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Lots of preparation, hard work needed to keep healthy hens


    A chicken searches for worms in a backyard in Laurel Gardens. The University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine offers information to help chicken keepers and the families stay healthy.

Dear Joan: I’m thinking about getting some chickens so I can have fresh eggs every day. My problem is I don’t really know anything about chickens.

My husband thinks I’m crazy and says I’ll get in over my head, but I just think they are so sweet and I worry about all the stuff I hear about chickens being abused. I’m afraid to buy eggs at the store any more because I can’t be sure they didn’t come from abused chickens.

Can you tell me what I should do to get my chickens settled in my backyard?

— Gloria B., Bay Area, Calif.

Dear Gloria: I have a whole list of things you need to do first, and topping the roster is to check with your city to see if you are allowed to keep chickens, and if so, how many are permitted. (The city of Honolulu allows two chickens per household in residential areas.)

While you’re at it, you might want to consult your neighbors. Chickens can be loud, especially early in the morning. A promise to share some eggs might win them over.

Most cities also prohibit owning roosters, which have a tendency to crow at day break, and often because they just feel like it.

Secondly, I’d recommend doing research. Having chickens is not the same as having a dog, cat or even a parakeet. They have special needs, not the least of which is a sturdy coop that will keep them safe from predators, warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

There all sorts of coops, from simple to deluxe. You’ll also need a protected area where the hens can scratch the earth and stretch their wings.

You’ll find a number of books about chickens. To get you started, I recommend “The Chicken Chicks Guide to Backyard Chickens: Simple Steps for Healthy, Happy Hens” (Voyageur Press, $19.99) by Kathy Shea Mormino, and “Raising Chickens for Dummies (For Dummies, $19.99) by Kimberly Willis and Robert Ludlow. Both of these books lay out the basics of what you need to get started and how to be successful.

To learn more about the chickens themselves, I suggest adding “The Chicken Encyclopedia: An Illustrated Reference” (Storey Publishing, $19.95) by Gail Damerow, and “How to Speak Chicken: Why Your Chickens Do What They Do & Say What They Say” (Storey Publishing, $16.95) by Melissa Caughey.

Once you have all your ducks in a row, you can start lining up your chicks. You’ll find a great variety of breeds, so it’s important to know about their traits.

Hens, depending on the breed, start laying at around 6 months of age and barring any unexpected problems, will be productive for five to seven years. As chickens live on average 10 years, but some much longer, you may find yourself with just a few working hens and several retired ones.

Feed stores sell chicks, but beware that it’s difficult to determine sex until they’re older, so you could end up with a rooster or two.

You also could check with rescue shelters and farm animal rescue groups that pull chickens from egg factories. The chicken ranchers usually only keep their chickens for two years, and if they’re lucky, the chickens are rescued from slaughter. These hens will be older, but still productive.

Good luck.

Joan Morris is the pets and wildlife columnist for the Bay Area News Group.

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