Chickens are social birds and really need to have at least one friend, so count on starting with a minimum of two. Having multiple birds will also help them keep each other warm in the wintertime. So, how many should you get? I read somewhere that two hens per family member is a good guideline. By their rule, if you have a family of 5, that would mean 10 hens. But also keep in mind that young hens can lay one egg every 1-2 days during the warm months. That means you could have 35-70 eggs in one week’s time! That’s quite a few eggs. Now you can freeze eggs, cook or bake items that use eggs and freeze those, but you still should take that into consideration when deciding how many. Personally, if we were to start again, I would go with 5-8 hens. This coming from the family that currently has 18 hens … but we’re also selling quite a few eggs.
We’ve never gotten eggs for incubation, so I can’t offer any advice on how to start there.
Our chickens have always come as baby chicks. There are two ways I know of to get chickens this way – buy them local or find an online source. I’m pretty sure our local Blaine’s Farm & Fleet has chickens each spring. Selection would be limited but you should find only those breeds suited to your area.
We’ve had good luck ordering from Murray McMurray Hatchery. They have a wide array of breeds and you can find some good deals (which is how we ended up ordering 45 birds the first time!). The downside to mail-ordering birds is there is usually a minimum number you have to order so they can keep each other warm in the box during the few days they are being shipped. And yes, they do actually come via US Postal Service. The post office knows how to handle them so they get to you in time. There’s always a risk of chicks not surviving the shipping process. We lost one last year when we ordered again. Sometimes hatcheries will take that into consideration and throw in an extra bird just in case (but don’t count on it). Let them know if a bird doesn’t survive – they may give you a refund or discount if it’s within 24-48 hrs of arrival.
If you get baby chicks instead of full-grown hens, keep in mind that you will need to keep them warm … like 90-95°F warm the first few weeks of their lives. This requires a heat lamp or some other heat source, and a “brooder” area where you can make sure they are draft-free. This area could be inside your existing coop (if there aren’t hens in there already), but you’ll want to contain them in a smaller size to make sure they stay warm. As the weeks pass you can move the heat lamp up, reducing the temperature by 5-degrees per week until they’re ready to go outside.
You could also check out local sites like Craigslist as there might be some people that received full-grown chickens can no longer keep them.
There are a multitude of choices for chicken breeds out there. You can get
- great egg-producers
- dual-purpose breeds (if you intend to eat your birds later)
- breeds that are cold-hardy
- “fancy” birds with amazing plumage, aka ornamentals
- rare breeds – some of which are endangered.
Backyard Chickens and My Pet Chicken have great listings of chicken breeds to help you sort it out.
For our location, we wanted to make sure our chickens would be cold-hardy. We also wanted fairly good layers, so most of our hens are either Speckled Sussex or Rhode Island Reds. We also had good luck with Buff Orpingtons. Opal is our one remaining Silver-Laced Wyandotte from the first batch.