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Keeping a small flock of chickens in your backyard is, for many people, the first step towards building a homestead and creating a more self-sufficient lifestyle.
I have been keeping and breeding chickens for over 20 years, and it is a hobby that has become a major part of my life.
I spend much of my time these days giving chicken keeping and breeding talks at clubs and shows around the country. In this article, I share some of my experiences to help you avoid making the most common mistakes new chicken keepers make.
Chicken keeping is not a complicated pastime. Providing you give your chickens the fundamentals like food, water, and shelter, they will no doubt thrive for you.
There are however some common mistakes that lots of new chicken keepers seem to make.
15 Most Common Chicken Keeping Mistakes Made by Beginners!
1. Buying your chickens without doing sufficient research
I think it is fair to say that probably the most common mistake new chicken keepers make, is failing to do sufficient research about their new hens before purchasing them.
It is not uncommon for first-time chicken keepers to go into a feed store and see a bin full of day-old chicks, only to come away with half a dozen birds without fully understanding the chicken’s long-term needs.
Whilst chicken keeping is not exactly rocket science, there are a number of different aspects of the hobby that need to be considered to prevent your chickens from being fed the wrong diet, being taken by a predator, or being allowed to destroy your garden.
Taking the time to research using informative websites, or reading quality books on the subject will undoubtably make a huge difference to your chances of success as a chicken keeper.
In my experience, a first-time chicken keeper should at the very least attend a good talk about chicken keeping, and spend at least a couple of weeks reading and researching about a chicken’s needs.
2. Not researching local zoning law properly
In my opinion, falling foul of local zoning laws is probably the next most common mistake new chicken keepers make.
Even those living out of town may still be limited by zoning laws. Your local town may place limits on the number of birds you can keep in your flock, or they may specify how close your chickens can be to neighboring properties.
Other laws may prevent you from keeping a rooster with your hens. Not being aware of what the zoning laws in your local area say might not be enough to keep you out of trouble.
You are responsible as the chicken keeper to know the rules and requirements in your local area.
You do not want to invest hundreds of dollars in a coop and run, not to mention end up falling in love with your new hens, only to find local laws prevent you from keeping livestock on your land.
You may end up having to pay a fine, or worse, give up or cull your chickens.
3. Buying a coop that is too small
Buying or building a coop that is too small is another mistake that is all too common. If you have never kept chickens before, it is all too easy to underestimate the amount of space a small flock will require.
Each hen will need about 2 to 3 sqft of coop space. This means a group of 6 hens will need a coop that offers around 12sqft to 18sqft of floor space, meaning a coop with the main body measuring 4′ x 3′ (1.2m x 0.9m) would be the minimum size for 6 hens.
When chickens go to sleep at night they prefer to fly up to roosting bars inside the coop. Each chicken will require about 8″ to 10″ (20cm to 25cm) of roosting bars.
If there is not enough roosting space for all the chickens in the flock, there is a good chance the hens will peck at one another.
When buying a coop, always be aware that vendors will always overestimate the number of birds the coop is suitable for. I would suggest reducing the number of chickens the seller says their coop is suitable for by 25% to 50%.
If it says ‘Suitable for 8 chickens’, assume it will work for 6.
4. Feeding your chickens the wrong foods
Chickens are omnivores, which means they will happily eat both vegetables and meat. This is great news as it means we can feed our chickens scraps from the kitchen including leftover fruits and vegetables such as melon, bananas, grapes, cooked rice, and pasta as well as some dairy products like grated cheese and yogurt.
However, there are also many foods that we must not feed to our chickens. In my experience, the main foods to avoid when feeding chickens are;
There are also many foods that should only be fed in moderation, including tomatoes, cat food, and cottage cheese.
Whatever else you feed your chickens, they should also have access to a good-quality, layers pellet (if they are of laying age). A complete food will give them all the vitamins and minerals they need to thrive and lay healthy eggs all year round.
5. Using the wrong type of bedding
In your coop, you will usually have one or two different types of bedding. Bedding is the general term given to whatever you spread on the floor of the coop, and also place in the nestboxes for the chickens to lay their eggs in.
Some homesteaders use the same bedding for the floor and the nestbox (which is what we do), and others use different products for the nestbox to the floor.
In my opinion, this is just a personal choice, however, there are some products you should always avoid as bedding material. These include;
Newspaper is not a very absorbent material, and if it is simply laid down in sheets, it can become very slippery for the chickens, and their poop tends to get stuck all over their feet.
Cedar shavings are another poor choice for bedding material. Cedar shavings are considered aromatic and prolonged exposure can cause respiratory issues for both you and your chickens.
Kitty litter is sometimes suggested as a suitable bedding material, and whilst there is no denying the absorbent properties of kitty litter, it generally does not make a good bedding material and should be avoided.
Many people consider straw and hay to be the same thing and the two words are often used interchangeably when discussing bedding. However, hay has a tendency to get damp very quickly, and as a result, fungal spores can develop. These spores are often responsible for causing aspergillosis.
6. Not being aware of potential predators
As it turns out, chickens seem incredibly tasty to just about every predator in the land. Whether it’s hawks, foxes, bobcats, snakes, or even rats, there is no shortage of creatures out there waiting to take one of our chickens.
Whilst I appreciate this sounds a little dramatic, let me assure you from personal experience, if you underestimate the predators living in your local area, it won’t be a question of IF they take a chicken, but WHEN they take one.
Over the years I have lost hens to foxes on more than one occasion, and am afraid to say I did not learn my lessons quickly enough.
I can not recommend highly enough that all chickens are kept in fully enclosed runs, and they are only allowed to free range outside that run when you are around to keep them safe.
There are few predators brave enough to come and take a chicken when humans are close by, but they will if you leave your hens unattended for too long.
7. Not Locking your chickens up at night
On a similar note to not being aware of potential predators, failing to lock your chickens up securely at night puts your birds at risk.
Many predators, including snakes, rats, and mink will all happily enter a chicken coop after dark and take either a young bird or steal uncollected eggs.
Leaving the door to the coop open also allows a draught to enter the coop, and chickens hate being in a draught. During the winter, a properly locked coop can get surprisingly warm, keeping the hens safe from the worst weather.
If the door to the coop is left wide open, the hens inside can freeze to death overnight.
Always make sure the door to the coop is not only closed but securely locked at night. It is a basic part of chicken maintenance, and failing to do so can lead to you losing members of your flock.
8. Keeping more than one rooster in a flock
Roosters are highly territorial birds, and they will literally fight to the death to protect their ‘girls’ from a newcomer.
When two roosters fight, not only do they peck one another, but they also have long, sharp claws on the backs of their legs called spurs. They will try and scratch and stab one another with these spurs.
If you keep more than one rooster in a flock, you will find eventually they will fight (unless you have a very large run with lots of female chickens).
In the past, I have raised two roosters together from the day they hatched. Phil and Grant as they were known lived peacefully together with a small group of hens. Everything was great until Phil decided he wanted the girls for himself.
It was carnage for about an hour until we eventually removed Grant. Phil would I have killed him had we not intervened.
9. Adding a single chicken to an existing group of hens
This is a mistake I have seen new chicken keepers make on more than one occasion. The scenario goes something like this.
A chicken keeper has a small group of hens, and a friend or neighbor gives them another bird to add to their flock. The problem is, that chickens have a strict pecking order, and the new bird will need to quickly establish their place in that order.
Unfortunately, unless that chicken is especially bold and happy to fight for her place, there is a good chance she will end up at the bottom of the pecking order, meaning every other bird in the existing flock is going to peck her viciously for the next few days until she knows her place.
I have seen hens that were added to an existing flock be pecked to death in a matter of days.
In my experience, if you are going to mix two flocks, each flock should have a minimum of 4 birds, meaning any aggression shown is spread out among at least 4 birds. I would always advise against adding a single bird to an existing flock.
10. Not providing grit for your chickens
There is often a lot of confusion when it comes to grit. Why do chickens need it? How much grit should they have?
Grit is an essential part of a chicken’s digestive system. As chickens do not have teeth to chew their food before swallowing it, they have evolved an organ called the gizzard.
The gizzard sits between the mouth and the stomach and all the food a chicken swallows is passed into the gizzard where it is ground up with pieces of grit to break the food down before passing it to the stomach for digestion.
If chickens do not have access to grit, they will struggle to break down their food, meaning they are less able to get all the nutrients they need from their food, and they may end up suffering from constipation or impaction.
If your hens spend a lot of time free-ranging on dirt, there is a good chance they will pick up sufficient grit by just pecking at the ground.
However, I feel it never hurts to just throw a handful or two of grit around a chicken enclosure once every couple of months.
11. Not collecting the eggs frequently enough
Collecting eggs is probably the best part of being a chicken keeper. However, failing to collect the eggs frequently can lead to some major issues.
I always recommend the eggs are collected at least twice a day, and three times is better if you have the time.
If we don’t collect the eggs frequently enough, we create two potential problems. Firstly, eggs are attractive to predators including snakes, rats, and mink. There are a number of predators that will happily enter a coop and either steal the eggs or break and eat them in the nestbox.
The second potential issue is, that it turns out chickens really like the taste of their own eggs, they just don’t know it! Most hens don’t give their own eggs a second thought, however, if they ever come across a broken egg and taste the contents, they can become hooked, and they may start to actively break eggs open to get at the yolk.
The longer the eggs sit in a nest box, the greater the chance one will get broken and the hens will discover what’s inside.
12. Allowing your chickens free access to your garden
Every new chicken keeper has the same romantic idea of sitting in their garden, drinking a nice cold drink while their chickens amble around the garden pecking at the dirt.
The reality is, that chickens are incredibly destructive. They will rip your lawn to pieces and quickly destroy your flower beds.
If you take any pride in your garden whatsoever, do not allow your chickens to free range in it.
With that said, there are some hens that will do less damage than others. Typically, bantam hens are much smaller, and therefore cause less damage, but it is still probably not worth the risk.
Allowing chickens to free-range occasionally is a great idea, but they should only ever be allowed to free-range on parts of your land that you don’t mind being disrupted a little.
13. Failing to prepare for weather conditions
Whilst chickens are essentially fairly hardy birds, they do need our help to protect them both from the heat of a summer’s day, and the bitter cold of a winter one.
When it is hot and sunny, it is essential we provide our hens with shade. Chickens can overheat when they are not able to get out of the sun, and they can die from heatstroke incredibly quickly.
As well as providing some shade, we must make sure they have access to plenty of fresh water, adding an additional waterer in the summer if need be.
In the bitter cold of winter, we must ensure the coop has plenty of dry bedding, especially if their run becomes a mud bath, which it invariably does.
It is also important to carry out winter checks on the coop, making sure any potential draughts are blocked off as chickens hate sleeping in a draught. We should also check the coop is still waterproof, as typically coops become less waterproof over time.
14. Failing to properly socialize your chickens when they are young
This is another mistake many new chicken keepers make. When it comes to socializing, what I really mean is getting them used to human interaction.
When you keep a flock of chickens, there will be countless times you need to pick the birds up. It may be because you want to clip their wings, or perhaps move them to a new enclosure.
Whatever the reason, it is far easier to pick up a chicken that has been properly socialized to human interactions than it is to chase members of the flock round and around their enclosure trying to catch them. Being outsmarted by a chicken is not great for one’s self-esteem!
The best way to get your young chickens used to human interaction is by feeding them treats. Chickens essentially think with their stomachs, and they become incredibly brave when it comes to taking corn or mealworms out of your hands.
The sooner you start interacting with your hens, the more settled they will be around you.
15. Not providing your hens with a suitable dust bath
The final point on my 15 Most Common Mistakes Chicken Keepers Make is failing to provide chickens with a suitable dust bath.
Dust bathing is an essential part of a chicken’s daily self-care routine. Much like we would bathe or shower each day, a chicken will take a dust bath.
Having a dust bath helps the chicken remove unwanted bugs and parasites that might be living on the chicken. The dust also absorbs any excess oils that are on the chicken’s feathers, helping her keep herself in pristine condition.
A dust bath can either be a tray of fine material like chinchilla sand or diatomaceous earth, or it can just be a patch of dirt that is always dry, and protected from the rain.
By its very nature, a dust bath has to be dry, dusty dirt, otherwise, it will not serve its purpose.
Dust baths are another element of chicken keeping that is often misunderstood by new chicken keepers.
Chicken keeping is a hobby that I have been lucky enough to enjoy for over 20 years, and during that time I have made my fair share of mistakes, many of which are listed above.
Unfortunately, it is often a hobby that is learned by trial and error.
Providing we learn by the mistakes we make, then they are usually mistakes that were worth making.
If you found this article helpful, why not check out another one I wrote recently titled ‘10 Ways To Protect Your Chickens From Rats, Mice, And Other Rodents!‘.
- What should I feed my backyard hens? RSPCA Knowledge Base