Care and Feeding
Chickens will dig up part of their diet—insects, slugs and snails, sand, and seeds—but you must also provide them with chicken feed. "Chickens need a quality balanced diet that's 16 to 18 percent protein and made specifically for their needs," says Phillip J. Clauer, a Penn State poultry expert, who notes that there are special diets for young chicks, growing birds, and layers. As a treat, scatter scratch—a mixture of grains and seeds—into the run, as well as organic grass clippings and vegetable scraps.
Plenty of water is especially important for consistent laying, says Clauer. "If a laying chicken goes without water for more than 12 hours, it can go out of production for weeks." Special poultry waterers ensure that chickens always have access to fresh water.
Chickens also appreciate human interaction. "This is going to sound weird, but they become your friends," says Debbie Edwards-Anderson, who, with her husband, tends a flock of hens in Brooklyn. "When I get to my garden gate, I yell out, 'Hey, ladies,' and one will run back and get all the others and they crowd at the gate with all their 'awk, awk' greeting noises. They are really affectionate in their own strange way."
Although hens can lay as long as they live (8 to 10 years isn't uncommon), they start producing fewer eggs after 3 to 5 years. When egg production drops to one or two a week, chicken owners are forced to decide whether to keep the older hens as pets or use them for meat. Edwards-Anderson's husband, Greg, who grew up with hens in his hometown of Selma, Alabama, is not squeamish about turning their hens, Hattie, Onyx, and Mildred, into stew when the time comes. But he suspects his wife will have a problem. "This is her first farm-animal experience," he explains. "They're like my babies and I love them," she concurs.
Best Backyard Breeds
Chickens are social creatures. It is wise to keep at least three hens, but they do not need to be of the same breed. The four listed here were chosen for their superior qualities as pets. All come in both bantam and standard sizes, do well in mixed flocks, and have lovely plumage.
Buff Orpington. Bred in England, these large, gentle birds have beautiful orange feathers and a docile disposition. They lay large, light brown eggs and handle cold weather with aplomb.
Black Australorp. Originally from Australia, they have red combs offset by glossy black feathers that shimmer in the sunshine with a hint of green. Australorps are known for their curious nature and sweet personalities. They mature early and reliably lay large brown eggs.
Cochin. Introduced to the United States from China in the early 1800s, Cochins look like balls of feathers. They aren't known for heavy egg production, but the hens make an excellent addition to a flock, both for their calm personality and their fun feathered feet.
Barred Plymouth Rock. A heritage American breed with striking black-and-white "barred" feathers, they lay large brown eggs that can sometimes have a pinkish hue. Very easy to handle and friendly.
For more about breeds, check out Storey's Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds (Storey, 2007).