Call them F.A.Q.’s, call them newbie goofs… call them whatever you want, but these are the most common problems and frustrations I see new chicken owners experience. These are what most new bird owners mess up their first time out.
- Feeders: Birds love to throw feed everywhere. Avoid wasting all your expensive feed by setting the lip of your feeder’s trough at the level of the shortest bird’s back. If there is a huge difference between your shortest birds and largest birds, I find putting a brick or some sort of step next to the feeder allows short birds to reach a trough too high to reach.
- Water: If you use the open trough type you a) need to read my articles on nipple watering valves and b) know just how disgusting these water troughs can get. To avoid manure and shavings from contaminating the water quite as readily, position the lip at the same height you would set a feeder at: the level of the shortest bird’s back. If you use a nipple valve dispenser a) good for you and b) be sure the shortest bird in your flock just barely needs to stretch to hit the valve. If you see birds jumping for the valve then it’s too high and if the short birds are stooping to find the valve then it’s too low. Have multiple dispensers at different heights if the heights of your flock vary widely.
- Bedding: Never use straw, hay, shredded paper, pelleted bedding, wood chips (not to be confused with wood shavings) or cedar chips. Straw, hay and paper get wet and hold moisture easily. This creates a mess and gives bacteria, mould and fungi places to thrive and incubate. Pelleted bedding works in theory, but in practice it has a big downfall: it looks like chicken feed! In the interest of your bird’s health, don’t use pellet bedding. Wood chips like all the free chunks of wood the local tree service is happy to dispose of, is too thick and wet for use as bedding. The result of using wood chips are about the same as straw and hay. Cedar bedding tends to be rather pungent and can overwhelm your chickens especially when it’s fresh. Always use pine shavings for it’s ability to absorb and release moisture readily. This includes nest boxes! Many people also use way too little shavings when they line the floor of their coop or nest boxes. When you do this the bedding spoils quickly and continual cleaning is required to keep it liveable for your birds. Be sure to see my article on the deep litter method.
- Nests: Chickens share pretty well. Commercially speaking the usual ratio is 10 hens per nest box, but if you have a small flock under 10 birds then 2 boxes will work well in case there’s an obstinate hen in one of them. If the birds have too many options they usually pick one or two nests and abandon the rest or worse; roost in the other boxes and make a mess of them.
- Feeding: If your birds are free range by day and locked up by night, then I highly recommend keeping your feeder outside and away from the coop. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? I use a range feeder for outside feeding to protect the feed from weather and it works well. I also keep feed outside because predators (especially raccoons) are drawn to the grain. If they find the feeder they’ll eat their fill and walk away instead of focusing their energy on breaking in to your coop and extracting the feed from your bird’s crop. Most predators are opportunistic and prefer the path of least resistance, so give them a free lunch and protect your birds. *A note on rats and mice: they will find a way into your coop if the feed is there, so it’s irrelevant to argue that it encourages the pest populous.
- Energy levels: OK, don’t think I’m going all feng shui on you and hear me out. Different breeds and different blood lines have what I call energy levels. It’s not something I can really quantify, but it’s obvious once you witness it. The most common issue I see is the mixing of commercial reds and easter-eggers AKA Ameraucanas. The Ameraucanas are a very low energy and passive breed and the commercial reds are a very high energy and aggressive breed. Mix the two together and it’s carnage. The Reds tend to aggress the lower energy birds to the point of starvation, injury or death. It’s not a pretty situation, so be real careful mixing aggressive and passive birds.
- Light: Birds depend on day light to tell their body what to do. You would be absolutely amazed what light can do to a flock of birds. I suggest using a bulb of about 40 to 60 watts or an equivalent CFL or LED in the coop. Be sure this bulb is on a timer (I like and recommend the outdoor type you can find in the big box stores, usually used for holiday lights and such) and keep their day length at around 16 hours. If you don’t give them light they usually all but quit laying for the winter and moulting can be irregular and sporadic. Avoid the aggravation and install one for all-year use.* *A note on CFL bulbs; they do not operate well in cold weather. Summer use of these are fine, but use an LED that will operate in cold weather or a good old incandescent during the winter.**
- Roosts: If there are roost bars (of which there should be), most people use flimsy dowel rod. I hate these because they warp, bend, crack and break under the weight of the birds. Use 2×4’s as roosts; the chickens don’t care if they are curved or not. Treating them with a sealer or paint is a good idea to close up the pores of the wood to deter roost mites from moving in. Don’t use plastic pipes and especially don’t use metal! These materials will conduct heat away from your bird’s body and chill them.
- Predators: Almost all first timer’s have to learn the hard way before they predator proof their coops. A hole the size of a quarter is enough to reach a paw in. If they can reach in they can (and likely will) kill your birds. Gaps, holes, windows and doorways need to be covered, well secured and predator resistant. FYI: Chicken wire keeps chickens in, it seldom keeps predators out! Be sure to use 1/2 inch hardware wire/ cloth instead of chicken wire when you can. Also be sure you have a good tight latch that requires some effort to open; you would be surprised what a raccoon can figure out.
- Storage: Really folks? Plastic cans? I see it all the time, and these plastic cans are always chewed open. Use a steel trash can or even better: a steel 30 or 55 gallon drum. If you use a plastic container I guarantee that rodents will see to it that it becomes compromised. Your feed will be contaminated and spoiled if you don’t secure it.
This is just a quick handful of things I see as common issues facing the new bird owner. This list is neither perfect nor is it exhaustive. Want to add to this list, or have a question about it? Add your comment below and start the conversation!