.

If you do decide to keep chickens, common sense should prevail. Thoroughly wash hands after contact, and wear gloves when dealing with their droppings. A healthy dose of hand sanitizer immediately after contact is a good idea too. We also set aside a pair of shoes that we use only for going out to the coop. This pair of shoes never gets worn inside, or for that matter, anywhere else. This prevents the spread of any feces which may be on the bottom of our shoes.

Chapter 6: Getting geared upChapter 8: What to expect the first year and beyond