Curious about how to raise chickens at home and if it’s something you’d like to try? Diana Fijalkowski shares her experience and some tips for success.
In what seems like another lifetime, I found myself smack in the middle of Central America. I’ve always hated bugs, yet somehow I’d mistakenly thought the palmetto monsters of North Carolina had prepared me for the onslaught of multi-legged nightmares closer to the equator.
I was wrong.
Soon after arriving in Nicaragua, I was cleaning the house and walked through the hall to the front door to discover an eight-legged wooly beast approximately the size of my head parked in a corner, just waiting for the right moment to suck all of my blood. (Clearly I had watched too much Svengoolie as a child.) I stood, frozen, with a broom as my only defense. At that moment, my friend, a local, walked through the front door. She laughed and asked what I was doing. I pointed at the spider. She rolled her eyes and casually said, “Oh, that’s a horse killer.”
I asked if they were poisonous. She shrugged and responded, “Eh, mas or menos,” then proceeded to crush it with her sandaled foot. Mas or menos? More or less POISONOUS and she’d smooshed it with an almost bare foot?! She then looked at me and said, “Gallinas!” And that was it.
Gallinas. The solution was chickens.
My early days of raising chickens
I quickly built a ramshackle coop out of a wooden shipping container and a borrowed screen door from the house. I paid about five cordobas for two chicks, and my children named them Elvis and Bella.
Chicks are pretty fragile creatures. Sadly, Elvis only lived for about two weeks. We buried him in the backyard during a short, yet somber ceremony just before the school bus arrived. That afternoon, my daughter’s first-grade teacher called to let me know that Emily had been telling her classmates that “Elvis is buried in my backyard” and that she thought I should know. After I clarified which Elvis she was talking about, we laughed and laughed. Kids, right?
Just prior to Elvis’ untimely demise, the original duo was accompanied by a few more chicks, and after that, the numbers just kept climbing. At one point, we had 20 hens and two roosters protecting us from everything in sight—–snakes, spiders, lizards. Even a possum met the ugly end of my son’s rooster, Stretch, one night.
I swore by my feathered guardians and promised myself that I would have them again once I was finished moving around the world.
Raising chickens 2.0
A few years ago, my husband and I decided to build a home on four acres in semi-rural Virginia. I knew moving into a primarily wooded area meant I would be dealing with snakes, spiders, and ticks. He knew from the beginning what was coming. Chickens were going to be a necessity. Our builder even wrote a “Diana Clause” into our HOA agreement that allowed chickens because we weren’t buying the property unless we could raise them.
The first couple of years, we busied ourselves by planting gardens, painting rooms, finishing closets, and just settling into our new home. Eventually, I began looking at potential coop locations and adding cute coop plans to my Pinterest chicken board; all while waiting for the right time to come. In January 2020, I told him it was the “year of the chickens.” I wanted a few chicks to start, and I’m quite sure I told him about each one of my plans and hopes and dreams. Like any good husband, he nodded and mumbled “Yes, dear,” and went about his business.
I started Googling everything I could related to chickens. I was going to be the best chicken tender on Earth. They’d have the best organic feed, home-grown herbs for their bedding, and the cutest names. It was going to be great. I bought two books that became my favorite reads: How to Speak Chicken by Melissa Caughey and Fresh Eggs Daily by Lisa Steele. I dug out what would become a raised herb bed—who am I kidding, I made the kids dig it for me—specifically to grow herbs to aid in maintaining my flock’s health. Ahhh, preparation.
We’re friends with a farming couple who raise both egg and meat chickens as well as pigs, cows, horses, goats… you name it. Our husbands work together and she and I have known each other for years. She had messaged me religiously each spring to ask if I was ready for chickens, and when she contacted me in 2020, I finally said yes. We talked about breeds and I began my research. She was ordering chicks and I wanted in. Ten, please—even though my husband remembers thinking six was a good even number. Sorry, chum. I definitely NEEDED ten.
The coop of my dreams
As the months dragged on, the fertilized eggs arrived at their farm, and my friend incubated and hatched the little ones, nurturing them until they were ready to move to their at-that-time-imaginary and carefully appointed woodland home. During their hatching and brooding weeks, I’d occasionally remind my husband that I’d ordered chickens and that they needed a place to live. I sent him links for the coop I wanted. It was what I referred to as The Taj Mahal of chicken coops—”The Garden Loft”—and I had to have it. I purchased the plans online, downloaded them, and sent him the PDF file. I even printed them for him. Still, no movement.
The chicks were now about 13 weeks old. One day at work, another co-worker told my husband that he better get his chickens soon. My husband was confused, so he went to our farming friend’s office to figure out what was going on. Farming friend said, “Your wife bought chickens and it’s time for them to go.” Suddenly, reality hit. This was happening. He came home from work and said, “So, I hear we’re getting chickens?” as if he’d just heard it for the first time, although there had been several conversations about it. He asked how many. I sheepishly said, “10.” I won’t get into his response.
The next few days were an expensive blur of trips to the home improvement store, clearing a space in the woods, buying materials, and making modifications to the plans to fit our needs. My once-reluctant husband didn’t complain at all and instead got right to work, knocking it out of the park with the beautiful coop he built for our girls to call home in a week’s time.
Meet the ladies
The day before chicken pick-up day, my friend called and said she’d miscounted. If we took the originally agreed upon ten, then she’d have one left by herself. She asked if I’d mind taking 11 instead? Of course I needed 11 chickens! We drove to the farm to find all of our girls packed comfortably into a large dog crate. My husband tethered the crate to the back of the pickup while I fretted that the wind would bother them and asked “…can’t they please ride inside with us?” That didn’t go over particularly well.
We somehow managed the 45’ish minute trip back home. We took the chickens directly to the coop, but they refused to come out of the crate, so he not-so-delicately extracted them one by one. They ran around and flapped about but quickly settled into their new home. That day, we welcomed 14-week-old Teriyaki, Lucy, Ricki, Darleen, Chickaletta, Lady Cluck, Caroline, Josephine, Henny, Mrs. Pecks, and Cruella to the family.
At that age, pullets have long grown out of their cute fuzzy chick stage and they’re gawky and awkward and even a little ugly. Teenage chickens. Because we hadn’t hand-raised them since hatching, they were afraid of us and were not very cuddly. In fact, they didn’t let us hold them at all. I imagined I’d win them over one day and we’d become best friends. (I’m still waiting for that.) The first night, we spent over an hour catching them, one by one, to throw them through the door into the protected coop where they could safely roost for the night.
Keeping the ladies safe
The first nights were nerve-wracking for me. To allay my fears, my husband installed motion sensor lights, Ring security cameras at the front and the back of the coop, and trail cams in the woods—because we knew we had predators like possum, raccoons, fox, and bear and I was convinced we were going to wake up to carnage every day. I could barely sleep, and when I did, I’d wake up every hour, grabbing my phone to watch the live camera or peeping out the window into the darkness, straining to hear any clucks of distress.
In time, I relaxed, knowing that my pullets were safely tucked in each night.
After about three weeks in the coop, the girls were 17 weeks old, and some seemed to start to think about laying. A couple would haunt the nesting boxes; the others would ignore them. Because they were now comfortable in their coop and run, I slowly began to free-range the chickens under close watch. They loved picking through the grass, eating the clover, demolishing every bug they could find. I was sure that soon we would be tick-free! The girls would save me. They happily ate the wild berries and pecked around my flower beds.
Both they and I became braver each day, and I eventually started letting them free-range unsupervised (even though I looked out the window every 3 minutes). They began moving into unauthorized territories, one of those being our neighbor’s garage. One day I got a text saying, “I’m sorry, please come get your chicken. She won’t leave our garage!” They’d chased Chickaletta out several times, but she kept going back. The three of us followed her in and out of the garage before deciding to wait and see what she was doing. This little hen crawled under a dusty shelving unit far behind a large toolbox. I waited for her to settle in, we moved some things around to get to her, I snatched her up, and that’s when we saw it. Our first EGG!
Chickaletta was not happy with me, so I took her and her precious egg back to the nesting box and grounded her until she figured things out.
Teriyaki is a Buff Orpington. She’s a beautiful tawny buff color and is pretty quiet and shy. My husband named her.
Caroline and Josephine are Easter Eggers. I had no idea this breed even existed, but I soon learned that they lay the most gorgeous blue/green eggs. They look nothing alike. Josephine—she’s my favorite, don’t tell the others—is small and black and brown with gorgeous amber highlights in her feathers. She’s quiet and sweet, and toward the bottom of the pecking order.
Caroline, well, she’s a bully. She’s very showy with her golden and white feathers and her poofy cheeks that look like ridiculous mutton chop sideburns. She tends to peck at the others. Her only saving grace is those beautiful eggs, and she didn’t lay those for a long darn time.
We’ve got three Barred Plymouth Rocks named Lucy, Ricki, and Cruella. They’re probably the least smart, but they’ve become excellent layers and get along well with everyone. Darleen, Chickaletta, Lady Cluck, Henny, and Mrs. Pecks are our Black Sex Links. Darleen is all black. The others have reddish-brown and auburn in them, and Lady Cluck has a gorgeous auburn hood. They’re incredible diggers, strong layers, get along with the others, and are the most talkative of the original eleven.
My farm friend and I frequently message one another, and one day, she mentioned ordering some new breeds. I figured the husband and I were professionals by now, having kept our flock alive for two whole months, so I ordered a Silver Laced Wyandotte, two Speckled Sussex, and a Golden Comet. My husband was not even a little bit excited when I informed him that we were adding four more to the flock, but he went along with my crazy plan. My chicken addiction was confirmed. Once again, our friend hatched and raised the chicks until they were ready to come home, this time at about ten weeks. We picked Cookie, Belle, Chalupa, and Wynonna up in a little cardboard box. I had hoped they would be young enough to imprint on me and let me love them, but they were terrified. Still, I had hope.
This is important: If you have an existing flock, it’s a very bad idea to integrate new birds into it without taking proper precautions. Thankfully, due to insight from friends and Google, our new chicks survived their introductions. Integrating new birds (especially younger ones) is very labor-intensive. We kept them in a small cat carrier inside a large dog crate inside the enclosed run initially so that the larger girls would get used to them. At night, we’d put them into the cat carrier and move them to the inside of the coop. In the mornings, we’d move them back down and let them run around in the dog crate.
This went on for weeks, and then we decided—after I freaked out and asked everyone that I knew if it was ok—it was time. The dog crate was opened. They slowly began to try to live side by side with the older hens. Caroline was the worst—she’d peck them if they tried to eat or drink near her and would chase them away. After a rough couple of days, they became one big happy flock.
Chicken Daddy and Mommy
The man who initially didn’t want chickens quickly became Chicken Daddy. He’d go to the feed store for tractor parts or chicken feed and come back with treats or new ideas for entertaining them. He’s the best at getting them into the coop in the evenings, and he’ll never admit it, but he really likes having chickens. I’m pretty much just the crazy food lady who sings to them. Darleen especially likes her name sung to the tune of “Jolene.”
We’ve found that watching the chickens is ridiculously relaxing. There are days when we’ll sit on the hill and just watch them peck and run and play. We hung a raggedy lawn chair on the back of the coop so we can sit inside the jail yard with them; the more curious girls will interact with me. I could sit with them for hours—it’s therapeutic, really.
How many eggs a day can chickens lay?
Last year, once they hit their stride in late summer, the ladies were producing 10 eggs a day. Combined with the additional four hens, it’s not uncommon for us to get 14 eggs a day now. The eggs come in lovely shades of beiges and browns and turquoise-y greenish blue.
What I did not know about eggs before raising my own chickens is that as a hen lays an egg, it gets wrapped in a micro-membrane called a “bloom.” The bloom is a protectant designed to keep potential baby chicks clean, dry, and safe. Eggshells are porous, and removing the bloom gives bacteria and other nasty things an opportunity to get through the tiny crevasses in the shell. So as gross as it seems, it’s best to ignore the feathers and bits of chicken poop until you’re ready to use the eggs. Believe it or not, if the bloom is intact (the eggs are not washed), fresh eggs will be good for two weeks at room temperature and up to 3 months if refrigerated. We always have so many eggs. Baskets of eggs. We easily gather seven to eight dozen a week. I sell some, give some to neighbors, we both take them to work, and, of course, we eat them. Well, I do.
There’s nothing like a farm-fresh egg, with its bright yellow-orange, custardy yolk. They make the most amazing omelets, scrambled eggs and quiches. They’re delicious. I should probably mention that now that our four kids have “flown the coop,” I am the only one in our house who eats eggs. And yes, I still need 15 chickens. They complete me. Come to think of it, I might need a couple more.
How to know if raising chickens is right for you
If you’re considering raising chickens, there are certain things you should be aware of. You might become obsessed. Every one of your friends might start to send you all of the chicken-related jokes and memes on the internet. If your neighbors are as awesome as ours are, a chick-nic table may appear on your front porch. Your birthday and Christmas gifts will likely have chickens in them or on them. You might put up a chicken-themed Christmas tree. And finally, the produce column of your grocery list may grow because you’ve discovered: that your flock loves watermelon and pumpkin, that hanging a head of cabbage in the run provides hours of entertainment as they play tetherball, and that radish, turnip, and beet greens are their most favorite treats ever.
Most of all, you will come to understand that the “myth” of chicken math is real. You will think you want four chickens, but the babies are cute, so you order six. And they grow, and there are other breeds, so what’s two more? And then three more? It’s a scientific phenomenon. Also, you may be tempted to sneak new birds past your spouse. He or she may or may not notice. May the odds be ever in your favor.
Getting to know your chickens
Now that all of our hens are a year old, some of their personalities have really come out. Cookie and Belle, the Speckled Sussex, are skittish but so curious. If I have anything in my hand, they dance around my feet waiting for me to show them what it is or to give them a treat. If I’m sitting in my raggedy lawn chair with them, they’re the two that will forage perilously close to me just to see what I am doing.
Chalupa (I call her Lulu most of the time) is the one who runs into the coop when I’m collecting eggs. She’s inquisitive and chatty. We have the best conversations through those nesting boxes, me on one side and her on the other, and she does a great job keeping an eye on me. She also has to be the first one to walk on and dig into any fresh bedding.
Lady Cluck was the boss, but I think she’s stepped down, and Wynonna has taken her place. They really don’t tell me much about their social structure. Quiet types. And Josephine is still my favorite. I don’t know why.
Keeping chickens safe
As the ladies grew, we continued to free-range a couple of hours a day, and I thought we were being super vigilant. But animals don’t generally follow rules, and I learned some fascinating lessons about attempting to predict nature:
- Crows can be a chicken’s best friend. They will call out if there’s a predator approaching—especially a hawk. Chickens somehow know this and will run back to their coop if a crow caws.
- Foxes don’t hunt only at night. They will come at any time of day from deep in the woods, where the crows can’t see them.
Our first attack came around 5 pm on a Tuesday. I was inside making dinner and happened to look out a window when I saw the chickens suddenly running and flying up the hill towards the house and scatter. I saw a chestnut blur and knew.
I ran outside to the deck, screamed as loud as I could and scared the fox, who thankfully abandoned his mission. Mrs. Pecks had taken a direct hit to her tail, losing most of her feathers in her efforts to escape. They were all shaken, but my husband and I managed to get them back into the coop safely. We did a headcount, locked them up, and adjusted our protection efforts.
There was no free-ranging for a while. We had considered clipping their wings before this event but the only reason Mrs. Pecks survived the initial strike was that she was partially airborne. If she’d been on the ground… I shudder to think about having to watch that fox drag my poor girl into the woods.
We continued to see the fox and his friends on the camera for a few days following the attack and did our best to deter them. After a couple of fox-free weeks, I decided it was time to give the free-ranging another try. I stayed outside with them for about an hour as they shuffled around the leaves in the woods, guiding them into the yard. Inevitably, after I went inside, they’d start to roam back toward the woods.
One day, I heard the panicked squawking and saw that familiar auburn streak. Again, I ran outside and screamed. This was the last time. The worst time. It was only 1 pm. There were feathers everywhere. My son helped me collect the hens we could find, but only 14 came back. One was lost. Darleen.
We locked the others up and continued our search for her—even just parts of her—but there was nothing aside from her feathers. So many feathers. The search went on for an hour before we decided it was in vain. We walked back, only to find a trembling little black hen hiding, terrified, under the lowest leaves of a poplar tree near the coop. I cried, grateful but sad because I’d let them all down. Her tail feathers were entirely gone and there was a messy gash near the top of her tail. She was in shock and she wouldn’t let us near her. She seemed okay, but I was convinced she was a goner. We kept an eye on her for days. She never let on that she was in pain; never acted sick. She kept eating and laying and eventually recovered completely. She earned her full name that day: Darleen, the Miracle Chicken.
Following the second attack (and the anxiety that came with it), my husband built the girls a large, protected, fenced-in area that we lovingly call the Jail Yard. We have a lot of tree cover near the coop, and he used goat fencing between green steel farm fence posts and the trees to enclose the area. After a few hens decided to fly over the fence (because the grass is definitely greener), he added poultry netting, preventing escapees with death wishes from getting out and random wild birds from getting in. They now spend their days safely digging, taking dirt baths, and chasing squirrels. The ticks and spiders? They’re still after me.
Chickens and other forces of nature
While I wouldn’t trust just any dog to be around chickens, we’re fortunate to have an old guy who can’t be bothered with chasing birds. He was curious about them at first, but instead has since developed a taste for whatever is on the chick-nic table or on the ground. Dogs are pretty gross. He visits the girls with us each morning and evening and gets upset if we forget him. The girls don’t get excited about him being there, but he doesn’t mind. If he lies down, Wynonna will get very brave and walk pretty close to him.
Many a night was spent scouring Pinterest, chicken-related Facebook pages, and Google in hopes of perfectly preparing the flock for winter. In central VA, the temperature rarely drops to single digits, but we do get hard freezes, and with the leaves gone from the trees, we knew we had to protect them from the cold winter wind. We wrapped the entire open area of the coop with thick plastic sheeting, leaving enough space at the top for adequate ventilation. (Wrapping too completely can create a buildup of ammonia fumes that will kill the chickens.)
Another lesson we learned last year was that the watering system that Chicken Daddy developed, while absolutely genius, needed some sort of heating element. The PVC pipe exploded during our first hard freeze, emptying the contents of their water barrel into the run. Four our second winter with chickens, he came up with a crafty watering system with a heating element so that we didn’t have to schlep buckets of water down that icy clucking hill to the girls each morning.
What to do with a broody hen
The latest news from the coop is that Josephine has gone broody. Darleen was broody shortly after her attack, but we weren’t ready. I decided (and Chicken Daddy rolled his eyes) to let Josephine be our first real live chicken mama. Once that was settled, we snuck out to the coop after dark, pulled a sleeping chicken from her nesting box, and placed her in a cat carrier on two unfertilized eggs, in isolation. She’s still my favorite, but her hormones are raging. She’s been a little mean and just needs some time alone.
We don’t have a rooster (that’s where the HOA drew the line), so I spent two days emailing, messaging, and calling every farm and chicken-related page in the state trying to locate one or two fertilized eggs for her to incubate. One farm responded that she only had Brahmas and “collector” birds (pinkies up), another required me to purchase a dozen, yet another was so wonderful and helpful but also located two hours away. I even considered pulling into the driveways of complete strangers (if they had chickens in their yard) and asking if they had any fertilized eggs, but decided against it. Finally, I realized I had the best source of all right down the road—and I messaged the sweetest little Farmer’s Market in Sumerduck, VA. The owners of The Green Thumb responded immediately, announced they were happy to help, and were so excited for Josephine and me. We made arrangements for a morning pickup the following day.
When I arrived at the farm, the two fertilized eggs I had requested were accompanied by eight others. “They won’t all hatch,” I was told. Chicken Daddy believed it, too. Exactly twenty-one days later, the tell-tale peeps could be heard as we approached the coop. Babies! At first, there were the two we’d expected. Then there were five, and others were still hatching. By day twenty-two, we had nine new chicks and one proud, but visibly overwhelmed mama hen. All but one of the eggs hatched – and ridiculousness ensued, but that’s a story for another day.
Would I raise chickens if I had to do it over again?
In case you’re wondering, I have no regrets. I’m so happy we were able to finally make this happen. Yes, it’s a bit of work, but I find it rewarding. It’s relaxing and soul-soothing.
I can’t tell you if my husband would say the same thing. He’s put far more blood and sweat into the projects than I have. I’m really just good for ideas and decorating. He’s the muscle. But I think he secretly likes all of his feathered girlfriends. They certainly love him. He and I spend far more together-time at Tractor Supply Co. We’re there at least once a week (date night!) for feed or bedding, and my husband never leaves the store without suet or some sort of treat for these chickens he never wanted. If it’s Chick Days, he knows that the second I hear those chicks a-peeping, I’m about to lose my mind and want to buy more, but then Chicken Daddy says no.
This is our life now. We’re the weird chicken people down the street. Oh, and the organic, all-natural, new chicken mommy mindset went out the window after about three months. While we’re trying to keep things as natural as possible, and I AM growing herbs for them, my girls just don’t appreciate the effort. They like dead frogs and gross things, and just trample over and poop on the lovingly tended lavender, artemisia, and carefully plucked marigold petals I give them. Rude.
Looking back, it’s been a year of learning, discovering, and slowing things down. While the pandemic was devastating in so many ways, it also allowed us time to create this whole other piece of ourselves we didn’t know we needed. In the last 15 months we learned: how to care for our chickens in any weather, that hardware cloth is sharp (he has the scars to prove it!), which plants are poisonous or beneficial, how water flows through our yard, we witnessed the nature and determination of predators, and so much more. But I think the most valuable lesson we learned this past year was just how much we ALL need to take a deep breath and sit down with the dang chickens now and then.
Originally published April 3, 2022