Readers’ Top 10 Backyard Chicken Questions Answered

Having homegrown eggs and feathery pets is great, but live birds aren’t always easy to keep. We gathered a few of your more interesting queries sent over email and through Facebook and asked an expert to weigh in.

February 26, 2016
baby chicks
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Owning a flock of backyard chickens is fun and rewarding. You have fresh eggs every morning and some beautiful (and friendly!) companions. Still, occasionally things go wrong, like The Sickening Side Effect Of Cuddling Cute Chicks, and your local vet may not have all the answers. That’s why we gathered a few of your questions from emails and Facebook and then asked Dr. Jacquie Jacob, a poultry specialist at the University of Kentucky Extension, to troubleshoot. 

How can you tell a day-old rooster from the pullets? Is it true that they’re usually smaller? — Judy Biller

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Not true, says Jacob. Sexing young birds is actually a complicated process that requires quite a bit of know-how. You can read Jacob’s article on the process here.

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Is there really any reason a chicken needs to wear a sweater? How else can I keep my chickens warm? —Heather Cohen

“The sweaters are more of a fashion statement. You don’t need sweaters unless your chicken has gone through a molt and for some reason has not replaced the feathers,” Jacob explains. Otherwise, the most important thing you can do is keep your coop dry and out of the wind. 

Related: When Did Backyard Chickens Start Dressing Like L.L.Bean Models?

“Chickens can stand very low temperatures as long as they’re protected from the elements and you keep their water from freezing,” she says. That means you either have to change the water frequently, or get a heated pet bowl, but those usually require electricity, which some coops may not have. Jacob also cautions against using heat lamps in coops, which can cause fires. 

What does it mean if my chicken is sneezing? — Tim Kirkhoff

“It could have a respiratory infection, or it may just be very dusty, and that’s irritating the respiratory system,” says Jacob “Respiratory infections are viral, carried by wild birds, and there aren’t any antiviral medications for poultry, so usually you just have to wait it out. Sometimes flocks may be given an antibiotic to keep them from contracting something else in the meantime.” 

 

Why have my chickens temporarily stopped laying eggs? — Jamielee Barrett

It’s probably a nutrient deficiency. “The main issue I see with nutrition is mixing a complete layer feed with cracked corn or scratch grains,” says Jacob. “These are grain supplements that simply add energy to the diet.” Jacob says. 

She explains that since chickens eat to meet their energy requirement, they will eat less of the layer feed when they have the high-energy input from the grains, meaning they’re not getting the nutrients they need. “It’s like feeding your kids French fries instead of vegetables,” she says. “Chickens love the corn, but it’s not nutritious.” 

But if changing the feed doesn’t help, don’t panic. Jacob says hens are sensitive to the number of hours of light per day and may stop laying when daylight decreases. Or sometimes they just need a rest. 

Can a rooster be made friendly once it has started jumping at my shins? He’s a beautiful, 2-year-old silver-laced Wyandotte that gets along very well with my hens. The flock is free-range on two acres surrounding our house. He has been chasing and jumping at me the past three months most of the time, even though I am calm, gentle, and talk softly to him. I like him and don’t want to get rid of him. — Rosa Wright

Taming a violent rooster can be a hard job, Jacob says. First, you have to figure out why he began acting aggressively. “It could be that he feels he has to defend himself against you, or he may see you as a threat to his hens,” she says. 

 

You have two choices: Convince the rooster that you’re not a threat, or make it clear who the boss is. “You shouldn’t back down from a fight, but it’s very difficult to change learned behavior in a rooster.” 

Related: Owning A Chicken: Expectations Versus Reality

How much floor space is needed in a coop per chicken — Willie Mounce

“It can vary depending on the type of housing, the breed, and how much room you want to give them,” Jacob says. “One square foot per bird is the absolute minimum, but bigger birds may need two.” 

Why are my hens laying eggs without shells, only membranes? — Jennifer Watkins

Jacob says there are two possible reasons for this. “If it is a problem for the whole flock, it is probably a nutritional deficiency or imbalance—particularly with regard to vitamin D, phosphorus, and especially calcium. If it only happens now and then for an individual chicken, it could be the equivalent of a premature birth—the chicken may have been startled and laid an egg prematurely.” In instances of a flock-wide nutritional deficiency, feed your hens a complete layer feed, and mix in crushed oyster shells for extra calcium. 

Should I be worried about avian flu for my small backyard flock? How do I know if my birds have contracted it? — Megan Hosie

“Yes, everyone should worry about avian flu. Proper biosecurity is always important,” Jacob says. If you have a backyard flock, she recommends giving up bird feeders and baths, which attract more wild birds to your yard. She also advises taking precaution when visiting someone else’s flock or allowing another bird owner into your coop. “You should always wash your hands and change clothing before coming into contact with a different flock so that you don’t transfer bacteria.” 

Related: Why Bird Flu Is Causing You To Spend More Money At Farmers' Markets

As for knowing if your birds have avian flu, Jacob says there are two types: low path and high path. “Your flock could have low path avian flu, and you wouldn’t even know,” she says. “During an outbreak, testers come door to door, and if your birds test positive for low path, they will terminate the birds because low path has a tendency to mutate into high path. If your birds have high path avian flu, you’ll know because they’d all be dead. A sudden spike in mortality is a pretty good indication that something is seriously wrong.” 

I’ve heard you can fix a chicken’s broken wing with superglue. Is that true? — Heather Cohen

Jacob says absolutely no superglue, but you still may be able to help. “If the wing is broken, you have to put it back in place and wrap it with a bandage in a figure-eight pattern,” she says. “Depending on which bone it is, you may need to wrap the wing against the body.” But if the break is so severe that the bone comes through the skin, the best thing you can do is have the bird put down, she adds. 

How long can you expect a hen to live after it stops laying for good, and how do you care for it when it’s no longer producing? — Cindy Friedhoff

“This can vary a lot by breed,” Jacob says. “Typically, hens will lay for about three years and may live for another three or four years after that. But the oldest recorded age for a chicken was twelve years.” 

As for what to do with non-layers, Jacob says you have two choices: eat it or continue to care for it along with the rest of your flock. “If you consider you hens pets, then you have to continue to care for them like any other pet. You’ve made a commitment.”

What other advice do you have for backyard flock owners?

“Chickens like perches, just like any other bird. A lot of people don’t think of that, but if you add perches to your coop, you’ll have happier birds and they may lay more.”

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