Chickens are the new family dog, says backyard chicken expert and blogger Kathy Shea Mormino, who is known to her fans as the Chicken Chick. Raising chickens is one of the fastest-growing hobbies in the United States, yet chickens often suffer because people don't know what they are doing.
"Most of us got our first chicken because we wanted fresh eggs," Mormino says. "People think 'How hard can it be?' But we make it more complicated just by misunderstanding how chickens need to be cared for."
More than 1% of all U.S. households now raise chickens; the USDA estimates that by 2019 urban chicken flocks will increase by 400%. An attorney by trade, Mormino answers questions daily on her popular Facebook page for her more than 743,000 followers.
Her new book,"The Chicken Chick's Guide to Backyard Chickens: Simple Steps for Healthy, Happy Hens," (Voyageur Press; $19.99) is a detailed guide with a straightforward theory: "Chickens are best served by keeping their care simple," Mormino writes in the introduction. I recently spoke to her from her home in Connecticut where she tends to her flock of more than 50 pets.
1. What is the most common question you hear about backyard chicken-keeping?
Health problems more than anything. People are connected to these animals just like any domestic pet. But they don't have the resources to take care of them when they get sick. People don't understand how critical nutrition is to the longevity of their birds. You have to feed them correctly.
2. How do you care for your chickens?
All you need is a commercial feed, a clean, dry living space and clean water. It's that simple.
3. What makes chickens good pets?
The same thing that makes your dog a good pet. Your dog is a great companion. Chickens are great companions. They help with soil. They eat their fair share of insects. It's all those things plus they make food for you.
4. How do you explain the growing popularity of chickens?
Most of us got our first chicken because we wanted fresh eggs. What is unexpected is that these animals will become family pets. I did not expect that at all. It was a shock to me when I started giving them names so that I could distinguish them.
5. Where do I find chickens?
I recommend people get chicks to start and then add to their flock. When you get adult birds, you raise the potential for disease to your existing flock. I trust Tractor Supply, which has strict procedures.
6. What is the best way to integrate new chicks to your flock?
Chickens don't like change. … The pecking order is a real thing. They are not welcoming of new members. You need to introduce chicks on a look-but-don't-touch basis in a playpen that is a safe distance from the flock. This allows them to become familiar with the flock without interacting with them.
7. What about other pets? Like dogs?
Some dogs are going to be fine without training. Some dogs will do fine with a great deal of training. Some dogs will never be fine with chickens. People will try to tell you how to train your dog. Unless you are Cesar Millan, you can't train the prey drive out of a dog. I have a Yorkie and he is not allowed in the chicken yard.
8. What do I do when my chicken gets sick?
You can get free advice on my blog. That's why I wrote the book. Most vets have no training or experience with chickens. The care of poultry is different from other birds. Chickens have different challenges from indoor birds. Reproductive problems are very common. Their metabolism is much higher than humans. They are at the mercy of their keepers.
9. What about predators?
Chicken wire won't protect them. A raccoon can tear open chicken wire like a bag of potato chips. You have to use a heavy welded wire, which is welded in a grid. It's very important in terms of predator proofing.
10. What is the most important thing to know before getting chickens?
Understand these animals will hold a place in your heart the same way your dog does, but their nutritional needs are much more sensitive. If you keep it simple and stick to the basic tenets of raising them — good diet, clean water and chicken coop — your birds will be as healthy as can be.
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