Friday, August 24, 2012

Our backyard chickens from hatchlings to our first egg!

So far we've adopted two clutches of chickens, this post is mostly about our first clutch as a sort of "how-to" for anyone interested in joining the backyard chicken movement.

After doing a lot of research on backyard chickens we decided we could be a good chicken family and we adopted three baby day-old hatchlings all sexed to be girls. 

Aren't they cute? They're being held by my two sons. We chose Buff Orpingtons because they are a very large breed which I hoped would deter hawks from attacking them (so far it's worked!) and also because they're very winter-hardy and our winters can get down to -20F!


For the first week we raised them in a brooding box that my husband made by purchasing a large storage container, cutting an opening in the lid, and covering the opening with 1/2 inch hardware cloth. We placed this brooding box in our guest bathroom with a heat lamp, and you can see a thermometer at the top of the box so we could frequently check the temperature to make sure they were comfortable. Also, you may notice on the left side of the box we put some decorative stones in the waterer, this is because baby chicks will sometimes fall asleep while drinking and drown themselves, the rocks protect them from this.

We wanted the chicks to imprint on us so we all picked them up frequently and and talked with them.

Although none of the literature says to take them outside and play with them, we felt it was a good idea for the healthy development of any baby animal. Of course we were doting "mother hens" and kept them close and kept them safe.

After the first week they out grew the brooding box so we kept them in the bathtub, sorry I don't have a photo of that.

Our oldest son was the chick's primary caretaker while my husband built the chicken tractor (a moveable chicken coop) that we designed ourselves, and my youngest son and I painted it. When the chicks were three weeks old it was time to move in! A lot of books say you should keep them in a brooding box for a couple of months, but we didn't see why? The weather outside was warm enough, and they were growing large quickly! Here's the chicken tractor:

The overall length (not including the handles) is ten feet with a six foot run and four foot long hen house. It's three feet wide, originally I wanted it to be four feet wide but I realized that it needed to fit through the garden gate and I had to allow for the wheels. The handles are rounded for comfort while picking it up and moving it, we put a window in the hen house for light and air, and a piece of metal on the roofline to rain proof it. The sides of the run are 1/4 inch hardware cloth to defend against the neighborhood raccoons. Indeed they can't get their claws into the 1/4 openings well enough to rip up the hardware cloth and get inside, we used to find damage in the morning and we would quickly repair it, but we haven't noticed any new damage in well over a year so the raccoons must have given up. 

The bottom of the run has 1/2 inch hardware cloth, you can see how the grass sticks up through it for the chicks to eat. You can also see that we built a wind block in the entrance of the hen house to keep them comfortable in the winter cold, and up top there's a small vent hole that's covered with metal to keep it rain proof.

This is inside the hen house with the back door removed.

The ladder was only needed while the chicks were little, now that they're full grown they don't need it so we removed it. The nesting boxes turned out to be too small for our large breed chickens, so we removed the center divider. Another addition to the hen house since I took this photo is a radio thermometer so in the winter we can monitor the temperature in the hen house from the comfort of our kitchen! More on winterizing the chicken tractor later.

We have two cats and people frequently ask if chickens and cats get along? Yes! They do. The cats were amazingly not aggressive while the chickens were little chicks, they only seemed aggressive when the chicks were "songbird size", so I applied a technique I've seen Cesar Millan do on dogs figuring it would work on cats, and it did! I simply didn't allow the cats to "fixate" on the chickens, and I praised them for "calm submissive" behavior. You can see that Sparkie is fairly submissive here as she's been busted for napping in the hen house. 

As soon as we felt the chickens were too big for hawks to attack them we let them free range in most of our backyard during the day and we only keep them in the chicken tractor at night to protect them from raccoons and foxes. I did frequently see hawks circling our yard, and then sort of say "Nope" as they realized the chickens were too big and they glided away. 

Unfortunately, by now we realized that "Donna" was actually a boy, "Donald". Chick sexing in 90% accurate meaning that there's always a chance you'll get a boy instead of a girl. We live in a suburb so to keep the peace with the neighbors we decided we had to find a new home for Donald. I asked around the Farmer's Market to see if any of the farmers would take a rooster that had been hand raised by two young boys and who liked to sit on laps, and promise not to eat him? I found one! A farmer's neighbor needed another rooster and was intrigued by our friendly rooster. Here is Donald in his new home:

He lives with about two dozen hens, another rooster (the proper ratio is one rooster to a dozen hens) a few ducks and geese, and a young steer. The last we heard about Donald was about six months ago and he was still alive and well! So when we say that we took him to the country where he would have plenty of room to run around a crow, that's not a euphemism, we really did!


In November it was time to get the chicken tractor ready for the winter.

We moved the chicken tractor onto the vegetable for the winter, cuz it's close to the house and the chickens could "fertilize" the veggie bed all winter long. I placed a water heater blanket over the hen house, it didn't reach all the way to the ground so I used hay bales to fill the gaps. You can see that I covered most of the tractor with a clear plastic like you would use under a house with a sump pump. Not covering the whole run turned out to be a minor mistake, one which I haven't repeated in subsequent winters. Inside the hen house we hung a heat lamp, you can probably see the orange electrical cord under the snow?

I had some left over plastic so I made a play fort under our outdoor dinner table.


In December we had quite a good snow! You can see that it was a mistake to not cover the whole run, but they still look nice and cozy.

The black bowl in the run is rubberized and can withstand water freezing in it and then pouring hot water into it to melt the ice. I highly recommend buying one for the winter. Inside the hen house I found that if we keep the opening of the waterer  facing the heat lamp then it wouldn't freeze and the water could flow.

Francine doesn't mind the snow, as long as it isn't too deep.

Our cat, Casey, also likes to play in the snow. This has nothing to do with the chickens, but I can't post a picture of Sparkie and not of Casey!

Everyone was happy, but so far no eggs. The chickens hatched in late June so we figured their bodies were too busy putting on fat for the winter to produce eggs, and we would just have to wait until the weather warmed up in spring.

And then, right after the big Snow Day, our first egg!

Lois laid the first egg! This is Francine in the photo, Lois was busy clucking loudly about her accomplishment and Francine came into hen house to see what all the excitement was about, Francine laid her first egg the next day.


We waited until we had enough eggs to make a nice breakfast, blew the first two eggs to preserve the shells, and made a nice champagne brunch.


Unfortunately, Lois died a few months later after bug hunting in some peanut shells that had been dropped by the squirrels and a mycotoxin (toxic fungus) grew in the shells. Francine became ill, but we managed to nurse her back to health.  We adopted another small clutch of chicks who are their own story that I can tell later, but this is our flock today along with a tea towel that I had custom made with their likenesses embroidered on it for the egg collecting basket. The black and white hens are Kendra and Debbie who are Silver Laced Wyandottes, and that's Francine on the right.

I hope you enjoyed my post about our chickens! If there's anything about which you want more info please let me know I can blog about it in the future. If you're considering getting backyard chickens I highly encourage you to do a lot of research to make sure you can be a good chicken family, and then do it!  

Chickens are nice pets that also produce food you.



  1. Loved this! Congratulations on your flock and now your next generation. You've really done a beautiful job on caring for your fluffy butted friends.
    Sara M.

  2. Thank you! I follow you on Facebook, and I just followed you on "Networked Blogs", but I can't find the button to follow you here on Blogger/Blogspot. I'm new here. Where do I find the button? It's probably right in front of me and I can't see it. LOL!

  3. Good Morning an interesting post;)

  4. Thanks Baz!

    Oh, and I figured out how to follow BoiseBackyardChickens :-)

  5. This was great, I'm a city girl so this was beyond anything I know about. I really enjoyed it. Thanks.

  6. I'm glad you enjoyed my post! If you have even a small yard you might be able to have chickens? A lot of cities, like New York, have never enacted chicken ordinances.