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11 Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Got Chickens

Hen with chicks in a parking lot

People keep chickens in the city for a variety of reasons. Some want a source of fresh, happily-laid eggs. Others put their birds to work as compost suppliers, garden hands and garbage disposers. Still others just enjoy the show they get each day when their birds wander the yard in search of bugs, greens and other delicious morsels!

This last week, NBC published an article about "hipster" farmers dumping unwanted chickens at shelters when they didn't plunk out enough eggs or didn't turn out as cute or easy to take care of as expected. Then NPR's blog The Salt dug a little deeper and found that the real problem isn't the hipsters. Rather, its the rules cities have against roosters that force urbanites to dispose of male chickens!

Reading both of these articles got me to wondering: What should people know before venturing to raise chickens?

Here is a list of what I think are the 11 most important things.

1. The average chicken has a lifespan of between five and seven years. This doesn't mean chickens won't live longer, however. I have two females that are 12 and 13 years old, and they still lay eggs with some frequency. I've even heard of chickens living 20 years!

2. A hen's peak egg-laying years are between the ages of one and three. Still, many breeds continue to lay eggs well into old age -- just not so many.

3. If you want a chicken for the eggs, choose an egg-laying breed. This way, even when your birds age, they will still lay a decent number of eggs. Some chickens were developed for meat, others for eggs, and still others for appearance. Do your research!

4. Your pullets (female chickens under one year) will start laying when they're between four and six months old. Don't be concerned if the first eggs will be small. They will get larger with time.

5. Hens will take a break from laying eggs in the winter months. Generally this is when they lose old feathers and grow new ones. Hens need about 14 hours of daylight to lay eggs consistently.

6. If you're buying chicks, even when you've only ordered females, you may get males. Chances are you will discover you have a male at some point, so if you live in a city where roosters aren't allowed, have a plan.

7. Chickens do get sick and die. Local veterinarians probably won't be able to help you either, as very few of them are trained to understand poultry diseases. You will have to read up on your own or find other more experienced chicken keepers who can advise you.

8. Chickens have to be shut up at night or they will get killed. Chickens are the snack food of the predator world. As such, they'll get eaten by just about anything. Be sure to lock them in a coop each night.

9. Chickens can deal with cold weather far better than hot weather. The body temperature of a chicken typically hovers around 102 degrees Fahrenheit. Because they are wearing a down coat all year round, they will need access to shade and cool water at all times.

10. Keep water and food bowls clean and free from funny-looking growth. You have to be vigilant in keeping food dry and the water bowls free of bacterial growth, especially when it's hot out.

11. Clean coops as often as you need to keep litter dry and the smell of ammonia in check. Chickens are susceptible to respiratory problems when exposed to droppings in a small coop. Keeping your coop dry and ventilated will solve a lot of problems.

Keep these facts in mind, and your decision whether or not to start raising urban birds will be much better informed. Happy ruminating!

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