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The Poultry Club of GB
Poultry Guide

Hatching, Care & Incubation

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Frequently Asked Questions

With recent lifestyle changes, chicken keeping has become a very popular hobby. Many potential chicken enthusiasts come to it for the first time as a result of personal interest or because their children want or have just acquired a new pet 'a chicken'.

We regularly answer questions through email, phone calls and on personal visits to some basic question that emerge for the beginner.

As a result we've assembled a list of some of the most regularly asked questions, with basic answers. This list is by no means complete, nor are the answers comprehensive but we hope it will serve as a starting point for the novice.

The questions are categorised into...

General Poultry Questions
Poultry Behaviour
Eggs & Egg Laying
Poultry Health
Chicken Breeding

This is just a beginning and we intend to add to it as needs arise & time allows. It would be impossible to cover all aspects of poultry keeping / breeding in just a few questions and answers. We hope these will provide just the very basics.

More in depth detail is obtainable with a little research, for those who wish to continue their investigations in their specific area of interest. We are not experts but the information is available and we are always happy to point anyone with more specific questions in the direction of possible solutions.

This page has numerous links to external sites with expert information on poultry keeping. These links can become non-functioning if these website owners make changes. If you find a non-functioning link, please let us know.

If there are questions and answers you would like to see on this page please contact us and we will endeavour to include them here.

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General Poultry Questions

How much care do chickens require?

Chickens need regular attention but they are a very low-maintenance pet.

  • A daily check at feeding time and when collecting eggs, allows you to be familiar with individual birds, making it easy to identify any that might be off colour. Early treatment often eliminates potential problems and even losses.
  • Ensure the birds always have water.
  • Change bedding regularly, how often will depend on how many birds and space allocation.
  • Housing will need a thorough clean-out, including disinfect and de-louse every couple of months.
  • Regular worming, de-lousing of the birds will ensure health and vigour in the flock
What do chickens eat?

Free ranging chickens eat almost everything.

Worms, grubs, insects, grass. Processed, balanced, commercial rations, rolled barley / wheat. Chemical free weeds from the garden & scraps from the kitchen. Just about anything can be fed to chickens. Remember to keep the diet balanced, not giving too much of anything unless it's balanced, commercial ration.

When giving them scraps from the kitchen, avoid salty food, raw potatoes and onions. Crushed egg shells mixed through their feed is an excellent source of calcium. Grit is important in their digestion. They pick this up naturally when they are ranging freely.

Chickens will clear many of the over-wintering pests from the kitchen garden if given access. They will also decimate cabbage or other winter brassicas if these are unprotected.

Do hens make a lot of noise?

Hens, make a soft, contented clucking sound - until they lay an egg. Then they get quite excited and announce their accomplishment for a few moments but very quickly settle down. They quietly greet the morning and they are fast asleep on their perch as the light fades to darkness.

Cockerels crow, early in the morning and intermittently throughout the day. Crowing is most prevalent in spring when they are establishing their dominance. This must be considered if there are neighbours close by. A occasional bowl of fresh free range eggs may be enough to buy understanding and tolerance.

How big are chickens?

Large fowl (standard chickens) generally, weigh 4 - 7 pounds depending on the breed and the sex (cockerels weigh a pound or two more than hens). There are a few breeds that can exceed this size.

Bantam varieties - which are the same as standard chickens, only smaller - weigh about half the weight of their large fowl counterparts.

Can I have just one chicken?

No.

Chickens are social creatures, they belong in a flock, they will not be happy or thrive if kept alone. We advise a minimum of two.

Will I save money by having chickens?

No.

Living the good-life it not cheap. There are lots of great reasons to have your own chickens, but saving money is not one of them.

How long do chickens live?

Purebred free range chickens can live for 6 - 10 years depending on their conditions. Once in a while there are reports of birds living longer, but this is rare.

Commercial egg laying hybrids have a much shorter life, often as little as 3 - 4 years and commercial stock used for the table are generally slaughtered at less than 3 months, often as little as 7 - 8 weeks.

In a commercial setting broilers (table birds) are generally slaughtered between 40 - 50 days depending on the size required by the supermarket chain.

We process our free range birds, both purebred and first generation crosses, bred for the table at 9 - 12 months, depending on weather and freezer space. This meat looks and tastes very different from commercially produced chicken.

Do cats attack chickens?

In the vast majority of cases, no, but it's not guaranteed. Most cats are more intimidated by grown chickens than chickens are of them.

Baby chicks are more at risk because they're helpless, but again in our experience cats aren't interested in them, nor will even get near the ones that were hatched under a hen. She will attack anything that comes close to her brood. Better to take precautions, though!

What about keeping dogs and chickens?

Dogs can be a danger to chickens. It is well worth taking the time to train your dog to socialise with your chickens. If this is not possible, absolute segregation is essential or they will kill at the first opportunity.

It's worth watching this video of Cesar Milan as he socialises one dog with the family's chickens to gain a better understanding of animal behaviour.

 

Are chickens dirty? Do they smell?

That will depend on the caretaker. Just like any other pet or animal, they need care - cleaning out the dirty bedding in the coop, keeping it dry and having a clean/dry area of sand or dirt for the birds to take dust baths. These practices will all help to keep your birds happy, healthy and odour free.

Does keeping chickens attract rodents?

It is food that attracts rodents, not the birds. If you have wild bird feeders in your garden, you run the same risk. Only give the birds the amount they will eat, don't leave feed scattered around. Keep all stored feed in covered containers, bins or barrels. Watch the ground for animal trails and if spotted use some kind of pest control.

Cats and (well trained) dogs allowed to wander through the pens may pick up on vermin trails and hunt them. Vermin can scent the presence of cats and dogs which is a possible deterrent.

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Chicken Behaviour

Is there really such a thing as a "pecking order"?

Yes. This is a very real phenomenon. All chicken flocks have a well-defined pecking order. It's their way of creating order and avoiding anarchy.

It is vital to recognise this when introducing new birds to a flock. Until new stock have found their standing in the order of the flock they may be subjected to bullying by other chickens.

It is best to introduce new birds under cover of darkness and pay close attention to the flock for the next couple of days. If any signs of bullying are observed, remove the bully instantly. Hopefully this will allow the new birds to integrate with the remainder of the flock. The bully can be returned to the pen when a new status quo has been established. He/she will then be the outsider. Continue to observe behaviour closely for the next day or two.

In an instance where a new bird has been pecked and is bleeding, remove the victim until it heals. The appearance of blood will only encourage the other chickens to join the foray. They will continue to attack the victim until it is killed if there is no intervention.

Can chickens fly?

The lighter, mediterranean breeds, and 'bantams' - which are the same as 'standard' breeds but about 1/2 the size - can fly and will roost in trees if allowed. Heavier breeds have much more limited flight.

Generally chickens like to forage on the ground during the day if they have enough space. They like to perch at night, so providing a raised perch will keep them happy.

The practice of clipping the flight feathers on one wing makes their flight unbalanced and difficult if they attempt air travel.

Do chickens really "come home to roost"?

Yes! Chickens will come back to the same place to sleep every night - so you can let your chickens range during the day and when it gets dark they will return to their coop to catch up on their beauty rest. (A 'roost' is a pole they perch on, which they much prefer to sleeping on the ground.)

Do you have to give chickens baths?

No! Chickens take dust baths to keep themselves clean and free of pests.

However, if you plan on showing your chickens in a poultry show you'll want your bird looking her best, so you can wash them with a gentle cleanser and blow them dry.

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Eggs and Egg Laying

Is a rooster necessary in order to get eggs?

No.

A hen will lay eggs regardless - they just won't be fertile eggs. They still have the same nutritional value as fertilised eggs. Most of the eggs available in shops are unfertilised.

How often do chickens lay eggs?

That depends on three main factors:

  • The breed of chicken. Some chickens are bred for meat production and lay few eggs; some are bred for egg production and can lay as often as once a day; some are bred as 'dual purpose' and are good for both egg-laying and meat, although not optimal for either.

  • The hen's age. Hens start to lay at 5 - 7 months of age, and lay best during their first year. Each year after that, their production decreases and the size of their eggs increase.

  • The season. In the winter (with fewer daylight hours), egg production drastically decreases. High laying season is summer.

A healthy, young hen bred for egg-laying can lay almost an egg a day!

Are brown eggs healthier than white eggs?

No, the colour of the egg shell has no effect on how healthy it is. Shell colour is strictly a matter of choice. Europeans seem to prefer brown shelled eggs while white eggs are the colour of choice in American supermarkets.

Some breeds such as Maran & Welsomer lay extremely brown eggs. At the other end of this scale Leghorn, Minorca and numerous other breeds lay completely white eggs. In between are a range of chickens including Rhode Island Red and Sussex that lay eggs varying from light brown to cream.

However, how chickens are kept DOES have an effect on how healthy the eggs are! See the next question for more on this topic.

Will the eggs my chickens lay taste better than shop eggs?

Without a doubt, your chickens will lay eggs unlike any you've tasted before.

Research shows that if you allow your chickens to range freely (which we highly recommend you do) your eggs  will be higher in Omega-3 fatty acids and lower in cholesterol, among other health benefits.

Why have my hens stopped laying?

Egg laying is affected by the birds annual moult, daylight hours, improper nutrition, stress, disease, and increasing age of the hen. Any of these factors will cause hens to postpone or stop laying.

For more detail on these factors read this publication by Oregon State University, Extension Service.

 

Can you eat fertilised eggs?

Certainly!

The embryo will only develop under the correct conditions, which is not provided at room temperature or in your refrigerator.

There is no visible difference unless the embryo has started to form. For this to begin the egg must be fertile and must be incubated for at least 24 - 36 hours at around 37 degrees centigrade.

What is the red spot sometimes found in an egg? Is it safe to eat?

A red spot in an egg is just a blood spot - and is perfectly ok to eat. Blood spots occur when the egg is forming, and it is natural for them to occur.

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Poultry Health

Poultry health is mostly determined by their living conditions. It is much easier keep birds healthy than to restore health to an ill bird. Providing a balanced diet with a wide variety of food, free ranging the birds and well ventilated, secure housing are the basis of good health in a flock.

What if one of my chickens gets sick?

Isolate the bird from the flock the moment illness is suspected.

Then figure out what is wrong with your chicken and treat it accordingly. The web has many sites with very well researched information on poultry illness & disease. We've found some very useful information in the following sites...

Poultry Disease
General Health
Merck Veterinary Manual

If it's not possible to identify the illness, talk to a vet who has experience of dealing with poultry.

What is CRD?

CRD or cronic respiratory disorder is particulary prevelant in housed flocks and is often triggered by stress. It is highly infectious and spreads rapidly when conditions are overcrowded or poorly ventilated.

Fowl found coughing, sneezing, wheezing or with rattley breathing, nasal discharge and runny 'bubbly' eyes are likely to be suffering from some form of respiratory disorder. CRD can sometimes be a form of a more serious infection - Mycoplasma Gallisepticum.

 

What diseases most affect chickens?

There are many reasons why chickens may become ill, listless or just a little off colour. Mostly the health issue is localised and very curable.

Poultry are affected by numerous diseases, while some are very serious and contagious, others can be treated and the effected bird can recover. In the case of the more serious diseases it is sometimes necessary to cull the entire flock to break the cycle.

In small holdings' flocks, it's less likely to be the the more serious diseases, particularly if they are free ranging but there can be occasions when it is the only option.

Close observation at feeding time, when collecting eggs and when they've settled for the night helps to identify any ill bird.

A list of poultry diseases based on symptoms can be found in Mississippi State University Extension System and another excellent site is University of Florida IFAS Extension.

What is the most important aspect of chicken housing?

Ventilation, ventilation, ventilation.

We cannot stress the importance of well ventilated housing enough, in maintaining a healthy flock.

All our large coops are raised off the ground and floorless. This provides fresh air, eliminates the possibility of trapped toxic air and the big bonus is no cleaning - just move the chicken house to a new area. It's is however important not to let droppings build up as they are so high in nitrogen and will foul the ground.

Only our small houses have floors but one third of the side wall is weldmesh. This is for the safety of smaller birds.

Summer or winter this method keeps our stock healthy regardless of temperatures.

A remarkable book, "Fresh Air Poultry Houses," by Prince Tannat Woods, M.D., has made a comeback since its original printing in 1924. It's available in paperback from Amazon for £8.95.

This Canadian website say's it all.

Should I give my chickens a tonic?

Chickens, in one form or another, have survived round the world for thousands of years; often as scavengers in the most impoverished areas, but were, and still are an essential source of dietary protein for their owners in these regions.

This is a strong indication that free ranging is a highly successful method of maintaining a healthy flock. Chickens, like bees derive a broad spectrum of beneficial natural tonics from foraging.

This can be supplemented by adding a little apple cider vinegar (preferably unpasturised) and crushed garlic etc to their drinking water. Adding probiotics if the apple cider vinegar is pasteurised has a similar effect.

US Dept of Agriculture research have found that crushed green tea is highly beneficial in the control of coccidiosis.

What do healthy chickens' droppings look like?

This is one of our most regular questions.

The most comprehensive answer we've found was given in a UK poultry forum by a member who calls herself Aunt Sally...

Chicken Droppings

How can I dispose of my dead hen?

Farming communities in Ireland are legally obliged to use the services of licensed dead animal collectors to remove fallen animals. See Dept of Agriculture regulations.

If you keep poultry or any other animals it is worth sourcing a licensed dead animal collector in your area who will dispose of the carcass, and perhaps establish a drop off service for smaller animals / birds.

Your local District Veterinary Office may be able to supply this information.

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Chicken Breeding

Poultry breeding can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it. It can be approached with intent, or just for enjoyment.

It's essential whichever approach is taken, that birds are not introduced into the national flock as anything other than what they are. To do so is irresponsible and injurious to all breeds and breeders.

How can I breed chickens?

To breed chickens it's necessary to have a laying hen and an adult cockerel to produce fertile eggs or to purchase fertile eggs from a breeder.

The next choice is whether to use a broody hen to hatch the eggs or put them in an incubator.

If a broody hen hatches the eggs, she will look after them as they grow.

If they are hatched in an incubator, artificial heat is necessary for the first month or six weeks in cold weather.

There is extensive information on poultry reproduction and hatching in the following links.

If this is your first time to hatch eggs check out Shilala Homestead and University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Both are very good sites for beginners without information overload but you will need to gain more knowledge as you progress.

Mississippi State University, Extension Service have published excellent, well researched, in depth, information on poultry reproduction.

Just one example is how to tell if an embryo is developing within the egg by candling.

Can young chicks be sexed?

Determining the sex of young chicks is always difficult and seldom 100% accurate even when done by the most experienced. There are two methods which Mississippi State University, Extension Service describe well in Small Flock Management

How can I breed chickens for particular characteristics and attributes?

Controlled breeding for characteristics and attributes is very a scientific practice. Deciphering genetics is not a task for the faint hearted.

There are numerous articles published on this topic but most are either too scientific or too basic - omitting even the essentials.

Henk Meijers, a Dutch biologist, with an interest in genetics, who breeds poultry has published the Chicken Color Calculator.

The Sellers Family, Brookings, Dakota, published Poultry Genetics for the Nonprofessional which essentially seems to be the work of Henk Meijers, made a little easier to understand.

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