An Absolute Beginner's Guide to Keeping Backyard Chickens

Watch Chicks Grow from Hatchlings to Hens


By Jenna Woginrich

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With delightful photographs, Jenna Woginrich chronicles the life journey of three chickens (Amelia, Honey, and Tilda) from fluffy, newly hatched bundles to grown hens laying eggs of their own. Following their progress from day to day and week to week, you'll learn everything you need to know to be successful in raising and keeping a happy, healthy flock. Topics covered include understanding chicken behavior; housing and feeding requirements; hygiene and basic health care. Both entertaining and educational, this highly accessible book provides just the right amount of information to get started and enjoy the pleasures of keeping backyard chickens. 


For Diana, who handed me my first hen — JW

To Alethea and Xavier, who put as much into this book as I did. — MV



Chapter 1: First Things First: Why Chickens

Chapter 2: Next: Which Chickens

Chapter 3: Hen Housing

Chapter 4: Poultry Prep

Chapter 5: Welcome Home, Girls: Week 1

Chapter 6: Growing Up: Week 2-7

Chapter 7: From Chicks to Chickens: Months 3-6

Chapter 8: It's Egg Time

Appendix: Breed Chart

Appendix: Parasites, Diseases, and Ailments



Raise Healthier, Happier Chickens with More Books from Storey

Share Your Experience!

Thanks So Much

JENNA: I'd first like to thank Diana Carlin, who got me all mixed up in this chicken business to begin with. I'd also like to thank my parents, Pat and Jack, who may be the two most beautifully understanding and patient people a farm gal could ever know. Also, my brother, John, and sister, Kate, who are always willing to hear another chicken story.

I must surely thank Deborah Burns, my Storey editor, as well as Carleen Madigan, Dan Reynolds, Amy Greeman, Deborah Balmuth, and everyone else at Storey Publishing for their partnership in this book and books past.

Thank you to Doug and Nancy at the Wayside Country Store! Thank you to my neighbors Katie, Nancy, Doug, Allan, Suzanne, and Roy, who watch over me and make me feel part of our hollow. Thank you to James Daley, Phil Bibens, Noreen Davis, Paul Fersen, Eric Weisledder, and Tim Bronson, Orvis coworkers who helped with everything from loading chickens into the back of my Subaru to editing book proposals.

Always thank you: Kevin Boyle, Erin Griffiths, Raven Pray Bishop, Sara and Tim Mack, Leif Fairfield, and Shellee and Zach. Thank you to Mary Ellen, my landlord, who turned the key to let this place happen. I'd also like to thank everyone who became a part of Cold Antler Farm's thriving online community and continue to push me to write and keep up with my own dreams every day.

And of course, very special thanks to Mars, Alethea, and Xavier, who shared their joy of new chickenhood with us in their photos and let us tag along as their own small flock grew up.

MARS: To Deb Burns, whose vision launched this book and nurtured it along the way; Pam Art, who tested the book in the field and was always there with encouragement; Dan Reynolds, whose enthusiasm is infectious; Deborah Balmuth and the whole editorial department at Storey for their constant support; Jenna, who inspired us to have chickens in the first place and who found just the right words for this book; Ilona Sherratt, for being the world's biggest chicken lover; Al Whitney, the best neighbor a chicken could have; Maryellen Mahoney, for being our chicken mentor; Gail Damerow, for writing our chicken bible.

Most especially, to Amelia, Honey, and Tilda, for being so patient with their paparazzi!


Welcome to the flock. We're going to visually experience the art of chicken raising by following three special Yankee birds from hatchlings to laying hens. Here in southern New England one young couple and their son decided to take on a whole new life, and they invited some chicks — and us — along for the ride.

After relocating from San Francisco to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, Mars, Alethea, and their son, Xavier, soon got the chicken-raising bug and purchased three spunky day-old chicks from a local feed store. Without any prior poultry experience, this young family welcomed chickens into their stylish home (literally: a brooder was set up in the spare bedroom), making for some extremely local eggs. Thanks to Mars's photography, we'll watch the chicks' entire life cycle unfold — tailing them from their first days in their brooder to their first laid eggs half a year later.

If you're considering starting a backyard flock, follow along as the laying hens in this book grow up page by page and photograph by beautiful photograph. If you already have a pile of chirping babes under a heat lamp and are nervous as can be, relax; you'll be fine — and welcome to the club. And if you grew up with these fine animals and simply want to enjoy the experience all over again, welcome!

Chick Diary

Look for Alethea's tips and insights throughout the book, in "Chick Diary" entries that look like this.

Consider these three girls mentors that will show you the ropes when you order your first batch from the hatchery and then help you better care for your chicks when they arrive. Pull this book off the shelf to monitor and understand your own birds day by day. If you already have a very loud cardboard box in the bathroom and need to know what the heck to do next, we've got your back, too. Regardless of where you're at in your chicken-raising dreams, these three hens will help you understand just how easy chickens are by seeing their development right here on the page and knowing what's in store for you over the coming weeks of your chicks' lives.

Jenna, Cold Antler Farm

chapter 1First Things First: Why Chickens

Why Have Chickens?

Why raise chickens? Because they're the pet that makes you breakfast. They bring home good food and belly laughs. Chickens are quirky, beautiful, and oddly clever. They come in countless colors, shapes, and varieties, and there's not a culture on the planet that doesn't raise them. These hardy birds will teach you basic livestock handling and amaze you with their individual character traits. More good news: They don't break the bank. A handful of chicks will cost less to purchase than a large pizza and require less effort than your house cat.

You in so far? Good.

Another reason to raise chickens is the quality of your own free-range eggs, which will bowl you over. No more watery whites and pale yolks. You are in for the richness of a country hen's egg — eggs scientifically proven to be lower in cholesterol and higher in omega-3 fatty acids, keeping you and yours healthier with every new arrival in the nest box. Not to mention these eggs will improve your lovely baked goods and make your omelets tastier.

And my favorite reason to raise chickens: They add life and vigor to your home, turning houses into homesteads and children into naturalists. Pouring scratch grains into a metal bin, closing the coop door at night, mending a hole in the fence so the fox stays at bay — these actions connect us to our food and to our past. Trust me. It's a better life that comes with morning clucks.

Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to live down a country road to keep chickens. Even if you live on the corner of a four-way stop in Portland, given proper care and a little room to flap their wings these gals can adapt and thrive in any environment. What you do need is a little bit of space, some research, and a city ordinance that allows laying hens.

Besides feeding you breakfast, chickens are always good for a laugh.

Turns out this isn't asking too much because nowadays people are keeping chickens in places no one considers cliché. Young couples in suburbia have Ameraucanas perching on flowerpots and kids racing past Wyandottes when they fly out the back door to jump into the car for football practice. They're keeping these birds because they want to know where their food comes from, sure, but they're also keeping them because having chickens is fun and easy, and it's hard to be bored mowing your lawn when a trio of hens is waddling behind you for the free salad bar.

Coming Home to Chickens

I grew up in a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania where the keeping of livestock was verboten. Oddly enough, my mother grew up in that same town in the 1960s — and every house on her childhood block had a coop in the backyard. But somewhere along the years the town of Palmerton changed its zoning, forbidding farm animals within city limits.

I blame microwave ovens. Modernization and gadgetry made chickens seem either lower class or too country, so the birds were turned into contraband in some sections of Carbon County. After all, you don't move to cultural epicenters like Palmerton (population 5,200) to see the likes of scrappy yard birds. (That said, New York City never felt the need to change its pro-fowl laws in all five boroughs — including Manhattan. . . .)

So, chickens being outlawed in my hometown — and totally out of the question, anyway, as far as my mother was concerned — they never entered my mind. I went off to college (leaving home for good, it turns out), graduated, and was offered my first bona fide design job down in Tennessee. I lived the city life for a while, but I knew in my heart that lifestyle wasn't for me. Within two years I was packing up my station wagon again, this time heading to a former cattle farm in northern Idaho.

My new job and the farmhouse I rented were both pretty chicken friendly. That was all the coaxing I needed. Somehow the stars aligned, and I discovered Diana, a coworker who had a two-hundred-layer natural-egg business. With her kind help and some trial and error in Backyard Flockmanship 101, I learned the ropes. It took all of four days to realize I was hooked. I never once regretted the decision. I can't say that about many things.

Chickens used to be common in backyards everywhere.

I started keeping chickens only four years ago. I've kept them in pens, hutches, "recycled" coops (a fancy way of saying a compilation of stuff from the dump), and on both coasts of this fine nation. In that short span of time, my life's orbit has changed, based on keeping poultry, so any place I'll call home will need to be egg-production friendly. The idea of a life without pullets in the spring seems depressing at best. Chickens have a way of taking you to another place. Something about a red hen bobbing her head past a kitchen window instills a familiar, if long-buried, comfort — a sense of home.

Chickens stand for a simpler life — a source of yummy natural food, sure, but actually having some in the garage changes you. For me they opened the door to organic gardening, sheepdog trials, pack goats, and canning in my August kitchen. I will never go back to that life before pullet was part of my vocabulary, and I don't understand how anyone living within the right zoning codes can. They're as easy to tend as a stray cat, and the time needed to take care of them daily amounts to what most people waste waiting in line for coffee. They're funny and have their own individually quirky personalities that can't help but grow on you. After a few springs of hatchery orders, I'm a convert turned preacher.

Part of the Solution

The factory-farm norm behind supermarket eggs is a sad story. Confined chickens live out their lives at best in indoor barns that double as feedlots — or at worst in tiny wire cages. They live in a hell of stress and misery, and the end product is a shadow of the once-great egg. Factory chickens produce thin-shelled, yellow-yolked, slimy protein glop compared to the robust and hearty flavor of a farm-fresh egg.

When you keep your own chickens, you are choosing to walk away from the factory farms with their inhumane cages and amputated beaks. You're taking back a little freedom — both yours and the chickens' — and it is delicious. In more ways than one.

Home-raised hens produce beautiful eggs in every color of the sepia-tone rainbow.

If We Are What We Eat, Let's Be Something Better

For years we Americans have chosen cheap, seasonless selections and endless variety over healthy, in-season crops raised without pesticides. Some say that a local organic diet is an elitist goal that regular folks can't afford. We've bought the lie that eating whatever we want of lesser quality is a good thing because it's easier. And because we don't have to connect the cow with the burger — or the caged hen with the egg.

Ask the average American if he or she would rather buy a feedlot chicken pumped full of antibiotics yet riddled with bacteria or drive to the farmers' market down the block and pay a dollar more a pound for a free-range, disease-free bird, and most would prefer the healthier option. But oddly, few choose it.

And the misconceptions are rife. One organic farmer was almost shut down for processing his poultry outdoors near the fields they pastured on — the rationale was that outdoor living rendered the birds unclean. So he sent a large sampling of his stock and an equal sampling from a grocery store to be tested for bacteria. His came back ridiculously healthier — without the benefit of multiple chlorine baths and a "safe" packaging plant.

I understand that we have a world to feed. The point is not to boycott the grocery store but to change what's inside. Buy local, buy organic. Ask the clerks what was grown in your area. Show the people who order produce that this is what buyers want, and things will change.

While not everyone can afford a steady grocery-store organic diet, most of us can afford one local meal a day. Experts say if once a week every American ate a meal that was produced within one hundred miles of his or her home, the food industry would be forced to change dramatically. Organic wouldn't bust the budget, it would be normal. Start however you can. Get some cheap local oats for oatmeal at the farmers' market, and you've just eaten a breakfast that can change the world.

Unfortunately, most people don't want to think about where their food comes from. They don't care about local farmers. They don't want to buy healthier meat for more money and eat less of it. They don't process how recalls of poisoned peanut butter and salmonella outbreaks relate to their buying habits. Life is complicated enough and hard enough without having to think about where to buy food. But it really does come down to consuming meat, eggs, and vegetables that won't make you sick — and that also won't consume natural resources. If we are what we eat, let's be something better.

A New Edible World

Get a few layers in the garden, and things gradually change. You'll notice your ideas about food evolving as you progress from consumer to producer. It gets harder to pull up to drive-thru windows and easier to cook at home. Food-shopping trips lead you to farmers' markets instead of fluorescent-lit grocery aisles. Opt out of the normal route to eggs, and suddenly other paths to homegrown and homemade foods reveal themselves to you. Once I began collecting eggs from nests, I learned to bake piecrust, make cheese, and grow my own pizza toppings in my organic garden — a feat I would have never considered before homegrown scrambled eggs were on the plate first.

Once you start picking up eggs off the lawn, you let the food chain into your life — and you start wanting more and more. Soon tomato plants are yielding fruit where frilly annuals used to bloom, raspberry plants supplant the perennial garden, and simmering tomato sauce on the stove and canning homemade jam become the norm. You might start reading about dairy goats or learn to churn your own butter.

This may sound slightly ridiculous, but just wait and see. Chickens make any homemade food adventure seem possible. Once you see how easy tending them is, you'll start planning for next spring's beehive or next fall's apple trees. Rabbits could be next, or ducks. You'll have crossed over to the farming side of the road. Sustainability is the best kind of addiction — one that doesn't require weekly meetings to overcome.

Better start bookmarking those recipe sites now. You'll be hooked.

Chickens are the gateway to a host of other livestock, such as rabbits and ducks.

My first postcollege job was in Knoxville, Tennessee. I moved there by myself to work for a television network's website. I rented the bottom floor of an old boardinghouse in a historic district called Fourth & Gill. I'm pretty sure that old place could fit two of my present cabins inside it. Maybe three. It feels like ages ago. A past life.

Back then all I wanted was to be a designer. I wanted a board position in my AIGA chapter. Little did I know 18 months later I'd be in a farmhouse in northern Idaho or that I'd soon relocate again to a New England hollow and a small cabin on a patch of land I call Cold Antler Farm.

If you dream of goats and chickens and a cabin in the woods but are presently sifting through take-out menus in your current metro-polis, please remember that just a few years ago I had one dog in a city apartment. Now I'm in this beautiful mess.

Tomorrow I'll visit a brewery and probably come home wanting to make my own beer. Sunday, Steve and I are going to slaughter an angry rooster I raised out of the palm of my hand. Right now I'm going to go outside and close the coop door before the rain comes.

If you wish you, too, were closing a coop door, I promise if it's something you really want, it'll happen. You'll find a way because you must. And when it does happen, be ready because it'll come fast. Life doesn't happen any other way. At least not the parts worth living.

Gossip, Rumors, and Big Fat Lies

I feel obligated to give a friendly warning: when you start telling friends and coworkers about your new livestock adventures, skeptics of backyard chickens (and you'll meet quite a few) will try to be overly helpful. Unfortunately, their idea of "helpful" will be telling you what a horrible idea it is to get chickens. I will only say this once, and I mean it with every fiber of my being: they are wrong.

Some well-meaning but poorly informed people may make heartfelt interventions to save you from a future of bib overalls. They will say the word chicken very much like they'd say sewer rat. Chickens? That just isn't what normal people do, is it?! They'll wave their hands dramatically and warn you that chickens are some giant commitment. They'll scold you, telling you that hens are a needless expense. They'll tell you that chickens are too eccentric for suburbia or too smelly for your urban 10 × 20 plot. Occasionally someone will raise an eyebrow and ask, "Can't you just buy eggs?" and look at you with sincere pity that you'd even consider such a ridiculous notion. Some kind but clueless souls will be concerned that you can't afford eggs in their prepackaged Styrofoam containers at the store. Bless their hearts.

Chicken Lingo

Hen: An adult female chicken

Rooster: An adult male chicken, sometimes called a cock

Pullet: A female chicken under one year old

Cockerel: A young rooster under one year old

Bantam: A miniature chicken, sometimes called a banty

Layer: A hen suitable for egg production

Broiler: A chicken (of either sex) suitable for meat production

Vent: The all-purpose exit chute on your hens' bums

Molt: The annual shedding of feathers; birds don't lay when molting

Sexed Chicks: Chicks separated into pullets and cockerels

Straight-Run Chicks: Nonsexed; a variety of pullets and cockerels

Separating fact from fiction

I'd like to take a moment to exonerate the fine hen from some of the other smack talk going on behind her back. For an animal as common as the chicken, it constantly amazes me how ignorant the average person is about them.

For example, a woman who wanted birds for years but never went about getting layers explained that roosters weren't allowed within her town's limits due to the noise issue. (We would agree that is a bummer but understandable). She went on to explain that she wanted chickens for eggs, not meat, and without a rooster they wouldn't lay, so it was pointless.

In fact, roosters don't make eggs happen; the egg is just part of the hen's natural cycle — just like a woman's. All females carry eggs in some form or other and pass them as part of life. A hen just does it every 25 to 36 hours instead of every 28 days. No one on this side of the gender fence has ever needed a fella to make an egg happen.

Another common misconception is that chickens are loud. Truth is, most hens rarely make a peep. They can be vocal, but it's nothing like the piercing cries of geese (I have a pair louder than any car alarm) or a barking dog. Chickens do cluck and coo, but it's the noise equivalent of leaving the classical station on low volume in your backyard.

And as for that "big investment" rumor: Sure, you can buy designer coops and order expensively bred show chickens. But like any hobby chicken raising can be as frugal as you choose. A practical beginner without any resources or carpentry skills can easily purchase and set up an egg shop for under $350. That's a small investment for years of healthy, local protein.

The biggest fib would be the time you'll need to dedicate to your omelet shop. Yes, you'll have to check in on and feed the layers daily. My routine: Before I head off to work, I open their coop door, throw down some grain, and make sure they have fresh water. I do this with a hot mug of coffee in my hand and a grin on my face and it never takes more than 5 or 10 minutes. At night it's slightly more effort, but only because that's when I collect eggs and refill the feeder. Total: maybe 15 minutes. The average person is willing to stand in line for a movie longer than that. And half the time the movie stinks. I see a clear winner here, don't you?

left: Geese are noisy. right: Chickens are not.

Taking You Home Again



On Sale
Dec 21, 2021
Page Count
128 pages

Jenna Woginrich

Jenna Woginrich

About the Author

Jenna Woginrich is the author of An Absolute Beginner's Guide to Keeping Backyard ChickensBarnheart and Made from Scratch. She blogs at, as well as for the Huffington Post and Mother Earth News. She shares her farm in rural New York with chickens and geese, sheep, a hive of bees, and some amiable rabbits.

Learn more about this author