Chicken Basics – What Do They Really Need?

Chickens, like any other living being, have basic needs that need to be met to live a happy fulfilled life. These days, however, the majority of chickens live in deplorable conditions and only have their very basic of needs met: food & water.

What do chickens need to be happy, though?

Water

Food & water for sure! Chickens drink and eat constantly. A laying hen requires plenty of water even more so than roosters or non-laying hens because an egg, which is 85% water, is taken from the hen. She will need to replenish this water, so she doesn’t become dehydrated.

All chickens will need easy access to fresh water. For us, we actually have a few small troughs that have floats with a hose attached so any time the water gets below the float line it automatically refills.

chickens drinking water

I highly recommend this because it reduces the risk of your feather babies running out of water and becoming dehydrated. We also keep our waterers in the shade to help slow the growth of algae which happens very quickly in direct sunlight.

How much do they drink, you may wonder? On average, adult chickens will drink around ½ liter of water a day. It may not seem like they’d drink that much because they just take small sips throughout the day. They’re not lapping up water like a dog might, but they do drink quite a bit for their size. This is why, in my opinion, it’s better to have some kind of automatic waterer so they never run the risk of running out.

I can’t tell you have many times I’ve gone to check their bell waterer and it’s either filled with hay/dirt, knocked over or it was on an uneven surface and quickly leaked out without you even realizing it. Ugh!!

No matter how many times I tell the chickens where the hose is to refill it themselves, they refuse to do it. They always tell me it’s because they don’t have hands, but I just think they’re being lazy!

Oh, in case you haven’t noticed I speak fluent chicken. Color you impressed?

Food

What about food? That’s more of a personal decision. No, not whether or not you feed them. That you have to do obviously. What you feed them is what you’ll need to decide.

Personally, we feed organic, non-gmo feed because it’s important to me that their diet is high quality. High quality feed equals high quality eggs. You get what you give and that’s evident in the color and taste of our eggs.

That being said, there are a billion different options for chicken feed and you will need to do your own research to find what’s best for your budget and the quality of your flock.

Currently, I’m in the process of researching how to make our own feed since we have a million chickens. Ha! Feed sure does get costly when you have a large flock like we do. For a smaller flock it’s fine to buy the commercial feed but I’ll be sure to keep you posted when I finalize what our DIY feed will consist of.

Environment

Chickens, although domesticated, are naturally curious and tend to test their boundaries. This is why it is essential that they have a safe environment that they can explore and forage. They’ll also need some sort of enclosure at night to be safeguarded against nighttime predators.

Our chickens have plenty of land to free range, even though the stinkers still try to get over to the neighbor’s yard! Nothing frustrates me more than when I see one random chicken walking on the WRONG side of the fence. I keep trying to find how they are getting over there but they’re sneaky little boogers.

Our neighbors aren’t complaining though: FREE EGGS for them! 🙂

A chicken’s typical day consists of eating, drinking, eating, preening, eating, dust bathing, eating. Did I mention eating? They spend most of the day scratching around looking for bugs and other yummy things to eat.

Tough life, huh?

Well actually it can be, especially for pastured chickens. They are prone to predator attacks. We know this to be a possibility and although we do our best to deter predators, we’d rather our chickens live a free life than to be enclosed 24/7 to avoid the risk of a predator.

Predators are another reason we have a coop that is elevated off the ground. It gives our feathery friends a way to escape the view of a hawk. Chickens are so smart and can spot the shadow of a hawk on the ground. When this happens it’s a rooster’s job to alert the flock to danger.

I’ve seen it happen and it’s awesome to watch. A hawk will fly overhead, cast a shadow on the ground below and suddenly the rooster will make a certain noise (that doesn’t seem to sound any different from their other noises – to me at least) and BOOM all the chickens run for cover! They’ll wait a little bit and then the rooster will alert them when the coast is clear.

Amazing, right?

This is why I’m a big believer in roosters. They take their jobs very seriously! They even alert the flock when there’s food. It’s so sweet. I’ll put some food on the ground for them to eat and then our roosters will make some little noises and peck at the ground, but they don’t eat. They’re actually pointing with their beaks to the food. Then the hens run over and start eating. When they’ve gotten their fill, then the roosters will begin eating!

It’s the equivalent of them pulling out their ladies’ chairs at dinner. Such gentlemen. Lol!

“What if I don’t allow my chickens to free range all day long?” That’s a valid question. We have always chosen to free range because we try to give our chickens the most natural life that they can have, but I understand that’s not always a viable option for people.

If you need to keep your chickens enclosed during the day then I would suggest not to have too many since you’ll want about 10 square feet per chicken. If you have a lot of chickens, you’d need a really large enclosure in order for them to be happy. More space is always better if you can swing it though, because not having enough space can lead to major issues like stress, pecking and even cannibalism.

These issues can also cause your egg production to go way down and nobody likes that!

Their environment has a lot to do with their quality of life and if they don’t feel happy it will show in a number of ways. Since chickens are natural foragers another great option if you are unable to allow them to free range is to have a portable run. Many people have them on wheels that allow the chickens to be moved to fresh grass often so they can stay healthy and happy.

Flock of Friends

Chickens are social creatures. They may be skittish around people, but they love to have friends. If you are thinking of getting one chicken then I’d suggest doubling it at least. The chickens that play together stay together.

Seriously, though, if you’ve ever watched chickens, they’ll dust bathe in groups, eat in groups, sleep in groups. They do everything together. This togetherness helps them to feel safe as well. Safety in numbers after all! Predators, especially, birds of prey will swoop down and grab a lone chicken walking around.

If you’ve decided you don’t have enough chickens, which is ALWAYS the case, and want to get more you’ll want to introduce them slowly to your current flock. Putting them together too quickly can cause a lot of fighting and possibly injury. Once a pecking order has been established, you will see them doing everything together. It’s really adorable, actually. Even when they all run away from me together! 

Health & Wellness

For the most part as long has chickens are fed and watered and have clean environments, they’re very low maintenance. Preventative care is a huge part of this though. For us we like to clean our coops at LEAST every other week but most of the time we clean weekly. Currently, we use hay for our bedding but have plans in the future to try the deep litter method which allows you to clean about once a year! Sounds amazing!!

In order to keep your coop clean you may also want to give thought to spreading dried herbs (moist herbs can grow mold) in with the bedding.  Flies are attracted to the poop in the coop and there are many natural ways to deter these pests. The following herbs are great insect repellants:

  • Rosemary
  • Catnip
  • Peppermint
  • Mint
  • Lavender

Essential oils can also be a great natural way to keep your chickens healthy. Many different oils have different benefits. Below are a few that you may find helpful:

  • Neem oil – helps with mites
  • Oregano oil – used as antiviral/antibiotic
  • Thieves oil – mixed with Epsom salt bath is used for bumblefoot

There are plenty of commercial medications, but I prefer to stick to a more natural approach especially since we eat the eggs regularly. If we do have to medicate, we usually give shots to our chicken for a series of several days of Tylan 50. And when I say we I mean my husband because I’m too chicken (ha ha!) to do it myself. He’s my hero!

Chickens also need a good supply of calcium. Laying eggs requires calcium to produce. A great FREE way to replenish their calcium levels is just to crush up their egg shells and feed them back to the chickens.

When I make breakfast for my family of four I can easily make 8 eggs. After we enjoy our yummy eggs, I take the eggshells and crush them up and toss them to the chickens. They’re so funny when they grab a bigger piece and run around trying to eat it before any of the other chickens can steal it out of their mouth. Silly chickens!

Chickens make awesome pets because they are fairly low maintenance and so much fun to watch! Knowing their basic needs can help you to make the right decisions for your flock to ensure their happiness and contentment. Following the basics above will help with the overall wellness of your feather babies. Now go out and buy some chickens!

Happy Homesteading & Stay Cuckoo!