Chickens will dig up part of their diet—insects, slugs and snails, sand, and seeds—but you must also provide them with chicken feed. "Chickens need a quality balanced diet that's 16 to 18 percent protein and made specifically for their needs," says Phillip J. Clauer, a Penn State poultry expert, who notes that there are special diets for young chicks, growing birds, and layers. As a treat, scatter scratch—a mixture of grains and seeds—into the run, as well as organic grass clippings and vegetable scraps.
Plenty of water is especially important for consistent laying, says Clauer. "If a laying chicken goes without water for more than 12 hours, it can go out of production for weeks." Special poultry waterers ensure that chickens always have access to fresh water.
Chickens also appreciate human interaction. "This is going to sound weird, but they become your friends," says Debbie Edwards-Anderson, who, with her husband, tends a flock of hens in Brooklyn. "When I get to my garden gate, I yell out, 'Hey, ladies,' and one will run back and get all the others and they crowd at the gate with all their 'awk, awk' greeting noises. They are really affectionate in their own strange way."
Although hens can lay as long as they live (8 to 10 years isn't uncommon), they start producing fewer eggs after 3 to 5 years. When egg production drops to one or two a week, chicken owners are forced to decide whether to keep the older hens as pets or use them for meat. Edwards-Anderson's husband, Greg, who grew up with hens in his hometown of Selma, Alabama, is not squeamish about turning their hens, Hattie, Onyx, and Mildred, into stew when the time comes. But he suspects his wife will have a problem. "This is her first farm-animal experience," he explains. "They're like my babies and I love them," she concurs.
Related: How To Build A Mobile Chicken Coop