Chickens, ducks, turkeys, care, misc.

How to care for baby chicks

Whether you picked them up as an impulse buy before Easter or carefully selected them from a poultry hatchery, if you have baby chicks you need to know the basics of how to care for them.  Those tiny yellow balls of fluff look pretty independent, eating and drinking and running around but they are still babies and there are some things they will need from you if you want them to grow into adult chickens.

A Home

A chick home is called a brooder.  Brooders are anything that keeps chicks warm and safe from harm.  A brooder should give each chick at least 6 square inches of floor space until they are a month old, when they need additional room.  It should be about 18 inches high.  Because you are going to add heat, a brooder should not be made of material that will easily catch fire from a heat lamp.

Some ideas for brooders are plastic or metal livestock drinking tanks, large aquariums, wooden boxes, metal wash tubs, wading pools and similar items.    You could partition off a corner of a shed, barn or garage with wood, metal or glass panels, or if you are careful, even heavy cardboard.   Don’t make the brooder too big, especially in the first week or so.    Brooders should have solid sides in all but the warmest weather to avoid drafts. 

The brooder should be located outside of the home.  Yes the kids love the chicks and you may want to check on them frequently but chicks should not be handled too often and chicks can carry diseases like salmonella.  The garage or basement may be fine for a week or two, but poultry keeping is best done outside the living quarters.  If nothing else the smell will soon convince you they need different living arrangements.

Your brooder will need to be near a source of electricity for the heat lamp and will need to be a dry location.  It should have a lid of mesh wire or be located where animals cannot get to the chicks.


Chicks must be kept warm.  If they get chilled they will stop eating and drinking and will peep shrilly and continuously until they die.  And chicks need to be kept warmer than most people heat their homes so just bringing them in the house won’t work.

Most people heat their brooder with a heat lamp.  It is a flood light type bulb with a metal reflector, (usually sold separately).  They are inexpensive and available at most hardware stores.  If the chicks are being kept in a heated space you may be able to use an incandescent 100 watt bulb with the reflector for a few chicks in a small brooder.  Florescent bulbs do not give off heat. 

Hang the heat lamp over one corner of the brooder.  Chicks need to be able to move away from the heat if they get too hot.    The lamp should be about 10 inches above the chicks back and it will need adjusting as they grow.  Heat lamps should not be suspended by the cord.   Most have clamps or a metal ring to suspend the lamp with a chain or wire.  Be very careful about fire when using a heat lamp.  Do not put them near things that will melt or ignite such as thin plastic tub walls or cardboard box walls.  If they have a wire guard keep it on.  Be careful not to splash water on a hot bulb.

The first week of their lives chicks need to be kept at 95 degrees and the temperature is lowered 5 degrees every week until it reaches room temperature or outside air temps.  When the weather is warm you may need to turn off the heat in the daytime but switch it back on at night.    Regulate the heat by raising or lowering the lamp or by using different wattages of heat lamp bulbs. 

Chicks can overheat too, and the brooder temperature must be watched carefully, using a thermometer is recommended.  Over 95 degrees is too hot.  The whole brooder doesn’t need to be above 70 degrees but a portion under the lamp area should be the proper temperature for the chicks age where the chicks can go if they feel cold.

If the warmth is right chicks will be spread out, eating, drinking and sleeping and will be fairly quiet.  If they are cold they will pile up on each other under the heat source and peep shrilly.  They will not eat much or drink.  If they are too warm they will be as far from the heat and each other as possible and may be panting, beak open and tiny wings held away from the body.  They may also be peeping.  They will die if the heat isn’t lowered.

The brooder floor needs to be covered with litter.  Do not use whole newspaper, it gets wet and slippery and the chicks develop bad legs.  Shredded newspaper could be used but the best litter is pine shavings.  Do not use sawdust, cedar shavings, chlorophyll shavings, or kitty litter.  These products can kill chicks.

The litter must be kept dry.  Moist areas need to be scraped up and removed, with new litter added.  If it’s dry the litter can be refreshed with an inch of clean shavings.

Feed and water

Next to warmth the right feed is very important.  Buy baby chick starter feed, do not use things like bread crumbs, bird seed and cereal.  Buy it when you buy the chicks.  Some places sell it by the pound for those with just a few chicks.  If you have what is known as broiler or meat chicks they must have feed with a protein content of 24%.  It will be on the label.  For all other chicks the protein content could be 20% but higher protein won’t harm them.

Chicks may slowly grow with homemade feeds but they often lag in development from properly fed chicks and are more prone to disease.  They may never develop into healthy adults.

You can buy medicated feed which helps prevent a common parasitic disease of chicks, coccidiosis.  It may get them off to a better start especially if they have been under stress from handling or transportation.  Medication to put in the water is also available but don’t use both. 

The feed should be there for the chicks all the time.  Use a chick feeder or a shallow narrow dish.  You want to keep the little feet out of the feed if you can. 

Clean water should be available for chicks at all times.  The best thing to give them water in is an inexpensive chick water container which is a shallow dish you screw on a jar.  You can also use a shallow dish with some marbles or rocks in it to keep chicks out of the water.  Keep litter cleaned out of the water dish.

Handling and other care

Children (or adults) should not handle chicks too often. Too often is more than once a day, which is hard to control for the first few days.  Chicks are not toys and too much handling usually results in dead chicks.  Being held tightly by little fingers usually results in great discomfort or death for chicks.  And a dropped or stepped on chick is also harmed. 

Because chicks carry several diseases that can make people ill, chicks should not be kissed or placed on the face. They should not be placed on surfaces where food is prepared or eaten.  Everyone who handles the chicks should immediately wash their hands.  Children under 6 should not clean chicken enclosures and should be watched to see that they clean their hands properly after handing chickens.

Handling chicks does not really tame them.  Chickens have a stage where they seem afraid of everything but if they are treated calmly and gently they will become much tamer and friendlier as adults.  Chickens are a pet that are better observed than handled. 

When they have feathers, at around a month old, baby chicks are ready to be put in bigger quarters and may even go out on the grass in an enclosure if it’s warm.  Since they are still easy pickings for predators and very naïve its best not to let them roam freely outside just yet. 

Around 6 weeks, if temperatures are above 50 degrees at night, start turning off the lights at night, except for a small night light, so chicks get used to a natural day and night sequence.  If it’s cold you’ll need to leave the heat lamp on of course.  If it’s quite warm at night, above 70 degrees, start earlier.

Chickens of many breeds are mature at 5-6 months.  If your chicks are roosters they will begin crowing and hens will begin laying around this time. 


Humane chicken keeping

There is a lot of controversy in the world today about the humane treatment of chickens and other poultry that are kept to provide us with eggs and meat.  Many people started keeping some hens for eggs or buying their eggs and meat locally in hopes of seeing that more chickens were being humanely raised.

There has been a lot of scientific research done in the last 10 years or so on animal welfare and what makes animals comfortable and happy while in our care.  While many back yard and small farm producers of eggs and meat think that they are providing more humane care for birds than commercial flock owners there are some things that many home flock owners might not do that could make their birds much more comfortable.

Humane amount of space and roosts

The first welfare consideration is the amount of space each bird has.  If your birds free range during the warm months they are probably quite content.  But in Michigan and other cold states free range in winter is not very comfortable for birds and most owners pen their birds up.  How much floor space do your birds have?  Each medium sized chicken should have a minimum of 44 square inches of floor space according to the new American and European standards for humane poultry keeping.  That’s about 2 feet square.  If you are keeping 4 chickens your coop floor should be 4 feet square or the equivalent, minimum. Turkeys need considerable more floor space, 4-5 square feet per bird.  Ducks and heavy chicken breeds need more space also.

Chicken housing needs to be at least 4 feet high because the standards for humane care say that chickens need a roost at least 30 inches off the ground.  On that roost they should be able to stand with their head up.  Roosts this high off the ground leave the floor space uncluttered and birds feel comfortable at night when roosting at this height although many birds would like even higher roosts.   Research at Queens University in Belfast, Ireland found that hens with perches at least 30 inches off the floor for roosting had less fear of humans and less feather picking amongst themselves, leading to calmer and more productive birds.   Each chicken needs about 6 inches of roost length.

You can see from this that the cute little chicken huts often sold for backyards are actually not that humane for keeping chickens.  They don’t have enough floor space and don’t have the height for proper roosts.  These may do when chickens only come inside at night if the roost problem can be worked out, but are not suitable for winter keeping of hens.  Portioning off a part of the garage or building a small shed to house the chickens might be a solution to this problem.  

People who already have a coop or shed need to check to see if the birds have enough space relative to their number if they are kept in the coop for long periods of time, such as in winter.  In the summer when birds can use an outside run or free range their inside space can be smaller.  Check the coop after the birds have roosted for the night to see if all birds have a place to roost comfortably off the floor and correct the roost placement and  number if not.

A few heavy birds will not roost off the ground.  Meat chickens kept for 10 weeks or so do not need roosts. Ducks, except Muscovy, roost on the ground.  Turkeys and Muscovy ducks need about a foot of perch length per bird.  

Number of nest boxes

Humane standards call for 1 nest box per 4 laying hens.  If you are breeding chickens or have turkeys, ducks or other poultry that are nesting, each female should have a nest box. Research has shown that waiting long periods to be able to lay in a box or fighting for box space leads to hens laying on the floor, breaking eggs, and much stress among hens.

If possible all nest boxes should be at the same height.  If the birds cannot walk under them comfortably then the nest box space cannot be counted in the minimum floor space requirements. 


There is much research going on about lighting poultry housing, amount of light, light color and light intensity.  Research has shown that birds need at least 10 hours of darkness or very dim light to be healthy and happy.  If you do not want maximum laying then they can have dark periods equivalent to the natural period for the season.  In the daytime birds need light strong enough that you could read a newspaper in the coop.  For maximum laying give hens 14 hours of bright light.

Here’s the big news on lighting humanely.  Birds need a gradual adjustment in light both to day and night.  When lights snap on and off birds are stressed.  They have no time to adjust to the change and could be left off perches when dark falls.  In nature birds wake up gradually as daylight comes and there is a smooth transition to day activities. At night they slow down and prepare for darkness gradually.  Birds who are subjected to quick wake ups and lights off have more behavior problems attributed to stress and this affects all aspects of their health and production.

Researchers suggest using dimmer switches that adjust the light gradually to lighter or darker conditions.  For small flocks it is easier and cheaper to have more than one light on inexpensive timers.  A dim light should come on first, about 30 minutes before the bright; the brighter light should also go out 30 minutes before the dim light.   If you leave a nightlight on as many flock owners do, it should be fairly dim, like your own nightlight in the home.

If you extend the lighted period for your flock to boost production in the fall and winter make the lights come on earlier than natural daybreak rather than extending the lighted period in the evening.  Researchers found poultry were happier and more productive with this arrangement.

Broiler type chickens do need some darkness for humane treatment.  Research shows a minimum of 6 hours of darkness is needed for proper rest and stress abatement after the first month.  They found that breaking the darkness into 2, 3 hour periods was just as effective as one continuous 6 hour period and that this method did not slow weight gain to any degree that would impact home production.

For the first month of their life, in brooders, poultry are not unduly stressed by lights being on for 24 hours.  Most home flock producers use heat lamps to provide heat and light and cannot turn them off at night.  However if the birds still need heat after 1 month it is suggested that you find a way to heat the pen without light at night so birds can start adjusting their bodies to a normal light cycle.

If you think red lamps provide heat without the chickens seeing the light think again.  All current red lamps on the market (except LED’S), do not really emit the red spectrum of light and chickens are seeing in them as well as with other lights.   Research has also shown that these red lights do not decrease pecking and cannibalism.

Humane baths

Chickens and some other poultry take dust baths to clean their feathers of oils, aid in parasite control and to just feel good.  European humane standards call for chickens to have a dust bath available, either through deep litter, or through an actual box of sand or other product.  Chickens need this for physical and mental health.

Ducks need to be able to at least submerge their beaks in water above the nostrils during normal drinking times.   This keeps the large nostrils from clogging up.  Research has shown that even shallow water baths several times a week, even in cold weather,  will improve the mental and physical health of ducks.

If you follow these suggestions on space, roosts, nest boxes, baths, and lighting you will have happier, healthier birds.  You can truly say that you are giving your birds a humane lifestyle.


The best chicken breeds for backyard egg production

Chickens are enjoying a surge in popularity as more people seek control over the way the food they eat is grown.  When it comes to sources of protein in the diet, keeping chickens for eggs is an easy way for people to begin.  Enlightened urban areas are now allowing people to keep a few hens in the backyard.  But all hens are not created equal.  Some chicken breeds are much better at producing breakfast for you than others.   When the number of hens you are allowed to keep is limited, you want all of them to be as productive as possible.

No hen can lay an egg every day.  Hens lay one egg a day but it takes more than a day, about 25 hours for one egg to form and be laid.  So there will be days in every hens life when she doesn’t lay an egg.  The best hens, those from breeds that excel in egg laying, may lay 300 eggs in her first year.  Most hens from high producing breeds lay around 250 eggs the first year.  A hen bred for other qualities, such as for showing- ( yes there are chicken shows!), may lay much fewer eggs - perhaps a 100 - and concentrate that laying in spring and early summer.   After the first year, egg production drops in all kinds of chickens.
Isa Brown hen

Most homeowners will want to use hens that lay brown eggs for the best production and hens that are calm and friendly.  There are high producing white egg laying breeds but many of those hens are high strung and don’t make friends easily.  White and brown eggs taste exactly the same, and have the exact same nutritional qualities.   Another type of hen lays greenish or blue eggs.  While not as productive as some brown egg layers, these hens do make good pets and reasonably good layers.

Here are some highly recommended chicken breeds for home egg production.

Isa Brown - these hens are calm and friendly and lay huge brown eggs.  They hold the records for brown egg production.  They take to free - range foraging very well and are very hardy.  They are reddish brown with white underfeathers.

Shaver Black ( Black Sex- link)  - another excellent brown egg layer are the chickens called  Shaver Blacks or Black  sex- links.  They are easy to sex even when young because the males are white with black bars and the hens are black with some red- usually around the neck.  They are calm birds that take to free- ranging well also.

Buff Orpingtons - are large golden birds that lay large brown eggs.  They are not as productive as the first two breeds but are steady layers.  They are quiet, friendly birds.  There are also other colors of Orpingtons, but they are harder to find.
Buff Orpington

Plymouth Rocks are the old fashioned black and white striped chickens that used to be seen around many mid-western farms.   They are good layers of  brown eggs and are calm, easy going birds.  There are many other colors of “ Rock” chickens and most lay well.

Ameraucanas or Araucanas are those breeds that lay the blue or greenish eggs.  They come in a variety of colors.  Some have puffs of feathers on the face, some have no tail.  They lay medium sized eggs and most are pretty good egg producers.  They are smaller hens that usually make good pets.  The colored eggs taste just like white or brown eggs.

If you must have white eggs the White or Pearl Leghorn are the best producers.  Be aware that they don’t make the best backyard hens because they are flighty and hard to tame.    You may want to try one of the Hamburg chickens, they come in a variety of colors.   Their eggs are small to medium sized and they aren’t quite as productive as Leghorns, but they are small, active birds that do well in backyard flocks.

One more note- you don’t need roosters to get hens to lay eggs.  The eggs will not taste any different or be more nutritious if a rooster is with the hens.  Many places that allow homeowners to have chickens ban roosters because of their crowing.

For more information on chickens read the best selling chicken book- “Raising Chickens for Dummies” by Kimberley Willis with Rob Ludlow.   It’s packed full of easy to understand chicken information on all aspects of keeping chickens, for urban or rural homeowners.


Getting young hens to start laying

One of the questions chicken experts frequently get asked is; why aren’t my hens laying?  And usually when this question is asked the hens referred to are young hens, either raised by the owner or newly purchased.  If you are sure that you have hens, (and don’t laugh, that’s sometimes the reason hens don’t lay- they are roosters), most problems in getting young hens to lay can be grouped into one of three categories.


It takes 20-25 weeks from their hatch date for chicks from egg laying breeds to begin laying eggs.  For chicks of ornamental breeds it can take much longer.  Heavy breeds like Black Jerseys take a bit longer than lighter breeds such as Isa Browns or Leghorns to begin laying eggs.  Some ornamental breeds like Cochins and Polish may take until the spring following their hatch to begin laying eggs. 

And since it is hard to tell the age of adult chickens people who buy adult size hens may have been stuck with older hens which no longer lay well.  It is always better to buy chicks or half grown pullets for reliable egg laying.  Most hatcheries now sex baby chicks and you can buy female chicks.  Sexing day old chicks is quite hard, so don’t rely on local breeders to be able to sex chicks very accurately.  If you buy half grown pullets or ready to lay pullets, make sure the seller guarantees the sex or that you are pretty sure what hen feathers look like.

Hens may stop laying eggs when they molt, which generally happens in the fall.  If you bought older hens they may resume egg laying after their molt is finished, which averages 4-6 weeks. Young hens don’t usually molt until a year after they hatched or their second fall.

Good Conditions

You should be feeding a commercial laying pellet or crumble from week 18 of a pullets (young hens) life to get good early production from her.  If you are feeding a homemade mix, scratch grains or just letting them hunt their own food laying may be delayed or never begin.  Organic laying feed is available at feed stores if that is your concern. Chickens need a lot of water to make eggs so fresh water should always be available.

Light is the next concern when we speak of good conditions.  Egg laying chickens are very likely to start laying at 20-25 weeks when they are hatched no later than the May first even without supplemental lighting.  But most chickens start laying sooner and keep laying through the winter if they get 14 hours of light a day. 

Since most chicks are hatched in spring and early summer they are nearing maturity in the fall, when the days are starting to get shorter.  Putting a light in the chicken coop on a timer, so that it is brightly lit for 14 hours a day, will maximize your chances of getting  young hens to start laying in their first fall and not wait for days to begin getting longer again the following spring.  Making the lights come on earlier in the morning than natural day light usually works a bit better than lengthening the evening hours.

Another issue that relates to chicken keeping conditions and laying is stress.  Chickens that are being chased or handled too often by children and pets, are overcrowded, or are too hot or cold may delay the beginning of laying.  And disease and parasites can cause stress, which will of course affect the laying ability of your hens.

Are your hens secretly laying?

It happens every fall, people call or write to poultry help sites saying their hens aren’t laying and wondering what to do.  When questioned, some of these people will tell you that the young hens have the run of their property.  Often these hens are laying eggs; they just aren’t using the nest boxes you prepared for them.  Somewhere in your yard is a huge pile of eggs, carefully hidden as nature directs a young hen to do, even if she never intends to sit on them.

Young hens need to be trained to lay their eggs in nest boxes.  You should confine them to the nest box area until noon each day from the 18th week of age until they start laying eggs and lay regularly for a few weeks in the nest box.  After that you can generally give them free range and they will return to the nest box to lay their eggs. 

If there is an older hen or two around that lays in the box they will often copy her actions.  An experienced rooster will often escort young hens to nest boxes and interest them in scratching and sitting in them.  (But if this rooster is outside with the hens he may direct them to a good corner of the yard instead.)  Your nest boxes should be in a darker area of your chicken housing and filled with good bedding material like hay or straw to interest the young hens.  You need a nest box for every 2-3 hens.

If young hens begin laying eggs on the floor of their housing, pick them up immediately and block that spot with a bucket, milk crate or other item.  Put the eggs in a nest box and don’t collect them for a day or two.  (Discard these eggs after a few days.)   It helps if the floor area is clean and free of loose litter like straw.

As they get older, generally in late spring, some hens will again sneak away to hide eggs, in hope of hatching babies.  This happens most often in breeds that are not bred for egg production, but can even happen with some laying breeds.  While there are lots of old wives remedies to break the habit of “going broody”  it is best just to find the egg stash, throw away the old eggs, then pick the eggs up each day from that spot, unless of course, you want baby chicks.  (You will only get chicks if you keep a rooster with your hens.)

To summarize most problems with getting young hens to lay involve these things.

Sex- if they crow they don’t lay eggs.
Age- a minimum of 20 weeks and up to a year may be required, depending on the breed.
Conditions- proper food and water, lighting, suitable housing and stress reduction are needed.
Training- young hens should be confined until they learn to lay eggs in the nest box.


Introducing young hens to the flock

If you have hens for eggs at your Michigan home you face a dilemma sooner or later.   Hens stop laying well after a couple of years and if you want a steady supply of eggs you need new young hens.  If you aren’t ready to delegate the old hens to the soup pot you need to add to your flock.   Many people are surprised when this turns out not to be as easy as they thought. 

Chickens always have a strong pecking order in the flock and new comers are not welcomed with open wings- so to speak.   You may find young hens to purchase or raise some new chicks but find that your old hens are not willing to share the coop.  Older hens can be very mean, even to the point of murder.  

When new birds are introduced to a flock the whole pecking order has to be re-established.   It’s not wise to continuously add new birds to a flock.  Not only are you risking disease but the constant upheaval in the coop is not conducive to good laying nor hen health.  Keep new additions to once or twice a year and its best to add young hens which haven’t started laying, instead of older birds. Here are some tips to help smooth out the introduction of new hens to old.

First make sure that your new hens are fully feathered and nearly the same size as the old hens.  Never put very young chicks in with older hens or they will probably be injured or killed.  But don’t wait until the younger birds are laying to introduce them to your older hens.   You want them to have established a new pecking order before they go into laying so they will be able to calmly lay in a nest box.

Make sure that before you get new hens you have room for them.  Each hen needs at least 3 square feet of space inside and 3 square feet of  space outside - or 6 square feet of floor space total.   You need a nest box for every 3 hens and at least a foot of roosting space for each hen.  Crowded hens will never settle down well. 

Another thing to consider is the breed and color of chickens.  If your old hens are all red and you introduce white young hens the old may not accept the new as readily as ones that look like them.  Let’s just say chickens are color conscious.   And they also may have a prejudice against birds that look different because they have a top knot or feathered feet or silky feathering.  If your chickens are already a mixed flock of colors and feather styles then adding something different in looks won’t cause as much fighting.

The best way to introduce new birds is to partition off a part of the coop or put the young birds in a large cage inside the coop if there are just a few.    Let the hens get used to each other for at least 10 days through a wire partition.  Then let the older birds out to forage, if you normally do that, or wait until they are in the out side run and release the young birds.  Just open the cage door or remove part of the partition, and let them gradually move out into the main coop.  Don’t chase or catch them and make them move out.  That may excite the old hens into also giving chase.

Expect some bickering and squabbling for a few days. Don’t interfere too much; they are working out a new pecking order. The more room the birds have- such as being allowed to freely roam a large area during the day- the less trouble there generally is in new introductions. If any hen gets a bleeding wound she must be taken out and isolated from the others, even those in her age group.  Chickens peck at a bleeding wound until the bird is severely damaged.

Leave the feed and water dishes in the partitioned off part of the coop or the cage for a few days so the young hens can have a chance to eat and drink without too much bullying.  If your birds are in fairly small quarters with no free range access add some heads of cabbage, pumpkins or squash to the pen before you release the new birds and let them start pecking that apart before releasing the new birds.  The distraction will help the transition.

If you cannot use the partition- cage way of introducing new birds you can try this method.  Wait until the henhouse is dimly lit and the old hens are roosting for the night and put the new hens in the coop.  When the old hens wake up - the young hens are already there.  This can cause a bit more fighting than the partition method.  Have a distraction waiting like treats if you can.

Roosters rarely bother new hens other than to try and mate them.  And some roosters will actually chase older hens away from new ones.  Roosters do not like hens fighting and try to keep some kind of order.  Occasionally one old hen will not give up bullying the young ones.  It may be the top hen in the pecking order but usually it isn’t.   You may have to catch and cage that one for a few days.  Then release her and see if flock dynamics have changed. 

Keep an eye on young hens for a few weeks.  Make sure they eat and drink and that if they go out of the coop into free range conditions that they know how to get back into, and are allowed back into, the coop at night.

Never try to introduce new roosters to an old one.  It rarely works and often ends in death or serious injury for one or both.  If the rooster grows up in the yard with an older rooster, such as when a hen naturally incubates chicks or if there is a lot of room for a young rooster to hang at the fringes of the old roosters territory they sometimes work out a truce, but don’t count on it. 

Roosters raised together and kept without hens usually squabble a lot but without serious damage.  If you have a rooster who constantly seems to be fighting with a new hen you introduced you need to consider whether someone made a sexing mistake.

To avoid the hassle of introducing new hens to old, some people simply get rid of all the old hens at 2 or 3 years of age and replace them with young.  If you don’t want to butcher them, maybe you can sell them or put up an old folks home for the retired chickens!


Which eggs taste better brown, white or blue?

People often assume that because of the shell color of an egg the eggs contents may taste differently or that one color egg is more nutritious than the other.   The truth is that all chicken eggs, regardless of egg shell color taste the same, provided the hens are on the same diet, and the eggs are equally fresh.   They also are equally nutritious. 

It may be that most home farm flocks prefer hens that lay brown eggs.  Often these breeds are quieter and prettier than white egg laying breeds and they do better under free range conditions.    So the eggs you buy from the farmer down the street or get from your backyard hens with brown shells have been eating vegetation and other natural things.  Their egg yolk is a deeper, richer color because of pigments from greens.  And they are generally fresher than eggs purchased in the large groceries, and so they taste better.   

There have been some claims made that Ameraucanas and other chicken breeds that lay green or blue colored eggs have eggs that have lower cholesterol or other health benefits.  Unless they have been on expensive special diets to change the omega 3 content or cholesterol there is no difference in egg nutrition because of breed or egg color.  And any hen laying any color egg can be fed a special diet to change the eggs nutrient content, although these diets are hard for the home flock owner to provide.

If you cooked eggs from different colored shells and served then to people without telling them which was which, they would not be able to tell you which eggs came from brown or white shells.  Still many people have a preference for one color over another, generally because that is what they are familiar with.

One in a while a hens diet will affect the flavor of eggs.  Hens fed a lot of fish scraps, which they love, might end up with slightly fishy tasting eggs.  Hens that were fed garlic or onions, which they are not so fond of, might have flavored eggs.   Generally there is little difference in the taste of eggs from hens that roam freely and hens that are confined.  The eggs of free roaming hens may be a little more nutritious because their diets contain more greens and varied proteins.   Some research says they are more nutritious and other research say there is no difference.

Egg shells are porous and they can take up flavors from strong odors near them or by touching strongly flavored substances.  That’s why it’s a good idea to clean nests regularly and add fresh bedding, wash the eggs and refrigerate promptly and store eggs in closed containers away from strongly flavored and scented substances.

Fresh eggs do taste better than eggs that have been stored for weeks or months.   The whites are clearer, and thinner and the yolks firm and compact.   As an egg ages that porous shell allows moisture to evaporate, the whites become thicker and “whiter” and the yolk tends to become spread out.   Stale eggs may not harm you they just don’t taste as good.

If you are not sure if your eggs are fresh try this old trick.  Put the raw eggs in a large bowl of water.  Fresh eggs sink to the bottom, as they have little air in the air space.  As eggs lose water the air space in one end of the egg expands.   First they will stand upright in the water and then the oldest ones will float.

If you are still convinced that one color of egg is better than the other, you’ll want to buy breeds of hens that lay the color egg you desire.  Most catalog descriptions will tell you what color eggs hens lay.  If you are looking at adult hens of mixed breed or of breeds you know nothing about keep this in mind.  The color of the skin around the ear lobe is generally red in birds that lay brown eggs and white or blue in those that lay white eggs.  The color of the bird’s body feathers does not tell you what color eggs they will lay.  While some dark colored birds lay brown eggs, so do some light colored birds, and there are dark colored hens that lay white eggs.

As hens that lay brown or other colored eggs age the egg color generally starts to fade.   And two hens of the same breed may lay different shades of brown, blue or green eggs.  Sometimes the hens that lay blue or green colored eggs start off laying white eggs, that change to colored eggs in a few weeks.

So eat your eggs and don’t worry about shell color.  Shell color doesn’t affect taste, nutrition or the inside contents of the egg.


How we got blue eggs

Researchers at the University of Nottingham, UK and in China have recently reported on genetic findings that tell us that the blue colored chicken eggs highly favored by some food gourmands happen because of a retrovirus.  The retrovirus that causes blue eggs is harmless and enters the DNA of chickens which causes the blue pigment biliverdin to be deposited on egg shells. The pigment naturally occurs in animal bodies, it causes liver bile to appear greenish among other things.

Interestingly this mutation took hold in two different places, South America and China, at two different times in domestic chickens.  In China the mutation occurred roughly 500 years ago and in South America the mutation probably occurred 2-3 hundred years ago.  Scientists know the mutation happened in two different places because the location where the altered DNA is found on the chicken genome is different in Asian and South American breeds.  Humans then continued to select chickens and breed them to produce blue eggs.

The ancestors of domestic chickens, the Jungle Fowl, laid white eggs.  In fact the original egg color for all birds was white.  In some species of birds a mutation that caused brown pigmentation or brown spots developed.  The brown pigments are protoporphyrins, (pigments that also help make blood red) and can be deposited in varying degrees on egg shells during development.  Some birds also developed blue or green colored eggs when a mutation causes the pigment biliverdin to be deposited on egg shells.  This is the mutation that was recently studied in domestic chickens.  We don’t know if the retrovirus passed to chickens from other species of birds or developed independently.

How nature does it

Nature was the selective force for the brown color or spotting of eggs that some birds developed.  If the bird nests on the ground or in an open spot eggs that blend into the surroundings have a better chance of survival.  Soon some species of birds began to lay only brown or spotted eggs.   Nature may have also selected for blue or green eggs in some species of birds.  We don’t know why it helps but in wild birds in which both parents feed the young and are not cavity nesters, the eggs are more likely to be blue or greenish.  Some species of birds, such as the house sparrow, lay either white or blue eggs, depending on the individual.  Birds that lay their eggs in a cavity, where it is dark, tend to have white eggs, since being able to see the eggs makes more sense and is favored in natural selection.

In domesticated chickens the color of eggs was selected for by humans, especially when it comes to blue eggs.  Brown chicken eggs are older than blue eggs, the mutation occurred early in domestication.  Brown egg color is linked to larger body size in chickens to some extent and people may have been selecting for that and ignoring egg color. 

Another mutation occurred early in chicken domestication and that involves the chickens laying pattern in response to day length.  Humans selected for chickens that laid through the winter when daylight was shorter.  It’s possible that early brown layers were less responsive to day length and laid more eggs.

Chicken breeds that produce blue or green eggs include, Araucana/ Mapuche, Cream Legbar, Moss, and Ameraucanas and a catch-all called Easter Eggers are derived from the South American mutation and Dongxiang and Lushi, are Chinese mutation derived. Some of these breeds are quite rare now.  There are hundreds of chicken breeds that lay brown eggs.

A chicken egg spends about 20 hours in the shell gland on its 25-26 hour trip through the hen’s reproductive system. Then, if there is pigment in the shell gland that pigment is deposited on the last few layers of shell that are deposited around the egg yolk and white.  As a hen gets older egg color can lighten, usually this is because older hens lay larger eggs but the amount of pigment that each egg gets is the same.  In some cases spots of brown pigment can actually be scraped off the outer layer of shell but blue pigment cannot.

Looks don’t mean much

White eggs became the standard for commercial eggs with the development of the white Leghorn and other production egg laying breeds.  The birds were small and took less space and feed but still produced a good sized egg.  In some places however, brown or blue eggs have always been favored.

Brown and blue colored eggs have exactly the same taste and nutrition as do white eggs. The eggs look the same inside.  Eggs taste better when they are fresh and when the hens get to roam a bit and eat lots of greenery. Eggs from hens that eat greens also have deeper yellow yolks.  It’s possible that people think brown and blue eggs taste better because these breeds are more likely to be raised in a farm setting than Leghorns which lay white eggs and that are kept in small cages.
Feather color by the way, has nothing to do with egg color.   A white chicken can lay brown or blue eggs and a brown chicken can lay white or blue eggs.  The color of a hen’s earlobes does give a clue to egg color, brown egg layers usually have red ear lobes, but it’s not reliable for all breeds of chickens.

When a chicken that lays blue eggs is crossed with a chicken that lays brown eggs the eggs are often an olive color because both the brown and blue pigment mutations affect the egg color.  Green eggs are laid when a chicken with the blue mutation just expresses the color a bit differently or when the chicken has a light amount of brown pigment also present. When blue egg laying chickens are crossed with white egg laying chickens the eggs are usually lightly tinted or they appear white.  The three colors white, brown, blue, can be combined in various ways to provide various tints.  Really dark brown eggs are produced by breeding chickens with dark eggs and selecting for the darkest brown eggs over generations.

If you would like to read the scientific article that recently linked the retrovirus to blue egg color you can do so here.


Keeping ducks for eggs

If you are allergic to hen eggs you may want to try duck eggs.  Many people who are allergic to chicken eggs can tolerate duck eggs.  Some people who like ducks also want  a useful pet that earns its keep.

In nature ducks are seasonal breeders, they lay eggs from early spring to mid-summer and then stop laying.  But just as breeders have modified chicken breeds through selection to lay more eggs over a longer period so have duck breeders modified a few breeds to lay longer.  Most domestic ducks lay more than wild types, but most domestic breeds rarely lay more than 30-60 eggs a year.

Breeds of ducks that are kept for egg laying include the Indian Runner ducks and the Khaki Campbell.  The Indian Runner ducks are tall and thin, with a peculiar upright stance and come in a number of colors.   Khaki Campbells are tan ducks about the size of the white Pekin duck with darker colored heads.   They look a bit like faded mallards.  There is a white strain of Campbells but they are hard to find.  Khaki Campbells and Indian Runners are considered to be the top layers among duck breeds, laying 200-250 eggs per year.  These two breeds lay white eggs, many duck breeds lay dark colored eggs.

The eggs of any duck are safe to eat if collected fresh, stored properly and cooked thoroughly. Duck eggs will taste very similar to chicken eggs if they are housed and fed in a similar manner to chickens.   Ducks that are allowed to free range and especially to use ponds or other natural water sources will have eggs that taste a bit different from hen eggs.   The eggs pick up flavors from food they eat.  The shells of duck eggs are stronger than hen eggs and most ducks have larger eggs than hens.  Shell color does not affect the taste.

Ducks eggs can be used in cooking just as you use chicken eggs. Nutritionally they are nearly identical.  The white does not cook up quite as firmly as chicken eggs but this doesn’t matter if eggs are scrambled or used in omelets.  You may have to adjust the number of eggs in a recipe, depending on the size of your duck eggs.  The average duck egg is equal to about 1 and a half large chicken eggs.  Some people believe that ducks eggs make fluffier baked goods than chicken eggs.

If you want to keep ducks for eggs you should feed them commercial duck or game bird feed, one that has a higher protein content than most chicken feed. A laying mix for hens or breeding turkeys can be used if it has at least 16% protein.  Do not just feed corn or a scratch grain mix if you want good egg production.  

Laying ducks need lots of drinking water but they don’t need a pond.  A bathing tub when the temperature is above freezing will suit them just fine.  A bathing tub just needs to be big enough for a duck to get in and splash around with 4-6 inches of water inside.  It will need to be emptied and refilled often.

You should confine the ducks so that you can find the eggs.  Some breeds of ducks rarely sit on their eggs, Campbells and Indian Runners almost never do, but all ducks can be very secretive in hiding a nest of eggs.  If you want good fresh eggs you will need to be able to find them each day.

If you want to allow your ducks some roaming time, keep them confined until around noon, most will have laid by then.  If you want duck eggs for eating you will probably want to keep them away from natural bodies of water.   Feed them in the pen and most will return each evening so you can shut them up.  Ducks are not as reliable about returning home to roost as chickens are, especially if they can find plenty of feed. You may have to perfect duck herding skills or bring special treats to lure them inside.

Most ducks need nests on the ground, flat round pans filled with some grass hay or straw and secluded in a dark covered spot work well.  Not all domestic ducks will lay eggs in a nest, some just drop them on the floor of your pen.   You’ll need to check the pen floor every day.  Ducks will lay one egg a day and like chickens occasionally skip a day.   Like chickens more than one female will lay in the same nest but ducks need more nests than hens.  In breeds that don’t sit such as Pekins one nest for every 2 females is good.  In breeds that tend to want to sit such as Muscovy, provide one nest for each hen to avoid fighting.  Muscovy ducks like to nest off the ground, in a box similar to the nest boxes for chickens.

Most duck breeds begin laying in March in Michigan and stop laying around the first of July.   Some breeds will also have a late batch of eggs in the early fall. Khaki Campbells and to a lesser extent Indian Runner ducks lay most of the year if the shelter area gets a minimum of 14 hours of bright light through the winter months, just like laying chickens need.

If you are serious about producing duck eggs or raising ducklings don’t keep ducks with chickens or other poultry.  They need different feed and while they may co-exist peacefully in a large barnyard setting, close confinement tends to bring the worst in both breeds.

Just as with chickens you don’t need a male (or drake) to get eggs.   And one drake to a group of hen ducks is fine unless you want to incubate eggs for hatching.   While ducks tend to pair up, males will breed any female that isn’t protected by another male.  In some breeds you can tell a male from a female by the coloring, hens are drab and males more brightly colored.  In breeds of a solid color look for the drakes curl, a feather that curls up on the top of the tail.  The voices of male and female ducks are different, but it takes some experience to determine this.  Males are generally larger and heavier than females.

Never keep more males than females.   Male ducks are very rough when they breed females and they also fight viciously amongst themselves.  Ducks prefer to breed on water but domestic ducks can and do breed on land.  If hens have many drakes breeding them they can be hurt or even killed.  For producing eggs to eat you may not want to keep any males and avoid the hassle and stress.

If you do want to produce eggs for hatching pen up one drake with one or two hen ducks. Keep in mind that you may need to incubate the eggs artificially as many breeds do not sit on their own eggs well.  In some breeds the male will stay by the hen as she sits and guard her.  Some even sit for a short while on the nest and will help raise the young.  Ducks can be very aggressive in protecting a nest.  Ducks must have a source of water to bathe in while incubating eggs, or the eggs won’t hatch well.

If you want to raise ducklings, pen the hen or the pair of ducks up in a strong pen with a roof.   Domestic ducks that go out and raise ducklings on the edge of the pond or in the garden have a very hard time raising them to maturity.  It seems that every critter out there likes to eat duckling and your losses will be great unless you protect them. 

Keeping a few laying ducks is another great way to have a pet that makes you breakfast.


Producing eggs for sale from your Michigan home

Many Michigan chicken owners find their own home produced eggs so tasty they share them with friends to show them what they are missing.  The friends like the taste of the fresh eggs and want more.  Somewhere along the line the chicken owner gets the idea of producing eggs for sale.   Michigan does allow individuals to produce and sell eggs to other people but there are some important things to consider before rushing out and purchasing 500 hens.

Every new business needs to have a plan and producing eggs for sale is no exception.  Learn all about chickens and eggs, and crunch the numbers before jumping into the egg business with both feet.  It always helps to keep a few chickens for eggs used at home first. 

Go to your local farm markets to see how many people are already selling eggs and look for signs in your area.  In the last few years many people have began to produce eggs and sell their excess.  If you find many people selling eggs it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to sell eggs yourself.  But it will mean you have to give the customer a reason to buy your eggs rather than theirs.   You’ll have to work harder and be smarter than your competitors and you may not get as much for the eggs as you would in a less saturated market.

Unless you have USDA inspected facilities you cannot sell eggs to stores or restaurants.  If you want to become a wholesale supplier of eggs contact the Michigan Department of Agriculture and the Untied States Department of Agriculture for all the rules and regulations you will need to follow and how to get inspected.  This is not easy or inexpensive.

Small Michigan egg producers are allowed to sell from the home, (if your municipality allows home businesses), or from a farm market. Your eggs have to be in clean containers with your name and contact information on them.  If you re-use egg cartons from other places all the original information must be blacked out.  If you advertise your eggs as organic, you must get organic certification first.

For most people, the sale of eggs is not going to support your family. You should think of your egg business as a sideline, part of other money making endeavors or a hobby that produces a little income. 

Things to consider

It takes a chick at least 5 months to start producing eggs, and you will be feeding and caring for them for that time.  Buying hens ready to lay is quite expensive, if you can find them.  Hens lay well for only 1-2 years and many rookies buy adult hens only to find they are several years old and not laying well.

Each laying hen needs at least 3 square feet of shelter space and 3-4 feet of outdoor run space, if you are going to raise them in a humane, non caged setting.  Free ranging your hens in Michigan works for only 7-8 months of the year, Michigan winters require hens spend some time confined indoors.  If you keep 100 hens you’ll need a shelter area with 300 square feet of floor space.  That’s a 10 x 30 foot (or other configuration) barn or shed.   You’ll need roosts, nest boxes and feed and water utensils to accommodate them also.

Even free ranging, hens still need commercial laying feed for best egg production and in winter, finding their own food outside is not an option.   Feed is selling for around $12 per 50 pounds.  For good egg production breeds it takes about 4 pounds of feed to produce a dozen eggs.   That’s roughly a dollar per dozen eggs.  Free ranging the hens reduces feed costs but won’t eliminate it.

Hens require supplemental lighting in winter to produce eggs well.  Fourteen hours of bright light in the shelter is recommended.  Make sure you factor in this cost as Michigan winters never provide enough light. 

The eggs

You’ll need to choose the right chicken breeds.  All healthy hens will lay some eggs but only those breeds selected for egg production will lay consistently, lay through the winter, and produce nice big eggs.  For farm or home sales brown eggs seem to be the top sellers.  Blue or green colored eggs are just as nutritious as other eggs- but not more so- (read this article but consumers tend to select the big brown eggs over them.

Using the figure of 100 hens you will probably end up with about 50-56 dozen eggs a week from a well managed flock of hens from egg production breeds.  A hen cannot lay an egg every day.   You will need to store these eggs in refrigerated storage until they are sold.  That’s probably a whole refrigerator reserved for eggs.  Eggs are selling from $3-$4 dollars a dozen at farm markets right now.

What you need to ask yourself before buying the birds is how many eggs do you think you can sell a week?  After you deduct expenses will it be profitable?    People who are close to large farm markets such as in the Metro Detroit area, (factor in the fee for a booth), or who can put up a stand or sign along a well traveled road have a better chance of making good money from eggs.

It’s better to start small and work up to more production than to have 50 dozen eggs in the refrigerator you can’t sell.  After all, customers want farm fresh eggs; they can get eggs that are stored for weeks at a store.   And the chickens keep eating whether you sell the eggs or not.

Part of being successful at selling eggs from home is the presentation of the eggs and how you interact with the customer.  Make sure you wash the eggs and they are in clean containers.  They don’t have to be dirty to prove they are fresh.  Be prepared to answer questions about how the hens are fed and treated.  People buy eggs from a local producer because they want a certain experience as well as a fresh product.

If you are careful and don’t overextend yourself, and are willing to be a good salesman you can probably make a modest profit from farm fresh eggs.


How to incubate eggs naturally, with a hen, duck, or turkey

Many Michigan families get a few chickens, a pair of ducks, or some turkeys and they like them so much they would like to increase their flock by letting the birds raise a family.  In Michigan late spring through late summer are the ideal times to let birds incubate eggs.  This article will discuss just how to help a sitting bird raise her family.

Letting a hen incubate her own eggs is less work for the human caretaker and the natural mom can always do it better if she is inclined to incubate her eggs.   Many of our domestic chickens, ducks and turkeys have the urge to go broody or incubate their own eggs bred out of them.  This is so they continue to lay eggs, instead of stopping their laying when they begin to sit.  Most breeds of chickens kept primarily for egg laying won’t sit on a nest.  Some duck and turkey breeds rarely sit either.  

You can overcome the reluctance of some breeds to raise their own family by using a surrogate mom who does want to sit.  Some chicken breeds are known to have strong urges to brood eggs.  Silkie chickens, brahma, cochins, ameraucana, and Easter egg chickens often sit on eggs.  Some breeds that sometimes sit, especially in late summer, are australorps, marans, and New Hampshire’s as well as a number of bantam breeds and breeds kept for show.  Any breed will produce the occasional individual who gets the urge to raise a family.  

Pekin ducks, runner ducks and khaki campbells rarely sit on their own eggs.  Other breeds usually will.   Ducks are seasonal layers and most will only lay eggs and brood in the spring and early summer. The muscovey duck is probably one of the best natural duck brooders.

Broad breasted turkeys of either the white or bronze type rarely sit and if they do, the eggs are usually infertile as the males of these breeds cannot breed well naturally.  Other breeds are usually very willing to sit on eggs.

Ducks and turkeys will easily brood chicken eggs if they are inclined to sit.  Chickens can sit duck and turkey eggs but since their incubation time is shorter than that of ducks and turkeys they sometimes give up too early.

You have to have a male

Hens of all species will go broody and sit on eggs whether or not they are fertile.  Eggs cannot be fertile unless you have a male of the right species who has mated with the female.  One mating can fertilize eggs for several days.  If you don’t have a male of the species you might be able to buy fertile eggs and exchange them with the infertile ones.

Eggs purchased at the supermarket will not hatch.  Those hens do not get exposed to a male and the eggs were chilled too much and are too old to hatch. Unless you buy eggs specifically for hatching, which have been handled correctly, purchased eggs won’t hatch.  Remember if you have a rooster with your hens, but no tom turkey with your hen turkeys you could give fertile chicken eggs to your turkey that wants to sit to hatch chicks for you.

Encouraging incubation and helping hens choose the right spot

A hen of any species looks for a dark private spot with some loose nesting material in it when she gets the urge to raise a family.  If she is a free ranging bird she may choose a clump of weeds, the spot under the deck, behind the tall flowers or other interesting locations.  In the chicken coop she may choose one of the nest boxes or a dark corner.

You want the hen to choose a safe place out of the weather for the best results.  A hen out in the weeds at night or under the deck is likely to get picked off by coyotes or raccoons.  If you find a hen sitting in an exposed spot you could put a pen around her and add some shelter over her, but it is better and safer to get her to lay in or near the coop, where you can better monitor and protect her. To keep her from sitting in a bad spot just keep removing the eggs.  She will go elsewhere or give up.  Or you can block her from getting to the spot.

Covered kitty litter boxes with straw or hay inside them placed in the coop can work for chickens as can pet carriers with the doors off.  If the hen is separated from others all she needs for a nest in an inside shelter is a box on the floor, preferably in a darkened spot.  With a kitty litter box or carrier you can pick them up and move them to a separate place after the hen begins sitting.   

For larger ducks and turkeys large pet carriers with the doors off, or plastic dog houses with some hay or straw may entice them.  In an outside run for turkeys and ducks, dog houses are a good choice.  You could also build wooden shelters.  The nest area should be big enough so that the hen fits inside fully, has room to turn around and space to raise her head all the way when sitting.

Place your intended hatcheries in a dark corner or face the door away from the light.  They should be in as private a spot as you can provide.  Leave them alone as much as possible, with only a quick daily check, preferably when the hen is off the nest if she starts laying in it.

If your nest area isn’t inside an enclosure you’ll want to enclose it before the babies hatch.  The enclosure can be of wire or plastic fencing with small enough openings that the chicks can’t slip through.  It needs a roof or at least to be tall enough that your other birds can’t get in.  If outside a top on the pen is highly recommended to keep hawks and owls out.  See part two - managing the hatch for more information.

A hen can take over a nest box and begin sitting.  This may or may not work, depending on how many nest boxes you have and individual flock personalities.  Usually several hens lay in the same box.  If a hen who is not dominant takes to sitting in a nest box they may just push in next to her and lay eggs.  This leads to jostling and fighting and cracked eggs.  Eggs will be hard to collect if you still want to do so, because you won’t know which is which.  And if eggs start developing at different times it can be a mess.

When a hen takes over a nest box and wants to sit try moving her somewhere private with a nice nest box complete with some eggs.  She may take to it right away or take a few days to like it.

If a hen is found sitting somewhere in a less than ideal location you may be able to carefully move her eggs and all.  Try putting her and the eggs inside a carrier in the same spot for a day or two, then moving the whole thing.  The only other thing to do is to protect her in place.  If a hen has to abort one clutch she will usually start another in a short time, especially if it is early in the incubation period.  Confine her where you want her to lay this time.

In the first part of incubating eggs naturally we discussed how Michigan flock owners can get a hen sitting in the right location to raise some chicks for them. Now we’ll discuss the incubation process after we have a sitting hen.  Michigan flock owners who want to have the experience of letting a hen raise her own babies or who want to increase the size of their flock with natural incubation need to know several things.

The natural incubation process

The hen will start spending a lot of time in and near her nest.  She will arrange nearby grass or straw around her, or in the case of ducks, pluck some of her own feathers.  She will start laying eggs in the nest, one a day but she won’t sit tight on them.  She may sit for an hour or two then leave.  If you see her sitting on the nest at night incubation is usually beginning.

Hens seem to have a natural instinct on just how much sitting will keep the eggs alive but not developing until the right size clutch is accumulated.   Nature has designed her this way so that all the eggs will hatch at the same time and mom can leave the nest with the little ones to look for food.  In cold weather hens spend more time in early pre-brooding than they do in warm weather. 

When the hen has accumulated 10-12 of her own eggs, if a chicken, or about 15 eggs if a turkey or duck, she will begin sitting in earnest.  You will rarely see her off the nest, she will come off to eat and drink only briefly.  The first day you see her on the nest all day start your countdown to hatching time.  For a chicken that’s 21 days, for most ducks 28 days, muscovy ducks take 35 days.  Turkeys take 28 days.  (It’s the type of eggs, not who is sitting on them, that determines hatching time.)

To use a surrogate mom keep track of when she begins to lay her own eggs. Don’t remove her eggs as she may give up on the family idea or go hide somewhere to continue laying.   When she seems to have finished her own clutch, you have a decision to make.   Do you want to keep some of her eggs as well as that of the other birds?  A mom can only sit so many eggs well.  For average sized chicken hens that’s 10-12 eggs.  For small hens like silkies being asked to sit eggs larger than their own, keep the clutch size to 6-8.

Turkeys and ducks may hatch 12-18 of their own and up to 20 chicken eggs.  Do not mix turkey and duck eggs with chicken eggs as they hatch at different times unless you take the chickens that hatch early away and put them in a brooder.  This still may cause the hen to abandon the nest.

Wait until the hen has accumulated about 10 eggs then put the eggs you want her to hatch in the nest and take away her eggs.  If the hen has begun to sit tightly you can reach under her and carefully and gently switch the eggs or wait until she goes off the nest to eat.  Don’t wait too long, or the surrogate mom may give up before the new eggs are ready to hatch.

If you are placing chicken eggs under a turkey or duck you have a few extra days to work with as their incubation is longer.  If you are trying to get a chicken to hatch turkey or duck eggs its important to give the hen the surrogate eggs the moment you think the hen is sitting tightly.  Some chickens will stop sitting before duck or turkey eggs are ready to hatch but many will continue to sit until they do.

Care of hens while they are sitting

It’s good to place food and water close to the sitting hen so she doesn’t have to leave the nest for too long.  She must have a little room to get up and move around however, as she needs to move away from the nest to defecate.  Basically she just needs to be protected and left alone.  Too much checking of the nest and human activity near her may cause her to stop sitting.

When a good broody hen sits, she sits. She won’t run away from things like raccoons or dogs and is very vulnerable.  Make sure she is protected from predators.   Some hens cover the nest with loose feathers or nest material when they do go off the nest.  This is normal and they aren’t destroying the nest.

Hatching time

As soon as you see a hen sitting tightly mark the calendar, don’t rely on memory.  When hatch date is near begin keeping a close watch on the nest.  Don’t disturb the hen at this time if at all possible.  Signs that babies are hatching are pieces of shell around the nest, peeping and babies peeking out around mom.  Leave things alone - do not move the hen or try to get babies out for at least 24 hours after you see signs of hatching.  Mom usually sits on the nest with the babies for 24-36 hours as stragglers hatch.

Remove any deep water dishes from the hen’s pen and replace with a chick water container. Even baby ducks can drown in the first few days if they can’t get out of a deep dish once they get in. Chicken hens can generally drink out of a chick watering container but large turkeys and duck hens may need an additional water container.  Adult size water dispensers with narrow, shallow drinking rims are fine to use. 

Place a shallow dish of chick starter feed near the nest. For turkey chicks and ducklings the protein in the starter feed should be 24%.   Mom will lead the babies to feed and water when she feels they are ready.

Helping mom raise the babies

If you want you can remove the babies soon after hatching to a brooder for raising. Treat them as you would any other chicks raised in a brooder.  They will need heat in most weather.   Mom will only look for them for a day or two, and then she will go back to pre-nest behavior.  For more about raising chicks in a brooder see this article.

It’s romantic to let mom run around with a bunch of babies but in reality few of those babies will probably make it past the first week.  If you really don’t want the flock increase, just wanted the experience, then let mom go where she will.  Everything likes to eat baby chicks, even other adults in the flock.  Baby ducks in a pond are sucked up by turtles and big fish.  Cats that don’t bother other birds eat baby chicks and ducklings.  Snakes eat them.  Rats eat them.  They are candy for many predators. 

Mom tries to protect them but rarely is she successful in raising them all.  Usually after a week most if not all of free ranging babies will be gone.  Mother birds can be very aggressive when protecting their young and small children should be kept away from them.  Don’t allow the chasing and handling of babies by children or pets.

Mom and babies should be protected from other flock members as well.  Dad isn’t needed, even though some dads will act protective of the young.  Unless it’s a single pair of birds remove him.  If he bothers the hen too much, and ducks are bad at this, he’ll have to be removed.  The male can be left if he is a gentleman with the hen and the babies.

Some hens of all the species will kill and eat babies other than their own.  Others will “steal” them to mother which causes great strife in the coop.  You can move mom and her babies easily after they hatch, she won’t desert them.  Each family should be in a separate enclosure for at least the first month. If two hens sat on a nest as sometimes happens and they hatch young out its generally safe to leave them with all the babies. 

As the birds grow they and mom should be given more room.  At around a month they can be let outside the coop with mom if you have few predator problems.  Remember chicks can and will squeeze through fence openings larger birds can’t get through.  They will usually run back to mom but may be caught by predators.  Make sure they are well protected at night.

If you are allowing young birds to mingle with older birds other than their mom watch carefully the first few days for signs the big birds are not harming the young.  You may need to put chick feed in a place big birds can’t get to so the young can eat safely.

Pay particular attention to baby ducks so that they don’t drown.  In a natural pond with sloped banks they will be fine.  But in things like wading pools and artificial ponds they may get in and not be able to get out. After a while exhaustion and hyperthermia set in and they drown. Fix these things so they have a sloped exit or keep birds away.  Baby chickens and turkeys rarely go in water, even if the surrogate was a duck, but they also may fall or get chased into water containers and drown.

At 2-3 months chicks look nearly grown and mom will not be too concerned with them anymore - in fact she may be thinking about a new family.  It is safe to separate them from mom.  They still need chick grower feed until about 5 months when chicken hens can be switched to layer pellets and other birds to adult feed.

Once you learn a little and have the proper pens and equipment it’s pretty easy to let a broody bird raise your new flock for you.  A broody bird can be a big asset if you manage things right and allow you to raise birds you otherwise would need an incubator to hatch.  And they sure are green and renewable, easy on the budget and the environment.  Every flock owner should try it at least once.


Tips on artificially incubating eggs

If you are the proud owner of a flock of chickens at your Michigan home you may have considered raising some baby chicks from your hens.   If you have kids you may want to incubate some eggs as an educational project.    Some breeds of chickens don’t naturally sit on their own eggs anymore and to get those chicks you will need to get an incubator.   But there is more to incubating eggs than buying an incubator and sticking the eggs in it.  Here are some tips to insure a successful hatch.

The number one thing you need to produce fertile eggs, eggs capable of becoming chicks is a rooster.   The rooster will need to be with the hens for at least 10 days to ensure fertile eggs.  The rooster should be young and healthy. There is no way your eggs can turn into chicks unless the hens are with a rooster.

In Michigan our short days and cold weather may present a problem for roosters.  When roosters are subjected to cold and short days for long periods of time they become infertile. They remain sexually active, it’s just that the sperm count is low or absent.   If you heat your chicken coop and light it for 14 hours a day you can start to collect eggs for hatching at any time.  If your coop is unheated and doesn’t have supplemental lighting late April will probably be the best time to start artificial incubation in Michigan.  You can continue through September or to when the rooster goes into molt.

When you are trying to produce eggs for hatching you should have a ratio of one rooster to every 10-15 hens for most breeds.  Roosters will not mate every hen every day but that’s ok since hens can retain sperm in their bodies to fertilize eggs for about 10 days.  If you don’t want a particular rooster to be the father of your chicks you should remove him from the flock 12-14 days before you start collecting hatching eggs.

Young hens produce more fertile eggs but even an old hen who still lays a few eggs may produce some that will hatch.   Your hens should be on a good diet, a commercial laying pellet is best, and have all the fresh clean water they can drink.  When you use hens that are from hybrid laying strains such as Isa Browns, Cherry eggers etc., the chicks they produce will be a variety of colors and sizes, even if you have a rooster from the same breed.  If you have purebred hens such as Buff Orpingtons and you have a rooster of the same breed your chicks should look like the hens.

Store purchased eggs are extremely unlikely to hatch, even if they are organic, free range or whatever- unless they are specifically collected for hatching.  Eggs for eating have been washed, handled and chilled.

The incubator

Once you have roosters, hens, and fertile eggs, you need an incubator.  Incubators are sold at farm stores and in chick supply catalogs.  You can often find them second hand at garage sales and resale shops.  If you purchase an incubator second hand make sure you get all the parts and an instruction book.  Incubators are not all alike and the instructions are important.   You can sometimes go online or write the manufacturer of an incubator to get replacement instructions.

There are all kinds of incubators on the market.  Some are less than fifty dollars, others cost thousands. For hatching just a few eggs at a time, once or twice a year, inexpensive incubators can work.  Choose ones that have fans to circulate the air, have thermostats that are easy to use and that are easy to clean.  Inexpensive incubators need to be set up in heated rooms.  All incubators should have a good thermometer you can read from outside the incubator, either through a window, or by the thermometer having an inside and outside component.

If you can, purchase an incubator that includes egg turners.  These are racks that eggs sit in and gently rotate over time, instead of you having to rotate the eggs by hand.   Racks fit certain sizes of eggs such as chicken, duck or turkey so get the size you need. 

Now read your instructions and follow the directions for cleaning and adding water for humidity.  Set the incubator up in a safe place where kids and pets won’t get into it and start it running for a few days before adding eggs.

Collecting eggs

Collect only normal looking and normal sized eggs for hatching from your flock.  Collect the eggs as soon as you can after they are laid and do not wash them.  Washed eggs are less likely to hatch than unwashed ones. Brush dirt off eggs gently and discard really dirty eggs.  Do not keep any cracked eggs.  Handle eggs gently, too much jostling may kill the tiny embryo that is already inside.

You don’t want chicks hatching across a wide span of days so you will need to store the hatching eggs and place them into the incubator at the same time.   Use clean egg cartons in a place that stays between 45- 65 degree F to store the eggs.  Don’t store eggs longer than 10 days, a week is better.  Store eggs with the small end down.

You’ll probably want to start with more eggs than the number of chicks that you want.  Even the best hatches are rarely 100 % successful. 

During incubation

Chick embryo’s need warmth, proper humidity and ventilation to thrive and grow.  The temperature should be between 100 and 102 degrees F. depending on your incubator style.  Read the directions!  Your instruction should also tell you how to set and adjust the humidity and ventilation.  Until the 18th day humidity should be around 50% on the 18th day it is increased to 65-70% to aid hatching.  It is extremely important to maintain the exact temperature and ideal humidity level throughout hatching.

If you have egg turning racks you should not have to handle the eggs during incubation.  If you don’t have turning racks you will need to turn the eggs 2-3 times a day.  Turning the eggs keeps the embryo from sticking to one side of the egg, which will make it difficult to hatch.  If you are turning the eggs by hand, mark one side of the egg with a nontoxic marker as a visual aid.  Wash your hands before handling eggs; gently rotate them a half turn each time.  Keep the incubator open as little time as possible.

On the 18th day, stop the egg racks or stop hand turning eggs.   The chicks are getting in position to hatch and turning eggs will make them start all over, wasting energy.  On the 21st day chicks should begin to hatch.  During the last 3 days ventilation should be increased, read your instructions for how to do this.

Avoid opening the incubator too much during hatching.  Remove dry, fluffy chicks every six hours to a warm brooder you have prepared.  Don’t leave the incubator open for long.  Most experts warn against helping chicks out of eggs that seem to be having trouble.  Those chicks generally do not survive.   Chicks can take 6 hours or more to hatch on their own and still be healthy.  24-36 hours after the first chick hatched you should probably discard the remaining eggs.

For more detailed information on incubating eggs read the book Raising Chickens for Dummies. 


Should you raise chickens for meat?

With the cost of food skyrocketing and continual concerns over food safety many Michigan homeowners have began to think about growing their own food, and that includes meat.  For many people raising a beef steer or hog just won’t work but you might be able to raise your own chicken.  It does take some planning and there are some important decisions you need to make.

Don’t expect to raise your own chicken for much less than what you can purchase it at the store.  On a small scale, your cost to raise chickens for meat will probably be the same if not higher than purchasing chicken at the store.  But you will have the satisfaction of knowing how the chickens were raised and in directly participating in growing your own food.  This article discusses some decisions you should make before deciding to raise chickens for meat.

Do you have the right to raise chickens?

First you need to know if you can raise chickens at your home.  You will need about 10 weeks tops to raise a batch of conventional, fast grower broiler chicks and it could be done inside an outbuilding.  It won’t be too noisy but it can be a little smelly.  If you want to raise pastured poultry or free range poultry, you’ll need more time and the chickens need secure pens outside.

You could take the chance and raise a quick group of chickens without official approval, they would probably be ready to butcher before you were forced to get rid of them.  But you would probably get just that one chance, you may be told not to do it again.  But it’s better to know you can legally raise chickens. That way you can invest in good equipment that will help you raise chicken for many years to come.

What’s your idea of good chicken?

If you want chicken that tastes just like store bought chicken and you just want the knowledge that it was raised humanely and without drugs you can purchase the same type of chickens that are raised commercially.  These are Cornish - White Rock crosses.  They are known by various names - Vantress- Hubbard Mountain, Jumbo Cornish cross etc.   They are available from hatcheries year round, they grow very quickly and they produce lots of white breast meat.

These broilers can be raised on pasture or free range but they don’t really do well in those situations, they need high protein feed to keep their legs from deforming and they aren’t very active.  You can raise broilers specially bred to be free ranged or pastured, but these can be hard to find and more expensive than conventional broiler hybrids.  You can also purchase the male birds from some breeds of chickens typically called dual purpose breeds. 

Males from any color of Rock chickens, new Hampshire Reds, Orpingtons of any color, pure Cornish of any color, Buckeyes, and Wyandottes are good choices of male birds that can provide a decent amount of meat in a decent amount of time.  The males from the black sex-link cross, commonly called Shaver Blacks, are another good choice. 

These breeds do better in outside conditions, but you will find that the meat produced will taste a bit differently than the meat from conventional broiler hybrids raised inside.  Some people prefer the more flavorful meat.  There is less breast meat in these birds and   these breeds are generally available only in the spring and early summer.

Chickens that run around actively have somewhat tougher meat, meat that gets tougher the longer they are allowed to grow.  You’ll need to butcher them at a smaller size to maintain tender meat.  They take more feed and more time to produce a pound of meat than typical broiler crosses.

It takes about 8-10 weeks to raise hybrid broiler chicks to eating size.  It takes 14- 20 weeks or more for other breeds.  Don’t buy chickens listed as “fry pan specials” or cheap male chicks that come from lightweight egg producers or ornamental breeds.  These will not provide good meat or a happy meat raising experience for you.

What kind of housing can you provide?

Each chick from hatch to 1 month needs about 6 square inches of floor space.  After that conventional broilers need at least 18 square inches, until butchered.  More active meat breeds need 2 square feet of floor space or more.  All chickens need a dry home, protected from cold in the winter and too much heat in the summer.

You can raise conventional broiler chicks inside in a well lit corner of a barn or shed.   The other breeds could also be raised this way with a little more space.   If you are planning on housing the chickens outside you’ll need to plan for sturdy pens that keep out predators as well as the weather.  It’s only practical to raise chickens outside in Michigan in the warmer months.

How many can you raise at a time?

Most hatcheries sell chicks in a minimum amount of 25 chicks.  If you can combine an order with a friend a good first time meat chicken experience would be 10 chicks.  Otherwise you’ll probably be dealing with 25 chicks so figure floor space accordingly. 

You get price breaks on ordering larger numbers of chicks.  However chickens don’t “hold” well alive.  When they are ready to butcher you’ll need to do it all pretty much at one time.  How much chicken can your freezer hold?  How much chicken are you willing to eat in about 6 months?

Who is going to do the butchering?

You can butcher at home.  It’s messy and you will have lots of smelly waste to dispose of.  If you would like to know more about the butchering procedure read the book  Raising Chickens for Dummies. It is strongly recommended that you leave the butchering to someone else if you have close neighbors or squeamish children or spouse.

It’s easier and more convenient to have a professional do the butchering for you.  This is generally quite inexpensive.   Find out where chicken processors, (butchers) are in your area before you get the birds.  Usually you need to have an appointment several weeks in advance.

Once you have decided on what kind of birds you want to buy, how you want to raise them, where you are going to house them and how you will butcher them you are ready to try some birds.  If you need more information on the feeding and care of the birds please see the Raising Chickens for Dummies book.

Keep good records of what you spend on raising your meat chickens. Start small to see if it’s something you enjoy doing. You may want to try several breeds and methods of raising meat birds that suit your taste and budget.  If you find the work is too much you may be able to find a local chicken raiser to provide you good humanely raised chicken.


Bantam chickens

Bantam chickens are the tiny jewels of the poultry world.  These miniature chickens may be small versions of standard chicken breeds or sometimes specially created breeds which have no larger equivalent.   Bantams are an excellent choice for people wanting to keep chickens where space is limited.  They are also easier for small children to handle when they want to have a poultry 4-H project or want to show chickens.
Silkie Bantams

Bantams come in varying sizes, even though they are smaller than conventional chickens.  Some are very tiny, like Belgian Antwerps, which weigh about a pound and a half when mature and others can weigh up to 3 pounds or so, such as bantam cochins.  Bantam chicks are very tiny and somewhat delicate and should be kept separately from larger chicks.  They can be reared in a brooder just as you would raise regular chicks.

Bantam eggs, while small, can be eaten just like any other chicken egg and are just as tasty and nutritious.  Bantam eggs can be brown, white or even blue just like the eggs from regular chicken breeds.  Some bantams’ lay quite well but some are sporadic or seasonal layers.  In general if you want bantams for egg production choose bantam breeds that are the smaller version of good laying breeds, like bantam Leghorns or Plymouth Rocks.

Some adult bantam chickens can be housed with larger chickens but it is a better idea to have separate quarters for bantam chickens and full sized chickens.  Some people keep a bantam rooster with large hens because they cause less damage to hens when mating them and are less intimidating to people while protecting their flock.  This usually works out just fine.

Care of bantams

Bantams can be cared for much like other chickens.  They should have a minimum of 2 square foot of floor space in their pen or coop per adult bird.  Fencing used for bantams should take in account their small size and not have openings they can squeeze through.  Bantams are lightweight and often fly well, so outside pens should be covered.  This also protects the small chickens from hawks.

Bantam chickens can free range in your yard just like bigger chickens but be aware that they are great predator bait.   The tiny birds could be chicken dinner for a wide range of predators.

Because they are small bantams are often kept in cages.  Cages should be in a barn or shed to protect the birds from the weather. The cages should be at least 3 feet in height so the little birds can have a roost up off the floor.  If the cages have wire mesh floors the mesh should not have more than 1/2 x 1 inch openings.  There should be a box of diatomaceous earth mixed with sand in the cage for the bantams to take a dust bath in.

Bantam chickens are slightly more susceptible to frostbite than larger chickens and you may want to hang a heat lamp near the roosting area in very cold weather. 

Like other chickens bantams should always have clean water and a good, balanced diet.  Feed a starter-grower chick ration to bantam chicks.  If they are being kept for egg laying adult bantam hens should be fed layer feed, otherwise a poultry maintenance ration should be fed once the birds are mature.  Crumbles rather than pellets are the preferred feed texture for bantams.  Bantams adore treats like fresh greens just like other chickens.

Nest boxes for most bantam breeds should be 8 inches square and there should be 1 nest box for every 3-4 hens.  Some bantams, like silkies, are very good at sitting on their eggs and hatching new chicks.  Some breeds however, rarely sit on eggs.  Even if you do not want to eat the eggs they should be collected each day if you do not want the chickens to hatch eggs, and the eggs disposed of to keep the box and pen clean.

Some bantams like silkies are so great at sitting on eggs that they are used to hatch eggs from other chickens, even full sized ones.  A bantam hen can sit on 10-12 bantam sized eggs or about 6 regular eggs. Bantam eggs hatch in 21 days just like other chicken eggs.

Bantam breeds

For the chicken lover who wants to sample all of the chicken breeds, bantams make keeping and feeding many breed representatives easier.  There is a bantam or miniature of all most all chicken breeds, including Leghorns, Cornish, Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Rocks, Cochins, Jersey Giants, Orpingtons and even Ameraucana and Araucanas, that lay blue or green eggs.

Some unusual bantam breeds are Silkies, which have feathers that look more like fur.  They come in many colors but the skin is always blue-black and the comb mulberry red.  There is a small and a larger version of the Silkie.  In China Silkies are raised for their meat.  Silkie hens are some of the chicken world’s best sitters, they will sit all year round on eggs and make great moms.

Frizzle bantams have feathers that are curled.  They look like chickens with a perm.  They are a smaller version of the cochin frizzle.  They come in several colors.  When crossed with Silkies they are called Sizzles.  Frizzles are also good sitters and moms.

Japanese bantams have very short legs and a high arched tail.  They are often black and white but other colors exist.  Antwerp Belgian are very tiny, friendly bantams and come in several colors, quail and blue porcelain being common colors.  Hens weigh about 22 oz.  There is a separate bantam breed called the Porcelain booted bantams that is a pale blue with gold tints that have feathered feet.  Some also have feather “beards”.

Sebright bantams are unusual in that the male and female have the same coloration and look alike except for the comb, which is larger in the male.  On a gold or silver background each feather is laced or tipped in black.  The Polish bantam has a topknot of feathers that hide the eyes and some also have feather beards. 

The major problem with owning bantam chickens is that you keep wanting more of these charming small birds.   Make sure you don’t collect more than you have the time and money to care for.


Chicken myths

Chickens are one of the oldest types of domestic livestock.  They may have been domesticated when someone captured a few fluffy chicks and kept them as pets.  Pets in ancient societies were generally only there for the good times and were eaten during the bad times.  Someone probably learned that chickens could provide food without being eaten and that helped keep a few of them alive until they quit laying.   Any way you look at it chickens have been pets for a long, long time.  Even today chickens and scrawny dogs are the pets of choice for poor rural children around the world.

Today’s fad of keeping chickens as pets has produced a lot of new chicken owners and a lot of just silly “information”.  While keeping chickens is a great hobby and should be encouraged new chicken owners should realize there is a line between pet chickens and chickens that produce eggs (pet chicken owners shudder at the thought of chickens providing meat, so we won’t go there.)  Pet chickens can produce some eggs for you, although the kinds of “cute” chickens favored as pets are rarely good egg layers. 

The disinformation being circulated about chickens is typical of any new fad in pet animals.  But chickens are animals with natural behaviors that don’t make them good pets for everyone and when we suppress natural behaviors we have unhappy animals.  And a lot of the products being sold to new chicken owners are just ways for someone to make money and aren’t necessary or even good for the chickens.

This article is not meant to discourage people from keeping chickens.  Chickens make a better pet than pitbulls in an urban environment and are no dirtier than the pigeons and Canada geese we co-exist with in cities and suburbs.  But people should have a good clear understanding about what keeping chickens is all about and know the difference between advertising to sell products, myths and anthropomorphism ( attaching human qualities to animals), and solid, factual information.

Myth 1- A few chickens can provide all your egg needs.

Here’s the oft quoted line- “Chickens are the only pet that can make you breakfast”, referring to the fact that you can eat the eggs chickens produce.  And chickens do produce eggs that are good for you.  But don’t expect pet chickens to provide you breakfast every day unless you can keep unlimited numbers of hens. However most pet chicken owners are limited in the number of chickens that they can keep and unfortunately pet chicken owners tend to gravitate to breeds like Polish, Silkies, Brahmas and other fancy breeds which are not good egg layers.
Polish chicken

Here are the facts.  Even the breeds of chickens bred to be highly productive egg layers do not lay an egg every day.  Productive breeds in their first egg laying season may lay 6 eggs a week. (Production egg layer breeds make just as good a pet as other breeds of chickens, they just aren’t as “cute”.)  Most other breeds of chickens lay far fewer eggs a week maybe 3-4 in the spring and early summer.  Hens only lay one egg a day.  Eggs vary widely in size depending on the breed of chicken.  So if you like to have an egg for breakfast every morning you are going to need at least two hens of an egg production breed per person.  If you want eggs for baking and giving to friends you’ll need more hens.

After every molt, usually once a year, the chickens will lay fewer eggs.  Egg farmers deal with the loss of production by killing the birds off after the second molt.  Old time rural chicken keepers put older hens in the stew pot.  Pet chicken keepers generally keep older hens, which is fine except that you must expect to get fewer eggs every year or add new hens to your flock.  Eventually to get eggs for breakfast each morning you will be feeding a large flock of chickens.

The bottom line- if you truly want chickens for egg production, choose egg production breeds, feed them a simple balanced layer feed, and replace your hens as they age.  You’ll need 2 hens of a good laying breed to get 8-10 eggs a week, in average home production.  If you keep fancy breeds of chickens  you might need 6 hens to get 8-12 eggs a week and in winter production might be lower than that. Adjust your chicken flock to meet your expectations for eggs.

Myth 2- Some eggs taste different or are better for you

All eggs, whether blue, green, brown or white taste the same, despite many claims to the contrary. They are equally nutritious if the hens are fed a similar diet. Tiny eggs from bantam breeds are just as good for you as bigger eggs.  And you don’t need roosters to get eggs, and there is no difference in nutrition or taste in a fertilized egg and an unfertilized one.   Egg yolk color can vary according to what diet hens are eating.  Hens eating green things have deep yellow to orange yolks.  

Fresh eggs do taste different –better- than eggs from hens kept in tiny cages and that travel long distances and sit for weeks in a store.  Pet chicken owners need to remember though that good egg production will only happen when hens are fed a balanced diet designed for egg production and too many treats or expensive rations designed more for their owners than the hens will slow egg production.

Don’t pay large amounts for hens that lay dark brown eggs, olive eggs or whatever color is trendy at the moment, unless you just like the look of the breed and aren’t concerned about egg taste.  When eggs from chickens fed the same type of diet are cracked and cooked, no one can tell what color the egg shell was or any difference in flavor.

Myth 3 - Chickens are vegetarians

That one is truly laughable.  Chickens will happily and hungrily gobble down any meat they come across whether it is bugs or meat from the Kentucky Fried Chicken bones.  They will eat their own eggs without a blink. They will eat mice and snakes if they catch them. They will eat dead animals.  ( Not a great idea to let them.)  In nature wild chickens eat just about anything.  Can you feed chickens a vegetarian diet?   Sure and they will eat it; maybe do well on it if it’s well balanced.   But they don’t need a vegetarian diet nor do they want it.

Don’t pay more for a vegetarian feed.  There is some concern among people that animals that are fed protein from other animals may transmit strange diseases.  But that is true only for animals designed by nature to be vegetarians, such as cows.    Modern feed producers are prohibited from adding poultry by products (meat) to poultry feed to prevent poultry disease transmission.  And as a matter of food security meat from ruminant animals such as cows and sheep isn’t allowed in poultry feed either.  But fish meal and pork products can be used.  Everything is highly processed and cooked.

As far as organic feed goes- it will cost you a lot more.  If you can afford it and think it’s a good idea it won’t hurt the chickens.  Most commercial chicken feed, whether organic or not is perfectly safe.

Pet chicken owners are suckers for claims that their chickens need things like expensive freeze dried mealworms.  They are sold all kinds of expensive chicken treats now.  Chickens don’t need those treats.  If you want to give them a good treat give them half a melon, some ham bones to pick or left over bread.  If they don’t get out of a pen throw them some dandelion leaves.  They’ll be just as happy.

Too many treats lower egg production and make hens fat, which is not good for them.   One good thing a modest amount of treats can do is train your birds to come back inside their coop when you want them too.  Chickens learn well when a food reward is given.

Myth 4- Chickens can be happy in small coops

Most of the cute plastic or pre-fabricated wood coops being sold at exorbitant prices are for the convenience of humans and reflect what humans think chickens like.  A chicken can live in one of those things – they can live in small wire cages too.  But most of these aren’t really chicken friendly and don’t give the chickens enough room to be comfortable.  Some are sold with the idea you will move them around the yard for the chickens to graze fresh grass every day.  That might work if people actually moved them every day- but will you?  And what about winter?  It’s not humane to keep chickens in those small pens through a typical 4-5 month winter.

Each adult hen needs at least 3 square feet of space for humane housing.  More would be better, but this will work, especially if they get out to roam a bit once a day.  Chickens like to roost off the ground at night, and feel safest when they can.  A coop should provide a roost 3 feet of the ground at minimum, so those plastic igloo things just aren’t happy places for chickens.  Most people who like keeping chickens will gradually expand their flock, so start with extra space.

Chickens do need to be in a fenced area for their own protection and you and your neighbors will want to keep them out of certain areas.  If you want to make your neighbors mad let your chickens stray into their well-kept yards.  Let them sit on their porch rail and poop or walk across the picnic table.  It’s as bad as if you let your dog have the run of the neighbor’s yard. 

But a corner of a shed or garage to roost in with a box for egg laying,  and a fenced back yard would be better than some of the expensive small coops on the market.  Better yet would be a small shelter and a secure, large fenced run.  Chicken coops can look nice, there are hundreds of fancy coop pictures on line but they must address chicken needs before human needs.  That’s enough space for normal chicken behaviors, a roost off the ground and protection from the elements and predators.

Myth 5- Chickens are great for the garden

Another great big laugh and one of the most prevalent myths on chicken keeping is that chickens are great for the garden.  Chickens can only be let in the garden after everything is done for the season – and in flower beds that still might not be a good idea.  Chickens are terribly destructive in gardens.  They eat seed, pick flowers, scratch up big holes and leave unpleasant droppings that can carry food borne illness, along with the fertilizer. 

Yes chickens eat some bugs but they also eat strawberries, take bites out of each tomato and gobble up flower blossoms.   Chickens make great big holes for dust baths, as bad as a digging dog. Chickens don’t belong in the children’s sandbox or playhouse either.  Chicken droppings can carry salmonella and other unpleasant illnesses. 
You can save your chicken manure, let it age for 6 months and then use it as garden fertilizer.  But don’t add fresh manure to your garden, it will burn your plants.

Myth 6 Chickens are cuddly house pets

Chickens should never be kept in the house.  It’s the reason why rural third world people get diseases like bird flu, because they are in close contact with chickens for long periods of time and chickens wander through homes and roost inside.  Chickens cannot be housebroken.  Chicken droppings are messy, they stain and they are smelly.  Many people live with other pets that aren’t housebroken but chickens carry some pretty serious diseases in their droppings and feather dust.
Putting a diaper on a chicken is just silly and uncomfortable for the chicken.  If you must have chickens inside, even baby chicks, confine them to a room away from eating and food prep areas and wash your hands frequently.  Chickens have different ideas of bed time and wake up time from humans too and you will be upsetting their normal body rhythms when they are kept in the home.  It’s not healthy for them or you.

While you might see pictures of chickens who appear to be cuddling with their humans it’s the rare chicken who likes being held or touched.  Many become tame enough to follow you around, eat from your hand and maybe occasionally jump up on a knee in search of treats but they do not enjoy being held.  A chicken is dinner for many animals and their instincts tell them something that is holding them is up to no good.  While they may learn to tolerate it, it’s very stressful for them.

Chickens are fun to watch; they can provide as much enjoyment as a reality TV show but don’t try to “tame” them into cuddly pets.   Some people think handling young chicks frequently should tame them, and it may condition some individuals to accept the handling, but most will never like it.   Some breeds are calmer than others, but no breed is cuddly and don’t let people tell you that is so.  

Chickens can make good pets for children if everyone understands the limitations of such a relationship and respects the chickens desire not to be handled.  Children in particular should not be cuddling chickens.  They should not be kissing them or rubbing their faces on them.  Once again, chickens carry salmonella and other disease organisms that can cause serious illness.  And the stress caused to the chickens by too much handling often makes them ill. 

If children are taught to watch and not handle chickens, if they are taught to wash their hands after feeding or interacting with chickens there is little chance they will become ill from them.   Older children can exhibit chickens in shows or teach them tricks if they learn proper handling and sanitation procedures. 

The fact that more and more people are keeping chickens as pets and to provide eggs is probably fueled by both our desire to be in control of some of our own food production, and the fact that some famous people decided to keep chickens.   It’s been a big boost to the people who sell chicks and chicken supplies but some people are taking advantage of newbie chicken owners.  It’s actually a good trend as it gives people a better sense of where food comes from and makes them aware that chickens are creatures with fascinating behaviors and complex social systems that need humane treatment.

Like all fads there is a downside to the keeping chickens movement.  More and more chickens are showing up in animal shelters or worse, being turned loose to fend for themselves.  Before you embark on a keeping chickens for pets or eggs project, make sure you do the research and know that you can be a responsible chicken owner and that the endeavor really fits your lifestyle.

Before you get chickens read the highly rated, bestselling, chicken book for beginning chicken keepers- Raising Chickens for Dummies.  You can buy it here.


Chicken terms you need to know

If you are new to the hobby of raising chickens you can easily get confused with the jargon that more experienced chicken keepers will spout as they talk about their birds.  Here’s a quick cheat sheet to make sure you can keep up with the hen house chatter.

Gender names

Chicken is a broad general term for all ages and sexes of well - chickens.  If you want to be more specific and look more knowledgeable when talking about chickens use these terms.

Chick is a young bird from hatching until it is feathered out and can be sexed.

Pullet is a term for a young female chicken from the time she can be sexed to the time she lays and egg.

Hen is the name for female chickens that have laid eggs.

Cockerel is a name for a young male from the time it can be sexed until it starts to crow.

Cock is a male chicken that’s sexually mature, he’s fully developed and capable of crowing.

Rooster is another name for a cock.  In other countries they are sometimes called stags too.

Capon is the term for a neutered male chicken.  This is rarely done anymore.

Chicken anatomy terms

Let’s start with the head and work our way down.  It always helps to look at a good picture of a chicken as you review these terms.

The comb is the fleshy area on top of a chicken’s head.  Both hens and roosters have them although they are generally larger in roosters. Combs have wavy or scalloped areas called lobes.  Different breeds also have different types of combs.  Most chickens have red combs; Silkie chickens have deep, purple -maroon combs. 

Combs are subdivided into types of combs.  These really need photos or better yet actual observation to learn.  A few basic types are single comb- the usually large, upright comb with a single row of lobes.  A buttercup comb has two rows of lobes in a v shape.  Strawberry combs are very crumbled, tight to the head combs with no lobes showing, they look more like bumps.  A rose comb is similar, although it’s a bit larger with a point toward the rear.  There are even more comb types in show breeds.

Ear lobes -around a chickens ears is a bare spot.  Below that spot is a small flat protruding piece of skin called an ear lobe.  In most chickens its red.  Silkies have blue or purplish lobes. 

That piece of skin around the ear is usually colored red or white.  If white the chicken lays white eggs if it’s a hen.  If red the chicken lays brown, blue or green eggs.

Cere- around a chickens nostrils, at the base of its beak close to the head, is a pad or raised area called the cere.

Below the chickens beak are two fleshy pieces called the wattles.  They are larger in roosters as a rule.  In laying hens they will be plump and shiny, in hens that aren’t laying they are shriveled and dull looking.  Most wattles are red, although some chicken breeds have blue or black wattles.

On a chicken’s feet are its toes, complete with toenails. Most chickens have four toes, a few breeds have a fifth toe which will be on the back of the leg.   Sexually mature roosters also have a spur.  This is a toe-like structure, hard and bony, protruding outward on the back of the leg.  It is used in fighting and can make a nasty slice in an opponent.
Some hens develop a slight spur as they age.

The vent is a chicken’s only opening for excretion.  Urine, poop and eggs all pass through this opening, and the chicken uses this multipurpose place for mating also.  There is an area inside the vent where the hens’ oviduct opening is and where the male has a bump that corresponds to a penis.  When a hen lays an egg the oviduct actually protrudes through the vent, the egg is laid and the oviduct is drawn back inside. 

Some feather terms

Sickle feathers are long, narrow, curved feathers over a rooster’s tail.  In some breeds they are quite noticeable as they are held very high.  In others they are more drooping.

Hackle feathers are short feathers around the chicken’s neck.  In males the ends are generally pointed and the feathers iridescent, in females rounded and plainer.  They can be raised when the chicken is angry, hence the term “Don’t get your hackles up”.

A topknot is a patch of feathers on a chickens head. Muffs are little puffs of feathers sticking out around the ear lobes.  A beard is a long string of tiny feathers under the beak.  Only a few breeds have these things.

More chicken jargon

A broody hen is one that wants to set on eggs. A brooder is spot where baby chicks are confined to keep them warm and safe in absence of a broody hen.   A clutch is a group of eggs in a nest.   An incubator is a machine that keeps eggs warm to hatch them.

Male birds crow, a rousing noise that can happen any time of the day.  Hens cackle, after they lay an egg, it’s a loud repetitive noise.  A cluck is a softer repetitive noise all chickens can make.  A coop is a general term for chicken housing.  Chook is a name used by people from Europe and Australia for hens. Flock is the term for a group of chickens.

There are many more chicken terms to learn as you get more experienced and involved with raising chickens.  However these basic terms will let you talk chicken without looking like a dumb cluck.


Raise your own turkey

If you have looked all over this year to find a locally grown humanely raised turkey without much luck why not raise your own Thanksgiving or Christmas main entrée next year?  Turkeys are not hard to raise, and if your zoning allows it, you can raise your own in just a few months.  Most country areas have someone who will butcher the birds and clean them for a few bucks, so that part of the plan shouldn’t be a problem.

You generally buy turkey chicks or “ poults”  from mail order hatcheries, just like you do baby chicks.   Sometimes local stockyard flea markets or local growers will also offer poults for sale.  A Michigan hatchery that sells turkey poults is Townline Hatchery.

There is generally a minimum of 15 poults or more from mail order hatcheries.  If you can’t find someone to share an order, you may be able to sell some of the poults by putting up a notice at a local feed store.  And 15 poults aren’t much more trouble than 2 or 3, so you may want to raise them all.  You could sell them as locally, humanely raised birds to your friends and co-workers or even give them as gifts!  And frozen turkey will keep to your Easter meal too.

If you want nice, broad breasted turkeys like you get in the grocery store chose Broad Breasted White or Broad Breasted Bronze turkeys.  The Bronze look like wild turkeys except they are larger, broader breasted and easier to raise. The Bourbon Red Turkey is a lesser known breed that will cost you more but is considered the best tasting turkey by gourmet cooks.  There are several other breeds, but they cost more than Broad Breasted Whites or Bronze, and yield a smaller carcass.

Don’t worry about whether you get “Toms” (males), or hens (females).  Both are equally tasty and just as easy to raise.  Toms do get larger, extremely large, if you let them.

Baby turkeys are cared for like baby chicks. (See article on this page)  They must be kept warm, 95ºF the first week and the temperature lowered every week by 5 degrees until you reach air temperature.  Don’t buy your poults too early.  If fed correctly turkeys are quite large by 5 months.  You could butcher them then and freeze them for Thanksgiving but its easier to start later, when the weather is warmer.  In Michigan you can start turkeys in June or even July, and have nice sized turkeys for the holidays.

Feed your turkeys meat bird starter and later, meat bird grower, not feed designed for regular chickens.  They must have a high protein feed to develop correctly.  There are organic feeds on the market if you look for them.  Healthy birds that are kept clean and fed correctly do not need antibiotics and feed supplements.   Don’t feed a lot of table scraps and whole grains etc. if you want maximum growth at a good rate. 

Commercial feeds have been designed by experts to contain the levels of protein and various vitamins and minerals birds need for good growth.  Most do not have antibiotics, and if they do, it must be listed on the label.  To get poults off to a good start you may want to use one bag of antibiotic feed to start them.  It helps prevent diarrhea and colds in young chicks.  Then switch to feed without antibiotics- the antibiotics will be long gone from the birds system by the time it is butchered. Don’t try to design your own feed for just a few turkeys, it isn’t cost effective and may harm them.

You can let your turkeys out to roam and eat bugs once they have their feathers as long as you protect them from predators.  Be aware though, that turkeys, especially young hens, fly quite well, and often escape from pens that aren’t roofed.  They like to roost up high at night and aren’t as eager to return home to roost as chickens are.  Turkeys that have a lot of room to roam will take more feed and a slightly longer time to mature to butchering size.  You can keep turkeys inside in pens or outside with protection from the weather.  Each turkey should have 4 square feet of living space as a minimum.

Unless you are showing chickens or buy and sell chickens it is ok to keep turkeys and chickens together.  Chickens do carry a disease that doesn’t affect them much, but does kill turkeys, ( Blackhead).  But if your chickens were raised from chicks at your home and haven’t been exposed to strange turkeys or chickens they are unlikely to have the disease.

Don’t let turkeys get too large before you butcher them.  Think about the size of your oven and what size turkey you normally buy for meals.  A turkey will dress out about a third less than its live weight.  Therefore a 20 pound live turkey will dress out to a roughly 14 pound bird.    Even small turkeys make good eating, but 30 pound turkeys are hard to cook.

If you want someone to butcher the bird for you, make your appointment well in advance of the date you want the bird, especially around the holidays. These people get swamped near holidays with jobs and you may be disappointed if you wait too long.  A turkey will keep fresh for 3-4 days in the refrigerator.  To find someone to do the butchering, ask at local feed stores or your county Extension office for a recommendation.


Can ducks and turkeys be kept with chickens?

In the typical old picture of the barnyard a variety of animals peacefully share the space.  And if ducks, chickens and turkeys have a lot of space and plenty of food, uneventful mingling will usually occur.  But there are some drawbacks in allowing ducks, chickens and turkeys to mingle and things to know before you try it.

Ducks are very messy creatures and need to be able to “play” in their water.   In a brooder ( warm place to confine baby poultry), baby ducklings will tend to huddle around the water container.  They eat and immediately drink, getting food into the water and getting water all over the bedding.  If baby chicks are in the brooder with them, they often are exposed to wet litter and more humid conditions than they need for healthy growth.

Baby ducklings should not have water dishes that they can get into or swimming water until they have feathers.  In the wild the oil from moms feathers keeps them dry and floating, even when they are downy little balls.  Without mom they get cold and wet when they play in water.  Baby chicks should not get wet and if they are with ducklings who can get inside water dishes they will too and may drown.

Baby chicks are often more aggressive than ducklings and may pick on ducklings, pecking them until they are bloody.  Even if the floor doesn’t get too wet and the mixed residents are getting along baby ducklings need a higher protein food than chicks that will be layers or pets.   Ducklings need a game bird or meat bird starter feed, generally 22-24 % protein while most chicks require about 16- 18 % protein.  Meat chickens and ducklings could share the high protein feed.  Ducklings should not get medicated chick feed either, they will get diarrhea and be harmed instead of helped from it.

Once grown, ducks and chickens do get along in a free range situation.  Occasionally male ducks will be sexually aggressive toward chickens.  And nesting ducks may chase chickens away from the nest area but usually little harm is done by that.  Ducks will keep any drinking water muddy, even if a pond or other source of water is available.

If confined however, there are additional problems keeping ducks and chickens together.   Once again ducks tend to keep the pen or floor of shelters wet and messy.  The drinking water will be dirtied.  Ducks really need a place to bathe in above freezing weather and the “tub” area will get very wet.  In close quarters there are more likely to be problems with fighting between ducks and chickens.  In some cases ducks will be the aggressors, in others roosters or even some hens will pick on the ducks.  And ducks need higher protein feed than chickens.

Turkeys and ducks have much the same problems and concerns, although they do need the same type of feed.  Turkeys seem to suffer even more than chickens from wet conditions.  It’s really not a good idea to raise them together in a brooder or keep ducks and turkeys in close confinement together.  Once again in a barnyard, free range situation there should be little problem keeping ducks and turkeys together and these two species rarely fight. 

Mixing turkeys and chickens creates other problems.  Turkey poults, (babies) and baby chicks need the same kind of brooder conditions.   However turkey poults need a high protein feed to grow properly and avoid crippling leg problems.  Meat chickens could share that feed but chickens that will be layers or pets should not.  

Unfortunately chickens can carry a disease called Blackhead that does not affect them too much, but is deadly to turkeys.   That is one reason experts don’t recommend mixing the birds, even though Blackhead is not a common disease anymore.   If you are just raising some meat chickens and turkeys to butchering size keeping them together probably won’t be a problem if there is plenty of space.

Breeding turkeys can get aggressive with chickens and adult turkeys are known to eat the eggs of chicken hens.  The hens will copy their behavior and soon you will not be getting eggs.  The presence of large turkeys in close confinement with chickens seems to stress some hens, even though little fighting is seen.  In a free range situation turkeys and chickens will get along well, although you still have to worry about Blackhead disease. 

Turkeys and chickens will kill each others chicks if you are allowing natural breeding and hatching to occur in mixed flocks.  Of course chicken hens will eat other hen’s chicks too.  In confined housing turkeys tend to dominate roosts, nest boxes and feeding stations.   This can be worked around if there are sufficient roosts, nest boxes and feeders but care must be taken so that no birds are being left out or becoming too stressed.

The bottom line is that in a pet situation where the birds roam freely in a large area mixing chickens, ducks and turkeys generally works out ok.   You’ll want to make sure all the birds are getting enough feed and that any really aggressive birds are removed from the flock.

In confinement, in pens and shelters, it would be best to separate species, especially if you want to breed or show your birds.   In brooders ducklings should be separated from chickens and turkeys and it would be best to raise only meat type chicks with turkey poults.

If you are raising rare and expensive turkeys you need to go the extra step and separate them entirely from chickens.  In fact they should not be in pens or areas where chickens have been kept in the last year.  This is to prevent Blackhead disease.

One more thing to mention.  Chickens and turkeys do not mate freely and produce offspring. (Artificial mating and a few rare natural mating birds have produced odd, sterile offspring).   The chickens with naked necks called Turkens are just a breed of chickens selected from a mutation that left a chicken without neck feathers.  And while ducks may breed chicken hens from time to time, no offspring will occur.


Guinea fowl for Michigan homes

While guinea fowl originally came from Africa, they adjust well to Michigan and can make an interesting addition to your small farm or homestead.  Be warned however that while some Michigan cities allow keeping a few chicken hens, guinea fowl (or guinea hens as they are often called), in urban areas probably won’t be welcome.  While guinea fowl are about the same size as chickens they are a lot noisier.  You could argue that it isn’t worse than a barking dog, but some neighbors might complain.

What guinea fowl are good for is eating bugs.  If you have ticks on your property guinea fowl can help control them.  If they can be allowed to roam they do a great job of cleaning up a number of harmful critters such as flies, ticks, earwigs, spiders, slugs and snails.  They are great watchdogs for other poultry, sounding a noisy alarm if hawks, dogs or other predators appear.  They don’t just call when alarmed though; they call frequently, loudly and joyfully.

Guinea fowl can also be eaten, with meat tasting somewhat like pheasant and turkey combined and their eggs can be used like chicken eggs, although they are not as prolific in producing them as chickens.  But most people keep them as bug patrols, watchdogs and pets.  If you enjoy watching chicken antics, you’ll certainly enjoy guinea fowl.

Guinea fowl are about the size of a large chicken, although shaped a bit differently.  They have bare heads and upper necks of a silvery blue gray color, with two pink protrusions on either side of the head and a tiny knob on the top of the beak near the head. The head has a rounded bump on top.  The lower neck is clothed in small tight feathers.  

There are a number of guinea fowl colors now, but the most common is the pearl guinea- which is a slate gray background color with each feather marked with a white dot.  There are often touches of rust or brown in the feathering or white wing feathers. The tail is rounded and not impressive.  Male and female guineas look exactly alike. Guinea chicks look like small chicken chicks or pheasant chicks.  They are usually yellow with brown stripes.

Guinea fowl are flock birds like chickens.  There should be at least 2 guineas in your flock, although they share space well with chickens and turkeys.  Guinea fowl fly very well and like to perch high at night.  They have a tendency to roam quite widely if not confined.

Starting with guinea fowl

It’s highly recommended that you start with guinea fowl chicks, rather than older birds.  They are more likely to be tame and stay around your home if started there as chicks.  Many chick hatcheries also sell guinea fowl chicks. Adult birds brought to a new location must be securely penned for several months or they are likely to fly or run off and not be seen again.

Guinea chicks should be started in a brooder like chickens.  Use a turkey or game bird starter feed for them as they need a high protein ration.  They can share space with baby chicks, turkeys or pheasants.

When the chicks are fully feathered out they can be allowed to go outside and begin bug patrol.  Try to get them established into a routine of returning home to roost at night by feeding them inside later in the evening then locking them in for the night.  It’s about this time that they begin their distinctive guinea calls.

Guinea fowl care

Guinea fowl have about the same needs as chickens for housing, allowing at least 3 square foot of shelter space per bird.  Give them a high perch for roosting.    Nest boxes are ok, although they may not use them, especially if allowed to roam.  Michigan guinea fowl need a warm, draft free coop in the winter, although it doesn’t need to be heated.

Guinea fowl should have a high protein feed (20% or greater) such as broiler feed or turkey feed in the winter or if they are penned up and not allowed to forage for bugs.  In summer when they have a large area to roam they do well on 16% protein rations for general poultry.  Eating layer ration when kept with hens doesn’t seem to hurt them, although you may want to supplement the protein.

Guinea fowl must have clean water at all times.  They seem to suffer less than chickens and turkeys from the heat, but overheating could be a problem in summer and shade should always be available.

Guinea fowl sexing and breeding

Male and female guinea fowl look alike and it’s very hard for new owners to sex them.  Males have a single syllable call, like cee-cee -cee and females have a two syllable call like buck-wheat, buck-wheat but they can and do mimic the males, which makes things hard. 

Guineas are flock breeders, they don’t pair off.  Males seem to co-exist fairly well even with females present, although there are occasional fights.  Females lay in late spring and summer and tend to sneak off to hide their nest if they can.  Incubation is 28 days.   If a hen hatches her own chicks she must be penned up with them or they can be taken away and raised in a brooder.  Otherwise you will seldom get any chicks raised as they are picked off by everything.

If you have space and can tolerate the noise they make, guinea fowl are very interesting and helpful additions to your Michigan poultry flock. 


Muscovy ducks for Michigan farms

If you are interested in something different for your small Michigan farm why not try some Muscovy ducks?  Muscovy ducks, Cairina moschata, do well in Michigan and are an excellent, easy to raise source of meat.   Because they are much quieter than other domestic ducks, suburban Michigan homeowners may want to raise Muscovy ducks instead of more conventional breeds, whose noise often bothers neighbors.

Muscovy ducks are very efficient in devouring bugs around the farm and can forage well for their own food.  They utilize pasture well, similar to geese, but will eat just about anything.  They like to be near water and swim well, but can be kept without access to a pond. Muscovy ducks are strong flyers, especially females, and unlike most domestic ducks like to perch high up at night.  If you keep Muscovy ducks they should be kept from escaping to the wild and this may mean clipping wings or pinioning (cutting off wing tips) them.

Muscovy hens still sit on their own eggs, unlike many domestic ducks and can raise 3 batches of 12-15 ducklings a year, even in a cold climate like Michigan.  Eggs take longer than other duck eggs to hatch, about 35 days.  Muscovy ducks can breed with domestic ducks but the offspring is infertile.

Muscovys can become very tame if handled gently.   Males make a hissing sound, females have a soft quack that is rarely used and also hiss.  They can be herded from place to place if the wings are clipped with little fuss.

They do not form pairs; rather one male should be kept with 3-4 females.  Males are very aggressive with mating and more than one female is recommended to keep one female from being worn out.  Muscovy ducks can also be aggressive with other ducks and with other poultry, but generally if raised with other types of birds, aggression will be minimal.

Males are considerably larger than females; domestic males often reach 9-12 pounds as adults.  Hens reach about 5-7 pounds.  Young ducks grow quickly and can be butchered for meat at about 4 months.  Muscovy meat is somewhat different than other duck meat; it has less fat and is redder, more like beef than poultry.

Male muscovy

Wild muscovy ducks are primarily black, with lustrous green highlights and a few white wing feathers.  They have a bare patch of skin around the eyes and cheeks and most males and some females have red caruncles or bumps around the face.   Some domestic muscovy show drakes,(males), have been bred to have numerous and large caruncles on the face. Muscovy drakes also have a crest of feathers on their head which can be raised and lowered.

Domestic muscovy ducks now come in a wide range of colors from white to chocolate.  Many are pied, (a solid color with white).  While white ducks may dress out better for meat, the darker birds are prettier for pets and showing.

In Michigan, Muscovy ducks will need some winter protection; they need a shed with perches off the floor and dry, draft free conditions.  If kept on wet ground frost bite of the feet can be a problem.  Muscovy ducks need game bird, duck, or turkey feed supplemented with lots of greens. Make sure drinking water is always available.  They don’t need bathing water in winter, but would appreciate a warm bath from a shallow tub on a sunny mild winter day. 

While the Muscovy duck is an ideal duck for the sustainable homestead because they sit on and hatch their own eggs, there is some confusion about the laws regarding the keeping of Muscovys.  In 2010, the U.S Fish and Wildlife service, seemingly unaware that many people raise Muscovy ducks for meat and for showing, placed the Muscovy duck under the Migratory Bird Act  and then also made them an invasive species in many states, allowing programs to exterminate them in the wild and preventing people from raising them other than for meat.

The Muscovy duck is a native to the Americas, native to South America and Mexico and a small wild population still exists in Texas.  Other wild populations have become established throughout the United States from ducks that escaped captivity.  However Muscovy ducks were domesticated by the Incas very early in history and in the 16th century were brought back to Europe by Spanish explorers.  The Muscovy duck has been bred in Europe for hundreds of years, the breed was “improved” for meat production and many colors were developed. 

Duck fanciers began importing domesticated versions of the Muscovy duck back into the United States and here’s where the confusion begins.  Is the Muscovy duck a wild duck or a domestic duck?    Is it truly an invasive species or no more invasive than our native Canada goose?   The laws remain murky- after a hue and cry by Muscovy breeders the US Fish and Wildlife service has backed off a little from the 2010 ruling.  They allowed the public to comment on the proposed regulation and are considering changes.

Muscovy ducks are allowed for meat production but should be sold only for meat according to the 2010 ruling.  At this point however the new regulations are not being enforced as to buying, selling and keeping Muscovy ducks and the US Fish and Wildlife service is not issuing permits to keep them as a migratory bird.  If you were thinking about adding ducks to your farm and Muscovy ducks interest you, now would be the time to get them.


Care of poultry in summer weather

In Michigan the weather can go from rainy and 60 degrees to humid and 90 degrees in a matter of hours.  Weather swings are hard on poultry, especially young birds.  Caretakers need to be vigilant and adjust the conditions for their flock so that they remain as comfortable as possible.  Getting too warm can kill birds, lessen egg production and cause slower gains in weight on meat birds.

It starts with paying attention to weather reports, especially if everyone is gone from home for long periods of the day. Poultry can be comfortable when you leave for work in the wee hours of the morning but suffering or dead when you arrive home in the evening.  If the weather report is for hot, humid conditions then you will need to adjust heat lamps, add extra water, open windows or what ever it takes so that your birds will be safe later in the day.

Chickens that have their mouths open, panting and breathing hard are too hot.  Don’t add to their distress by chasing them or scaring them into running around.  In hot weather do chores, catching of birds and anything that will stress them in the early morning/late evening hours when it’s cooler.

Chickens that are breathing heavily and look like they have collapsed from heat stroke, (eyes closed, barely moving, very hot feeling), may be saved if you act quickly.  Submerse them gently into mildly warm- never cold water- making sure to keep the head out of the water, for a few minutes and then move them to a shady, cooler area.

Birds in brooders

Probably the birds most at risk for heat problems are young chicks and ducklings still in brooders.  The temperature should not be over 100 degrees for chicks and ducklings in their first week, not over 90 in the remaining weeks, with temps less than 80 preferred once the birds have feathered out, around a month.  A short period of cooler than normal temperature will actually be less harmful than overheating.  Even if it’s cool in the morning, if the temperatures are expected to be very high later in the day and you won’t be home to adjust things, adjust the heat before you leave if possible.

Adjusting the brooder heat may mean raising a heat lamp, changing to a different size heat lamp bulb or turning off the heat lamp all together.  It can also mean moving some of the birds to another space to avoid crowding and increasing ventilation by opening windows or adding fans. Fans shouldn’t blow directly on birds; the airflow should be directed over their heads.  If you turn off heat lamps and the room is dimly lit or dark add compact fluorescent bulbs for light, which don’t give off much heat.  Light is needed for the birds to eat and drink normally.

It is crucial that the birds always have water to drink in hot weather.  You may need to add a second water container or change to a larger one. Elevate the water container out of the litter a little on a block of wood or other item so that it doesn’t get filled with litter and stop working.

Keep the brooder dry; remove water soaked areas of litter.  In brooders of ducklings this will be a major, probably daily task.  Wet litter quickly becomes smelly, breeds flies and may cause sores on the bird’s feet or breast area and respiratory problems.

Meat birds in pens

Broiler type chicks and meat type turkeys suffer greatly from heat stress.  Do everything you can to bring the temperature below 90 degrees, even lower if it’s very humid.   Give the birds plenty of room to spread out and minimize activities that would cause them to get up and run around.   If they are outside they should be in the shade or have access to shade.  Pens should have good ventilation.  Add fans to move air or wet down the roofs of coops to provide evaporative cooling.

Make sure they always have water to drink.  They will grow a little slower when under heat stress because they don’t eat as much.  After several days of high temperatures and humidity you will probably lose some birds.

Laying Hens

Make sure coops are well ventilated, outside runs should have shade.  Hens should always have water available.  Free ranging hens must have shade they can access.  After a few days of very hot and humid conditions it is normal for egg production to drop.  You may also notice some soft shelled eggs.   When the weather improves these problems should correct themselves.

Hens at greatest risk for heat death are those in the cute little backyard coops that have low ceilings in the shelters.  Hens may be reluctant to go into these in the evening of hot, humid days and they shouldn’t be forced inside.  These little coops should always be in the shade during hot weather.

Adult poultry in large runs or free ranging

Bird that have access to shaded areas and that can move freely about fare better than confined birds.  However they should always have access to water, and stressing them by catching or chasing them should be avoided during the hot periods.  Expect free ranging birds to disappear and be inactive during the heat of the day.  If birds normally move into a shelter at night they may decline to go inside on really warm evenings.  If it’s safe for them to be outside leave them.

Ducks and geese should have bathing water, even if it’s a large tub or kiddy pool to cool off in.

In very hot and humid weather poultry should be transported only when absolutely necessary.  Extreme measures are needed to see that they don’t overheat in transport.  Never leave them in parked vehicles, even with the windows cracked.

The good thing about Michigan weather is that it rarely stays the same for long periods of time, and relief from the heat is generally only a storm away.  But even relatively normal summer weather can be deadly to poultry if they are in the sun, if their housing is too crowded and poorly ventilated or they lack water.  Take a good look at your poultry housing today and make a plan for making your birds more comfortable if conditions get hot and sultry. 


Do I need to heat the chicken coop to get eggs this winter?

If you have production type hens, those bred for egg laying, such as Isa Browns, Shaver Blacks, Leghorns, Cherry Eggers and others, they do not need heat in the average Michigan winter in order to keep laying.   Some other breeds of hens, the dual purpose and fancy breeds have varying degrees of winter egg laying success and it rarely has to do with how cold it is.

What the hens do need is a dry place out of the wind that has enough room, minimum 2 square feet per bird, to move around inside.  Hens don’t like being outside in winter weather and outside runs and pens won’t be used a lot.   And that inside space has to be well lighted for 14 hours a day.  Light is much more crucial to winter egg laying success than heat.  

Using an inexpensive timer to turn the lights on at 5 am and off around 7 pm on a regular schedule is a wise investment.  A nightlight left on all night is fine but there should be a distinct difference in the lighting of the coop from day period to night.  If your schedule puts you in the chicken coop later than 7 pm or earlier than 5 am you can adjust the light to suit you as long as 14 hours of continuous bright light is used.

Don’t count on natural daylight to light the coop in Michigan winters, which are notoriously dark and gloomy, for even part of the day.  Use either incandescent bulbs, which do give off some heat, or the screw in fluorescents and leave them on for 14 hours.  

Another important factor in keeping hens laying through the winter is to make sure they have enough water.  Warm water brought to the coop twice or more times a day will work as will a heated water dish that keeps water from freezing.  

Older hens are more inclined to slow down laying in winter regardless of the breed.  This is normal and not related to the cold.  When the weather gets below zero for a few days all hens may slow down egg laying but should resume when the weather warms up.

Corn and other carb rich grains do not make the chickens warmer as some people believe.  Keep them on their laying feed except for occasional treats.  If you start feeding a lot of supplemental stuff you will get their diet off balance and that will affect laying.  You may need to feed a little more than you do in the summer as the hens need more food for maintaining body heat.

If you do decide to warm the coop don’t warm it above 40 degrees and watch for moisture and ammonia build up.   Those things harm the chickens more than the cold.  Good ventilation is a must, although the chickens should not be exposed to strong drafts at floor or roost level.    One heat lamp over a part of the roost area may be enough to keep the hens comfortable.

Keep the floor of the coop dry and make sure the hens can perch up off the ground.  If you can, provide a box of sand for winter dust baths.  A pumpkin, head of cabbage or lettuce, or large squash will provide a treat and help with boredom.   Your hens should continue to provide you with eggs throughout the winter with good care and no added heat.  For more information on keeping chickens laying please see this book Raising Chickens for Dummies, which has all the latest chicken information.


What do pet ducks and geese need for the winter

Some people keep ducks or geese on a farm pond just for looks others keep ducks and geese for eggs or meat.   Not all farm ducks and geese have access to water but many have at least a homemade pool.  So what do you do when the Michigan winter hits and the water freezes?  And what type of shelter do ducks and geese need in the winter?

In the wild ducks generally fly on until they find open water somewhere.  While ducks do not need to swim, they do need water to drink and being on water protects them from many predators looking for a winter meal.   Ducks and geese have thick down that protects them from cold water and air temperatures.

Pet ducks and geese may not be capable of flying and we don’t want them to leave anyway.  While you sometimes hear of ducks getting frozen into a pond this doesn’t happen very often, ducks and geese are generally smart enough to get out before its frozen solid.  But if you have valuable ducks and geese you’ll want to herd them somewhere away from the pond or empty out small pools before really cold weather sets in.  If you have a farm pond with an aerator that keeps a good sized area of water open during the winter you might be able to leave them where they are.

Some domestic ducks and geese may still be able to fly.  Muscovy ducks are a good example.   They may decide to fly off looking for open water as their current water freezes up.  It’s a good idea to pen them up a little early or trim their wings in late fall.  If the wings are not trimmed the pen needs a roof.

Some ducks and geese may already be in pens suitable for winter.  Otherwise you’ll want to pen your ducks and geese where it’s easy for you to get to them in the winter.  You don’t want to be trudging through knee deep drifts with buckets of water.  Try not to keep ducks and geese with chickens or turkeys for the winter.  Ducks and geese make a mess of the area they winter in, generally keeping it wetter than is good for chickens or turkeys.

To catch ducks and geese used to their freedom start by making a small wire pen with an easy to close gate early in the fall.   A roll of snow fence will work.   It needs to be large enough so that all the ducks and geese can get inside at once.   Leave the gate open and feed only inside the pen.   Don’t leave feed for long in the pen, you want them to be eager to enter the pen when they see you leaving food.  After a week or so start standing by the gate so they have to go inside to get the feed with you around.  In another week or so you should be able to trap them inside to catch them.

The winter pen should be sturdy enough to protect the ducks and geese from predators, as they are more vulnerable on land.  Pens should provide 3-4 square feet per duck and 5-6 square feet per goose, not counting the shelter footage, at a minimum.   It’s a good idea to have netting or wire on the roofs of the pens of smaller ducks so owls and hawks don’t pick them off.

Domestic ducks and geese do need some winter shelter, especially those native to warmer climates such as African geese.   It should protect them from cold rains and the wind.  A three sided shelter facing south will generally work.  Rare and valuable ducks and geese should probably be moved to inside a shed or barn for the winter.

The shelter should be just tall enough that the tallest bird doesn’t have to duck to get inside.  It should allow about 2 square feet per duck or 3 square feet per goose.  Ducks and geese, with the exception of Muscovy ducks, do not need perches inside a shelter. 

If you are leaving the ducks and geese on a pond where water is open during the winter situate the shelter somewhere close to the bank of the pond closest to the open area.  Ducks and geese are not able to tromp through big drifts of snow and there are times when you may need to make a path from the shelter to the water for them.

Line the shelter with a thick layer of straw, grass hay, wood shavings or even dried leaves.  You’ll want to clean out the shelter during thaws and add new bedding.  

A single pair of ducks may be able to use a big doghouse as a shelter.  Another easy shelter is to stack bales of straw two to three high in a rectangle or square, to the dimensions needed to accommodate your flock.  Drive a few stakes in the ground around the bales before the ground freezes to hold them in place. Then cover with a piece of plywood that overlaps the bales on each side by a few inches and hold the wood in place with a couple more bales.

Old pallets can be wired or nailed together and covered with tarps or plastic.  Make sure to anchor shelters from the winter wind. These temporary shelters can be removed in the spring.  You may want to build something a bit more presentable that the ducks and geese can use all year.

In the winter you do not need to supply bathing or swimming water for ducks or geese but you must give them water at least twice a day, preferably with their meals.   On a mild winter day they may like a quick swim in a wading pool or large tray if you can provide the water.  They won’t get cold and it helps clean their feathers.  Dump the water after a few hours.

Ducks and geese need more feed in the winter, especially if they were used to getting a lot of their own feed from a pond area.  Even ducks left on a pond will need winter feeding. You should use feed prepared for ducks and geese, or a pellet or crumble made for meat chickens or turkeys will work.  Some people feed scratch grain but there is a lot of waste and the grain attracts mice, rats and nuisance birds.  Corn alone is not a suitable food for ducks and geese; it will result in nutritional deficiencies and poor health.   Bread and other scraps should be reserved for treats.

Feed and water close to the shelter so ducks and geese don’t have to walk long distances through snow.  Water should be given with the feed because it is hard for ducks and geese to eat without water.  They’ll make a mess of the water and containers will need to be cleaned frequently. 

Watch the birds to see that all are eating and drinking.  In close quarters some birds may dominate feeders and water and prevent others from eating.   Male ducks are also known to fight with each other.  You may need to provide a separate pen or at least several feed and water containers.

Your ducks and geese should make it through the Michigan winter just fine with a little attention.  And their antics may amuse you on a dull winter day when you have more time to observe them.


Mareks disease

Keeping a few chickens in your Michigan backyard or as small flocks has become far more common than it was even 10 years ago.    As small flocks appear everywhere we are seeing a common chicken disease, Mareks disease, become more prevalent.  Mareks is the most common disease home flock owners will encounter and the most common poultry disease in the world.

Mareks disease is so common that almost all chickens will be exposed to it during their lifetime.   It occurs in commercial and small backyard flocks.  In Michigan’s commercial flocks Mareks seldom causes any great problems and losses to the disease are low.  In small flocks though, Mareks often has devastating effects.  There are several reasons why that is so.

Mareks disease is caused by a virus, specifically a herpes virus.  There are at least 6 strains of the virus and some are more deadly than others.  It commonly affects young birds from about 6 weeks to 24 weeks and female chicks are more susceptible.  Older birds can get the disease and also have relapses of more serious illness after mild cases of the disease at an earlier age.  

Mareks can cause many different symptoms from barely noticeable illness to paralysis, blindness, skin lesions, and tumors on various organs.  Birds paralyzed with one foot pointed toward the front and one toward the back is an indicator of Mareks disease.  There is no easy, non invasive test for Mareks though, and many chicken diseases have symptoms similar to Mareks.

All chicks start life by being Mareks disease free because the virus cannot be transmitted through the egg.  They carry some immunity to the disease from their mother for a few days after hatching. There are two ways they are then exposed to the virus; by vaccination and through natural exposure.

When chicks are exposed to the virus from the natural environment it takes about 6 -12 weeks for the symptoms to appear.  Depending on the breed and strain of chicken up to 90% of the chicks can get sick and more than 50% die from the disease.   Recovered birds will always be carriers of the disease and shed the virus in skin cells that are shed from feather follicles.

This feather dust protects the virus quite well and it can remain alive for many months.  It can be blown on the wind, carried on the feet of pests or on the shoes and clothing of humans, or on equipment.   The dust is inhaled by chicks and infects the lungs first.   

Chickens can also be exposed to Mareks virus by direct contact with ill or carrier chickens - which includes almost all chickens.  Wild pheasant, quail and turkeys can pass the disease to free range chickens.  One other route of infection is through meal worms, (which many small flock owners feed) and the darkling beetles that are the adult mealworm form.  The mealworms do not become sick from Mareks.

Mosquitoes and ticks don’t carry the disease.  Turkeys are the other domestic bird commonly affected by Mareks, but usually they have less serious reactions than chickens.  Other bird species that get Mareks disease are; quail, pheasants, and guinea fowl, but these cases are rare. Other types of birds do not get Mareks.  Humans and other pets do not get Mareks.

When chicks are exposed to Mareks by vaccinating them they actually develop a mild form of the disease.   They will seldom show any signs of Mareks but their bodies will produce antibodies against Mareks.  If exposed to the virus in the environment the antibodies will keep chicks from developing tumors or other serious Mareks effects.  Occasionally a vaccinated chick will show symptoms of Mareks because of vaccine failure or an unusually low immune system response but this is rare.

Many chicken breeds have a genetic resistance to Mareks through natural selection.    Breeders of commercial type layers and broilers began selecting for Mareks disease resistance around 30 years ago. 
Some small breeders of non-commercial type chickens also have achieved some genetic resistance, but of the odd and unusual breeds often favored by home flock owners, many do not have good genetic resistance. 

So why do small flock owners have more problems than commercial operations?  It’s because commercial chicken producers use birds with a genetic resistance to Mareks and because they always vaccinate for the disease.  This eliminates almost all clinical signs of the disease and Mareks causes few problems for these commercial farmers.

Genetic resistance is a good start for healthy birds, but its hard to determine what breeds have it and to what degree.  Vaccinating goes one step further to ensure protection. Modern vaccinations are a combination of several strains of Mareks. The USDA Avian Disease and Oncology Laboratory located at   Michigan State University developed the first Mareks vaccines and over 40 strains of Mareks resistant chickens.  It continues to do research on Mareks and other poultry diseases. 

Most chicken hatcheries will vaccinate chicks for a few cents if they are asked to do so.  (Meat chicks are usually vaccinated in the egg and most broiler chicks sold by hatcheries will be vaccinated).  New chicken owners often do not know they should vaccinate or they think that because they won’t be around other chickens, their chicks don’t need vaccination and they don’t request vaccination.

Other times new chicken owners pick up chicks at farm stores or flea markets and often those chicks won’t be vaccinated.   Sometimes people start with hatching eggs and hatch their own eggs or buy rare breeds of chicks from local breeders and those chicks aren’t vaccinated.   If the new poultry owner doesn’t know whether his chicks were vaccinated or knows they weren’t, he or she should vaccinate them as soon as possible.

The Mareks vaccine can be bought from poultry or vet supply houses and it is inexpensive, although the smallest vials usually have more doses than a small flock owner needs. It is simple to administer the vaccine with a small needle just under the skin.  Chickens are most often vaccinated at day 1 or 2 and new research shows a second vaccination around 6 weeks will provide even more resistance.  But chicks can be vaccinated at any age.  Chicks should be kept away from adult poultry until they are 20-24 weeks old to give the vaccine time to work.

Even when some chicks are showing symptoms of Mareks disease the vaccine may boost the immune response and keep serious symptoms from developing.  You can even vaccinate adult birds, although most will already have been exposed and have developed immunity.

For a small flock owner who often treats his chickens as pets, the loss or serious illness of even 1 or 2 chickens is heartbreaking.  It makes no sense to risk that when vaccination costs so little.    It is impossible to isolate your chickens from the Mareks virus unless you use a very sophisticated laboratory type setting that will cost far more than vaccinating.

You might think that you will just buy extra chicks or eggs and let nature run its course, and keep the survivors.   On a large scale that might work, but home flock owners are often left with surviving birds that are sickly and who never do well because they are too kind hearted to dispose of weak birds. This is why small flock owners see more adult birds showing Mareks disease symptoms as the birds often have relapses.

If chickens have had Mareks disease and recovered, and seem to be healthy and vigorous then it is fine to use them for breeding.  Birds which recovered but seem to have periodic illness or never seem very healthy should not be used for breeding.   (Birds with Mareks symptoms should not be eaten and if tumors are found in the bird at butchering the carcass should be discarded.)

Remember that there are other diseases that chickens can get, some of which have similar symptoms to Mareks.  Some areas of the country may see disease outbreaks and when there is a vaccine available, flock owners will be advised to vaccinate against those diseases too.  You can call the state veterinary office or ask at your local county Extension office to see if other chicken vaccinations are recommended.

To protect your small flock from Mareks disease always vaccinate chicks.  There is no reason that home flocks need to suffer from Mareks disease. Simple vaccination will help keep your flock healthy. 


Molt in chickens

While many older books make it sound life threatening the molting period for chickens and other poultry is a natural process and with good care your healthy Michigan flock will fly right through it without problems.  Here is a little bit of information on the molting process and how to care for your flock during molt.

In nature molting generally occurs in birds in the fall, in temperate regions.  Cooler temperatures and decreasing day length trigger the molt.  The birds gradually shed older feathers and replace them with a new, thick layer of feathers.  While birds will replace feathers that are pulled completely out of the skin at any time of the year, broken, cut and frayed feathers are only replaced during the molt.

Birds hatched in late spring or early summer may skip the fall molt or have a later, short molt.  Birds hatched at odd times of the year generally molt at about a year after they hatched, the first time and then again in late fall.  For example chickens hatched in February will probably molt for the first time in February or March the next year and then again in late fall.  A bird hatched in April will probably not molt in the first fall, but in the early fall of the next year. 

In commercial poultry operations birds are sometimes forced to molt by decreasing light, temperature and cutting the feed ration.  This is so all birds in the unit will molt at once and quickly get the process over.  In less stringently managed home flocks individual birds will molt at various times and the whole process can spread out over 2-3 months.  Depending on the species, the breed and even the individual, birds will start and finish molt at their own pace.  The average time a bird takes to complete a molt is 2-3 weeks.

When birds molt they generally stop laying eggs, although some high production strains of laying hens will lay sporadically through the molt.  High production strains of chickens also tend to have a quick molting period.  Some birds will lose the ability to fly as flight feathers are lost.  Most birds do not show any bare spots during molt although an occasional bird will have bare areas.  

If you are feeding a good balanced feed and the birds have a clean dry area out of the wind to shelter in, your birds will probably get through the molt without any problems.  Growing new feathers is energy intensive and requires lots of protein so during the molt is not a good time to cut feed quality or quantity.  In fact the quantity of feed may need to be increased slightly to allow for cooler weather and the molt using more energy.

Supplementing with a little high protein, high fat feed during molting in the fall will increase the beauty of the feathers and decrease the time spent in molt.  Things to add to the ration include sunflowers, hulled or whole, field peas, higher protein feed like game bird feed, meat scraps, even suet.    Don’t increase the supplements to more than 10% of the normal ration.

If your birds don’t free range vegetables and fruits are good supplements any time, but particularly during the molt.  Try such things like cabbage heads, split pumpkins and winter squash, kale, spinach, apples, and pears.  Once again don’t overdo supplemental feeds.

While molting may lower the birds immune system slightly, there is no reason to fear that molting will make a healthy bird sick.   There is no need to add antibiotics, vitamin supplements or exotic drugs to their diet.  The mortality associated with molting in earlier times probably came from cold, wet weather and lower food availability in the fall.    Your birds may not look as nice, feathers are lost from tails and wings, pin feathers may stick out and coloring can appear dull.   But if the birds are eating and acting normally they are fine. 

Chickens may stop laying eggs as they molt.  Eggs may also appear smaller, irregularly shaped or colored during molt.  Production type chicken breeds like leghorns, Isa browns, and sex-link layers will probably only skip a few days of laying with good management.   This includes 14 hours of light in the coop, by adding supplemental lighting.   But after each molt a hen lays fewer eggs during the following season.  Most other types of poultry stop laying in the fall anyway and don’t resume laying until spring.  

Remember that birds that have had their wings trimmed to keep them from flying will grow in new wing feathers during a molt and will regain the ability to fly.  You will need to trim them again.

The length of time a bird takes to molt and the amount of laying a hen does during molt is partly hereditary.   When selecting birds for breeding keep birds that go through molts quickly and easily and in chickens wanted for eggs, select parent hens that lay during molt.

Molting birds will give you a lot of feathers to use for crafts or sell.  Pick them up frequently so they don’t get dirty.

In short the molting period of birds is a natural and necessary process.  If your Michigan flock has good feed and dry, draft free shelter they will come through it just fine and look more beautiful than ever.

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