Fun fact: We have backyard chickens as pets. I never had chicken goals as part of my parenting journey but once I started down a path of wanting hens for fresh eggs, there was no looking back.
This week our family added 3 new chicks to our flock, bringing our backyard chicken count to five. As I chronicled preparing for our chicks and bringing them home on Instagram and Instagram Stories, I realized that I’ve never written about our backyard chickens as pets.
If you’re still trying to digest the fact that we- a family who lives in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.- has backyard chickens, I’m going to skip ahead to some of the questions that are forming in your head. To answer your questions:
- We’ve had chickens for almost 3 years. Our kids were 11 and 8 when we got them.
- We have 5 chickens- 2 full grown hens and 3 baby chicks who we just got yesterday and are unbelievably cute.
- In the suburbs where we live, it’s ok to have backyard chickens as pets.
- Oliver our Labrador and our hens get along quite well. He was quickly put in his place with a peck on the nose but now he’s very protective of our hens. We weren’t sure if dogs and chickens mixed so we did what I like to call the rent-to-own chicken program through Rent a Coop. We are very cautious when new dogs visit our yard to protect our flock.
- Our hens free range during the day and it’s always fun to see them roaming the yard, especially when see them hunting and pecking in the yard when I’m on a conference call. At night they go home to their coop where they get locked in for the night because our neighborhood is home to foxes and hawks.
- Over the years, we’ve lost two out of four adults hens. One died of natural causes last summer and another was attacked by a hawk just 8 months after we got her. Losing chickens is just as hard as losing any family pet. Our family does eat chicken, just not ones that are our pets. Our beloved deceased hens are buried in one of their favorite spots in the yard.
- My prior experience with chickens includes spending time with the chicks my mom hatched in her elementary school classroom and hatching chicks with my first graders one year. In both cases, I never kept the chicks to raise.
Through the years I’ve learned that having backyard chickens as pets is not only a great conversation starter but also a fun hands-on way for kids to engage in science right in their own backyard. Kids get invested in knowing what to feed hens, ways to care for them to keep them healthy, how to make your yard a safe chicken habitat, and the process that a hen goes through to lay the eggs we enjoy eating.
It’s been wonderful to watch my kids want to learn more out of sheer love for their chickens Whether you’ve thought about having backyard chickens of your own or are just curious, chickens as pets can be a huge motivator learning science in a hands-on way.
Why We Love Fresh Eggs Daily
We’ve learned a lot about backyard chickens over the past few years thanks to Lisa Steele, whose Fresh Eggs Daily site, blog, newsletter, and books are our go-to for all of our chicken questions. I’ve also poured over Lisa’s Gardening with Chickens book to make our garden a friendly chicken habitat.
Lisa isn’t a newcomer to raising chickens but she helps newbies like me learn everything they need to know to keep a healthy, happy flock. She is a proud 5th generation chicken keeper who grew up across the street from her grandparents’ farm where she watched them care for their own chickens, using the meat and eggs in the family’s diner. Lisa left her farming roots for a while, going to college, working on Wall Street, moving with her Navy husband, but eventually she ended up back on a small farm where she reignited her own passion for raising her chickens and ducks and helped others do the same.
I always turn to Lisa’s Fresh Eggs Daily website when I have a question about our own backyard chickens and love getting her newsletter because the timely information that helps me with our flock. Her most recent book, Let’s Hatch Chicks, has me thinking of hatching our own chicks in the future.
Lisa is my favorite resource, so it was wonderful to ask her to share advice for suburban parents who would like to start their own flock but don’t have any experience with chickens. Here’s what she said!
What Parents Need to Know About Backyard Chickens as Pets
Leticia Barr— My kids were 10 and 7 when we got our first 2 hens and we were more concerned with how our Labrador would get along with the chickens than the kids! Are chickens a good pet for families with young kids?
Lisa Steele, Fresh Eggs Daily (LS)— It’s funny you mention that about your dog because one huge mistake that many people make is not realizing that their big, goofy, floppy Golden Retriever who’s great with the kids and a beloved family pet can turn into Cujo around chickens.
Dogs are actually the #1 killer of backyard chickens so in addition to thinking about how your kids will interact with the chickens and teaching them some basic rules (like no chasing the chickens, learning how to pick up and hold the chickens, washing their hands after touching them, no putting their fingers in their mouths or eyes to reduce the risk of salmonella, etc.), some basic training for the family dog is also important. That same “no chasing the chickens” rule needs to be in effect, in addition to the basic commands like, “sit”, “stay”, “leave it” and “drop it”. But yes, back to your original question, I think chickens are wonderful pets for kids because they’re small and a great way to teach responsibility, where your food comes from and other really important life lessons.
Leticia— Is there a minimum age kids should be for handling and caring for chickens?
Lisa— I would say that kids under the age of 5 or so should always be supervised around the chickens, especially around baby chicks which are really pretty fragile and can easily be injured or killed by a fall or being squeezed too hard.
Leticia— What should kids know about handling chickens?
Lisa— Salmonella is a very real illness that affects children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems the hardest. Chickens and their eggs can transmit salmonella through contact, so children should get in the habit of always washing their hands after they have been handling the chickens or collecting eggs.
They should also be taught the correct way to hold a baby chick – always sitting on the floor, with one hand under the chick and one cupped over it – never let a baby chick stand on an open palm up off the ground – or with the chick sitting on the child’s lap (on a towel preferably!) They can also be taught how to hold a grown chicken – I find under the arm like a football is pretty easy. And when to put the chicken down and just let it have some quiet time!
Leticia— What are some jobs that parents can give can young kids to encourage them to interact with hens in an age appropriate way?
Lisa— I think smaller kids can most definitely get involved with activities like collecting eggs, pouring feed into feeders or filling buckets of water. They can help carry the egg basket back to the house (although be prepared for some possible breakage!) But that should all be with parental supervision.
Chickens are generally friendly, but a broody hen can get aggressive, as can a rooster. If you have small children, I would recommend having a hens-only flock (yes, they will still lay eggs!) because a rooster can easily take an eye out or leave a permanent facial scar on a small child.
Once kids are say kindergarten age or older, they are probably responsible enough to check for eggs on their own, maybe even let the chickens out of the coop, fill feeders and waterers unsupervised once they know the routine. Locking up at night should always be an adult chore though because one mistake could lead to heartbreak at the hands of a predator.
Leticia— We have 2 Golden Comets and 3 Buff Orpington chicks. Are there certain breeds that are best for children based on temperament?
Lisa— One nice thing about chickens is that each breed does have its own distinct personality. Some breeds are well known for being very calm and docile, so if you have small children, you might want to choose a flock of these breeds, including buff Orpingtons, Australorps, Cochins Brahmas or Faverolles. Another idea if you have small children would be to consider bantams. They are smaller versions of standard-sized chickens – about half the size. They do lay smaller eggs, but can be less intimidating for little ones.
Leticia— To add to our flock, we bought chicks but your book, Let’s Hatch Chicks, got me thinking about hatching eggs! Is it better to hatch your own eggs or buy chicks or hens?
Lisa— While I really enjoy hatching my own eggs, statistically when you hatch eggs, you will end up with half of them being roosters, so unless you have a plan in place to find them forever homes (easier said than done) or can find someone who wants a chicken dinner (and are okay with), staying away from hatching is recommended. I also don’t recommend starting with grown hens or even pullets (hens under a year old). You won’t end up with nearly as friendly a flock that way.
The best thing to do is to buy day old chicks from your local feed store, a local farm or an online hatchery or breeder. And I always recommend getting only one or two of any one breed. You will end up with a much more interesting flock, a more colorful egg basket and it will be much easier to give each chicken a name and then be able to remember who’s who!
Leticia— In the 3 years that we’ve had our chickens, I’ve learned so much! I never would have imagined that each of our hens would have very distinct personalities and come when called! What are some other things that families would be surprised to know about raising chickens?
Lisa— You’re right about that. Chickens do have very distinct personalities. I think that in time they even can get to recognize their name!
Even though I raised chickens as a kid, I was still surprised when I started a little backyard flock as an adult how friendly my chickens were. They became more than a weekend chore or just little egg-laying machines and have really become family pets.
I think people are surprised how soft they are too. Anyone who has never petted a chicken before always remarks how soft their feathers are. Another thing that surprises those new to backyard chickens is the different colored eggs. People are astonished to learn that chickens lay not only brown and white eggs, but also green, blue, cream colored, pink…
Leticia— What are some of the most rewarding things about raising chickens?
Lisa— Fresh delicious eggs are definitely a benefit, but chickens also eat bugs and bug larvae, reducing the fly, mosquito and tick population around your yard, they also provide wheelbarrows full of wonderful nitrogen-rich manure for the garden.
Leticia— In an age where so many parents struggle with screen time, how can raising chickens help provide a balance for families?
Lisa— People often refer to watching the chickens while they’re out roaming in the yard as “chicken TV” and there is some truth to that! I know personally I find it so entertaining to just sit and watch the chickens running around chasing each other, scratching for bugs and seeds, sunbathing or taking dust baths. Any outside activity is going to be so beneficial for not only kids by the entire family to get involved in.
I had chickens, bunnies, a cat and even a baby goat for awhile as a kid and was outside all the time. Of course we didn’t have iPads or computers or even cell phones – we just had TV with basically three channels, so there wasn’t much reason to stay indoors on a nice day – but these days with all the technology, I think anything that parents can do to entice kids outside is going to be a positive thing. And chickens can sure help with that!
Leticia— You’re a 5th generation chicken farmer who grew up with chickens. You’ve had lots of experience with chickens that shows through Fresh Eggs Daily but what other resources do you recommend for those just starting out?
Lisa— I would say that it’s been almost a decade since backyard chicken keeping started growing in popularity in so many urban and suburban areas. With that growth has also come a proliferation of resources at your fingertips to learn and research that weren’t around when I started raising our chickens as an adult back in 2009.
Even though I had chickens as a kid, there’s a big difference between just having to collect eggs or feed the chickens each morning and actually being fully in charge of a flock’s care. Like any type of animal, it’s a smart thing to learn the basics before you dive in to be sure you’re ready and know what to expect, and then sort of learn as you go along – by trial and error and also by honing in on that advice that really resonates with you or applies to your specific situation.
For example, do you want to raise your chickens naturally? Are you interested in showing chickens? Maybe you want to start selling eggs?
I would recommend subscribing to magazines such as Chickens or Backyard Poultry. They offer great seasonal advice and tips in each issue. Of course, having a few good reference books at your fingertips is a smart idea. And join some groups on social media where you can meet and talk with other people who are going through the same thing. Many areas are now holding backyard chicken keeping seminars which are a good thing to attend to learn specifics about raising chickens in your particular area.
Huge thanks to Lisa Steele for taking time to answer my questions for other families who are interested in having backyard chickens! Fresh Eggs Daily is such a great resource and our family has appreciated all of her wonderful information.
For more information about Lisa and raising your own backyard chickens:
- Visit her Fresh Eggs Daily website
- Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook
- Watch her TV show on OurMaine.com
- Read her books:
- Let’s Hatch Chicks— Let’s Hatch Chicks is a darling picture book that helps children learn the joys and responsibilities of raising chicks as they follow Violet’s journey from dutifully sitting on her eggs to introducing them to the rest of the flock.
- Fresh Eggs Daily— This authoritative, accessible guide tells you everything you need to know to join the latest movement in urban chicken raising for eggs and companionship. You’ll learn the basics of coops, nesting boxes, runs, feed, and natural health care with time-tested remedies.
- Gardening with Chickens—This was the first book by Lisa that I purchased. I love how it helps you plan and grow your own garden with healthy, pesticide-free herbs, fruits, and veggies to share with your family and your feathered friends. In this easy-to-read guide, Lisa walks you through the basics of chickens and composting, shows you how to make coop window boxes and lets you know what plants to avoid with chickens.
- Duck Eggs Daily—An entertaining, indispensable how-to-book on raising ducks. Lisa also provides advice for blending ducks into an existing chicken flock and cooking with duck eggs. Yes, this book has me considering ducks for our backyard flock too though I think hatching chicks is far more likely!
Huge thanks to Lisa Steele for sending me Fresh Eggs Daily and her new Let’s Hatch Chicks for the purposes of this blog post. Gardening with Chickens was personally purchased previously. Affiliate links are included in this post. Some images are courtesy of Lisa.