Chicken Eggspert's Giant Page of Chicken FAQs
- How Do I Build a Coop?
- Won't My Birds Get Too Cold?
- When Do Hens Start Laying, and Do They Need a Rooster?
- How Does One Sex Chicks?
- What's With Egg Color?
- Why Are My Birds Losing Their Feathers?
- Do I Need Artificial Lighting?
- Muffs and Tufts?
Thanks to all of the Chicken Page fans for their questions and contributions!
There are countless good coop designs available, and one can really make a coop out of just about anything. I will not go into specific plans here but rather discuss some general prerequisites you will want to consider before building a coop. Regardless of the design, there are four principle considerations: 1) security 2) space 3) weatherproofing and 4) cleanliness.
It is truly amazing how many people lose their flocks to varmints. I have lost three flocks myself. Among the varmints I have seen kill chickens are dogs, coyotes, cats, fire ants, possums, raccoons, foxes, skunks, hawks, owls and snakes. Most attacks occur at night, when chickens are their most vulnerable and you are asleep. Prevention is absolutely the best method for dealing with this problem. Build your coop with security in mind from the start. Do some role playing; Pretend that you are hungry for some plump chickens and possess the cleverness of a fox, the meanness of a dog and the sneakiness of a snake. Then design your coop accordingly. This includes taking precautions against creatures digging under or crawling over the sides of the coop. Remember that dogs and many other animals can tear through standard chicken wire. Chickens can also be harassed to the point of death by creatures outside of the coop, if they don't have a secure area in which they can take refuge.
Do not overcrowd your chickens. This will encourage disease, cannibalism and unhappiness. I recommend about 5 square feet of floor space per bird for a standard sized breed, such as a Leghorn or Rhode Island Red. Smaller or larger breeds will, of course, require proportionately more or less space. If your chickens do not have an opportunity to range freely, be sure to provide and outdoor run in your coop design as the birds need to be able to sun and dust themselves. My coop has both indoor and outdoor sections.
An adult chicken can handle extremely cold temperatures as long as it is healthy and protected from the wind and damp. Therefore, you will always want to provide a dry, windproof coop through the winter months. In the summer, heat often stresses and/or kills adult birds. Being in Texas, I have designed my coop so that I have plenty of windows and a fan to keep the air circulating. There are also people who use misters or baths in which the birds can cool themselves.
No chicken coop is going to be a model of tidiness. However, you don't want it to be a smelly seed bed for disease. Design your coop so that the floor and other surfaces are easily accessed. This will allow you to shovel it out periodically. If you have a dirt floor, you probably want to put down a thick layer of hay or wood chips.
Adult chickens will not be bothered by cold temperatures if they are healthy and have a decent coop that offers protection from the wind and damp. I have seen many chickens living in very cold northern climates, and they were quite happy. Feathers are great insulators. Heat is actually a greater threat to adult chickens than is cold. If you are really worried about this, buy a heavy breed with extra thick plumage.
A hen will usually begin laying at about six months, though this may vary with the time of year. It may occur earlier in the spring and later in the winter. A hen can lay eggs without a rooster, but the eggs will be infertile and, therefore, never hatch.
This is a popular chicken topic. Of course, there are professional chick sexers who are able to differentiate between the two sexes through a visual inspection. Otherwise, I do not know of any scientific method of sexing chicks -- but who cares about science? There is a lot of great backwoods knowledge when it comes to this: Many people claim that the small end of a hen egg will be round; whereas, the small end of a rooster egg will be pointed. There are an abundance of people who believe that one can sex a chick by suspending a needle or a key from a piece of thread over the chick. If the needle or key swings in a circle, the chick is a hen. If it swings back and forth, the chick is a rooster. A woman in Missouri claims that a chick held upside down by its feet will point its beak down if it is a hen or up to its chest if it is a rooster.
I have never tested any of these methods, but I am told that they are very accurate by those persons who use them. My own recommendation is that you learn to recognize early physical indications of sex in the breed(s) you raise. In most breeds cockerels will tend to have larger legs, combs and wattles from an early age. Pea and rose combed breeds are more difficult to sex than others because their combs and waddles are less pronounced and grow slowly. Pullets (young females) tend to feather over the back more quickly than males and exhibit relatively straight tail feathers. Males generally exhibit a fuller hackle and more unruly saddle and tail feathers.
A hen will always lay the same color egg, regardless of the rooster with whom she breeds. Egg color is accounted for by pigments in the egg shell. White eggs simply indicate a lack of pigment. Once rare and restricted to pure Araucanas, blue eggs are now common because this trait is strongly dominant and, therefore, survives through cross-breeding. Brown pigment is actually deposited on the surface of the shell. Blue and brown pigments can combine to produce some beautiful eggs in various shades of blue and green.
Every year or so, chickens shed their old set of feathers and put on a new one. This is called molting and is perfectly normal, like a dog shedding its fur. You may notice small flakes of scaly material coming off where the new feather shafts are forming. This is also normal. Hens will not lay when they are molting, and it may take two months or more for them to put on a new set of feathers and start laying again.
I am often asked how many hours a day chickens should be kept under artificial lighting. Commercial poultry farmers frequently use artificial lighting to keep egg production up during the winter months. This is because hens will naturally slow down or stop their laying as the daylight cycle decreases. Forcing egg production with artificial lights will increase the short-term productivity of your hens but will decrease their long-term productivity. Commercial farmers do not worry about this because they usually do not keep hens for more than a year. The average small chicken farmer, whose chickens are exposed to natural light, will have no need for artificial lighting. My recommendation is that you stick with mother nature, and live with fewer eggs in the winter.
Muffs are very common; whereas, tufts are extremely rare. Muffs are fluffy, rounded masses of feathers found on the face underneath each eye. They are usually found in combination with beards on many breeds, such as Ameraucanas, Salmon Faverolles and Silkies. The beard is set between the two muffs and extends down the front of the throat. Tufting, on the other hand, is unique to the Araucana breed. Tufts are located behind the Araucana's ear holes. They are composed of a fleshy knob called a peduncle from which grow large feathers. Even in pure-blooded Araucanas, good tufting is difficult to obtain. Often the tufts are asymmetrical or malformed. Moreover, tufting is lethal in chicks when the tufting genes are homozygous, or when the bird has two tufting genes.