Thinking about bringing home some chickens? You aren’t alone: Keeping chickens in the backyard has been a trend for several years now. In fact, nearly 1 percent of U.S. households keep chickens, according to the LA Times. That number that is expected to grow by 400 percent by 2019 too.
While people keep backyard chickens for a number of reasons, mostly for eggs, a 2014 study in Poultry Science found 57 percent of chickens are kept as pets. They make great companions too; those who have chickens love their personalities, their beautiful colors and the fact that they’re so low maintenance. The fact that they provide free eggs ends up just being a perk.
Healthy Chickens Are Crucial
As with any pet, how to keep chickens healthy is something any new owner is concerned about. Chickens have different health requirements than other pet birds, and they also must be kept healthy, if you plan to eat their eggs. Good health is important to keep the public safe as well; as the magazine American Veterinarian writes on their website, “Backyard flocks can be a public health hazard by harboring or spreading dangerous pathogens like Salmonella to naive caretakers or creating larger health hazards by establishing pockets of infectious disease that could affect the food supply.”
So how do you keep you and your chickens safe and healthy? Here are three things you need to know:
1. They Need Veterinary Care
As Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice), owner of the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics in Bedford Hills, N.Y. points out, you can’t just throw chickens in the backyard and hope for the best. Not only could the chickens suffer from that, if you eat their eggs, you are putting your health at risk too.
“If you look at the poultry industry, those animals are carefully regulated so eggs are safe to eat,” Dr. Hess explained. “Most people don’t even have their chicken checked to see if they have parasites, which could be transferred to people through their eggs.”
In fact, as Hess explains, parasite control is a big thing for chickens. “People need to rotate the land the chickens graze on, so the chickens don’t poop parasite eggs into the soil and then eat them when they hatch,” she said. “If you can’t move the land they’re on, every spring scoop up the top few inches of soil so it’s free of parasite dropping.”
2. Chickens Require Different Nutrition At Different Ages
Chickens have three major life stages, and each stage has different nutritional requirements, Hess said.
“When chickens are young, they are known as growers. When they are sexually mature, and they are laying [eggs], they’re called ‘layers,’” she explained. “When they’re growing, they need a lot more protein in their diet. If they’re laying eggs, they need a lot more calcium because they’re making a lot of eggshells.”
That means providing your chickens with a diet that has the proper nutrition needed for each of their life stages. Providing scratch or letting chickens forage in your backyard won’t be enough, either; chickens need a formulated pellet diet that is nutritionally complete for their age.
So how do you know what life stage your chicken is at, and what diet they need? Young chickens need a diet that contains as much as 20 percent protein to ensure they grow healthy and hardy. Once they start reaching sexual maturity around 6 months of age, they then need to be switched to a diet that has around 16 to 18 percent protein. At this stage, they’ll need more calcium for egg laying, which must either be provided in the diet itself or supplemented using grit or oyster shells.
Luckily, many commercial feeds are labeled to tell you what life stage of the chicken they are for. For chicks, look for feeds labeled “starter,” “chick” or “pullet.” For laying hens, look for feed that’s labeled for layers. Don’t be swayed by fancy ingredients in the feed. “Not all the pelleted diets are equal. Just because one is labeled ‘organic,’ doesn’t make it better,” Hess said.
Like all birds, chickens need access to fresh, clean water, too. Their feed can be supplement with scratch, vegetables and foraging for insects too. Check with your veterinarian about the best diet and supplements to provide your birds.
3. Chickens Need Light, Whether It’s Sunlight or Full-Spectrum Light
Chickens need a lot of calcium to lay eggs, and they need the ability to properly absorb said calcium in their bodies too. That means chickens needs vitamin D to help with that, and the easiest way to provide that is by natural or full-spectrum light. Like us, chickens make vitamin D3, or cholecalciferol, naturally in their bodies when they are exposed to the ultraviolet (UV) rays, specifically UVB rays. The most abundant source of UVB rays is sunlight and full-spectrum lights.
For many people, ensuring their chickens get plenty of time in the sun is no problem. The problem is for people who might live in areas where it gets too cold to keep chickens outside for months at a time. Chickens kept indoors during the winter should have access to a full-spectrum light then, so they’re still continuing to make the vitamin D they need, Hess said. (Note: Glass filters out UVB, so even if your chickens are by the windows, they’re not getting what they need.)
If they aren’t producing enough vitamin D, chickens can start to have a lot of reproductive problems. It can lead to chickens becoming egg bound, a sometimes fatal occurrence where an egg becomes stuck inside them and they have difficulty passing it. Some chickens might not have enough calcium in them to even from eggshells at all, and end up with yolk stuck inside them too.
Issues like that can easily be avoided with proper nutrition and veterinary care, of course. By providing those very things, your chickens will live long, healthy lives and provide you years of companionship.
Don’t Forget: Vaccinate Your Chickens for Marek’s Disease
If you are looking to bring a flock of chickens home, they must be vaccinated for Marek’s disease. This disease is so contagious that Merck’s Veterinary Manual labels it as “one of the most ubiquitous avian infections.” In fact, it’s so ubiquitous, the manual writes, that “every flock, except for those maintained under strict pathogen-free conditions, is presumed to be infected.”
So what is Marek’s disease? It’s a virus that can cause paralysis in chickens mainly but also can cause tumors to grow on the bird’s internal organs. The virus can also suppress a bird’s immune system, making them susceptible to other illnesses and diseases.
As mentioned before, this disease is highly contagious and can linger in a flock. It is transmitted from bird to bird through dust and dander they produce, and once one has it, every member of the flock can soon have it. If you keep other types of birds, such as turkeys and ducks, it can jump from chickens over to them.
The easiest way to prevent this disease from infecting your flock is to ensure your chickens have been vaccinated. However, for the vaccine to be effective, it must be administered via the embryo, according to Merck Veterinary Manual. That means you should get chickens from reputable sources that can prove they vaccinated their eggs for this disease.
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