Storey’s guide to raising poultry: chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, guineas, game birds
Storey’s guide to raising poultry: chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, guineas, game birds
Whether you’re running a farm or interested in keeping a few backyard birds,
Storey’s Guide to Raising Poultry covers everything you need to know to successfully raise your own chickens, turkeys, waterfowl, and more. Stressing humane practices throughout, Glenn Davis provides expert advice on breed selection, housing, feeding, behavior, breeding, health care, and processing your own meat and eggs. With tips on raising specialty species like doves, ostriches, and peafowl, you’ll be inspired to experiment with new breeds and add diversity to your poultry operation.
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storey’s guide to raising poultry
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F OU RTH E DI TI O N
Storey’s Guide to
Chickens Turkeys Ducks Geese
Guineas Game Birds
The mission of Storey Publishing is to serve our customers by
publishing practical information that encourages
personal independence in harmony with the environment.
Edited by Deborah Burns and Rebekah Boyd-Owens
Art direction and book design by Cynthia N. McFarland
Cover design by Kent Lew
Text production by Theresa Wiscovitch
Front cover photograph by © David Chapman/Alamy
Illustrations by © Elayne Sears
Indexed by Samantha Miller
Special thanks to Ed Hart for reviewing the text
© 2012 by Glenn Drowns
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher,
except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages or reproduce illustrations in a review with appropriate
credits; nor may any part of this book be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any
form or by any means — electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or other — without written permission from the publisher.
The information in this book is true and complete to the best of our knowledge. All recommendations
are made without guarantee on the part of the author or Storey Publishing. The author and publisher disclaim any liability in connection with the use of this information.
Storey books are available for special premium and promotional uses and for customized editions. For
further information, please call 1-800-793-9396.
210 MASS MoCA Way
North Adams, MA 01247
Printed in the United States by Versa Press
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Storey’s guide to raising poultry / by Glenn Drowns. — 4th ed.
Guide to raising poultry
Previous editions entered under: Mercia, Leonard S.
ISBN 978-1-61212-000-3 (pbk. : alk. paper)
ISBN 978-1-61212-001-0 (hardcover : alk. paper)
1. Poultry. I. Title. II. Title: Guide to raising poultry. III. Title: Raising poultry.
To my wife, Linda Drowns,
for all of her support in my many endeavors,
and my parents, Willard and Doris Drowns,
for allowing me to get those first four ducklings
that started it all.
THERE ARE MANY who deserve recognition, and I wish to
thank all who contributed ideas and suggestions for this book.
Your ideas and thoughts helped to create it all.
Special thanks to Melanie Slattery for doing some of the typing; to Annalisa Reganfuss for reading the first draft and providing me with ideas for topics to address; and to Ed Hart for reading
the final draft.
PART 1 Getting Started
1 Should I Raise Poultry? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
2 Housing and Supplies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
3 Poultry Biology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 43
4 Baby Basics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 61
5 Feeds and Feeding . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 82
6 Heritage Breeds . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 91
PART 2 Choosing the Right Chickens
7 Laying Chickens . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102
8 Meat Chickens . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 118
9 Dual-Purpose Chickens . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 131
10 Bantams . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 139
11 Ornamental Chickens . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 147
PART 3 Turkeys, Waterfowl, Guineas, and More
12 Turkeys . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 156
13 Waterfowl . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 179
14 Guineas . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 204
15 Coturnix Quail . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 219
16 Game Birds . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 228
17 The “Uncommon” Poultry . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 245
PART 4 Fowl Practices
18 Incubation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 256
19 Home Processing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 278
20 So, You Want to Be a Breeder? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 300
21 Marketing and Sales . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 320
22 Showing Poultry . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 337
23 Poultry as Pets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 348
PART 5 The Bigger Picture
24 Growing Your Own Feed . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 354
25 Flock Health . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 364
26 Dealing with Predators . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 399
27 Government Regulation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 409
28 Calendar Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 413
A Poultry Feed Requirements . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 425
B Characteristics Indicating High and Low Egg Production
Characteristics of Layers and Nonlayers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 426
C U.S. Weight Classes for Shell Eggs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 427
D U.S. Standards for Quality of Individual Shell Eggs . . . . . . . . . . . 427
E Incubation Troubleshooting Chart . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 428
F Poultry Ailments Checklist and Diagnostic Aids . . . . . . . . . . . . 430
G Using a Wet-Bulb System . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 434
H Types of Rodenticides . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 435
I Poultry Manure Information . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 436
Resources . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 437
Glossary . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 439
Index . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 445
PA R T 1
Should I Raise Poultry?
THERE ARE MANY POSSIBLE ANSWERS to the question, “Should I
raise poultry?” For some, the thrill of exhibition and the thought of winning
first place in a poultry show are enough to convince them to begin raising. For
others, it’s the excitement of seeing a little bit of nature in their backyard. For
still others, the pleasure or necessity of producing their own eggs and meat
will start them down the poultry road. The artistic are drawn to the beauty
and diversity of the birds. Hardcore gardeners are intrigued by the possibilities
of using poultry for insect control and manure as fertilizer in their backyard
gardens. A few individuals will even find poultry to be the perfect pets. Nearly
everyone can identify with some facet of the poultry world and find valid reasons to raise these wonderful creatures.
A diverse flock of poultry can provide beauty, eggs, meat, and unparalleled entertainment.
Should I Raise Poultry?
URBAN RAISING ON THE RISE,
BUT CHECK WITH OFFICIALS
A growing number of cities and heavily populated towns allow residents
to keep a few young chickens; that is, at least until three to four
months when a rooster begins to crow. It’s always a good idea to check
on city and county ordinances in your area before you purchase poultry.
In some cases, even in rural areas, you may not be allowed to have
poultry or there may be a limit to the number of birds you may have.
Don’t be surprised if you are not allowed to keep roosters. Their
noisiness is considered an annoyance by some; it is their crowing
that turns many neighborhood associations, small cities, and towns
against their citizens raising poultry at all.
Many folks who decide to raise poultry want good food and something attractive. If that’s your desire, you can have it. Entire breeds and many varieties of
poultry are raised primarily for ornamental purposes. Keep in mind, however,
that while they are considered ornamental, many of these breeds also produce
a reasonable number of eggs and an acceptable meat product. With poultry, you
can have the best of all worlds: eggs, meat, and aesthetically pleasing birds.
Raising Your Own Food
Perhaps the desire to know all the raising and feeding practices involved in the
production of one’s food is a leading reason many people in the twenty-first
century choose to raise poultry. Backyard raisers may have decided to establish their own flock because they want to avoid genetically modified organism
(GMO) crops used to feed commercial animals, or they are concerned over the
use of preservatives and hormones. They may be trying to avoid trans fats or
they may find the agribusiness approach to raising poultry inhumane and feel
that supporting that kind of raising is bad for the environment.
Needless to say, one of the principal reasons for raising your own poultry is
to have a good supply of fresh, delicious eggs. Nothing compares with eating
an egg from your own flock that has a nice, deep, rich, dark orange yolk when
cooked. It’s a far cry from the pale, sickly, yellow, flattened yolk of an egg purchased at a supermarket.
You might also choose to butcher extra birds and supply your family with
fresh, nutritious home-raised meat. Knowing exactly what your animal was fed
Poultry can be an ideal
and how it was cared for can make you feel at ease about the long-lasting health
and environmental consequences of what you’re putting into your mouth.
For all the reasons one chooses to become a backyard raiser, one principle
holds true. Anyone — producer or consumer — who knows the origin of his or
her food can’t help feeling confident and relaxed about this choice.
4 - H : A G R E AT WAY T O S TA R T
Raising poultry is a wonderful undertaking for a beginning 4-Her considering a livestock project. Many who raise poultry have their first
experience as a young 4-H member needing a simple animal project
that doesn’t require large livestock trailers or other major equipment. In fact, poultry raising is among the least expensive of the
Types of 4-H poultry projects vary from area to area, but all of
them allow beginners to get their competitive poultry-raising feet wet.
Competitive learning experiences, these exhibition projects not only
help newcomers to see the practical reasons for raising poultry, but
also give them a chance to experience various aspects of the poultryraising life. They learn about record keeping and start to notice
advantages and disadvantages, struggles and rewards of raising
each type of poultry.
For some, the 4-H project continues on into adulthood when the
one time 4-H member finds him- or herself entering and competing in
the large professional poultry shows.
Should I Raise Poultry?
Fowl for Exhibition
Exhibiting poultry can be a very rewarding experience. For those with the competitive spirit, 4-H membership offers exposure to poultry at an early age, and
poultry species make ideal 4-H livestock projects. Children and youths have
an early opportunity to learn about the animals firsthand, care for them, keep
record books, and gain knowledge of the science and economics associated with
raising livestock. Keep in mind that poultry projects aren’t just for rural youths;
these projects give urban and suburban kids an opportunity to raise animals too,
with the support and guidance of a national organization. Plus, raising a few
chickens in the backyard is far easier than raising a cow or pig.
If you’re fortunate enough to live in an area where poultry are allowed,
you don’t even have to wait for 4-H to get started raising poultry with younger
children. Although children can’t join 4-H earlier than age nine, five- and
six-year-olds can gain a great deal from raising poultry, especially in the area
At some point, however, your growing children may find the simple 4-H
endeavor no longer satisfies their competitive desire. Up until the age of eighteen, they can show at professional exhibits that include juvenile divisions. As
their poultry-showing skills improve, they can advance from the juvenile to
the adult division, where raisers picking up the hobby in adulthood will begin.
This division may be very competitive; raisers tend to develop their own highperforming show-circuit poultry strains. These birds are not necessarily heavy
egg or meat producers, nor are they necessarily proper breeders, but you can bet
they will be properly colored, feathered, and marked, and have all of the traits
required in the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection.
Poultry for Profit
People often successfully raise poultry as a source of income. In days gone by,
this income was known as the farm wife’s “egg money.” She would take care of
the hens, take the eggs to market, and keep the profits from such endeavors for
household expenses or other family needs. Those days are in the past — now
men and women are the farmers, of course — but there is still a distinct possibility that money can be made from raising poultry.
Keep in mind that even though a great deal of work is involved and long
hours of focused energy are necessary, the profits may not be large. But you do
have an opportunity to make poultry a profitable business venture, nevertheless. Backyard raisers are never going to be able to be more profitable than the
giant egg farms or broiler facilities that produce millions of eggs and millions of
D O N ’ T S T O P AT C H I C K E N S
F O R E G G S A N D M E AT
Eggs from all species of poultry can be consumed and in many cases
make wonderful tasty additions to your diet.
Duck eggs are fabulous for baking and cooking. They make outstanding cakes and pastries, and some of the fluffiest omelets.
Goose eggs also are edible, but goose egg production is never quite
high enough nor is the season long enough for geese to be raised
solely for the purpose of eating the eggs. Goose eggs are far more
valuable for other purposes and never need be wasted if you plan
wisely. They are widely sought after for making pysanky, eggs decorated with traditional Ukrainian folk designs using the wax-resist
dying method. So even eggs that candle out of the incubator as infertile can be blown out and used for egg decorating.
Turkey eggs are a wonderful substitute for chicken eggs; in fact, they
are virtually indistinguishable. Turkey hens lay 80 or more eggs per
season, some more than others. The key to keeping turkeys laying is
to constantly gather the eggs to keep them from wanting to “steal a
nest” — lay and raise a clutch of eggs hidden from the general flow
Guinea eggs are also close to chicken eggs in taste and texture.
They are smaller and the shells unbelievably hard, but the yolks are
firm and stand high in the pan.
Quail eggs, although very small, are quite edible and can make cute
party bites when made into deviled eggs or used to dot the tops of a
potato salad or the like. They are commonly pickled and make beautiful decorations when mixed with pickled beets.
butchered birds per year. However, you can seek out well-paying niche markets
to help make your poultry hobby profitable.
Niche markets are created by the demands of consumers desiring a product that
is rare or can’t be found easily among more mainstream products. For example,
a niche market is created when someone wants farm-fresh eggs laid by freerange laying hens. Other niche markets are customers who desire eggs from
Should I Raise Poultry?
hens that have been fed a special diet to produce eggs higher in omega-3 fatty
acids or eggs from soy- and/or corn-free rations. Also, of course, some customers seek to eat eggs with unique colors such as the pastels of the Ameraucanas
and Araucanas, or the deep, dark brown eggs of the Marans, Penadesencas,
Welsumers, and Barnevelders.
In order to find potential customers, you must research the market in your
area, and work to develop your clientele. Know your particular area and what
people desire, and then go for that particular avenue.
Colored eggs can be lucrative! For example, even though there is no content
difference between brown eggs and white eggs, people think brown eggs are
fresher, and will dole out more cash for them. A marketing ploy some years ago
gave consumers the idea that brown eggs were fresher because they came from
local farms, and white eggs, more common in the supermarkets then, were
shipped in and therefore older. This gave brown-egg sales a boost over whiteegg sales for a time.
Although there is something aesthetically pleasing about those deep, dark
brown eggs that makes one think of a farm in a rural peaceful setting, the difference in egg flavor depends solely upon what the chickens have been fed. A stale
egg is a stale egg and a fresh egg is a fresh egg, regardless of the shell color.
If you want to make a little extra cash on eggs, keep in mind that you can
develop niche markets among people who enjoy getting an assortment of colored eggs. You can provide a colorful variety in the egg carton: blue, green,
tinted off-white, white, light brown, and a deep, dark, almost chocolate color.
The eggs’ colors are almost as diverse as the birds that produce them. A flock
made up of Ameraucanas, Orpingtons, Leghorns, Rhode Island Reds, Langshans,
and Marans will provide a customer with the delight that comes with a pleasing
Locally Grown Meats
You may find a niche market for fresh meats in your area. Search out those who
long for the taste of real chicken — not the tasteless flesh that must be prepared
with a salty coating or broth injections to provide any semblance of flavor. By
selling a young chicken that has a traditional texture, you provide customers
with an intensely flavorful meal unlike what most people have experienced.
Even older hens will produce a rich, tasty broth for chicken and dumplings,
chicken and noodle combinations, or other comfort-food dishes.
Some ethnic cultures that prefer dark-feathered or other particular types
of birds have created a demand for live birds. Southeast Asians value Silkies;
dark-feathered birds are prized by all cultures other than European-descended
U.S. residents. In the United States, many folks seem to like their chickens with
white feathers and yellow legs, and they have to be easy to dress. Other cultures
don’t always share these values, and once they find you are a source for the type
of chicken they prefer over others, you can easily develop a working relationship
and perhaps profit for your farming venture.
Other sources of revenue include niche markets for Coturnix quail eggs for
pickling and boiling for lunchtime and snacks, duck eggs for baking, and fresh
geese for traditional holiday meals. It is almost impossible to locate a freshdressed goose for Christmas or other holiday dinners, but roast goose is especially prized by the people of Central and Eastern European descent and by
“foodies” desiring a new twist on a traditional dinner.
People are beginning to seek out heritage turkeys and naturally mating turkeys (those that are able to breed without artificial insemination)
that do not have the large, particularly broad breasts, but have rich, succulent meat.
With the rise of niche markets, and people hoping to purchase locally raised
food, many opportunities exist for the person hoping to turn their poultry venture into a profit.
Perhaps because so many folks were charmed as children by Mother Goose
stories that included illustrations of little ducklings, goslings, and baby chicks,
there will always be people who want to raise poultry for pets. During the Easter
season, when many across the world are celebrating spring and new life, people
are particularly attracted to purchasing poultry for pets.
Arguments exist both for and against using poultry as pets, although I’ve
come to find there are no absolutes regarding which breeds are suitable as
pets. I’ve seen the wildest chickens become very tame and docile around
someone who’s spent a considerable length of time with the birds. I’ve also
seen chickens that I usually consider tame and docile act wild when their
raiser has not spent any time with them or has treated them poorly. Just as
people have their own personalities and mannerisms, poultry personalities
are uniquely individual. Some tend to make better pets than others, however
(see chapter 23, Poultry as Pets, for further discussion).
Should I Raise Poultry?
Poultry as Pesticide
Yet another important reason to raise poultry is for insect control. Although
there is a limit to how much they can eat, ducks, guineas, and other poultry
species can certainly provide backyard insect control, and allowing them freedom to roam is advantageous to any gardener as long as certain precautions are
taken. For example, you wouldn’t want to turn them out onto a newly sprouting
vegetable or perennial garden. Poultry love the first tender shoots of green in
the early spring and will devastate a tulip bed in seconds.
Ducks are particularly helpful in areas inhabited by slugs and insects such as
earwigs, cockroaches, and crickets. Their beaks probe the ground around trees
and shrubs and bushes looking for all those luscious little slimy mollusks, as
well as earthworms, insects, and larvae that may be found under the litter in
and around your garden.
Guineas provide a wonderful dryland alternative for insect control. Their diet
is predominantly insects when allowed to consume them. Given only moderate
amounts of grain, they will go in search of grasshoppers, crickets, and cockroaches — any sort of bugs that they can find.
I’ve observed them even eating squash bugs, the very nasty-tasting, stinkysmelling insects that do so much damage to squash and melons. They will work
their hearts out looking for green cabbage-moth caterpillar. They have a keen
eye and a good sense of where the insects are located. I’ve seen them moving
The Bug Patrol at work
through an orchard getting grasshoppers on a daily basis; each day they rush out
of their pen and move farther along in the orchard to where the grasshoppers
have not yet been eliminated.
Poultry for Pleasure
The beauty of a poultry flock and the entertainment they provide are reasons
enough to raise them. Just seeing them in your yard after a long, hard stint at
work can turn your whole day around. When the stresses of modern society
and the pressures brought on by technological advances have wreaked havoc
with your nerves, coming home, turning your poultry out on your lawn, and
letting them roam gives you a sense of relaxation that can’t be matched. It is
not uncommon for me to go to the henhouse to drop off treats or just to watch
the birds and their antics. The multiple colors, personality differences, and
individual mannerisms of each breed and type of poultry will provide hours of
P O U LT R Y T Y P E S A N D U S E S
Heritage — eggs and meat can be produced free range or in
Commercial layers — eggs only, will survive in cages if necessary
Commercial broilers — for meat only, best suited for carefully
controlled systems with protection from environmental
Commercial broad-breasted — fast growing, solely for meat,
not suitable for wintering over and breeding
Heritage (naturally mating) — slower growing; less white meat;
suitable for keeping to maintain your own self-perpetuating,
All varieties — raised primarily for meat, though can be used for
weeding and eggs; eggs are great for decorating
Should I Raise Poultry?
Ducks always seem to be happy and enjoy a nice clean place to sleep. Even
though they love to play in the mud and get grimy during the day, they become
excited and make a pleasant little sound once back in their coop when they find
that you’ve cleaned it out and restocked it with fresh, dry bedding. They know
you’ve done something good for them and they, in turn, work their hardest to
help you by providing you with a reliable egg and meat supply, and insect and
Even if you don’t choose to make your birds pets per se, they soon identify
you with their feed source, and, perhaps, as the person who brings them treats.
If you regularly give table scraps, such as extra lettuce leaves or some other
tidbits headed for the compost pile, they will come running to see you. Believe
it or not, they are similar to dogs and cats that wait for you to get home from
work at the end the day. As you may know, it is extremely rewarding when little
creatures come running to see you with welcoming looks on their little beaks
Egg type — smaller birds, best suited for production of eggs
Meat type — larger carcass, primarily meat but lay some eggs
Ornamental — pets, some eggs, also possible for meat;
All varieties — raised primarily for meat, insect control, and
Coturnix — eggs, and to a lesser degree meat
Bobwhite — meat
All others — primarily meat and ornamental
Chinese ringneck — primarily for meat
All others — ornamental, some for meat
All varieties — used primarily for meat or exhibition
While busily doing your evening chores, you’ll find it hard to dismiss the aesthetic and mental health reasons for raising poultry, whether selling their eggs is a
profitable business or not. Poultry are beautiful, working with them is relaxing, and
they provide you with food. What more could you ask for in a hobby or vocation?
Can you mix different species of poultry together in one facility? Purists in the
crowd feel it is best to have a separate building or pen for each type of poultry
on your property, but it’s not critical. You can easily raise chickens, ducks, geese,
guineas, and in some cases turkeys all together, once they are no longer babies.
Even babies can be kept together for a few days. If the size of your facility is
adequate, and a mixed-species flock has ample space outside for an exercise
area, most all poultry can be kept together.
The problem with mixing species arises when waterfowl are raised with
other fowl. Ducks and geese are cute as pie when they are day-olds, but once
they discover how much fun it is to toddle from the water source to the feeder
and back again, they’ll do it a million times, soaking everything — a condition
chicks, poults, and keets don’t tolerate well because their feathers become matted, leaving them unable to maintain a proper body temperature.
Waterfowl can make life harder for other cohabiting species in the cold winter
months. Waterfowl, especially geese, insist on taking daily baths, regardless of the
outside temperature, and in their zeal to get clean, they typically splash all other
members of the household. Geese and ducks can tolerate the cold better because
their bodies have a fatty layer of insulation; chickens, guineas, and turkeys are not
as fortunate. I’ve seen geese jump in a tub of water when it was −38°F (−39°C) and
quickly turn to ice. Their feathers had frozen water droplets on them and all the
flabbergasted birds around them also were covered with ice crystals.
Mixed groups of poultry work quite well together within reason. Of course there
can be problems, but as a general rule they occur only during breeding season or if
things get too crowded. During breeding season, both males and females become
aggressive toward others, and in a mixed flock, tempers flare and aggressive outbursts increase. The less space you have, the more problems you experience.
An added benefit to combining your flock is eye appeal — mixed groups all
running around together outside can be quite aesthetically pleasing.
Adjusting to the Mix
When given proper room, all of the main types of poultry get along just fine with
one another in the same pen. Chickens, ducks, geese, guineas, and turkeys can
Should I Raise Poultry?
all be in the same building, eating, drinking, sleeping, and laying eggs all as one
big happy family. You’ll need to think broadly to accommodate the needs of each
breed, and be ready to make some adjustments to the daily routine.
If you want to mix waterfowl with any nonwaterfowl species, plan to clean
your facility weekly in wet seasons or as the litter becomes damp and smelly.
If you want to mix guineas with any other species, prepare to step in and
rethink your plan if a battle ensues. Male guineas, especially during breeding
season, are particularly protective of their turf. They commonly harass and
occasionally kill roosters, male turkeys, and even male ducks living in the same
pen. The common Pearl guineas are the most aggressive; many of the rarer colors of guinea are not as protective.
If you want to mix turkeys with any other species, do so on a trial-and-error
basis. If blackhead disease exists in your area, chickens can present a contagion
problem for the turkeys in the mix. Turkeys are particularly vulnerable to the
disease, and if your land is composed of heavy soils that don’t drain well and
therefore harbor more disease-carrying worms and parasites, your turkeys are
further at risk. Sandy, loose soils tend to be better for poultry pasture to prevent
worm problems and other disease issues. See chapter 25, Flock Health, for more
information about blackhead.
Chickens, turkeys, and guineas will all roost with one another and for the
most part will get along just fine. Ducks and geese will sleep happily together on
the floor below the others with minimal, if any, problems. Ducks are so personable and easygoing that they get along with anybody and anything. Geese are
usually so busy trying to be just a little bit better than everybody else that they
remain somewhat aloof and separate from the other members of the barnyard.
You also can add pigeons into this menagerie. They’ll inhabit yet another
niche in the barn, and will mix well with the others. In some cases, even pheasants can be allowed to run loose in an open pen with other poultry and will get
along just fine.
Never add free-roaming quail to a mixed barnyard; their tender size and
docile disposition make intermingling dangerous. Keep them separate from
Out of the Past, Into the Future
The practice of poultry raising has changed rapidly in the past 60 years. Even
though the total number of chickens remained fairly stable in the United States
from 1940 to 1969, the number of farms raising them dropped from more than
5 million in 1940 to fewer than 500,000 in 1969. Agricultural censuses have
become more complex and detailed since that time and the government now
keeps tabs on, among other things, total numbers of animals, numbers of species,
and the sizes of the farms where the birds are raised. The farm census of 2007
offers a snapshot of how the numbers of raising facilities have continued to drop
(see box below).
According to that census, 0.3 percent of farms with laying chickens raised
76.2 percent of all laying chickens raised in the United States in 2007. That
means as a beginning poultry raiser, you join a very large group of smaller farms
collectively raising a tiny group of all of U. S. chickens. The remainder of the
nearly 350 million birds was raised by fewer than 10 thousand corporate facilities. Since the media have begun to examine corporate farm practices believed
by some to be unhealthy or inhumane, the small farmer is challenged by the
stigma attached to poultry raising. Naturally, corporate farms also have the
majority of the poultry-raising capital — an additional hurdle for small farms
hoping to get the attention of a questioning consumer.
On a positive note for backyarders, the number of farms annually raising
between 1 and 99 chickens rose to 135,843 in 2007 from 90,124 in 2002!
While small producers are on the upswing, the number of large-scale producers has dropped.
Although the pendulum is swinging, and the number of backyard producers
grows each year, the total flock numbers raised on small farms and in backyards
will likely never again reach the numbers seen in the 1940s and 1950s. Still, it
is encouraging to see more and more folks interested in producing their own
food, and heartening to learn that educated consumers want to buy locally, and
to know the source of their food and the practices of the raiser.
Small Farms vs. Factory Farms
The twenty-first-century consumer must determine the more humane, healthy,
and environmentally friendly way to raise poultry. Is the bird produced by the
modern confinement cage method in gargantuan facilities the better choice,
C H I C K E N P R O D U C T I O N S TAT S
Number of Farms
Number of Birds Raised on Each Farm
Total Number of Chickens
between 1 and 99 layers
between 100 and 99,999 layers
more than 100,000 layers
Source: 2007 U.S. Census
Should I Raise Poultry?
or is the traditional free-range bird best? Each year, more and more corporate
money is spent trying to convince the public that raising poultry on smaller
farms, out in the open on green grass or in untidy barns, where they’re exposed
to wild animals, dirt, disease, and pests, is not as humane or healthy as raising
birds in a plastic bubble of confinement.
While it may be argued that poultry are more comfortable in a climatecontrolled facility, a number of factors must be considered before advocating for
such a method, especially the pollution potential of factory farms.
Resources. The corporate way of doing things involves a great amount of
electricity. Fans and heaters required to maintain ideal conditions are a large
Disease. Having so many birds in one space produces massive amounts of
manure concentrated in a small area. With flocks sharing a space with vast
quantities of manure, concern arises over the incidence of disease.
Preventatives. To keep illness at bay, vaccinations and/or use of antibiotics
must be constant to keep the population healthy. Anytime you cram such a
large number of living creatures into a small area, precautions must be used to
combat or confine disease.
Biosecurity issues. A superbug intentionally or accidentally introduced into
a climate- and condition-controlled facility raising only genetically similar
birds could severely diminish or destroy the food supply. A diverse and genetically rich population is essential to maintaining a healthy, vital planet.
Many backyard raisers are afraid that the eggs and chickens produced in
enormous facilities by genetically identical birds kept in such close proximity
leave no room for the birds to move — or for human error. They’re also worried
that massive egg recalls of factory farm products that have sickened millions of
people will become the norm, further casting a shadow over the poultry industry. I
have witnessed firsthand the weakness of representatives of animal families raised
in relatively germ-free environments for 30 to 40 years and then reintroduced to
the outside world. They do not survive. To me, it’s scary to think that we might
someday might need a sterile environment simply to produce eggs and meat.
Large-scale producers are fearful that smalltimers allow their birds to harbor
diseases that will wipe out their birds. It’s true that birds roaming “free range”
around a yard or pasture are exposed to worm eggs from the ground, parasites,
and disease from wild birds. It’s also true that birds confined to a structure only
at night may be subject to attacks from possible predators. But if we isolate a
species and prevent its exposure to nature, then we don’t allow it to gradually
develop immunity to the earth’s environmental and pathogenic changes.
People must decide for themselves if creating machinelike, egg-producing
birds in an unnatural agri-factory is the best raising practice. I take the position
that the poultry is much happier and more content — and thus given a humane
and fulfilling existence — when allowed to range, pick up fresh grass and bugs,
and dig and scratch in the dirt. Yes, they can and will get worms, lice, and mites,
and they are exposed to diseases, but that is how they’ve been raised for thousands of years, and how they have survived as a collective species.
The backyard raiser may never be able to change the practices of massproducing conventional farms of today, but I hope both groups can at least
coexist and accept that the other’s way of doing things meets that particular
P O U L T R Y
P E O P L E
Mike and Annalisa, Los Angeles County, California
I K E A N D A N NA L I S A ty p i fy the modern food-aware and ecologically conscious family, as they raise fowl on an acre lot within
the city limits of a small city in a very urban part of the world. They are
helping to conserve our genetic resources, feeding their family, and conducting valuable feed research, all in the confines of a small backyard
With no real rural countryside, they make the best use of their yard to raise
and perpetuate poultry. They work hard to raise as much of their poultry’s feed
as they can, incorporating garden produce, scraps, and extra items such as avocados, persimmons, melons, and even bananas into the diet of their chickens.
Annalisa is committed to finding and incorporating methods to raise poultry
on as much of their own produced food as they can. She is constantly researching and experimenting with home-raised food diets for their chickens.
The couple have also taken on the challenge of breed preservation and
perpetuation. They have studied how to build appropriate shelters for their
climate and incorporate many natural methods in raising poultry. They raise
their poultry for multiple purposes — eggs, meat, and breeding to sell to
others, not only to preserve our valuable genetic resources but also to disperse them to new locations.
Should I Raise Poultry?
While the large-scale producer may consider my non-climate-controlled facilities, where birds are allowed to roam on the ground and on pasture, inappropriate,
I will always believe that it’s inappropriate to jam-pack thousands of cages with
debeaked, dewinged birds raised to produce as much and as quickly as possible.
All of us must begin to demand that food production be less concerned with
producing the most birds and eggs at the cheapest possible cost, and more focused
on humane and environmentally sustainable practices. We have just one planet and
we must do our best to maintain and sustain it. Raising a few members of the poultry
population in your backyard can provide you with more healthful meat and eggs for
your table, fertilizer for your yard and garden, and a more natural life for domesticated animals, all with minimal, if any, damage to the environment.
Although Mike and Annalisa are not into poultry exhibition, they
thoroughly demonstrate the other topics of this book, from housing construction to foraging to raising the majority of their own feed. They have
successfully raised chicks from purchased day-olds, hatched their own eggs
in incubators, and hatched them under hens. They are skilled at home
butchering, having learned from experience and practice. They use young
stock for baking or frying and old hens for soup stock and specialty dishes.
Future plans are to expand to other types of poultry, perhaps a few
ducks for more insect control in their gardens and under fruit trees. Their
year-round growing season provides habitat for multiple insects that ducks
could help control naturally. This would also add some new food items to
the table. A turkey or two may also be in the future as this modern family
strives to produce more of their own food and make the connection to their
food supply from start to finish.
Knowing where, when, and how food is produced is becoming more and
more important for many twenty-first-century consumers. How better to
do that than to raise the majority of your own fruits and vegetables, as well
as the food for your poultry that provide you with fresh eggs and meat?
Housing and Supplies
ONCE YOU HAVE DECIDED poultry is the thing for you, it’s time to figure
out a way to house and care for the birds. If you have recently purchased a farm,
or already have some outbuildings on your land, then you are probably ready
to go with just a few minor modifications. If you are starting from scratch, or
hoping to keep a few birds in the city or on a small plot of land in an urban
or suburban area, then you need to do some research, make a plan, buy some
materials, and if you’re a do-it-yourselfer, start building.
Planning a Home for Your Future Flock
Before you can decide what type of structure to provide as housing for your
poultry, you must consider such things as area zoning laws, regional climate,
and possible building sites on your property. You must know which species of
birds you plan to raise.
Other chapters in this book discuss various species and breeds to help you
determine which are a good fit for you. This chapter will start you thinking
about how you’ll house your birds and what your limitations and freedoms are
in terms of land and building use. It also contains some tips about accommodating a flock in specific climates.
To help you narrow down your breed options, and make sound, reasonable decisions, weigh your top choices for species and the numbers you hope
to care for against legal restrictions, climate limitations, available space, and
housing options. Costs, naturally, must also be part of your planning, and a
budget is recommended.
Housing and Supplies
Know the Local Laws
First and foremost, research your town’s building codes and zoning ordinances.
Even in rural areas, building codes exist that dictate the possible ways one can
construct a poultry structure. Just because someone else in the neighborhood
has a small poultry house, do not assume that ordinances allow poultry buildings or even poultry. It may have been built many years ago under older, nowdefunct regulations and allowed, or “grandfathered in,” despite more recently
added restrictions. Some new ordinances and laws could curtail your operation.
If you build a structure only to find out later you have to tear it down, your birds
could be suddenly homeless.
Where to Put Them?
Selecting a site for your building depends upon your local climate.
If you live in a very windy area, situate your building in a somewhat protected spot and don’t face the windows into the prevailing winds.
If you are in a hot sunny area, try to locate the building in a spot that’s shady
for at least part of the day, preferably during the hottest part of the day.
Here in the Midwest, it is generally a good idea to face the structure to the
south and have a tree somewhere close by to provide shade during the heat of
the summer. Superhot, humid days more than 95°F (35°C) with no shade can
be as deadly to fowl as a −30°F (−1°C) day with wind. Areas that have climate
extremes at both ends make situating your structure a challenge, because just
as you want sunshine in the winter to help warm up the building, you want
shade in the summer for cooling. Do some careful planning and think about
seasonal changes before you locate the building. It works best to place your
building somewhere near a deciduous tree that provides shade in summer
and opens up when leaves fall for sunlight to reach the building in the winter.
Indoors or Outdoors?
The backyard flock owner is probably not considering a confinement operation
in the true sense of the word. You may be forced to have a clearly defined area
for your poultry if you live in urban or suburban areas, making “free range” not
an option. You may even be forced to use a cage.
It’s possible to construct a cage of sorts with poultry netting and lumber that
is far more humane than a confinement cage in a laying house where birds are
crowded into a small space. Use the square-footage-per-bird guidelines in the
box on page 23 and be sure you don’t overpopulate your space.
FLOCK LIFESTYLE TERMINOLOGY
A domesticated bird that has a life of limited confinement, with as few
restrictions as possible, is said to be free range. A flock kept free range
has no pens, roams the owner’s pasture or yard freely during the day, and
is locked up in a barn or building at night to prevent nighttime predation.
YA R D I N G
Yarding the flock means providing the birds with a building enclosed
by wire. The wire fencing runs far enough from the birds’ house for
them to have room to run near or around it. This runway gives the
birds an outside exercise area and a place for the owner to dump
lawn clippings, garden waste, and other poultry treats. The runway
can be large enough to create a free-range environment, if the flock
numbers are low enough to keep the grass and other green things
growing and not eaten to the ground.
PA R T I A L C O N F I N E M E N T
A confined bird has no access to an outside area for exercise and green
grass, but many backyard raisers allow them room to move around
within their building. Confinement is required in many city situations, but
the flock can have a humane and healthful lifestyle if provided grass,
greens, and treats, and given access to dirt to scratch around in and
take dust baths. Confinement birds raised on your farm do not have to
be debeaked and kept in a small cage with no room to turn around.
This term does not imply total confinement or constant cage dwelling. Hundreds of thousands of birds kept for commercial egg production are kept in total confinement.
Birds living in traditional cages are usually debeaked, and troughs
of feed and water are placed in front of them so they have access
without needing to move. In most commercial caging situations,
great numbers of birds are kept in a small space. No nest boxes are
needed; the eggs roll out from under the cage. These hens never
have access to the world outside of their cages and roosters are not
involved because natural mating is never allowed to occur.
Housing and Supplies
Whether or not you can allow your poultry to range freely in your yard even
for short spurts will help you to settle on a final house design. Do keep in mind,
however, that once your birds taste freedom, fresh grass, and dirt, they’ll never
again be content in a small confined cage; they’ll always be anxiously awaiting
their next chance at freedom.
Provide your fowl with a building that protects them from wind in the winter
and provides window space for proper ventilation in the summer. Those who
live in mild areas where winter temperatures rarely drop below 15°F (−9°C)
really do not need to worry about providing covering for windows in the winter.
In places where it routinely drops below 0°F (−17°C), you’re forced to make
decisions about how much to insulate, based at least in part on whether or not
you wish to have good steady egg production during the winter. If you plan to
keep your hens laying, close up the building and provide double walls with some
sort of insulation within. Try not to use blown-in or foam insulation in any area
where the birds might get access to it. Paper-faced fiberglass insulation is probably the best choice. Rodents will still try to build nests if they can obtain access,
but this insulation lasts longer than any other variety.
Chickens in warmer climates require more windows and sources of shade.
Make sure the windows are covered with a heavy wire mesh or predators will
have a feast.
Even in the coldest climates, you need to ventilate the building. For these
regions, a 4-inch (10 cm) diameter pipe long enough to reach up and away from
the building will suffice. Place the pipe in a hole just under the top of the roof
and fill in any gaps around it with a sealant type of caulk. The pipe must be situated so that it points away from prevailing winds. Use a wire mesh to cover the
opening and keep rodents and sparrows from entering the building.
Bantams typically require a bit more protection than do most breeds of
full-size chickens. You’ll need a bit more covering to shield them from wind
Turkeys thrive when their building is well ventilated. They don’t like a windy
environment, but if you situate them in a southerly facing building, leave the
top 2 feet (60 cm) or so of the south wall open and wire covered, and provide
full walls on the northern, eastern, and western walls, the turkeys will be content. Never close up the building completely because turkeys do not do well in
high moisture levels and damp environments. Keep their litter dry and they can
handle −25 to −35°F (−31 to −37°C) with little trouble.
Waterfowl are the easiest to house. Find them a building that keeps them
out of the wind and regularly offer them some dry straw for bedding, and they’ll
be happy. To maintain dry sleeping quarters, regular litter management is key.
Insulation is unnecessary. As with all poultry, however, it’s crucial that you provide your waterfowl with a house that keeps out predators.
Coturnix quail do not manage well in extreme cold if it is also windy. Mine
have endured −25°F (−31°C) with minimal losses when they had a solid surface
such as cardboard or a piece of wood placed in the bottom of their wire cages,
which prevents the wind from coming up underneath them, along with bedding
material such as shavings or straw for them to nestle down in. They don’t do as
well in an open wire-bottom cage as, surrounded with cold air, they are unable to
warm their bodies. A board on the bottom traps body heat and provides security.
Have a plan for the number and types of birds you’d like to raise, and know how much
space they’ll require. Once you’ve established that poultry are allowed in your particular neighborhood, it’s time to consider structure size and various design options.
If you are a carpenter, or would like to learn to be one, there are many books
available with detailed plans for building a chicken coop. Or you may prefer to
use ideas or plans taken from the Internet.
on the south side
offer summer shade
and winter sun.
Locate your coop where it will be protected from weather extremes.
Housing and Supplies
Include in your online search the size and space requirements for the
number of birds you plan to have. Healthy bird space requirements can influence your decision greatly. If you have your heart set on a neat little house
that fits perfectly in that space between your garage and the vegetable garden, and you also want to have a flock of 25 turkeys, you may need to alter
your plan for either the number of birds or the location of the shelter.
Refer to the following table for general space requirements for specific
bird types. Keep in mind that the chart does not supply information regarding
the space needs of very young poultry; that material is covered in chapter 4,
Raising young poultry requires common sense and being realistic about how
many can be in a certain area. If you take some time to observe the flock once
they are situated, you’ll soon know if you’ve underestimated the amount of space
needed. Birds communicate discomfort to their owner by their actions; you can
usually see their distress. Nervous behavior, pasty (manure-caked) feathers,
and birds packed in corners or trampled are all signs that you’ve placed too
many birds in too small an area.
When planning for poultry housing, consider the future; don’t build a structure
that meets only your current needs. If you become a real chicken, duck, or turkey
nut, you may run out of room faster than you can build. You will purchase this bird
M I N I M U M S PAC E R E Q U I R E M E N T S F O R
H O U S I N G A N D YA R D I N G P O U LT R Y
areas are preferable)
Type of Bird
Age of Bird
Floor Space per individual
6 weeks to adult
6 weeks to adult
3 weeks to adult
with outside yard
3 weeks to adult
with outside yard
6 weeks to adult
*minimum (but better to have a permanent grass or forage area)
KEEP IT DRY AND ODOR-FREE
My favorite litter material is straw derived from (in order of preference)
wheat, oat, barley, and rye. Wheat straw is the softest and easiest to
work with and is very absorbent. Oat straw is coarser but also absorbs
well. Barley straw is acceptable, but the beards from the barley can make
it itchy and irritating for you to deal with. Rye straw tends to be long and
coarse and not quite as absorbent as the others.
I have recently started using millet straw and found it equally functional. Crops grown in your area may dictate your choices.
Sawdust and shavings are not the best choices for adult birds and
should never be used with waterfowl. When these litter materials get
wet, the ammonia in the bird’s waste concentrates, making their living
It’s a good idea to clean out pens at least twice a month in seasons
when the humidity is high and the litter becomes packed and tamped
down. Clean more often if your building becomes crowded and you notice
these conditions occur more frequently. Of course, you must adjust your
cleaning schedule to fit your needs, but keep flock health the top priority.
Your birds should never be forced to stand in nothing but manure;
they’ll stay healthier if they have dry straw to stand on, especially when
it’s cold. It is always a good philosophy to put yourself in the flock’s position and ask if you are making them endure conditions that would be
unacceptable for you. However, also keep in mind that poultry like to pick
through waste and fibrous material. Cleaning everyday is not required.
The best strategy for maintaining a healthful environment involves use
of your nose. If you enter a closed-up building and the ammonia is so
strong it makes your eyes water, then get in gear and start cleaning! Your
poor birds would appreciate it if you didn’t wait so long next time.
or that bird and soon what started out as adequate quarters becomes too small. So
plan to build or use a shelter that allows for the arrival of new family members.
What Sort of Shelter?
Do you want to build a structure on your own from plans found in a poultry
book, or install something rather simple that doesn’t require much in the way of
planning? You could purchase a small shed-type structure or chain-link dog run
Housing and Supplies
found at home building supply stores. In this case, you can have it delivered and
set up to accommodate 10 to 12 chickens, 5 or 6 ducks, 2 or 3 geese or turkeys,
or 15 to 20 bantams.
These sheds are usually 6 feet by 8 feet (1.8 ≈ 2.5 m), or close to that size. They
are usually not insulated but will provide adequate cover for your birds in winter
rain or snow. Dog kennels with a tarp for rain protection may be all that is needed
in warm climates such as southern California, Florida, and Hawaii.
For more protection from the elements, simple existing or newly purchased
structures can be modified with insulation and paneling of some sort on the
inside. Take care not to use plywood or wood materials that have a lot of glue
and can come apart easily when damp. Poultry produce a lot of moisture from
breathing during the winter months. Pressed board is not strong enough for
housing; your buildings will crumble in a few years.
A prefab building that is 6 feet wide, 10 feet long, and 8 feet high (1.8 ≈ 3 ≈
2.5 m) can easily accommodate a small backyard flock. This 60-square-foot (5.5 sq
m) building can accommodate up to 24 chickens or guineas, up to 12 ducks, or
perhaps a half-dozen turkeys or geese, although it will be somewhat crowded, and
turkeys, ducks, or geese would need some outside access. In many cases, these
manufactured structures will satisfy most building and zoning requirements.
I do not recommend the above structure for turkeys, ducks, or geese if the
birds do not also have outside access. Guineas would not be very happy but
would do okay. Chickens or bantams are best suited for such a building if there
is no outside access; however, I would reduce the number of adult chickens to
no more than a dozen.
Even the crudest of designs will accommodate poultry. A structure such as
the one described here can be made with limited expense and will keep its
occupants quite content.
Basic Coop Construction
A fairly simple structure can be made using 4≈4s (10≈10 cm), 2≈4s (5≈10 cm),
nails, and sheet metal, all of which can be obtained at building supply centers.
The materials can be hauled easily in most pickup trucks and will cut down on
your costs considerably. It’s best to start with 4≈4s (10≈10 cm) that are 10 feet
(3 m) long and 8 feet (2.5 m) long. These will afford you a 7 ≈ 8-foot (2.25 ≈
2.5 m) building of 56 square feet (5 sq m). Your shed will be the right height for
entering and exiting, and also will allow your birds plenty of room.
Again, before you start digging, make sure you’ve carefully considered the
path of the sun relative to the placement of your building. I prefer to situate
S I M P L E P O U L T R Y B U I L D I N G S U P P LY L I S T
10-foot (3 m) 4×4 (10×10 cm)
8-foot (2.5 m) 4×4 (10×10 cm)
60-pound (27 kg) bag concrete mix
8-foot (2.5 m) 2×4 (5 × 10 cm)
(Use 2×6s [5 × 15 cm] for a stronger structure. Treated
lumber is best to prevent rotting and insect damage.)
8-foot (2.5 m) 1x4 (2.5x10 cm)
8-foot (2.5 m) 2×2 (5×5 cm)
8-foot (2.5 m) sheet metal 39-inch (1 m) width
6-foot (1.8 m) sheet metal 39-inch (1 m) width
1¾-inch (4.5 cm) rubber-washer roofing nails
3 pounds (1.5 kg)
4 × 8-foot (1.2 × 2.5 m) ½-inch (1.25 cm) plywood
3-inch (7.5 cm) strap hinges with screws
5 pounds (2.25 kg)
3-inch (7.5 cm) hook and eye
1-inch (2.5 cm) mesh or heavy-gauge welded wire
1 50-foot (15 m) roll
1-inch fencing staples
my structures so they are facing south, where they will catch the winter sunlight. An east-facing shed is my second choice. West-facing sheds can cause
problems in the summer when the sun is in the birds’ faces during the hottest part of the day, making them overheat. If a shed is facing north, the sun
alone will not provide adequate light. Your choices may be somewhat different
depending on where you live (see the earlier discussion regarding building
location on page 19).
Although the Building Supply List box above suggests you purchase twelve
6-foot (1.8 m) pieces of sheet metal for siding and three 8-foot (2.5 m) pieces
for the roof, it may be easier to simply purchase fifteen 8-foot (2.5 m) lengths
of sheet metal and invest in a decent pair of metal cutters. A good pair can be
obtained for less than $20 and they come in handy for many projects. Eight-foot
(2.5 m) lengths will allow you some flexibility with your structure if you wish to
bury a bit of the metal along the sides to prevent predators from digging under
Anyone can tackle this project without much difficulty. I have built many of
these structures with modest carpentry skills. Follow the building directions on
the next few pages and you’ll soon have a place for your birds to live.
Housing and Supplies
1. Mark locations for the two 10-foot (3 m) 4≈4s (10≈10 cm) 8 feet (2.5 m)
apart where you want the front of the building to be.
2. Mark locations for the two 8-foot (2.5 m) 4≈4s (10≈10 cm) 7 feet (2.1 m)
behind and parallel to the two 10-foot (3 m) posts. These pairs of posts are
the front and back of your building, so you want them to be lined up and as
square as possible.
3. Dig four holes slightly bigger around than the diameter of the 4≈4s (10≈10
cm) and between 24 and 30 inches (61–76 cm) deep where you want the
corners of the building to stand. A posthole digger works great.
4. Following the directions on the bag, mix a bag of concrete and pour it into
the first hole after you have set the 4≈4 (10≈10 cm) in the hole. Using a
level, hold the 4≈4 (10≈10 cm) straight up, and then make sure the concrete mix fills in all the way around it in the hole.
5. Now, use the dirt from the hole you dug to fill in on top of the concrete and
around the 4≈4 (10≈10 cm) in the hole. Tamp it down. If you haven’t dug
your hole too wide, the combination of concrete mix and the tamped-down
dirt will keep the 4≈4 (10≈10 cm) solid and in place.
6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 with the remaining three 4≈4s (10≈10 cm). Be sure
to mix only one bag of concrete at a time, as you need it. An old 5-gallon
(19 L) bucket works great.
7. Now measure your 10-foot (3 m) 4≈4s (10≈10 cm), at the front, to determine if they extend to equal heights above the ground. Then measure the
Use one 60-pound bag
of concrete for each
S H E E T M E TA L L I P S A N D S A F E T Y T I P S
When installing the roof metal and siding, create a tight seal by overlapping the pieces properly and covering the seam on the edge of
the metal. Take a moment to match up the pieces before you start
the nailing process: one side of the metal has a bigger lip that fits
over the smaller lip to provide a tight seal. These are located on
opposite sides of the metal sheet.
To prevent smashed fingers, hold the roofing nails with a pair of
pliers so when you miss you don’t smash your thumb. I learned the
hard way and have a permanently damaged thumbnail as proof. It
takes a bit of force to penetrate the sheet metal.
two posts at the back to see if they, too, are equal in height and 2 feet (0.6 m)
shorter than the posts at the front. If not, trim the top off the taller 4≈4s so
that the two front posts are the same height and the two back posts are the
same height. Remember, the two front posts need to be about 2 feet higher than
the two at the back. You want a pitch (slope) to your roof.
Before you proceed, it’s a good idea to let the concrete harden overnight
if possible. Although you can proceed at this point if pressed for time, it is
ideal to wait 24 hours before you move on to step 8.
8. Next, create the bottom frame by connecting 2≈4s (5≈10 cm) — or 2≈6s
(5≈15 cm) for a stronger structure — to the 4≈4s (10≈10 cm). To do this,
place a 2≈6 (5≈15 cm) over the front face of the 4≈4s (10≈10 cm) at the
front of the building and drive two 16-penny nails in each end to attach it
to the 4≈4s (10≈10 cm). Repeat this step with the back of the building and
then cut the remaining two 2≈6s (5≈15 cm) to fit the ends of the building.
The structure may not be exactly 7 feet (2.0 m) deep by 8 feet (2.5 m) long
if things were not entirely square when you started. It’s best to measure and
trim the boards to fit the structure as you go. When this step is complete,
you will have a bottom frame for your building, with the four standing 4≈4s
(10≈10 cm) and the four horizontal 2≈6s (5≈15 cm) connecting to create
the bottom frame.
9. Now construct the top frame, basically creating a box of sorts. To do this, repeat
step 8 by nailing the 2≈4s (5≈10 cm) (or 2≈6s [5≈15 m]) to the top of the
4≈4s (10≈10 cm). Use two 16-penny nails at each end. If you live in an area
where there is a lot of snow, it is probably best to use 2≈6s (5≈15 cm) at the
top also to frame the structure. The box at the top will not be parallel to the
Housing and Supplies
ground box but angled. You will have a triangular space at the top that can be
covered with metal or fiberglass window covering, or simply fencing wire in
10. Once you’ve attached the framing boards, it’s time to put in the roof rafters.
Simply place five of the 8-foot (2.5 m) 2≈4s (5≈10 cm) over the top frame
that you just made, running front to back. Space the rafters about 2 feet
(0.6 m) apart.
The rafters should stick out from the frame slightly on the lower, back
end of the building and be nailed in flush with the front end. This will allow
the snow and water to drip off behind the building.
11. Nail the 1≈4s (2.5≈10 cm) across the top of the rafters at 2-foot (0.6 m) intervals down the slope. Now you are ready to put on the metal roof and siding.
Roofing, Walls, and Ventilation
Metal roofing (or sheet metal) is usually obtainable in 39-inch (1 m) widths of
varying lengths. This width provides a coverage area of 36 inches (0.9 m) with a
3-inch (7.5 cm) overlap. Proper ventilation can be provided on the tallest wall,
which should be between 7.5 and 8 feet (2.3–2.5 m) tall. Use heavy chicken
wire or welded wire over a window for circulation. This allows fresh air to enter
and harmful ammonia and humidity to exit. It also allows light and warm sunshine to come in. If you live in heavy raccoon or predator areas, you’ll want to
use a very heavy gauge wire.
Build the roof first so the edge matches up with the walls, allowing minimal
cracks for snow and rain to come through.
1. You are now ready to create the walls with the remaining sheet metal. First,
provide supports at the midpoint of two walls by nailing a 2≈4 (5≈10 cm)
horizontally halfway up each wall. Do this for the back wall and the end
wall opposite the door. Wait to do the front wall and the one with the door.
Connect the 2≈4 (5≈10 cm) to the 4≈4 (10≈10 cm) the same way you did
the top and bottom boards (see page 28, step 8).
2. Now nail the sheet metal to the 2≈4s (5≈10 cm) with the 1¾-inch (4.5 cm)
roofing nails reinforced with rubber washers. Place nails about every 18
inches (46 cm) into a top or bottom or midway support board. Place the
sheets so the ridges in the metal sheets run up and down. The first sheet
should have its broad lip lined up with the edge of the building so that the
narrow lip on the other side will be overlapped the next sheet. Continue
with that system to provide a tight seal.
3. Nail a 2≈4 (5≈10 cm) across the framing for the tallest wall, down about
2 feet (0.6 m) from the top of the roof and parallel to the ground.
4. Cover the opening between the roof and the 2≈4 (5≈10 cm) you’ve just
attached with the heavy chicken wire or welded wire. Then repeat the above
steps for attaching sheet metal, placing a midway across the front 2≈4 (5≈10
cm) for support as you did on the back.
A Door, a Roost, and Weatherization
Your next step is to make a frame for your doorway as wide as your needs
require. You can have the door on one end as shown or on the tall side of the
shed. Finally, you will add the walls and a door to your frame. The door can be
easily built with 2≈4s (5≈10 cm), plywood, and wire.
You may choose to create a solid door with no window or to build a door with
a wire window up top that can be covered with plastic in the colder months.
Once your door is hung and your roost is added, you will have completed
your make-it-in-a-weekend poultry shed.
Add the final horizontal braces on the
remaining walls after constructing the door
frame (or after making the door itself).
Housing and Supplies
1. You’ll need to use a 2≈4 (5≈10 cm) as an upright to hook your door latch
onto. Nail this in place as far from the front wall as you wish your door to
2. Once you have your door width established, build the top frame of the doorway. Cut a 2≈4 (5≈10 cm) to fit horizontally between the two upright 2≈4s.
Nail it in place at a height that is comfortable for you to enter.
3. Now build a door with 2≈4s (5≈10 cm), plywood, and wire. Cut the 2≈4s
for the sides of the door the proper length to match the space between the
bottom and top frames and then cut the 2≈4s the proper length and the
proper width for the sides, top and bottom framework of the door. Then cut
the plywood to attach to the frame the proper width for the top and bottom
to nail the door together.
Be sure to allow for winter contraction of the frame around the door,
caused by freezing temperatures. Give yourself a 1-inch (2.5 cm) gap at both
the top and the bottom. A tight seal looks great, but come midwinter you’ll
have a problem when you can’t open the door.
4. Nail the 2≈4s (5≈10 cm) that make up the door’s width to the top and
bottom of the two long 2≈4s. I use the roofing nails, but you can also use
5. Cut a piece of plywood to completely fit that door frame or, if you’d like a
window in your door, cut it so that it fits neatly into the bottom half and
cover the top half with heavy gauge wire for a seasonal window. This allows
for more light, provides more ventilation during the summer, and can easily
be covered with plastic in the winter.
For a permanent window, cover the top part with a fiberglass panel.
Sometimes called greenhouse or patio paneling, this material is cut with
simple metal cutters and nailed on with roofing nails. (Keep in mind that a
fiberglass window will not act as a vent, but it will allow sunshine to enter
throughout the year.)
6. If you’d like a sturdier door, cover the plywood section with sheet metal
reinforcement. Simply cut the metal to cover the plywood and use the rest
of the roofing nails to affix it.
7. Using roofing nails or 1¾-inch (4.5 cm) screws, you now need to mount the
sides of the door with heavy-duty strap hinges or T-hinges. Simply place the
hinges on the door and nail or screw them into the frame so that the hinge
works freely over the edge of the door.
8. To hang the door, set the door in the open space and place an inch-thick
(2.5 cm) piece of scrap board under the door on top of the bottom support
board of your structure. This keeps the door from being too tight at the bottom. Using roofing nails or screws, now attach the hinges to the frame of
the building. Remove the scrap board from the bottom and the door should
9. Now you can add the 2x4 (5x10 cm) supports at the midpoint of the two
remaining walls, as on page 29, step 1.
10. Finally, nail sheet metal to the remaining openings on the sides of your
building and your structure should be totally enclosed.
You now are set to go inside your new small structure and place a roost. If
you’re raising chickens, the roost needs to be about 3 feet (1 m) off the ground
and can sit horizontally across one end of the building. I prefer to place the
roost either at the back of the building so the birds can sit in the sun in the
winter or on the end opposite the door for convenience.
Turkeys and guineas also need a roost, at least 4 feet (1.25 m) off the
ground. If you are raising ducks or geese, however, a roost is unnecessary.
In heavy predator areas create a barrier
against underground intruders by extending
sheet metal into the soil or burying timbers or
rocks along the building edges.
Housing and Supplies
Use a 2≈2 (5≈5 cm) as a roost. Using 16-penny nails, simply nail it to one of
the 2≈4s (5≈10 cm) parallel to the ground. Make sure it is nice and level so your
birds can rest easily.
For all but turkeys, you can cover any wired openings on the buildings in the
winter months with plastic, using lath to anchor the plastic in place. Don’t
worry about ventilation; gaps in the door and other places that don’t seal tightly
provide plenty of airflow.
You can also purchase sturdier greenhouse cover cut to the proper size, to
remove at season’s end and use year after year. This material withstands harsher
conditions and lasts much longer. No matter which winterizing material you
choose, it will provide a wind-free environment for your poultry to survive the
Adaptations for Your Flock
Some modifications can be made to the above structure to meet your or your
birds’ particular needs. In warmer climates, use white sheet metal and provide
shade trees nearby.
Insulation. Structures such as these provide adequate shelter for most breeds
down to −20°F (−29°C), but insulation can be added for additional comfort.
The best type of insulation for this purpose is rolled fiberglass with paper backing. (Styrofoam can cause problems if poultry gain access to it, and mice tend
to chew it to small pieces that then let the poultry get to it much easier.)
If you choose to do this, you can attach an outer layer of insulation to the
metal surrounding the outside of the shed and/or to the 2≈4 (5≈10 cm) wall
supports inside. Both should be covered with plywood. This will not make an
airtight facility — which is not a good idea anyway, as you want the extra respiration moisture to escape — but it will make winter extremes much more comfortable in climates that have long periods of cold temperatures below 0°F (−18°C).
Bird Door. You may wish to have a small 1 foot by 1 foot (30≈30 cm) doorway for the birds to use when the human door is closed and to cut down on
the chances of flying predators getting in through a larger open entryway. This
small doorway can be placed on the tall side of the structure on the same side
as the top ventilation window. The addition will require more lumber, but if
you are not wasteful you can use some pieces of lumber left over from the main
building project. You’ll need to acquire two additional hinges and an additional
hook and eye.
Using Other Types of Shelter
Many, many different chicken and poultry coop designs exist, as do innumerable options for housing your poultry in other types of shelters. Start doing the
research and looking around your place for possible options and you may be surprised to find that you already have something that will work for your birds.
If you are fortunate enough to purchase an old abandoned farm homestead with
existing buildings, then your problems with construction from scratch are easily remedied. Abandoned barns and sheds may be ideal for a poultry project
start-up. Understand, however, that these facilities may not have been originally
intended for chickens. In some cases, if you are raising chickens, or if the building is set up for chickens and you are planning to raise other sorts of poultry,
you may have to do some serious modifications. These changes typically entail
efforts to predator-proof the pens for the safety of your birds.
Predators will find a way to feast on your poultry. It is not uncommon for
raccoons to scale wire 10 feet up and drop in from a small hole in a hayloft. They
will then kill the birds and try to drag them back up the wire to get them out
into the open again. Prepare for this to happen.
Sometimes it’s best if you just go out and sit down by the facility and study all
of the possible ways an unwanted visitor might get in. The types of wire you use
will be crucial. If the wire used to cover openings is very flimsy, low-grade poultry
netting, you may end up with problems with raccoons, skunks, and other predators, as they can tear through it without much difficulty. It’s better to take some
time and make the pen predator-proof and not hastily throw together a structure
and immediately get wiped out by the local varmints. See chapter 26, Dealing
with Predators, for a detailed predator-proofing discussion.
Although it can be unpleasant to deny birds the freedom of large open spaces,
for some folks living in the city or in gated communities the only poultry housing option is a cage. Certain breeds and varieties are better adapted to this than
others. Bantams, for example, find the living more to their liking than do some of
the larger, brown-egg-laying types of full-size chickens. Check the chart for space
requirements on page 23 and be careful that you don’t deny them their required
space, whether designing and building, or buying. If you want to keep six hens,
you’ll need to buy or build a cage that’s at least 12 to 15 square feet (1–1.5 sq m) or 3
feet by 4 feet (1 ≈ 1.25 m) to 3 by 5 feet (1 ≈ 1.5 m). Don’t cut corners.
Housing and Supplies
Cage Living for Quail
If you’re raising quail for eggs, they are best housed in wire cages kept off the
ground so that predators cannot chew their feet. Cages can be hung from the
ceiling with fencing wire and nailed to a back support wall or placed on brackets
either purchased or made from 2≈4s (5≈10 cm). Collect the droppings underneath the cage in a pan and use them as fertilizer for your garden or flowerbeds.
Cages for quail are easily built with 2≈4 (5≈10 cm) lumber and quarter-inch
(0.6 cm) mesh hardware cloth stretched over the openings. Use 2x4s (5x10 cm)
for corners and framing and you can build a cage in a short period of time (see
pages 220–221, Coturnix Quail, for building details). Even the least handy of us
can build some sort of usable cage. However, if you don’t feel comfortable doing
it yourself, you can buy rabbit cages at most farm stores. They work just fine for
quail but you may need to modify the door opening so the quail can’t get out
easily. You want the door to open out, not in, by switching the clips or making
an entirely new smaller-size door.
Fence and Wire Coops
If you live in an area with mild winters, you don’t need solid walls: a wire coop
will suffice. A 6-foot-tall (1.8 m) chain-link dog run is a sturdy, easily assembled
structure with a prehung door. Just add a solid, predator-proof roof and you have
an area that you can walk inside and that the birds find quite suitable. Be sure to
cover the entire run with small-gauge wire, such as hardware cloth, to prevent
predators from reaching through the chain link and killing your birds.
Room to Run
Many raisers provide a house for their flock to lay eggs, eat and sleep, and get in
out of the weather, but also allow them free range, which means freedom to roam
A quail cage can rest on a baking sheet.
the property at will. Zoning regulations or your own space and time limitations
may make it impossible to allow the birds to run free in your yard, however. If
that’s the case, keep in mind that it’s always best if your chickens, and especially
waterfowl and turkeys, are provided some sort of runway or open space to use for
fresh air and exercise; they will not be content if they’re kept in a coop their entire
lives. Although modern hybrid-cross layers will probably do fine in confinement
when fed a proper ration, keeping heritage-type chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys
confined to a small structure throughout their lives will probably result in lower
productivity. You will not get as many eggs and will not have happy poultry.
Usually 5 to 10 square feet (0.5–1 sq m) per chicken is the minimum outside runway requirement. This will allow them to get out and get some exercise
scratching in the dirt and they will be much more content. Refer to the chart on
page 23 of this chapter for minimum run or yarding space requirements.
A Simple Bird Runway
Construct bird runways so that they may be attached to the poultry shed. It’s
usually best to start with at least 5-foot-high (1.5 m) wire. Chicken wire can be
used, but it typically does not hold up very well; after a few years, it tears and
crumbles. This is especially true if used to contain larger birds such as turkeys
or geese that push against wire. Welded wire fencing usually comes in 50-foot
(15 m) lengths and works very well for poultry runs.
Drive metal fence posts into the ground with a sledgehammer or post-hole
driver. Connect the wire with fencing clamps or use pieces of cut fencing and
you’ll have a poultry runway in no time. These are “permanent” structures,
which may not be picture-perfect but are very functional.
Make sure there’s no space between the ground and the bottom of the fence.
I frequently lay objects around the base to prevent varmints from digging under
the fence. When I lived in the deserts of southern Idaho, I gathered rocks to
place around the base. In the pinewoods of the north, I used old logs. Here in
Iowa, I use old lumber or tree limbs. Use whatever you have in abundance in
your area that works. Cover the top of the runway if hawks are present.
The Chicken Tractor
Some people choose to use a chicken tractor for shelter and exercise. This is
a lightweight poultry home on wheels that you can drag around either with
the tractor, a small truck, or by hand, depending upon the size of the unit.
The chicken tractor includes a covered part for storm protection and a floorless wire enclosure that allows for ventilation and foraging on the ground. It
Housing and Supplies
A chicken tractor is a movable,
floorless structure that, if large
enough, can be used by any
is basically a movable yard. Any fowl can use a chicken tractor as long as the
height and size are appropriate for the fowl.
Use of the chicken tractor gives poultry a chance at fresh greens and insects
they may find on the ground at each new location. It also allows you some control over where your chickens forage and how often they can be moved. Birds
using a tractor continuously fertilize the ground as it is moved around. They
are somewhat free range, but also confined and relatively safe from predators.
If you’d like your poultry to forage in large pastures, which pose serious hawk
and other predator threats, a chicken tractor may be for you. Chicken tractors
also work well to contain just a few chickens in a small backyard.
If you don’t have the resources to build or buy a chicken tractor, and runway
space is limited, letting the birds out of their shed daily is also adequate. It is
best to let them out in the late afternoon, when they will be less likely to wander
too far from home and after they have laid their eggs for the day. Keep in mind,
however, that free-range chickens can greatly damage a small yard and destroy
a garden or flowerbeds. Damage certainly will be the name of the game for any
space they inhabit if you have too many birds.
How many birds are too many for your yard? This depends on the size of the
yard and garden. A small group of chickens roaming around a large backyard will
probably not cause too much trouble, although they may get into your prize flowers and garden produce if they get bored or lazy and decide that it’s easier to do
that than wander around the lawn. You may want to experiment, starting with a
small number of chickens to determine the right number for you. Often enough,
when you say “Yes!” to raising poultry, you'd also better be able to say “Shoo!”
The biggest challenge facing the city-dwelling poultry farmer is meeting local building and zoning codes. Sometimes a premade lawn and
garden shed available at home supply stores and lumberyards can
adequately satisfy local requirements, but check with the city building
and zoning boards first, of course. These buildings make fine poultry
houses with the additions of a roost, feeders, waterers, and litter on
the floor. Add a small pen outside made with reinforced welded wire
or poultry netting and you can be ready for poultry in less than a day.
Never start building a structure without checking out the building
permit process, or you may be wasting time and money.
What else is needed to keep poultry comfortable? Thankfully, saddles and iron
shoes are not essential, but your birds will need food and a source of fresh water.
And, if you want them to sleep at night and lay eggs from time to time, roosts
and nest boxes are appreciated.
In most cases, you don’t want your flock’s food source to be right at ground level
or a lot will be wasted. Using feed pans on the ground is successful only if you are
giving crumble or pellet feed that is all the same size and texture. Feed pans do
not work well if you want to offer ground feeds mixed with scratch grains, as the
birds will pick out what they want and waste the rest.
The easiest and simplest way to feed your birds is
with a hanging feeder, with the height adjusted periodically, as they grow. Hang the feeder up so it’s almost
level with the birds’ heads; that way, a lot less feed is
wasted on the ground. Hanging feeders can be purchased in sizes that hold between 5 and 50 pounds
(2.2–22 kg) of feed; each size can be adjusted to meet
your particular flock’s needs.
When purchasing feed equipment, keep in mind
that metal feed pans tend to rust out very quickly.
The best feed pans for floor use are rubber or hard
plastic. Rubber pans tend to last the longest and take
Hanging tube feeder
the most abuse.
Housing and Supplies
Some folks prefer to use a roll-type feeder. This feeder has a roll bar located
across the top that turns when your birds jump up on it. This simple mechanism
is supposed to prevent them from climbing into their feed and wasting it. I have
never had much success with these feeders, however. My birds always seem to
be able to roost on the bar and the feeder ends up full of manure.
Note: The more feed you have available, the greater the chances that you’ll
attract mice and rats. Rodents thrive near poultry residences. If you have a continuous supply of feed that the chickens are not consuming within the day, the
rats will easily find it and communicate the discovery to their neighbors. Before
you know it, you may have as many mice and rats as you have chickens. To discourage rodents (who prefer to feed at night), limit the amount of feed you have
left at the end of the day.
It’s frankly impossible to have a feeder that bars feasting rodents while still
being accessible to poultry. The key with rodents is to be proactive and take
care of the population before it becomes large. See chapter 26, Dealing with
Predators, for rodent-control methods.
For a water source, adult chickens or bantams can use small rubber water buckets, easily obtained at most farm stores. To avoid tipping, rubber buckets can be
placed several inches down into the soil of earthen-bottom pens and then filled
with water. They should be dumped and refilled on a daily basis. Another way
to keep the bucket from tipping is to set the rubber bucket of water inside the
opening of a discarded automobile tire. These buckets work well because you
can break the ice out of them in the winter without also breaking the bucket.
This type of bucket works great with older birds, but don’t use them with young
chickens or they may drown or become chilled.
Flat pans for water do not work very well for chickens at any time of the year.
The birds tend to make messes in them during winter months and when they
get too hot in summer.
Waterfowl need a water source that’s deep enough for them to dip their
nostrils into to keep them clean. If they cannot do this, you will likely have
several serious respiratory and sinus disease problems develop. Rubber buckets or pans work best, but if at all possible, water your waterfowl outside your
building, because when they start getting bored inside the shed, they will spend
most of their time playing in the waterer. The result of their fun is soggy, moldy
bedding — a huge icy mess in the colder months that’s much less fun for you
than it is for the fowl.
Waterer made from gallon fruit
or juice can and pan
Waterer for older birds
If you have an electrical outlet in the chicken building, you may use metal canister
waterers in winter. These look somewhat like the chicken feeders, but water goes in
the cylinder instead of feed, and the top slides down over the canister. By placing them
on a heated water warmer you can provide a source of fresh water for the entire winter, which will help contribute to more egg production and a healthier, thriftier flock.
Chickens, guineas, and turkeys are all natural roosters that need to be off the
ground to feel safe at night. The best sorts of roosts are easily made of 2≈2s
(5≈5 cm) that can be found in a building supply store. These boards seem to
be plenty sturdy and are just the right size for the birds to grip. Roosting seems
to be very important to most chickens and turkeys, providing relief from life's
stresses. Figure roost space by determining the width of the adult bird and keeping in mind that the birds will want a snug fit. More bantams will occupy the
Housing and Supplies
roost per foot than turkeys, for instance. See page 32 earlier in this chapter for
details about how to attach the roost to a building.
Geese and most ducks do not need a roost and will not use one; Muscovy
ducks are the exception. The roost for these animals should be situated about 3
feet (1 m) off the ground and provide about 1 foot (30 cm) of width per bird.
Older breeds of turkeys must have a roost or they will never be content:
they’ll always be trying to find a roost. Naturally mating heritage turkey types,
for example, prefer a higher roost — 6 feet (1.8 m) is ideal for many — while
modern broad-breasted varieties need no roost at all.
Large, heavy breeds of chickens may need to have a small ladderlike structure that gets them up to the level of the roost; however, most breeds can get to
the roost without trouble.
Many types of roost designs exist. The simplest and easiest setup to maintain
involves installing all roosts at the same level, which reduces pecking-order
Nest boxes are the final piece of necessary equipment for all fowl. For chickens,
it’s best to situate nest boxes about 2 feet (0.6 m) off the ground. You can either
nail the boxes up or place them on an old bucket or something similiar. Keep
nest boxes for turkeys, ducks, geese and guineas on the ground. Figure one nest
box for every 8 to 10 hens of any species.
You can purchase premade metal nest boxes in many styles or you can build
your own. Follow the directions below to make a reasonably priced, easy-tomake nest. If you are raising ducks, turkeys, or geese, increase the size of the
(2.5 × 10 cm)
An easy-to-build nest box
12" (30 cm)
A multiple-stall nest box
nest box appropriately and do not mount it on the wall. For ducks, increase the
sides to 15 inches by 15 inches (38≈38 cm). Geese and turkeys generally require
about 30 inches by 30 inches (76≈76 cm), depending upon the breed.
Do-It-Yourself Nest Box Construction
1. Cut five 1-foot by 1-foot (30≈30 cm) pieces of half-inch (1.25 cm) plywood.
2. Cut a 12-inch (30 cm) piece of 1≈4 (2.5≈10 cm) for the front opening.
3. To form the box, screw all of the plywood pieces together along the edges
using 1-inch (2.5 cm) wood screws, leaving what will be the front of the box
4. Attach the 1≈4 (2.5≈10 cm) piece at the bottom front of the box with screws.
This will serve as a slight lip to hold the bedding in as the birds enter and exit
You can always use a cardboard box for a quick, temporary nest. In a pinch,
I have used many alternative nests over the years. I have covered some of the
slots in the sides of plastic milk crates and used them successfully.
When planning your poultry venture, spend a solid block of time thinking about
housing, and do so long before you take steps to buy your birds. Determine how many
birds you want, decide which varieties you plan to raise, and outline your hopes for
winter production. If you’re new to an area, check online or with the local National
Weather Service office to learn more about the local climate, prevailing wind direction, and rainfall trends (see Resources for contact information). A little knowledge
about your natural surroundings will add to the success of your operation.
It’s best to complete the building before you even think of purchasing your
flock. Items like nests and feeders can be acquired after the fact, but letting the
building sit empty for a while is far better than dealing with the stress of having
birds with no place to go.
IT IS IMPORTANT THAT A NEWCOMER to poultry raising understand
a bit about what makes a bird work. Poultry, of course, have a different biological makeup than do humans. This chapter is designed to be a brief introduction to the topic, but by no means is it comprehensive or inclusive. It will give
the reader a general understanding of basic poultry biology. There are many
books, textbooks, and websites available for the reader who wishes a deeper and
broader understanding of the topics covered in this chapter.
Biologically, poultry are similar to humans with a few notable differences.
The most obvious: poultry have feathers instead of hair, wings in place of arms,
no sweat glands, nonexpandable lungs plus air sacs, and a much higher body
temperature, between 105.6 and 107°F (40 to 41.6°C). Poultry have no teeth
(hence the saying scarce as hen’s teeth) but instead use a muscular organ called
a gizzard to grind food.
Poultry biology is similar among the various species. Chickens and bantams
are essentially identical in shape and function, but the organs of the bantams are
smaller. Guineas are very similar to chickens, although they produce a much drier
Rooster or cock
Duck or hen
Goose or hen
waste product, probably because they hail from the drier regions of Africa, where
bodily water conservation would be vital. Quail and pheasants are biologically
similar to guineas. Turkeys have many similarities to chickens, but the toms are
far more prone to air sac problems because they puff up to impress the hens when
they strut. Larger spaces mean more room for bacteria to settle and grow.
Waterfowl anatomy is slightly different. The gizzards of ducks and geese are
far more rigid and the ability of the birds to handle waterborne parasites and
contaminations is much greater. They also are able to handle the cold much
better, due to their down feathers and subcutaneous fat layer.
This chapter focuses on chickens, but serves as an overview of all poultry.
What’s in a Bird?
Although all poultry species and most individual birds have unique physical characteristics, distinctive mannerisms, and matchless temperaments, when you get
right down to it, poultry are made of cells. Cells can be divided into two types: the
tiny prokaryotic cells (simple cells) such as bacteria, and the larger eukaryotic
cells (complex cells) that have a nucleus (a central body where genetic information is stored) and organelles. Think of organelles as miniature organs with
specific functions within each cell, not unlike those in our own body systems.
It is vital for the cells’ health that all of the organelles function properly. It
is therefore crucial that the birds have a balanced diet. While some items in the
diet are needed only in minute quantities of less than 0.01 percent, they are still
essential for healthy cell function. Healthy cells lead to healthy tissues, organs,
organ systems, and of course the sum of it all, a healthy bird.
C O M M E R C I A L LY R A I S E D B I R D S :
S U P E R S I Z E D A N D S I C K LY
The large breast muscle in modern broiler chickens and modern commercial turkeys has caused considerable change to the anatomical
balance of the bird. Created by agribusiness geneticists for rapid
overgrowth, these bird types find natural breeding very difficult and
often impossible to accomplish. The large breast size also leads to
increased stress on the other systems of the body. Because these
genetically forced, physically distorted birds can’t walk as easily as
traditional fowl, the modern broiler and the modern commercial
turkey suffer from heart defects and immune-response problems.
ANATOMY OF A TYPICAL CHICKEN
There are two ways in which growth occurs in animals: one is called hyperplasia,
which is an increase in the number of cells in the body; the other is hypertrophy,
which is the increase in the size of the existing cells. Each organ system in the body
consists of millions of cells, all working together to perform a common function.
Some cells, such as blood cells, feather follicle cells, and skin cells, always
grow by cell multiplication. Hormones and genetics determine the size of the
cells at maturity, which contributes greatly to a chicken’s final size.
Nerve cells and muscle cells (after hatching) grow by cell enlargement. This
same process occurs in fat cells once birds reach puberty. Body fat acts as an
energy reserve and is the most variable of the body’s components. Body fat varies
greatly with breed, sex, species, and age. It is strongly affected by nutrition.
Muscles are designed for producing movement by contraction. Since muscle
is the part of fowl that one is most concerned with when considering meat, it is
the focus of this discussion.
There are three main types of muscle tissue: skeletal, cardiac, and smooth.
Skeletal muscles build up the body structure. Cardiac muscles make up the
heart. Smooth muscles are found in blood vessels and intestine. The function of
muscle is primarily for body movement, and in the process of movement, heat
generation. Muscles also fill out the shape of the body.
After puberty, most muscle growth is due to hypertrophy, which is why people who raise their birds to make a nice tasty meal of fried chicken, roast goose,
barbecued duck, or roast turkey spend time making sure they are properly fed. The
pectoral or breast muscles are the largest in the bird and therefore garner the most
attention as a food source. This has become increasingly true with large-scale raisers. The modern broiler chicken has huge breast muscles (see box on page 44).
Other muscles of importance to meat raisers include the gastrocnemius
muscle on the back of the leg. This muscle is attached to the toes by the gastrocnemius tendon, which, when relaxed, causes the toes to grasp a limb, thus
allowing the bird to sleep on a roost. It is also the muscle that makes up the
tender, juicy “drumsticks.”
Two major types of skeletal muscle are also of importance: light and dark muscle. Light muscle is so called because of low levels of myoglobin. Myoglobin is the
oxygen-holding molecule in the muscle. Muscles that are used more tend to accumulate more myoglobin and thus are darker in color. The meat never gets very dark
on modern broiler chickens because the birds get very little exercise and have very
low levels of myoglobin. An older breed or heritage-type chicken, turkey, duck,
BONES GROAN ON RAPID GROWERS
Leg weakness — tibial dyschondroplasia — is a common problem
with rapidly growing strains of broiler chickens and commercial largesized turkeys. It can arise in any breed, but occurs far more frequently
in modern turkeys and broilers. These strains have been selected for
rapid growth and are placed on a feed that is 21 to 24 percent protein
and full of trace elements, vitamins, and minerals. They have been
genetically altered to the point of requiring very specific inputs to thrive.
Even when provided with the required inputs, they sometimes display
quirks such as this condition. The rapid growth of commercial broiler
chickens and turkeys makes it nearly impossible for their immune system and structural system to keep up with the rapid changes.
GAWKY BIG-BONED TEEN BIRDS
Several breeds of chickens have bone growth that varies from the
norm. Jersey Giants and Dor