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Caring for Backyard Chickens

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You don't have to go to a farm to observe live chickens pecking and roosting. Many people keep them as pets in their backyards, but there are considerations to keep in mind—for the health of the birds and your landscaping—when outfitting a chicken coop. Donna Carver, a poultry vet and specialist at North Carolina State University, works with growers to understand poultry health. "People need to realize that chickens have to have someone taking care of them seven days a week, at least a couple times of day," says Carver. "It's not like having a cat where you can put out an extra litter box and go away." Read on for the science behind what needs to go in your backyard chicken coop.

Waterers

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Like all living things, chickens require water. For small coops in a backyard with about three to five chickens—which is what Carver recommends—a simple drinker from a farm-supply store will suffice. "I recommend that you wash them every day," she says, "or you'll get bacteria and mold." Opt for a waterer that you can take out of the coop for easy cleaning.

Try: Gravity Drinker for Chickens, about $8; SummerHawk Ranch, The Home Depot

Feed, Garden Treats, and Feeders

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It may be tempting to buy a large feeder meant for pasture- or farm-raised chickens, top it off with feed, and call it a week's worth of food. But Carver warns against it. "The key thing is that you want to put as much food as they're going to eat in that day," she says. Leftover food attracts rodents. Additionally, in a humid climate, feed left in a feeder can grow mold, which can produce toxins that are harmful to chickens. Store food in airtight containers. Invest in a feeder that's small and easy to move, and don't leave it out at night. If you're comfortable with the idea, you can even skip buying a feeder and just throw the feed on the ground.

"Laying chickens really are putting a lot of energy into each egg," says Carver. "They need a well-balanced ration." Nutrients found in feed are essential for that. However, Carver suggests feeding them scraps from your dinner as a treat. She says that anything she'd throw in the compost is fair game. Garden-grown foods like kale, spinach, carrots, and other vegetables are healthy for the birds and give owners a chance to sit out and enjoy their coop. Add these edibles to your garden for a happy family and roost.

Try: Little Red Hen Feeder, about $8; ChickenWARE, Tractor Supply

Access to Sunlight

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The coop provides a shady respite when it comes to laying eggs and tucking in for the night. However, sunlight is also essential for chicken health. "They need to have some shade, but they actually need to spend most of their time in the sunlight," says Carver. A coop with a run, like the one pictured, is perfect. When chickens urinate and defecate in the open, the sun dries up the fluids and bacteria in them. "If there are parasite eggs in the feces, the UV light from the sun can actually kill those eggs," she says.

Chickens get access to sunlight and stay safe from predators in a screened-in run with an off-the-shelf screen door.

Natural and Artificial Light

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Birds are accustomed to seasons and, as a result, the growing industry uses artificial light to encourage egg laying. In nature, they usually fly from north to south for winter in pursuit of better places to lay eggs and raise chicks. To prep them for the flight, their reproductive glands shrink so there's less weight to carry during the journey. During warm weather you can expect a hen to lay one egg a day and some birds will lay eggs throughout the winter regardless.

Otherwise, you can supplement lowered egg production with grocery-store purchases, or use artificial light to trick them into keeping up that egg-laying pace. Carver recommends a 60-watt bulb, (a mechanic's light will work), set on a timer for 14 to 16 hours so the birds don't get too much light.

Tight, Lockable Coop

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The No. 1 cause of death to chickens—backyard- or pasture-raised—is predators. Predators vary by area, and Carver suggests a tightly fitted coop as the first obstacle to any of these roost agitators. This is another reason why it's essential to visit the coop several times a day. The chickens must be locked up at night for their own protection. "A coop has to be a little bit like a fort," says Carver. "It can't be penetrated by animals." A combination of wire and wood is ideal, with design considerations to combat predator attempts at entry. Otherwise, snakes can slide in through gaps, while other predators like raccoons, possums, foxes, and coyotes can chew through exposed wood. Attacks aren't limited to nighttime. Predatory birds like hawks can swoop down on chicken runs during the day. It's important that chicken tractors—coops outfitted with wheels—are just as tight as stationary models.

A predator-proof door latch will keep hens inside safe when you manually close the coop door. If for some reason you can't be there to close the coop at night, you can invest in an automatic coop door set on a timer.

Try: Chicksafe Premium Automatic Chicken Coop Door Opener, about $195; Brinsea, Wayfair.com

Sturdy Wire and Fencing Installation

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An enclosed run needs substantial fencing to keep out predators and keep in chickens. "It's better if you set it up right the first time," says Carver. "Once a predator gets in there, it really upsets the chickens. They can stop laying eggs if they get upset." Lining a fence with chicken wire isn't always enough. Predators like raccoons can chew through chicken wire. Layering chicken wire and stronger dog fence wire offers a happy medium for keeping chickens and predators on their respective sides of the fence. Alternatively, pricey rabbit wire with small openings is also a good, sturdy wire option to keep in chickens.

No matter the wire combination you choose, take the time for proper installation. "You want to dig down and bury the wire underground so that animals have a difficult time tunneling underneath," says Carver. She recommends curving the wire outward underground about 10 inches to a foot so that digging animals can't make headway.

Motion-Sensor Lights and Cameras for Catching Predators

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Large-scale growers often run electric fencing around chicken runs. However, electric fencing isn't an attractive choice in backyards where pets and children play. You may already have the perfect predator deterrent in your backyard. Motion-sensor lights can scare away animals gunning for your chickens. And if you have a predator issue, try setting up a camera. "If you know what you're dealing with, you're much better off at trying to deter it," says Carver.

Nest Boxes and Bedding

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Nest boxes are where all the egg-laying magic happens. Carver notes that many people put in too many nest boxes, although birds will generally use the same one or two. She recommends installing one nest box for every five hens.

It's important that these nest boxes are in secluded areas so hens can comfortably sit for a few minutes before they're ready to join the rest of the roost. A chicken's "vent," (or cloaca), is the common opening through which the urinary, gastrointestinal, and reproductive tracts empty from the body. When a hen lays an egg, a pink tissue emerges from the opening and requires a few minutes to go back inside the body. Chickens are attracted to and like to peck at pink and red objects. If they see the hen's "vent" before the rest period is complete, they may peck at the sensitive tissue, which is called vent pecking. "If they peck at the right place and open up the right blood vessel, birds will hemorrhage to death," she says. The harmful habit is hard to break.

Once you've found some secluded, dark spots for your nest boxes, you can fill them with straw, which will cushion eggs and bounce back once you remove the eggs. Absorbency isn't an issue in nest boxes bedding, as there are no fluids associated with laying, unless an egg breaks.

Installing nest boxes with a lid to the exterior, (pictured here), makes harvesting eggs easier and less disturbing for chickens inside the coop. Just make sure that's latched, as well, to keep predators from opening it.

Try: Ware Chick-N-Nesting Box, about $19; hayneedle.com

Sturdy wicker baskets packed with straw will work as nest boxes when mounted on the coop's walls. See this and more clever chicken coop design ideas.

Roosting Bars

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In the wild, chickens avoid predators on the ground by hopping onto tree branches to roost—which means standing to sleep—so chicken coops require similar accommodations. Carver has seen backyard chicken coops with thin branches mounted inside for roosting. Human aesthetics aside, birds don't need a roosting bar to themselves. Simply allot about a linear foot per bird with a bar that's at least 2 or 3 inches in diameter.

Try: Portable Roosting Bar, about $22; Precision Pet Amazon

Distracting Toys

Photo by Courtesy Fowl Play Products

Carver points out that trouble in a coop is often due to overcrowding—which is when distracting toys can come in handy. Too many birds in one coop can mean feather pecking, vent pecking, and other harmful habits. "There's a pecking order but where you've got a coop like that and don't have anywhere to go, you can get into a lot of aggressive behavior," she says.

There are a number of enticing (to humans) toys on the market that you can put in the coop to distract them, like the pictured Chicken Swing (about $30; Fowl Play Products). However, Carver has seen chicken growers find success with shiny and colorful discards that hens can peck, like Mountain Dew cans and 2-liter bottles.