All About Chickens

chicken housing

Chickens need houses because: Chickens need protection from predators. Chickens need protection from heat in summer and cold in winter. Chickens and owners are happier when the hens have a consistent, clean, convenient, and private place to lay eggs. Chickens instinctively go to the best and safest shelter that they can find at sunset, and if they have a house to go to they will use it, and you will have a nice safe and warm place to confine them until morning.

Chickens need fenced chicken runs or yards because: To protect chickens from predators. To prevent chickens from trespassing, thereby annoying people other than their owners. Both predators and annoyed neighbors may injure, steal, or kill chickens. To protect chickens from danger, such as mechanical or electrical hazards, roads, toxic plants and substances, or cliffs.


All outdoor animals and poultry must have:

  • Adequate ventilation, and shelter from sun, wind, cold, and moisture.
  • Shelter which provides sufficient shade to protect the animal from the direct rays of the sun at all times; and which is cleaned and sanitized not less than daily, of all excrement.
  • Adequate space for movement and exercise.
  • Adequate and clean food and water. Food receptacles must e kept disinfected and free of excretia.
  • A clean and hygienic living area (house and yard), or there will be fines and perhaps forfeiture of the animals.
  • Access to necessary veterinary medical care when such animal or bird exhibits signs of pain or suffering.
  1. General Prohibition
    1. A person must not keep poultry, in, upon, or under any structure used for human habitation.
    2. Every person keeping poultry must ensure that:
      1. such poultry does not create a nuisance; and
      2. all lands and premises where such poultry is kept, are maintained in a sanitary condition at all times, and that excrement is not permitted to accumulate and cause, in the opinion of the Medical Health Officer, an objectionable odour or nuisance. Animal Control Bylaw 7932

Summary: no chickens on residential lots allowed unless lot is half an acre or more, and no nuisance allowed by animals; meaning no loud roosters or smelly coops

Proponents of backyard Hens in Richmond are gathering to try to change these bylaws to allow hens on all residential lots, regardless of lot size. Please join us.

Most often and most practically, backyard chicken keepers will have a hen house that sits inside of a chicken run or chicken yard (this includes chicken tractors, which are movable chicken house and run enclosures).

The house will be built so that it can be well secured at night (a 3 year old child couldn’t get in), and it will will keep hens warm, dry, comfortable, and well ventilated. The house will be constructed so it is easy to clean.

The house should have at a minimum:

  • 1.5 sq ft inside per hen (1 sq ft per bantam)
  • 6 – 10 inches of perch per hen
  • 1 nest box or area per 4-5 hens
  • the yard should have 8 sq ft per hen, less for bantams

The yard or run will be accessible from the hen house. The run/yard will be securely fenced and gated. It is best to bury the fence, and bury it at an angle (flaring away from the hen yard, under ground). It is a good idea to cover the yard/run with some kind of mesh, netting, or screen to prevent hawks and eagles from poaching your flock.


feeding chickens

Chicken Digestion (just the highlights)

  • Chickens are omnivores (eat plants and animals) and monogastrics (have one stomach, like us, and unlike a cow, who has four).
  • Chickens have saliva in their mouths, which starts the digestion process (just like us).
  • Food is stored in their crop, which is located just behind their breastbone. If they are too thin (their crop is empty), their breastbone looks like the keel of a ship, sharply angled, and it is very easy to feel. If the chicken is well fed, their crop is full, and they almost look like they have swallowed a tennis ball. You can barely feel their breast bone, and can’t easily see where it is.
  • Food moves from their crop to their gizzard, where it is ground up small enough to continue on down the digestion process. Birds don’t have teeth, instead they have a gizzard. Birds eat grit, which goes into their gizzard, along with their food. The gizzard clenches, and grinds up their food with the aid of the grit.
  • final excretions go out the vent


The most important nutrient. Always provide fresh water. It is very important in winter to provide non-frozen water, and to provide abundant fresh water in the summer.

To keep water non-frozen in the winter, the best idea is to use an electric water dish, that keeps the water just warm enough not to freeze. If you have a chicken coop that is part of a shed or garage that stays above freezing, or use a heat lamp in your hen house, water can be kept in there where it won’t freeze, just be sure it stays full, clean, and isn’t soaking the surrounding area. An emergency solution, not a long-term solution, is to bring out hot water twice a day.

In the summer, you will be amazed how much water the chickens drink, and how much evaporates. Make sure to keep their water full and clean. They MUST NOT run out of water.


I recommend using pre-made chicken feed rather than home made feed. Commercially made feed already contains the required amounts of protein, vitamins, minerals (except Calcium), and other nutrients to keep your hens healthy and productive. As a matter of fact, feeding additional scratch (grains) to your hens actually dilutes the nutritional value of their feed, so it is best to avoid or use very little scratch.

Feed comes in crumbles (aka mash) or pellets, and either will provide complete nutrition for full grown and full sized hens. Crumbles are preferred for bantam hens (miniature breed) and pullets (teen-agers, between chick and laying hen). Pellets are preferred for full grown, full sized hens because they waste less, meaning they make less of a mess!

Chicks or pullets have different nutritional requirements than hens, so they should be fed chick or pullet feed.

Chicken Feeding Requirements, Age or Type of Chicken, Protein, Calcium

  • Broilers (to 6 wks) – 23 % Protein, 0.9% Calcium
  • Broilers (to mkt) – 10 % Protein, 0.08% Calcium
  • Chicks (to 8 wks) – 20 % Protein, 0.9% Calcium
  • Pullets (8-20 wks) – 14 % Protein, 0.8% Calcium
  • Layer Hens – 16 % Protein, 3.0% Calcium

Feed should be provided in a Chicken Feeder. There are various types, easily found in feed stores and even many local pet supply stores. The feeder should help prevent the hens from throwing their food around (which they love to do) which causes a wet smelly mess that attracts rodents and insects, and feeders prevent waste, which will save you money. Our favorite feeder is a very old fashioned kind. It is a tin dish, with round feeding holes in it, which screws to the top of an ordinary canning jar (small mouth, quart or larger). You fill the jar with feed, screw on the dish, turn it over, and set it in the chicken yard in a place where it will stay dry, you can easily clean the area, and the hens can’t tip or drag it over (we made a little dished area to set it in, so the hens can’t drag it).


Scratch is grain that is fed to chickens. As noted in the Feed section, scratch actually dilutes the nutritional value of the Feed, so if you use scratch, use it judiciously.

Scratch usually consists of cracked corn, with or without a combination of other cracked or whole grains and/or legumes. Whole corn is too large, as are some other whole grains, legumes, or seeds, so use common sense when deciding on a scratch. Wheat, oats, barley, rice, millet, milo, flax, peas, and lentils are all possible, and fine, scratch ingredients. If you should decide to feed soybeans, they must be roasted or heat treated, soybean meal is fine because it has been heat treated.

Scratch has a few uses that I’ll mention here.

Chicken treat. Chickens will love person that feeds them scratch. This is a useful tool.
Scratch, particularly corn, can help put weight on a thin or less than vigorous chicken, and can help to keep them warm.
Scattering a bit of scratch on the ground of their chicken yard will make them happy all day. Chickens need to scratch at the ground, looking for grains, bugs, worms, and grit, most of the day in order to be truly healthy and happy. Chickens that can’t scratch are stressed and will often turn to pecking their companions out of frustration. I feel that this is the most important use for scratch.

Grit and Oyster Shells

Grit is small stones or rocks, all birds look for this in their environment. Grit is small gravel bagged and sold just for chickens. Hens use #2 Grit (chicks use #1 grit and turkeys use #3 grit).

Oyster Shell is actually mined ancient oyster shells that are ground, bagged, and sold for chickens. Chickens use “lay blend” oyster shell. It is also available in a grind for chicks and as a flour which is feed grade for other livestock, or to be used as lime in the garden.

Oyster Shell and Grit are necessary for 2 reasons:
Birds don’t have teeth, instead they have a gizzard. Birds eat grit, which goes into their gizzard, along with their food. The gizzard clenches, and grinds up their food with the aid of the grit.

Oyster Shell is fed to hens to give them extra Calcium, which hens need to give their eggs strong, thick shells. This oyster shell also works as grit for the hens. If your hens lay eggs with thin or even incomplete shells, you know they need more Calcium. If your hens eat their eggs, they may need more Calcium or Protein. (If they are eating eggs, increase their oyster shell, and wait to see if they stop. If they don’t stop, increase protein in their diet, fish meal and/or dairy products work well)

Grit and Oyster shell are most often mixed equally and offered free choice. This can be scattered on the ground for the hens to scratch and peck (best choice), offered in its own feeder (they will consume what they need), or may be mixed in with their feed (may encourage them to throw their food around).

Grit and Oyster Shell for chickens are both available at feed stores and some pet supply stores.


Food Scraps
There are many food scraps that hens will enjoy, that are also good for them. Keep in mind that the commercially formulated feed is the best feed for them, so don’t overwhelm their diet with other foodstuffs. Chickens don’t have teeth or cutlery to get their food into small pieces, and too much food in the birds crop can lead to compaction there, which is a life threatening problem. Therefore, it is a good idea to chop up the scraps that you feed to them. We call this “chicken-chop” in our house. Chopping scraps also makes them more attractive, so the scraps are more likely to be eaten, rather than becoming rodent bait or becoming moldy and rotten in their yard..

There are also things to avoid. If something is clearly rotten, moldy, or inedible don’t feed it to your chickens, just compost or toss it.

Cereal products, such as bread, cereal, pasta (for a good time, hand feed your hen spaghetti!), and pastry are fine.

Lean meats (cooked or raw) and fish, fish skin, and dairy products are good for chickens, since they usually benefit from added protein. Keep in mind that too much fat can lead to serious health problems.

Most fruits and vegetables (peels, cores, ends, tops, etc…) are fine, cooked or raw. Chopping them makes them more attractive. They don’t like citrus peels, and apple seeds are bad for them if too many.

Feed brassicas, like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and choy’s, in moderation, too much is not good for Chickens.

Pet Food – Don’t feed cat food to Chickens, even though they love it. Cat food is formulated with the nutrient needs of cats in mind, and it contains dangerous levels of certain amino acids for chickens.

Garden Waste and Toxic plants
A long list of possibly toxic plants:
Possibly toxic plants, the highlights: Allium (all onion family of plants), amaranth, columbine, azalea, bitter gourd, bleeding heart, boxwood, brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, choy family of plants. A little bit is OK, but not too much), beet (greens, not too many), buckwheat, cacti, Canada thistle, cannabis, cassia, Chinese lantern, hellebore, clematis, daphne, cocklebur, vetch, lilly-of-the-valley, ranunculus, daffodil, delphinium, foxglove, fox tail, English ivy, horse tail, euphorbia, flax, four o-clock, snowdrop, soybean (raw plant, leaves), heliotrope, holly, hyacynth, hydrangea, St John’s wort, morning glory/bindweed, potato vine, iris, lobelia, birdsfoot trefoil, may apple, milkweed mock orange, nicotiana/tobacco, oleander, poppies, buttercup, vinca/periwinkle, rhubarb, black locust, rue, elderberry, Scoth broom, cassias, ferns, sorrels, sorghum, sweet pea, skunk cabbage, tansey, yew, tomato/potato plants, white clover, wysteria

Grass – Do not feed cut grass to chickens and don’t expect them to eat grass. Chickens thrive when kept on grass, but they don’t eat it. They eat seed heads and young sprouts of grass, along with other seeds, weeds, grit, insects and worms that might be in the grass. Long blades of grass can wad up in their crop and become compacted, which is a life threatening situation.

Insects and Animals
Chickens are omnivores and crave protein, like all omnivores. Chickens favorite treats are all kinds of insects, worms, and even mice (chickens are actually very good mouse hunters).