The first thing to do is to ask yourself, “Am I smarter than a rooster?”
Most people aren’t. They let the rooster take charge. If the rooster decides it’s time to have a fight, you fight. You don’t question his decision, just his judgment: “He’s crazy: I’m the one who’s going to win!” But you’re not making the decisions—he is. You’re taking orders from a chicken!
Luckily, if you follow my program, you can become smarter than a rooster. Learn how, right now.
Are You Chicken?
Basically, a rooster will size you up and decide either:
You are another rooster (in which case you have to have a fight).
You’re not a rooster at all (no fight).
His decision is based on how you act. If you don’t act like a rooster, he’ll leave you alone. Roosters don’t go around attacking ladders or cows or chicken coops or the moon. Just things they imagine are other roosters.
How Roosters (Sort of) Think
But if he decides that you’re a rooster, he will attack you. It’s a pecking-order thing. After a brief battle he will decide one of three things:
He won, and therefore you are supposed to act submissive, or he’ll hold a rematch.
You won, and therefore he will act submissive until he decides it’s time for a rematch.
It was a tie, and therefore he’ll hold a rematch soon.
I’m sure you’ve noticed the important point: the rooster is in charge of deciding when it’s time for a rematch. Once again, the rooster is in charge. You’re not.
How to Not Be a Rooster
People who are smart know that roosters only want rematches with other roosters. They also remember remember they’re people, and not roosters at all! The rooster was mistaken, and it was all just a silly misunderstanding. So the goal is to prevent the rooster from forming the opinion that humans are fellow roosters. The way to achieve this is simple: don’t act like a rooster.
The way to achieve this is simple: don’t act like a rooster.
Basically, it comes down to this: Act like a caring human being. When crossing the chicken yard, don’t come roaring in like a freight train and don’t walk straight at them as if you’re going to trample them. It makes them feel threatened.
The chicken dance. Roosters have a warm-up dance that precedes an attack, in which they nervously shift from one foot to the other and generally look unhappy. Give them a break and edge away if they start acting like this. They’ll forget all about you.
Roosters who have already decided that you are one of them can be desensitized. Roosters can only keep track of one thought at a time. If you toss them a handful of grain while they’re winding up for an attack, they will forget all about you and call over a bunch of hens to share the bounty. After a few days of this, their aggression will be greatly diminished. This works best if the roosters are hungry or the feed you offer is at least different from what’s in the feeder 24/7.
I learned this trick after one of my kids got into a scrap with a rooster. The kid lost, to the point where he was no longer willing to go out on the chicken pasture. Fair enough, but the rooster walked away from the experience with the belief that all humans were roosters, not just the one kid.
So I tried the desensitization trick on the rooster, and that worked fine for me. He never attacked anyone again.
Word Gets Around
For anyone who is not convinced, let’s hold up the practice of “showing the rooster who’s boss” to the “front-page photo” test. Which would you rather have on the front page of your local newspaper: A picture of you kicking a rooster, or one of you feeding him a handful of grain? Your neighbors know that you’re not a rooster, and that means they won’t cut you any slack if you kick one around.
Sadly, a few people, even grown-ups, have trouble resisting a challenge. “The rooster made me do it.” You gotta wonder. Because if a chicken can tell you what to do, then imagine the kind of trouble that challenges from the dog, or a co-worker, or your spouse, or the wallpaper can get you into!
Uses for Incorrigible Roosters
Some roosters are incorrigible and will attack anybody, even if you follow these rules. I’ve only ever had one. These roosters should be made into chicken and dumplings.
On the other hand, some poultrykeepers are themselves incorrigible and can’t resist keeping vicious roosters, enjoying the sight of the attacks on neighbors, relatives, visitors, and children. The world would no doubt be a better place if these owners were made into people and dumplings.
When all else fails:
Look deeply into my eyes: When you leave this page, you will be convinced: You are not a chicken. You are not a chicken. You are not a chicken.
Do You Need a Rooster?
Hens lay just as many eggs if you don’t even have a rooster. Hens don’t really like roosters very much, anyway. Roosters will sometimes help defend the flock, especially by keeping a watch on the sky for hawks. But their presence in a flock is optional unless you plan on hatching some eggs.
Why Are They Called Roosters?
They weren’t always called “roosters.” They used to be called “cocks.” Apparently this sounded rude to some people. Though why they didn’t change the name of peacocks while they were at it, I can’t imagine.
Where the method of buying pullets is followed, the rooster is unnecessary. The hens will lay as well without him, and the objections of the neighbors to chickens on account of the early morning crowing will be overcome. If desired to keep a male, he may be discouraged from crowing by placing a board or hanging canvas over his perch at such a height as to prevent him from stretching his neck. A rooster in crowing raises his head at a considerable height, an if he cannot raise it to the desired height there will be little crowing.
In spite of being 100 years old, Poultry Breeding and Management is full of good ideas like this. Not only are they good ideas, but you won’t hear them anywhere else, because they’ve been forgotten. Highly recommended!
Note that this will discourage crowing while the rooster is on the perch, which of course he will be all night. Most people have far less objection to daytime crowing than nighttime crowing.
Recently I was in a plaster-finished closed-type poultry house where the dropping boards are scraped clean daily and sprinkled with earth. The house was decidedly smelly, though apparently clean. The manure-saturated wood of the dropping board, which has been treated frequently with disinfectants, contributed largely to the stench. I would not want a house like that and would find it unpleasant to work in one, but it seemed to suit the owner, and as he appeared so well satisfied I made no comment.
Alternatives to Dropping Boards
Now, this was written over 90 years ago, yet dropping boards already seemed burdensome and old-fashioned. So what are the alternatives?
No Dropping Boards at All
Dr. Woods makes the following observations:
Most of my houses are not provided with dropping boards, and such really seem more sanitary to me. In these houses the droppings fall to the floor beneath the roosts where they are quickly covered with sand, earth and litter which the fowls scratch over them. Fowls usually scratch with their heads toward the light and so throw a good deal of absorbent material toward the rear of the house. Under such conditions very frequent cleaning is not necessary.
I know a good many successful, practical poultrymen who do not use dropping boards in their poultry houses. One of these men has about 2000 layers and does all of his own work. He cleans out his poultry houses regularly spring and fall and oftener if the droppings become offensive. He says that he can depend upon his nose to tell him when the houses need cleaning and that he has no use for dropping boards and no time to waste fussing with them. I think he knows what he is talking about for I have visited his plant often and his houses are always in good sanitary condition and free from offensive odors. His fowls are healthy and productive.
Slanted Dropping Boards
But what if space is tight, and you need to park equipment (feeders, nest boxes, etc.) below the roosts? Dr. Woods has an answer to that, too: the slanted dropping board. This allows the droppings to roll downhill and accumulate at the back of the wall. Surprisingly, this is less smelly than a horizontal dropping board, and can be cleaned only at long intervals.
The dropping board extends from the rear sill to the roost supports, fitting snugly to the end wall and partition to form a hopper to collect droppings. The dropping board is not made fast and lifts out for cleaning. With a flock of healthy fowl this dropping hopper can go all winter without need of cleaning out, which saves labor over ordinary dropping boards which must be cleaned daily. The roosts “R,R” are not made fast to the roost supports. They are drilled at ends and in center to fit on spikes which project from roost supports and can be easily lifted off when desired. Kept clean and kerosened now and then, they are practically mite proof. The dropping hopper does not collect mites, as would accumulations of droppings close beneath the roosts.
A later development was the dropping pit. When the chicken house is built rather high up in the air, or for chickens in laying cages, this can work very well, with the roosts over a screened opening that lets the dropping fall to what is essentially a basement level, where they can be allowed to accumulate until they become a nuisance, then shoveled out, as shown in the photo below, from Leslie Card’s Poultry Production, which is more recent that Fresh-Air Poultry Houses and shows additional twists to the poultry game.
The spiffiest is the manure conveyor belt, which removes the droppings from the chicken coop with a maximum of convenience. The photo, also from Poultry Production, shows a manure conveyor disgorging its contents into an old-fashioned manure spreader.
The rise of deep litter for chicken coops during World War II meant that many henhouses had a much greater volume of litter than before, and this dilutes the manure and keeps it from being nasty. In the old days, when Dr. Woods was writing, many poultrykeepers kept a very thin layer of litter on the floor, and replaced it constantly. Such an inadequate volume of litter is easily overwhelmed by manure, which may be where dropping boards came from in the first place.
With deep litter, simply letting the manure fall to the floor seems as good a method as any, provided that the house isn’t too crowded.
I have read in multiple sources that sprinkling superphosphate fertilizer reduces odors best, better than lime or dirt, for example.
Final Thoughts by Dr. Woods
I think that every poultry keeper safely can be left to decide for himself how often he will clean poultry houses and dropping boards. It is his business not mine. Of course, where dropping boards are used they should be cleaned sufficiently often to prevent accumulations of droppings becoming offensive. It is difficult to keep the wood of dropping boards in sanitary condition no matter how often they may be cleaned.
And if these ideas gave you food for thought, just imagine how many more are waiting for you in the eight books making up my Norton Creek Classics series! You may have to buy a whole new brain!
Yes, you can build a chicken coop! In fact, chicken coops are the traditional starting point for people with no experience in rough carpentry.
“The best chicks come out of the sorriest houses.” — Old-time poultry maxim.
Designing chicken coops isn’t rocket science, either. But there are some concepts to keep in mind.
The chickens themselves don’t care if their chicken coop has a nice paint job, or if its construction makes it easy or difficult for you to tend to their needs. They’d be just as happy roosting in a pine tree as in the best chicken house ever built. Thus, chicken houses are as much for our own benefit as the chickens’.
Why Have a Coop at All?
Fundamentally, our jobs as chicken-coop architects is to provide housing that’s at least as good as a tree:
If it were not for foxes, owls, large haws, and more particularly, modern chicken thieves with auto-trucks, I should yet be keeping a good sized flock of fowls in a pine grove, without house of any sort, roosting in the trees, protected only by the thick growth of white pines, a five foot wire fence, and provided with covered nests and feed hoppers. I tried this plan when we first moved on this farm, before the pine timber was cleared of dead branches and undergrowth. For several seasons this houseless poultry keeping worked well, even foxes and owls were not very troublesome, but with the great increase of auto traffic came clever thieves from town … These out-door birds had wonderful plumage with a fine sheen and were splendid layers.”
— Prince T. Woods MD, describing his Massachusetts experience inFresh Air Poultry Houses, 1924, page 15.
Neither Dr. Woods nor I actually recommend that your chickens roost in trees. Ninety years ago, there were more chicken thieves than predators. Nowadays, there are more predators than chicken thieves, but the conclusion is the same: it’s best to keep a roof over your chickens’ heads. If you let your chickens roost in trees, or in the rafters of your garage, you’ll soon regret it, for one reason or another. But we have to choose a design that works at least as well as a pine tree!
The basic design concepts for chicken coops are quickly stated:
The coop should be comfortable for the chickens.
It should either be large enough for you to walk around inside, or small enough that you can reach any part of the interior from the outside.
It should protect the chickens from predators.
It should promote health and discourage disease.
Feeding, watering, and egg collection should all be convenient.
This part is straightforward:
Chickens want to lay eggs in a dark, secluded, place with some kind of nesting material (like straw or wood shavings).
Chickens want to sleep up in the air, at the highest point available to them, such as on tree branches, on a porch railing, or the roosts you provide in the chicken house.
Chickens need shade and a breeze in hot weather, and to get out of the wind in cold weather.
Chickens have difficulty feeding in the dark.
It’s important that you be can either walk around inside the coop and reach every part of it from the inside, or make the coop small enough that you can reach every part of it from the outside. Many small coops are sized exactly wrong, requiring that you be a contortionist to do even simple tasks.
For small coops, being able to reach any point works out about as follows:
The roof is hinged or can otherwise be moved out of the way.
The walls are no more than two feet tall.
The coop is no more than two or three feet wide.
Such a coop can be very simple, like the one below, used here in Oregon 100 years ago:
Such small coops never go out of style. Here is a recent one:
For larger coops, you can get away with walls that are only four feet high. You can walk around in such a coop, bent over. It’s awkward to handle feed sacks this way, though, so I recommend this only when feeding is handled some other way (such as outdoors, or with feeders that are filled from outside the house.
Otherwise, a chicken house should let a poultrykeeper stand tall and proud, with a roof line 6 ½ or 7 feet high. If the roof is steep, and you’re lugging feed sacks around, make sure you can fill the feeders without assuming an unnatural, back-straining posture.
Protection from Predators
Rats are the worst enemy of baby chicks. Brooder houses should either be rat-proof, you should have an effective rat-control program in place, or both.
Older chickens are not menaced by rats, but, given the opportunity, everything else, from weasels to bears will be happy to enjoy a chicken dinner. The coop itself is generally protected by a tight-fitting door and screened windows, and a perimeter fence is often a necessity. (See my electric fencing FAQ.)
Promoting Health and Discouraging Disease
Chickens are prone to some parasites and diseases that are magnified by close confinement unless steps are taken. The most common problems are probably roost mites and coccidiosis.
Roost mites don’t live on the chickens and can be controlled by any numbers of different kinds of sprays aimed at the roosts, nest boxes, and perhaps the rest of the coop. This spray can be anything from mineral oil (which blocks their breathing pores) to insecticides. Coops should be designed so the roosts and nest boxes are easily removed and sprayed.
Coccidiosis is an intestinal parasite that grows rapidly in wet manure and damp litter. Keeping the floor of the coop reasonably dry, keeping manure and litter out of the feeders and waterers, and using the deep litter method all help prevent outbreaks, and these have a bearing on coop design.
Dampness in chicken houses is an open invitation to parasite and disease outbreaks. While there are many ways of keeping the coop dry (from radiant floor heat to the use of slatted floors that let the droppings fall through onto an automatic conveyor belt that removes the manure from the house), the most effective method for small operations is the open-front or fresh-air poultry house, which builds in plenty of airflow to prevent condensation and to dry out the droppings and litter.
Fresh-air poultry houses have been standard for commercial operations for a century, but backyard and small-flock operations still use nineteenth-century closed houses as often as not, in spite of their inferior results, summer and winter. You still see brand-new chicken coops just like this one:
Convenience in Feeding, Watering, and Egg Collecting
Convenience is important, since your time is valuable. It’s easy to arrange a coop in a way that makes everything difficult, and only a little more difficult to arrange a coop that makes all the most common chores easy.
Build a Fresh-Air, Open-Front Coop
Since adult chickens are insulated by a heavy coat of feathers, trying to keep them warm is a waste of time. Yet I sometimes get emails from people in Florida asking me if they need to use heat lamps on their adult hens in the wintertime! No, you don’t. Not even in Canada.
We all learn to coddle day-old baby chicks: we keep them warm and protect them from floor drafts that might chill them. It’s not so easy to shift gears when the chickens get older, but we need to. Chickens have sensitive lungs and need good air quality to thrive. If we close our chicken houses too tightly, the houses will be dark, dank, and smelly, and the chickens will do poorly.
I use open-front houses, and these work great. They’re airy and stay dry, even in wet Oregon winters. I built a less-open house that didn’t have the same kind of airflow, and it stayed wet and nasty, even after I took the door off its hinges and threw it away. Plenty of airflow and open window space is the key, even in winter.
I feel so strongly about this (and have been so appalled by the dark, airless chicken coop plans that are still floating around), that I republished the classic guide to open-front chicken houses, Fresh-Air Poultry Houses by Dr. Prince T. Woods. This is an oldie but a goodie. Read the sample chapter: it will convince you.
What About Drafts?
People talk about “protecting chickens from drafts” because too much of our poultry dialog is stuck in the bad old days of the 19th century. Such dialog lacks important concepts, such as:
Hypothermia. If a chicken’s body loses heat faster than its metabolism can replace it, it enters hypothermia, suffers, and eventually dies.
Wind chill. Heat loss is faster with rapid air motion than in still air.
So the real guideline is to protect chickens from hypothermia. This is easy enough, since chickens have a high metabolism and a dense coat of feathers, which is why roosting in a pine grove during a New England winter is not much of a challenge for them.
In a damp environment, chickens are more susceptible to both hypothermia and frostbite. Without sufficient airflow, the moisture from the chicken’s breathing and droppings accumulates, sometimes even condensing on the ceiling and dripping onto the chickens. To remove this moisture you need adequate airflow.
And, of course, in the warmer months, those thick feathers become a liability to the chicken, making overheating and heatstroke a real possibility. We call it a “draft” when we disapprove of it, and a “cooling breeze” when we like it. Chickens, like us, benefit from cooling breezes in warm weather.
A Cheap Chicken Coop is a Good Chicken Coop
My focus is always on chicken coops that are inexpensive and easy to build. I don’t like spending more than $200 on a coop for 50 chickens. These coops are extremely plain, and are often several years old before I get around to painting them. This means that almost anybody’s chicken coop will be more attractive than mine.
People who feel they have an image to maintain will often spend ten to twenty times as much per hen as I do. “It’s a coop, but it costs like a sedan.” Which is okay if that’s what you want, provided you’re not planning on making a profit from your flock. I’m just letting you know that it’s not your only option.
Milo Hastings has something to say on this topic back in 1909. It’s just as true today (though inflation means that a 1909 dollar was worth twenty times as much as today’s dollar):
“I know of a poultry farm near New York City where the houses cost $12.00 per hen. The owner built this farm with a view of making money. People also buy stock in Nevada gold mines with a view of making money.
I know another poultry farm owned by a man named Tillinghast at Vernon, Connecticut, where the houses cost 30¢ per hen. Mr. Tillinghast gets more eggs per hen than the New York man. Incidentally, he is sending his son to Yale, and he has no other visible means of support except his chicken farm. — Milo Hastings, The Dollar Hen, 1909, p. 66.
Older books on poultrykeeping assume that you’ll make your chicken houses out of cheap lumber, perhaps second-hand lumber. Since chicken houses almost always have smaller dimensions than regular houses, barns, or even sheds, there was an assumption that you could cut second-hand lumber down to size.
Newer books tend to assume you’ll use new materials, because they’re written for commercial farmers and the standard houses had gotten awfully big by then, and it’s hard to built a house for thousands of hens out of scrap materials!
My own hen houses are sometimes built with second-hand materials and sometimes with new. Second-hand materials are fine if they’re suitable to the task, but your time is valuable, and repurposing used or bargain materials sometimes isn’t worth the effort.
Most of my houses have 4×4 pressure-treated skids, 2×4 framing, plywood walls, and corrugated steel roofs. These represent about the cheapest materials available: you can easily go up from there.
Some of my coops are almost 20 years old (my, how time flies!), and I’m glad I used metal roofing. Most other technologies wouldn’t have lasted this long.
Simple Free-Range Housing Concept
Milo Hastings describes the ultimate in free-range simplicity in The Dollar Hen. The section quoted below had a tremendous influence on my own approach to free-range egg farming.
Hastings assumes that there’s a perimeter fence to keep predators out. This lets him dispense with such frippery as doors on the chicken coops:
For the region of light soils and the localities which I have recommended for poultry farming, the following style of poultry house should be used:
No floors, single-boarded walls, a roof of matched cypress lumber or of cheap pine covered with tarred paper. This house is to have no windows and no door. The roosts are in the back end; the front end is open or partly open; feed hoppers and nests are in the front end. The feed hoppers may be made in the walls, made loose to set in the house, or made to shed water and placed outside the house. All watering is to be done outside the houses; likewise, any feeding beyond that done in hoppers.
The exact style of the house I leave to the reader’s own plan. Were I recommending complex houses costing several dollars per hen, this certainly would be leaving the reader in the dark woods. With houses of the kind described it is hard to go far amiss. The simplest form is a double-pitched roof, the ridge-pole standing about seven feet high, and the walls about four. The house is made eight by sixteen, and one end—not the side—left open. For the house that man is to enter. This form cannot be improved upon.
The only other points are to construct it on a couple of 4×4 runners so that it can be dragged about by a team of horses. Cypress or other decay-proof wood should be used for these mud-sills. The framing should be light and as little of it used as is consistent with firmness. If the whole house costs more than twenty-five dollars [$500 in today’s money], there is something wrong in its planning. This house should accommodate seventy-five or eighty hens.
For smaller operations, especially for horseless, or intensive farming, a low, light house may be used, which the attendant never enters. A portion of the roof lifts up to fill feed-hoppers, gather eggs, or spray. These small houses may be made light enough to be moved short distances by a pry-pole, the team being required only when they are moved to a new field.
Modern designs have elaborated on Hasting’s lightweight house ideas by using lighter materials, allowing the houses to be moved easily by hand.
My wife Karen developed the idea of a hoop house using lightweight cattle panels bent into a semicircle. These are fully described on my hoop-coop page.
Straight From the Horse’s Mouth
You can see why I found so much inspiration in books from the Golden Age of American Poultry Science (roughly 1910-1960). I’ve republished my favorites under my Norton Creek Press label. You can buy them on Amazon.com and pretty much everywhere else, too. I’m sure you’ll value them as much as I do. The ones with the most insight on chicken coops are:
Fresh-Air Poultry Houses by Prince T. Woods, MD (1924). A thorough and useful guide to poultry house concepts, if a little eccentric (but in a good way).
The Dollar Hen by Milo M. Hastings (1909).
Simple, practical advice from Milo Hastings, who went on to write classics of early science fiction and to become America’s first health-food columnist.
Poultry Breeding and Management by Professor James Dryden (1916). Dryden was the first person to successfully breed chickens for increased egg production. His book in many ways resembles The Dollar Hen: well-informed, relentlessly practical and useful, but more than twice as long and thus with far more detail.
Poultry Production by Leslie E. Card (9th Edition). From the Sixties, this book is more up-to-date than the others, and bridges the gap between small-flock practices and factory farming, letting you mix and match techniques.
Sure, you want to buy baby chicks this year, but what if you only want pullet chicks? None of those nasty crowing roosters? If so, you’re like a lot of people. Corvallis, for example, has an ordinance forbidding roosters in town, but hens are okay.
The problem is that the feed stores normally have straight-run chicks. That is, boys and girls together. What do do? Time’s a’wasting, since the baby chicks will hit the stores in a couple of weeks.
Learning chick sexing is difficult and disgusting. See this video from Dirty Jobs if you don’t believe me!
Chipmunk Stripes = Pullet Chicks
Well, that was fun, but what does it have to do with do-it-yourself chick sexing at the feed store? I’ll tell you. The feed store will have at least one of these breeds for sale:
Rhode Island Reds
New Hampshire Reds
All these breeds have something in common: The chicks with chipmunk stripes on their backs are females! Well, maybe not all, but at least 95%. And if you pick only the ones with well-defined chipmunk strips, it’s more like 100%.
Most people don’t know this, so the chicks aren’t likely to have been picked over by other customers. Just make the feed store clerk pick out the ones with the racing stripes because “they’re pretty,” and don’t take no for an answer. Voila! Sexed chicks at straight-run prices!
(People have asked me, “What do you mean, ‘chipmunk stripes’?” You’ll know ’em when you see em. Most of the chicks won’t have any stripes down their backs at all. On some, the stripes on their backs will be faint, and others, they’ll be clear. Get the ones with the most clearly defined stripes.
White Head Spots = Male Chicks
On barred rocks, the cockerels tend to have big, solid white spots on the tops of their heads, and yellow feet. Pullets tend to have smaller, more uneven spots and dark feet. Select the most pullet-y of the chicks and you won’t go wrong.
Plenty More Tips Where Those Came From
And if you think that’s clever, you ain’t seen nothing yet. It’s one of the least useful facts in my book, Success With Baby Chicks. Just by reading this book, you become a chick-rearing expert. Imagine how much more pleasure you’ll get when you’re completely successful every time.
I read hundreds of poultry books, extension bulletins, research papers, and magazine articles when researching this book, stretching from 100 years ago to the present day. I discovered many useful facts and techniques that have been forgotten, like the chipmunk-stripe trick. And it’s all been reduced to 155 clear and straightforward pages. You will reap the rewards of my years of work in a couple of hours!
Buy the bookbefore you get your chicks, so you know what to do, not what you should have done.
Okay, so your baby chicks aren’t babies anymore, and the brooder house is bulging, it’s so crowded. Time to house the young chickens with the old. So how do you do that?
This is an important question, because sometimes it goes horribly wrong:
Young chickens whose response to stress is to pile in corners may smother each other in a new and frightening environment.
Dominant chickens can bully newcomers to the point where they hide somewhere and refuse to come out to eat or drink.
Chicken coops and yards can harbor diseases and parasites that the older chickens are resistant to, but the younger ones are not.
So there’s a lot that can go wrong. Let’s talk about making it go right.
Piling and Smothering
Baby chicks respond to stress by diving underneath the mother hen’s feathers. This is instinctual, so even incubator chicks do it. The problem is, if there’s not mother hen, the chicks hide in a dark place, typically the corner of the chicken house, and heap themselves in a big pile. Birds have very weak lungs, so the ones on the bottom smother. Not good!
Practice perches. As it happens, when the chicks learn to roost, the roosting instinct replaces the piling instinct. So the earlier the chicks learn to roost, the shorter the danger period. Chicks learn to roost by roosting, so the way to speed up the process is to give them something to roost on. I set long 2×2’s on the floor of the brooder house to start with, when the chicks are just a few days old, so the chicks can roost before they can fly. Later I move them a couple of feet up in the air.
Night lights. Chicks also panic more easily in the dark, so when I put them out in their pasture houses, I hang a flashlight from a rafter and leave it on all night (hooray for rechargeable batteries!). That really helps.
Shipping crates. Another gimmick that works pretty well is to move them into the chicken coop in poultry shipping crates, set the crates inside the coop, open the lid, but don’t remove the chickens. They’ll gradually start jumping out, but it takes a long time before the timid ones emerge, and in the meantime, the crates are sized to make piling impossible. It’s a long time before there are enough chickens in any one place to get a good pile going.
Fencing. Keeping the older chickens away for at least a day or two also helps prevent piling. Electric garden fence (electronetting about 18″ high) does a pretty good job, and doesn’t exclude the farmer, who can step over the fence without bothering to turn it off.
Being bullied to the point of death happens mostly when you add a few chickens to a large existing flock. Surrounded by strangers, every one of which wants to shove you to the bottom of the pecking order, is hard on the new chickens, who will retreat into a hiding place and refuse to come out, often starving to death.
There are some time-honored ways to prevent this:
Add large numbers of new chickens at a time. The bigger the group of newcomers, the less trouble they will have, because of flocking behavior. The new chickens will band together and head to the feeders and waterers as a body, and the old chickens will back off in the face of the mob. This only works when the new chickens all know each other, though. It’s one reason why I have little difficulty introducing a batch of new pullets into the mix.
House the new chickens separately. If you think you can get away with having just one chicken coop, you’re fooling yourself. You need at least two. (I have more than a dozen!) Life is much simpler if you can house the new chickens in their own coop. They can share a yard with the other chickens. Having a house of their own helps. Keep the new chickens cooped up in their new house for a couple of days so they know where home is, then let them loose to mingle in the yard with the others. Just make sure that the older chickens have equally good feed as the new ones, so there’s no incentive to raid the newcomers’ coop.
Segregate the newcomers. Keeping the newcomers fenced off from the oldsters for a few days helps. The chickens can see each other and interact somewhat, which helps. It also lets the newcomers get used to their new environment without having to deal with the older chickens. This technique can be used when housing two groups of chickens in the same coop, by partitioning the coop with chicken wire temporarily.
Disease and Parasites
These days, most flocks are disease-free, but not parasite-free. Roost mites, coccidiosis, and various kinds of worms are hard to avoid. Older chickens usually have a tolerance to these things unless your environment is particularly unhygienic. Unfortunately, lots of people have small, barren yards for chickens. A muddy, over-manured yard is parasite paradise.
In fact, it’s so bad that I noticed the following pattern when surveying the poultry literature of the past 100 years: People with yarded operations would have a wonderful first year, an okay second year, and would suddenly vanish without a trace the third year. What happened was probably this: Their first batch of chicks was given access to a pristine yard. They quickly denuded it, but it takes time for parasites to build up. In year two, the yard is entirely barren and has an increasing manure and parasite load, but the hens’ tolerance to the parasites keeps pace with the threat. The replacement pullets, however, don’t do so well. The effect of this is masked because most of the original hens are still laying.
Then Year Three comes around. The baby chicks die off horribly as soon as they are added to the older flock, killed by the ever-increasing parasite load. The original hens are too old to lay much. Egg production plummets, and the farmer goes out of business. The End.
So don’t do that. Permanent yards are bad news, but if you must do them, recognize that they’re an accident waiting to happen. That’s why everybody went to confinement in the first place. The method that seems to work best is the one proposed by Geoffrey Sykes in “The Henyard” (sadly out of print, like most great books): put down a thick layer of straw, add more whenever the yard gets a little mucky, and remove it all once a year (preferably with some spiffy piece of machinery like a Bobcat, though you can use a spading fork and a shovel if you really want to). This removes the parasites and thus imposes some kind of upper limit on their density.
The other technique is to plow, roto-till, or spade the yard at least a couple of times a year, to bury the parasites. It also aerates the soil and allows some of the nitrogen from the manure to outgas, delaying the day at which the yard is so over-manured that nothing will grow there. If you combine this with double-yarding, you can get to the point where one yard is barren and has chickens on it, and the other one grows something. Of course, as soon as you put chickens on the green one, it will soon become barren again, but by planting it you get some value out of the manure and mess with the parasites’ life cycle.