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The Dark Side of Chicken Keeping

Chickens are are getting more popular every day, with their hysterical antics and the delicious fresh eggs what not to love? I’m here to burst your bubble and tell you all the things that can (and probably will) go wrong.

large up close image of a rooster with text overlay When Good Birds Go Bad The Dark Side of Chicken Keeping

Before we get into the nitty-gritty and potentially gruesome heart of this post let me say this: I love my chickens. I will always have chickens.

This post has sat in my drafts for over 2 years because no one talks about this stuff and I didn’t want to be the Negative Nancy of Chicken Husbandry.

I’ve already talked you through my Alpaca Apocalypse with Meningeal Worm, told you how I rip out bleeding feathers with my bare hands, showed you photos of my Marans hen that almost lost her head, and told you the adventures of the death-defying Flamingo.

So here we go, the dark side of chicken keeping.

This is in no way intended to dissuade you from owning chickens. BUT there are two sides to every coin and chicken keeping isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.

I’ve been around chickens my whole life and I’ve had my own flock for over 10 years and I’ve seen lots of good and a fair amount of bad.

There are literally hundreds of posts telling you why to get chickens but I thought I’d let you know why you might want to think long and hard about what you’re getting yourself into.

Chickens are A-holes

You’ve heard of the pecking order right? Well, it’s very aptly named. Chickens literally peck each other to establish a social order.

Some groups are more vicious than others but it’s not unheard of for a flock to starve or pick a bird at the bottom of the pecking order to death. I lost a polish hen after she was literally scalped by her flock mates in an afternoon for no apparent reason.

chickens eating salad greens out of a large bowl

Preventing boredom, lots of room, and keeping the rooster number down will go a long way toward preventing aggression.

Blood will set off a frenzy and wounds are like chicken crack. They just can’t get enough of them.

One of the Spitzhauben pullets broke a blood feather on her tail and within minutes she was tailless and pretty beat up. If I hadn’t stopped back to check on them she would have been killed.

There is a spray called Blukote you can buy at farm supply stores, I always have a bottle on hand. It’s a wound spray that also dyes the skin & feathers (and your hands, house, etc) a blue/violet color and it’s a lifesaver.

Chickens don’t save their ire for the other adults either. Sometimes hens will sit for three weeks, hatch babies and then move on with their lives leaving the chicks behind. Sometimes they kill them as they hatch.

Read more about Broody Hens

One day I came home to find an abandoned chick chirping blindly in the corner because the other birds had pecked its eyes out. Again, chickens are a – holes.

You are the Vet

Bumblefoot, broken blood feathers, abscesses, animal (including other chickens) attacks, ascites, wry neck, internal laying, flystrike. Those are all issues I’ve had to deal with in the last few years.

It’s not even close to being a comprehensive list of problems you can have. I’ve been lucky to never have a problem with mites, lice and internal parasites or any number of serious viral infections you can bring home to your birds (think about all the bird losses from flu a few years ago).

I’ve done surgery, given medications, performed necropsies, and even kept chickens in the house but we’ve never called a vet.

Find out what you need in a First Aid Kit for Chickens

Unless you’ve got money to burn it’s just not practical. That means you become the vet.

Thankfully  I lost my sense of squeamishness in college in my comparative vertebrate biology and zoology labs. I’ve pulled out feathers with my bare fingers and taken a scalpel to a chickens face to squeeze out hardened pus(again, I’m looking at you Harvey).

We’ve all very lucky to have the internet as a resource these days to diagnose and treat our chicken maladies, I recommend searching the Backyard Chicken Forum if you need help.

Along with healing sometimes you need to cull or kill an animal. It sucks, I hate it but sometimes there is no other option.

Chickens (and geese, turkeys, ducks, etc) don’t understand that you’re helping them. They have a very strong instinct to hide illness. That instinct also keeps their flock mates from killing them (see: Chickens are Assholes above for more info).

Read more about Chicken Wound Recovery

It also means you won’t know something is wrong until it’s really wrong. I’ve always believed a quick death is better than prolonged suffering.

The best thing you can do for the health of your flock is spend time with them. If you know how they usually act it will be easier to see if anything is off.

A few years ago I came home to find one of my geese with its head twisted around very unnaturally. It was alive but very stressed, in a lot of pain, and in very bad shape. I grabbed the hatchet and did what I had to.

Unless you can watch an animal suffer or you have someone on hand to do the dirty work that’s a reality you might someday face.

It’s a Girls Club

Most people keep chickens for the eggs. You know what roosters don’t do? Lay eggs.

hen in a nest box with two chick and an egg

Unless you want to hatch babies you don’t even need a rooster. I keep them for hatching and a moderate amount of flock protection, if you get a good one they’ll martyr themselves for the flock.

Do you Need a Rooster in Your Flock? Find out

But chickens aren’t alligators and you can’t hatch all girls by adjusting the temperature. You can try to avoid the testosterone bonanza by ordering all pullets but it’s not 100% accurate and you’ll likely end up at some point with more boys than you want. And that means you need a plan.

Side note: the rooster:chicken ratio is a hotly debated issue in some circles and I’m not going to get into that but I will say if your birds are looking ratty and plucked it’s time for some gentlemen to go.

Back on topic: Personally I have no problem putting my birds in the freezer. But a lot of people (you might be one of them) think that’s terrible

So the next option is to try and find them “good homes” on Craigslist. Sorry guys, unless you have a magnificent rare breed rooster he’s probably going to end up in someones soup pot. Everyone has too many roosters.

You can keep extra roosters separated in a coop and usually without any ladies to fight over they’ll get along. I’m just not sure why you’d want to.

Chickens get Eaten

Humans aren’t the only ones that think chickens are delicious. Foxes, coyotes, bears, owls, hawks, neighbors dogs, your dogs. It’s pretty rough out there for a chicken.

easter egger rooster

Sometimes you won’t see anything but a puff of feathers, other times you’ll come home to a gruesome scene.

It’s sadly inevitable with free-ranging chickens but even a fenced flock isn’t always safe. Remember, chicken wire won’t protect your birds! Go for hardware cloth instead.

That rooster up there? He got eaten, by me. He went after my daughter and I have too many roosters anyway. No reason to allow that behavior.

You Will Make Mistakes and Chickens Have a Death Wish

Chickens can find the dumbest way to kill themselves. You could put a chicken in an empty room and it would find a way to snap its neck.

I’ve come home to find a chicken dead in the alpaca water tub even though they had three full waterers and a kiddie pool available.

They will get stuck in the dumbest places, trapped in the hot sun in the one place on your property you fenced off to them.

They’ll get their heads stuck in something.

No matter what you do, the chickens will find a way to die. And you’ll feet terrible.

Sometimes Chickens Die for No Obvious Reason

This is the most frustrating one to me. From time to time you’ll have a chicken drop dead for no apparent reason. They’ll be healthy in the morning and you’ll come home to find a dead bird.

One day I found a silver-laced Wyandotte dead on my lawn without so much as a feather out of place. She was a healthy weight and didn’t show any signs of internal laying.

I was wary of cutting into a bird that had been sitting in the hot sun for who knows how long so I didn’t do a necropsy and I still have no idea how she died. It was possibly a heart attack or even a stroke.

This is even harde with chicks.

Chickens are Terrible Landscapers

Compared to the rest of this list this one is pretty light. Chickens are plant-killing machines, they do so much more damage than the geese (they just poop all over).

No matter how much you want that pretty mulch in your flower beds the chickens would much rather have it scattered around the lawn. I have several designated dusting areas but despite that, they still insist on digging up the flower and vegetable gardens.

Nothing is more tempting than a freshly seeded vegetable patch. I keep several lengths of 2×4 inch wire in the garden to lay over the beds after planting.

My vegetable garden almost fenced and I can’t wait to grow some food without fighting my chickens. I have rolls of temporary fencing that I keep on hand in hopes of finally eating some of my grapes.

Don’t forget to PIN this to your Chicken Board.

You can find more about raising chickens on my Livestock page or start here:

white chick with head cocked to the side text overlay ordering chickens online
welsummer chick standing on grey fleece blanket
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Angelique

Thursday 8th of April 2021

Oh thank goodness! I’ve been fretting all day over having to put my chicken out of its-misery today . Poor thing was not getting adequate food because of the pecking order of the others, and they had really done it today! His full feathers were hanging off his back, just scratched completely off on both sides, practically all his meat was showing all along his back, on both sides!! and scratched raw under his wings.. he was not going to do well.. and was being beat up again today for food.. poor thing.. had to do what needed to be done. I think the roosters are next, they are too much and are ugly to my hens. I’ve got a strong stomach, but my poor kids made the mistake of making them. Dang it. Oh well, they will learn what farming is all about.

Kimberly

Wednesday 7th of April 2021

I absolutely love this honest experience of chicken keeping! It is hard work. My chicken journey has been like an episode of Game of Thrones with a huge range of methods of killing each other. This has included hens causing starvation, murder (knocking elderly down the ramp), extreme pecking, bullying and unknown mysterious deaths. It’s a huge relief to know I’m not alone in the brutal behaviour of my beloved “pets”. Yet weirdly, unfathomably, I love them and nurture and care and constantly obsess about their care.

Gwen

Monday 5th of April 2021

Love reading the truth! I have nine hens including two banthams all are laying beautifully..now. There was an issue with a black sexlink, she’s Queen of the Coop, picking on one of my olive egger..pecked her back and butt to a bloody mess...I thought because of all the blood all the hens were pecking her too.. I brought her indoors to a dog cage, tended her wounds, she healed up, feathers grew back, layed an egg every day. So, I put her back to the coop, I stayed and watched, tended to the coop, food, water...watching.. everyone getting along, great! The next day, she’s dead in her nesting box! I felt horrible! I also noticed the bad chicken was very noisy, like very loud! She finally settled down after another week, then all girls started laying on a regular basis. Before the first attack, laying was on and off. The chicken that got killed was a sweetheart, I don’t understand what the problem was. I have the proper sized coop, give them treats they have to work for so they’re not bored.. they have access to a run and I let them free range under my supervision. Just came to realize it’s Mother Nature, it happens, and they are little A-holes! Raising chickens is a big pain especially in winter when I have to snow blow a path and shovel through one snowfall that was 41”! Just to get to the coop. But like others say, it’s so enjoyable to have eggs, watch them, see them looking for you, where’s our treats?! Shake the feed cup! Oh yea, here I am Ladies!

Bama Janet

Tuesday 2nd of March 2021

Gosh your blogs make me crave having chickens again. We had 8 when we lived in AZ. We named them all. Grace and Kelly because they both did a little hand-jive when I petted them. Hawk because she was HUGE and had a beak like a hawk. Nosey Girl because she just had to know what my husband was doing any time he was in her line of vision. Little Pecker was a mean little snot, Roo because she made noises like a rooster. Sweetie because she always wanted kisses and Jazzy because if she could have, she would have donned a purple dress with sparkles, shiny earrings, big snazzy sunglasses, a nice big purse, and high heels and gone shopping. She was literally pretentious. I swear Hawk would have beat her chest like Tarzan after she laid her daily egg, she was so proud. Roo I always pictured being the little girl with blond ringlets who always got her way because she knew how to make goo-goo eyes at mommy and daddy. Nosey Girl would fly up onto my husband's arm on command then climb up and sit on his shoulder or his head if she needed a higher vantage point. The flock was attacked by a dog we had just rescued, and Jazz, Hawk, and Nosey Girl were killed. Gracie was badly injured, and all of them went into pretty bad distress. The following weeks were spent holding, cuddling, singing, babying, massaging and shift-taking to keep our eyes on them. Grace had a badly broken leg and when I called the vet she suggested I 'just let her go'. She was my princess, she wasn't going anywhere! I sat on their tree stump with Vetricyn, oatmeal paste or cow udder salve, laid her on her back on my lap, and massaged her legs for 6 one-hour stints a day. While I sang to them, fed them yogurt (if you ever need a laugh, give your flock a shallow pan of yogurt and stand back!) Gracie recovered, only to be taken while laying an egg in 118-degree heat :( We later moved to Alabama (don't ask) and had to give them up. They were taken by a 10-year-old boy (and his family, of course) as an animal science homeschool credit. He was so, so excited when he walked into the coop and they all came running to him with important chicken stories to tell. They mobbed him like a litter of puppies, and 3 years later I'm still getting pictures of the boy and his following. Jazz got sick a few months ago and the parents found her in the boy's bed the next morning. So I know they're very well cared for, but I'm ready now to start again. this time I'm not renting, I have 3 acres, nice garden spaces for them to clear out post-harvest, and fertilize for the next season. Thank you for all of your fun and honest blogs! I'll refer back to them often, I'm sure!

Brittany

Monday 9th of December 2019

The immediate picture after "chickens get eaten" is what kind of chicken? Our neighbors moved and couldnt take their birds. I know for sure 1 is polish gold laced, but the other looks like your picture. Please help. I think mone may be a rooster though. I do not want roosters.

Alecia

Tuesday 10th of December 2019

That's an Easter Egger rooster, I have post about Easter Eggers with a few more photos. And another with tips for telling roosters from hens