Impractical Poultry Keeping: A Beginner’s Guide

This post was originally published in the Summer Issue of Sheep Canada Magazine.

When we bought our sheep, a friend of mine who had had quite enough of sheep gave us a couple of her books. One was called The Shepherd’s Guide Book, and the other book had a blue cover with sheep on it and lots of illustrations on the inside. I read both books cover to cover. What did I learn? Oh, lots of stuff, although as it turns out, pretty much none of it was useful.  Sure, you’ll learn some things from books, but the lessons experience teaches you – those are the ones that really count.

What, then, has experience taught me about sheep? Experience has taught me that I know nothing about sheep, and probably never will.  I didn’t start my career as a shepherd until I was forty, which is simply too late in the game for all the mathematical probabilities to play out.  In the five years that we have been keeping sheep, never once has an ovine illness or mishap repeated itself: the sheep always contrive to contract new diseases and find different and ever more novel ways of dying. Begin keeping sheep in your twenties and by the time you are sixty you might actually know something.
Chickens, on the other hand, are a lot less complicated, and my experience with them goes back much further.  Yes, I own books with such titles as Practical Poultry Keeping, Bantam Breeding Genetics, and Pastured Poultry Profits.  Yet most of what I know about chickens I didn’t learn from books. I have kept chickens off and on for over thirty years. As a child I kept and bred fancy bantams. I also built three dimensional historical maps and invented my own language. I was a strange child. But by beginning early with chickens, I was well on my way to building up a storehouse of information and practical experience which serves me well now that I once again have a flock of chickens. I see illnesses which I first saw thirty years ago, and so, having the benefit of acquired experience, can say to myself, “Oh, I know what this is!”, and then am able to deal with the problem; whereas with my sheep, I am reduced to throwing my hands up in the air saying, “O- my- God -what –now?!!” and spending the rest of the day Googling symptoms and waiting to speak to veterinarians.
So if you ever want to keep chickens- and I heartily encourage you to do so – by all means get yourself a copy of Practical Poultry Keeping, but bear in mind that a book will never teach you everything you need to know.  Never fear though, for experience will be waiting to fill in the gaps for you!  Heck, experience will cram in those gaps with a trowel! And while you await the mortar and trowel of hands -on learning, I offer you some advice gleaned from my many years of keeping poultry.  
These are the twelve most important things I have learned about keeping chickens, things that you won’t find in any book.
1.       You do not need a rooster.
2.       If you absolutely must have a rooster, then for God’s sake DON’T have more than one.  A henhouse with too many roosters is like a frat house party during frosh week- minus the beer.
3.       Don’t hatch your own chicks. Buy them already sexed from a hatchery.
4.       If you absolutely must hatch your own chicks, familiarize yourself with the Rule of Inverse Poultry Proportion, a universal law governing chickens which can be summarised as follows:  Roosters will always appear in direct proportion to their LACK of desirability. For example: you hatch a dozen chicks and really don’t need any roosters. According to the Rule ALL TWELVE chicks will be roosters. Or, suppose you want to replace your old rooster with a younger one and so you hope for at least one rooster in your hatch of twelve. The Rule of Inverse Poultry Proportion in that case will grant you ONE hen- and eleven roosters. See how this works? Oh, and don’t go thinking you can fool this universal law by saying out loud, “Boy, I really hope we only get roosters this time, hahaha!”, and expect to hatch only hens. The forces of the Universe will know you are lying, and you will still get roosters. People will tell you that probability, given a large enough sample size, will eventually grant you a more or less fifty/fifty split between roosters and hens. Do not believe this; these people know NOTHING about chickens.
5.       Getting rid of extra roosters.  So you went ahead and hatched your own chicks, and now you find yourself stuck with a dozen scrawny roosters. What to do with them? Well, you could eat them, although chances are they will scarcely be worth the effort to kill and pluck them. Or you could do what I do: cultivate a wide circle of friends who also enjoy keeping chickens but who live in areas with large coyote populations. That way you will be able to divest yourself of unwanted roosters while at the same time filling a need within the community. It’s a win-win.
6.       Chickens get into things. If you leave a work cabinet door open or fail to close a storage shed, you can be sure that chickens will get in there. Before closing anything up, you might want to check to see if there are chickens in there first. This is especially important when you receive a load of hay in a pickup truck. If your hens are loose in the yard when your hay arrives, ALWAYS check the bed of the truck before the driver leaves. Unless, of course, your surplus roosters are loose in the yard. Then you don’t need to check the truck. This method of rooster reduction is nearly as successful as the previously mentioned number five.
7.       Do not wear sandals when feeding chickens.  Chickens get very excited when you feed them. Chickens like to peck at things. Chickens like to eat big, pink, juicy worms. If you must wear sandals into the coop, you should also wear socks. Yes, you will look like a fashion-challenged idiot, but you will look far more stupid minus a toe.
8.       Either fence your chicken run or fence your vegetable garden. Unless your plan was to grow summer cabbages and tomatoes for the purpose of feeding them to your chickens, in which case no fences are necessary.
9.       If you buy electric poultry fencing for your chickens, you must remember to turn it ON.
10.   In every flock there is at least one stupid chicken.  How do you recognise the stupid chicken?  It’s really pretty simple. On an evening when: a) It is raining. b) You are going out and are already late. c) You are wearing nylons and high heels.
There will always be one chicken who refuses to return to the coop, and who will resist all efforts to be herded in the correct direction. This is the stupid chicken.
11.   Coyotes always eat your best laying hens first. Then they eat your roosters.
12.   Coyotes never, ever eat the stupid chicken.

The Evil Eye – 6×4 painted paper and fabric collage on panel.