General Chicken Keeping

General Chicken Keeping

How can I tell if my chicken is male or female?

It is difficult to sex young chickens, and there are a number of different ways requiring varying amounts of skill and expertise, and often equally varying amounts of success. There are very many Henrys that became Henriettas and even more Gertrudes that became Gordons.

The most popular and least invasive way is to observe the size and colour of the wattle, and this will give a fairly accurate guess. Male growers will have a slightly more pronounced or taller and possibly a little fuller comb and wattle.  As they grow the combs will appear to be brighter in males than females and can be observed from about 1-2 months of age.  Female chickens can often hatch with their wing feathers, whereas male chickens do not begin to develop wing feathers until a few days after they hatch.

You need good eyesight and chicks of the same breeding to compare with each other – a mixed batch of chicks will be very difficult to sex this way. Additionally the feather shape on the neck can give a good indication with more rounded feathers on females and pointier ones on males. ​  As they mature feather colours will start to differentiate with duller colours on the females and more exciting colours appearing on the males. ​

If you have the luxury of time and can wait a few weeks to determine the sex of the chicks, behaviour can also be a good indicator of sex.  Cockerels are often more dominant even from an early age, although this method is not fool proof! If you observe one standing erect and ruffling their downy feathers, rushing first to the feed dish and making small cooing sounds to alert the others that they’ve found food can be good indicators of a cockerel. 

With some breeds the males will have larger spurs and a more upright posture and this will become more pronounced as they grow.  ​Vocalisation is nearly always the mark of a male and they will start crowing at around 4-5 months.  Whilst there are reports of hens crowing this is quite rare and a crowing bird is almost always going to be male. By this age the visual difference should be fairly obvious so the vocalisation probably won’t come as much of a surprise!​

How do I know how old my chicken is?

The recommended way to buy chickens is to get them from a recommended chicken breeder as chicks and so you will know then how old your chickens are.  However in the last couple of years we have witnessed a huge, exponential uptake in rehoming of ex commercial chickens.  So then how can you tell how old your chicken is? It is also important from a health perspective to be able to gauge their age and also to predict their egg laying ability.

Many breeds of chickens will slow down their laying between 2-4 years, although some lay throughout their life, and this tendency gives rise to the enormous numbers of chickens being rehomed – commercial chickens will only typically stay in that setting for a maximum of a year as their egg laying prolificacy reduces and commercially they become less viable.  ​

Feathering can take up to 6 weeks so any smaller birds with evidence of downy feathers are likely to be under 6 weeks of age.  Tail feathers in cockerels will start to become apparent, while hens tail feathers are shorter and less remarkable. Cockerel’s combs will become fuller and deepen in colour from about 8 weeks of age. ​  ​The vent (where the eggs come from) for a pullet who has never laid will be very small – either a slit or a small circle.  Once she starts laying from about 20 weeks (but can vary by breed from about 16 weeks upto 28 weeks) the vent will become larger, more oval shaped and more visible on inspection. ​  Another way to tell the difference between a pullet and hen is by checking the width between the pubic (or pelvic) bones.​  

You should be able to feel these bones either side of the vent. With a pullet, the finger width between these two bones will be around two finger breadth. In a laying hen, the bones are more distant and you should be able to fit three or four finger breadths between them.​

What should I feed chicks?

Chicks don’t feed for the first 24/48 hours – as they will have digested the yolk (similar to our placenta) prior to hatching.  After this time they will start to eat chick crumb.  It is advisable to put the chick crumb into a small dish and water in another shallow dish.  Pop marbles or stones into this dish so that the chicks can see the bottom of the water​  and limit the risk of drowning.  Chick crumbs should be fed until they are 6 weeks of age.

What should I feed adult chickens?

Chickens are monogastric omnivores, they have simple, single stomachs and will eat almost anything!  As hens start to lay they should move to layers pellets and the number of treats should be limited.  Poor nutrition will lead to a reduction in egg laying and egg quality.

How many drinkers do I need for my chickens?

It depends on the size of your drinkers however the Chicken Whisperer recommends that you should allow one drinker per 4 chickens, and if you have multiple drinkers, space them out within their run/enclosure.

How many feeders do I need for my chickens?

It depends on the size of your feeders however the Chicken Whisperer recommends that you should allow one feeder per 4 chickens, and if you have multiple feeders, space them out within their run/enclosure. It is important to remember to keep feeders and drinkers out of reach of wild birds and rodents to reduce the risk of disease transmission.

Can I keep chickens in my back garden?

Yes, you can keep chickens in your back garden, provided that it is big enough and is adequately fenced to prevent them from escaping, and to stop predators getting in. 

How much food do chickens eat daily?

On average the recommended daily feed consumption of layers pellets is 120gm per day.  This amount will vary based on breed.

Which breed of chicken is easiest to keep?

There are not really any particular breeds that are easier to look after, they are all pretty much the same, except for Silkies and Frizzles which aren’t water resistant and can’t fly, so if you are thinking about getting these breeds you will need a very dry run, no ladders and low perches. Hybrids are bred to be placid and easy going and tend to be good starter chickens.