An Education in Raising Urban Chickens by Ruth Danke

I think everyone who wants to have chickens should have the experience of raising them from chicks. There are several things I have learned about chickens from raising them from chicks.

  • Chicks are dusty. Whichever room you decide to keep them in, know that everything will be covered in a fine layer of dust after a few days. I have an enclosed back porch that I can close off with a door to keep the dust down in the rest of the house.
  • Chicks need to stay warm and draft-free. I use an inexpensive 18-gallon plastic tote as the sides are high so they do not jump out until they are older and it is easy to wash clean. Do not put the cover on the tote as the chicks need ventilation. I usually clamp the brooder lamp to the side of the tote. An 18-gallon tote is not very big, so you cannot have too many chicks in one tote at a time. You also need to have a plan of what to put them in when they are too big for the tote but not big enough to not need a heat lamp. You will want to have a layer of bedding at the bottom so the chicks do not slip on the plastic.

  • Check your waterers and feeders daily. If you are using a 1-quart waterer, you should probably check it twice a day as it gets filled with bedding or poop or they spill it. Once the chicks are older, you will want to switch to a larger waterer so the birds do not run out of water. Our 1-gallon nesting waterer sucks for my size hands-can’t palm the top, heavy when full of water, no good grip, harder to twist as it gets slippery. Update: Changed to a 5-quart waterer. Update: Purchased a 13 quart galvanized feed pan, put it on the ground upside down, and place the waterer on top. The water stays cleaner and it is easier to see if the ground is not level. NOTE: Make sure the spout is on the lowest side if the waterer is tipped due to uneven ground. If the spout is at the lowest point, the water does not overflow and the waterer does not keep running out.
  • Feeders. The 20” plastic flip-top feeder is annoying to refill – spills when taking off the top, if trying to fill through the holes, spills onto the floor anyway. Update: Chicks LOVE to roost on the feeder.

  • Waste Management.
    • Chicks will poop the second they get out of their brooder. Chicks will sit on the edge of the brooder tote and poop on the floor OUTSIDE of their brooder if you do not have a wire cover to keep them inside the brooder. Chickens will sit on the top of the waterer and poop on the waterer. Chickens will sit on the edge of the feeder and poop in their food. Chickens will sit on the roosts and poop on the roosts. Chickens will poop in the nest boxes. Chickens will sit on anything and poop on it.
    • You will want to change the bedding regularly so that the chickens stay healthy and to keep the brooder/coop from smelling. I typically replace the bedding in the tote once a week, depending on the number of birds and their age. For the coop, I change the bedding once a month during the summer as they are mostly in the run area and only are in the nest boxes when laying eggs. The rule of thumb is, if it looks dirty, clean it. During the winter months, if the birds are in the holding pens in the garage, I use the deep bedding method and sprinkle a layer of Coop and Compost before adding more shavings on top.
  • Children LOVE chicks. Having your brooder inside and easily viewable by children will make them very happy. Always watch the children when they are around chickens to make sure they do not harm any of the chicks when trying to pet or hold them. Make sure they wash their hands after being around the chickens.
  • Always wash your hands after handling the birds, their bedding, their feed, and/or their waterer. All animals have bacteria in their digestive tract and some of them will make humans sick. Never kiss your chickens.
  • Plan ahead.
    • Chicks grow fast enough that you need to know where they are going next once they are too big for the space you have them in. Light bulbs burn out, so always have an extra one on hand. Once they are a few weeks old, chicks love to stretch their wings and hop. Have a cover of some sort (wire cage, greenhouse tabletop) to keep the chicks inside the brooder.
    • Know what you are doing with the old bedding.  Most places do not allow you to dispose of the bedding in the normal trash collection nor at their yard clippings drop off. If you are in a place that snows, is your disposal site accessible with snow? I have a compost bin that I dump the bedding in, and then use the compost for flower beds and gardening.

  • Feed, Water, and Treats
    • Store your feed and bedding at an easy distance from the coop. Our coop is behind our house on one corner of our lot, while the feed and wood shavings are in the garage at the opposite corner of the lot. I keep a bag of feed on the back porch during winter so I don’t have to trudge through the snow to feed them.
    • Easy access to a water system to rinse and refill the waterer. Have a sponge or some type of brush to help scrub off any algae or chicken poop in or on the waterer.
    • Using empty cat litter jugs (wash and let completely dry first) as a holder of feed is nice. They have a screw-on lid, so I do not have to worry about the open bag of feed being tipped over or my children playing in it. I store the jugs of feed on my back porch, making it much more convenient for feeding chickens as the coop is near the porch door. Update: It takes too long to fill the jugs with feed when the feeder takes half the jug to fill it. Instead, I put scratch grains in one jug and dried mealworms in another. NOTE: Scratch grains are like candy for chickens. It is not a complete feed.
    • Chickens love table scraps. I like the feeling I get feeding the table scraps to the chickens versus composting or throwing it away. Make sure you pick up the rinds or whatever they do not eat regularly. A good time to do so is when you move the coop to the next spot of the lawn. Update: Chickens do not like onion. They do like eggshells, tomatoes, raspberries, melon, cabbage, lettuce, and squash (cut in half as they don’t eat the skin).

    • Train chickens with scratch grains and mealworms. As soon as the snow was mostly gone from our lawn, I let the hens out to stretch their legs from being cooped up all winter long. Needless to say, they needed some incentive to go back into their coop/run area. I would pour a little scratch grains and dried mealworms into a small blue bucket and carry that out to the coop and call to the hens to come back inside while I dump out the treats. After a few months of this, I have learned two things: one, the chickens now typically go into the run area when I call them, two, I still give them a treat once a week and they will RUN to the coop/run area when they see me carry the blue bucket.

    My thoughts on types of coops.

    • No, A-frame coop: The chickens hide in the back, so you have to crawl in at night with a flashlight in your mouth, holding up the coop side so you don’t get stuck inside. This is to catch the chickens so you can then put them up as they won’t/cacacan’t get up the ramp through the hole, which can’t be true as they seem to get up there during the day to lay the eggs. If you attempt this with a two-year-old son you will end up with the 2-year-old inside the coop and the chickens outside of the coop. Update: The hens have been in the A-frame coop for several months. They all go up the ramp to lay eggs, but only 1 sleeps in the top, the other two sleep on the ground.
    • Ease of cleanability: A removable tray for in the coop. Make sure the tray is lined with something that is not slippery as the chicken can sprain a leg on a smooth metal tray.
    • Do you want a movable coop? I recommend this. Moving the coop regularly (once a week or more often) helps keep the chickens cleaner (which keeps the ramp and the nest boxes cleaner) and the feeder and waterer cleaner. The lawn is less messy than dirt.
    • Enclosed run: If living inside city (village) limits, there are often rules that the chickens must be in an enclosed run.
    • Attach the gangplank better, ours keeps ripping out due to the ½ inch screws. Update: I used larger screws, but they kept ripping out. So I removed the ramp and the hens just jump up into the nest box.