Backyard Chickens — Reality Check

Alex Niemi
10 min readJun 28, 2023

Last month my wife and I re-homed our hens after raising them from tiny chicks and caring for them for more than two years. Watching them leave, and knowing that we had failed them was devastating. I’m writing this with the hope that I prevent someone else from getting a bunch of hens thinking it’ll be hunky dory and then finding out that it’s much more challenging than all of the lifestyle bloggers and cool people on YouTube would have you believe. Below are some of the lessons that we learned.

“Free-Range” is Bullshit

Unless you live in Hawaii where there are very few aerial predators OR you’re running a commercial operation with enough hens that losing a few every day doesn’t matter, there is no such thing as “free-ranging” hens. I built their coop on a trailer chassis thinking that we’d move it around on our property and rotate the areas that they free-ranged in. No way Jose. One word: HAWKS. Tons of them. If the hens were alone outside for more than 10 minutes, we’d be alerted to an attack by a cacophony of panicked shrieks and squawks. Everybody that I’ve talked to about hawks has a sure-fire way of handling them.

“All you gotta do is… [insert stupid idea].”

Well, bud, guess what? Hawks give zero fucks. Hawks don’t shudder in their boots when they see Compact Discs (CDs) hanging upside down on trees. They don’t change course when they see a plastic owl or its bright green eyes. They don’t give a shit that my 90-pound dog is walking around with the hens. They don’t care about a bright red frenetic wacky wavy inflatable tube man. The ONLY thing that hawks are scared of is a shotgun.

At one point, I called the Texas office of the USDA to inquire about methodologies for hawk control. I got in touch with a Forest Official who’s advice was to spend a thousand dollars on a pyrotechnic launcher (similar to a flare gun) and pyro ballistic capsules and to then shoot these flaming cinder cones into our trees and field near the hawks in order to scare them away. Mind you, at the time of the call, our entire property (and all of Texas) looked like scorched earth because it was so hot and dry. If a lit cigarette had been dropped anywhere near our property, the entire thing would have gone up in flames. It was so bad that summer that I kept a fire pump and 300' of three-inch firehose under a box at the pond just in case there was a brush fire. Eventually, the pond dried out too. So, to recap, the Forester’s advice was basically to set the whole thing on fire. What a jackass.

So, in addition to the coop, we installed a large run (connected to the coop via wire-fence tunnel), which we fully fenced-in and covered with a sunshade. Ultimately, the only time that we could allow the hens to roam free outside was when we were outside with them. Given that we have jobs, we could only do this for a few hours each evening after we got off work. We tried to do it in the morning too but found that it was impossible to get the hens back into the run or coop when we needed to. So, every evening, our routine was locked-in. We’d take the dogs out, let the hens out, and stand around out there with them.

Get Attached and You’ll Get Hurt

I knew that I was stupid for getting attached to them… but I love animals and some chickens are so sweet and adorable that it’s impossible to not get attached. Sara was the runt of the litter and I spent countless hours hand-feeding her mealworms and nursing her when she was just a tiny little thing -smaller than a cupcake. Naturally, I grew quite fond of her and vice versa. Shortly after having started laying, she was destroyed by a hawk. By the time I reached her, she was dead and most of her back and neck were gruesomely torn apart. The same hawk continued stalking our flock for over a year.

Jesse was my rooster — and just as much of a pet to me as my dogs are. He dropped dead from heat exhaustion one afternoon in the run. I had checked in on them and given them fresh cool water just an hour before but it was 114 degrees that day and very humid. Their coop was air-conditioned to 84 degrees but Jesse stayed outside in the run (rather than going into the coop) because one or two hens kept coming out of the coop and he wanted to protect them.

Another one of our hens suddenly got sick — we still don’t know what/why — and sadly passed away after more than a week of trying to nurse her back to health.

You Don’t Need a Dozen Hens…

unless you want 12 eggs every day. Initially, we planned on getting three or four hens but the people that we talked to (and things that we read) said that only half of them would survive long enough to become layers AND that each hen would NOT lay an egg every day. So, we decided to get eight hens… but when I went to pick them up, it seemed like a good idea (God knows why) to round it up to an even dozen. So, I got twelve tiny little chicks.

Well, it turns out that if you take care of them, they will definitely survive their infancy, and grow up to be productive layers. One of our 12 chicks was a rooster (my best bud, the aforementioned Jesse) and so we had eleven hens. That means — you guessed it — eleven (11) eggs every day. Almost 80 eggs every week that we had to figure out what to do with. I’m not even much of an egg eater, and my wife couldn’t eat 80 eggs every week. We tried giving them to our neighbors but they quickly tired of taking on our burden. So, the eggs kept piling up on the counter and we kept eating as many as we could.

Landscaping is Impossible with Chickens

Our property isn’t large but we have various areas of terrain and flora — some of it is canopied with trees, other parts are semi-arid fields, some of it is scrub brush, and one section is marshy (at the edge of a stock pond). In a small area around our house, I nurture a struggling St. Augustine lawn and assorted bushes and shrubbery. Ignorantly, I had assumed that the hens would roam around the property (during their supervised/escorted free-range time in the evening) searching and scratching the leaf litter and mulched areas under the trees and in the scrub brush that had a high density of underground insects. They did not.

Where did they go instead? The yard — every time, without fail, they’d go straight to the lawn. It’s a logical conclusion because, of course, they’re doing what nature intended them to do — scratch up and eat bugs — and a watered lawn with wet soil affords them much easier excavation than does other areas. Unfortunately, the result is a lawn full of alternating dug-out bare-dirt ruts and humps (composed of the soil and grass roots that they shredded in the process). The whole thing [ironically] resembles an egg-crate mattress topper but has much larger diameter holes and humps. I tried fencing-off some areas but it made maintenance, mowing, traversing, watering, and everything impossible. The fenced areas also prevented the dogs from accessing the lawn. So, in the end it wasn’t a viable solution.

Here are some additional observations related to landscaping with chickens…

If you spread fertilizer or pre-emergent (or anything for that matter), they will peck and eat it; it’s almost impossible to keep them away from it.

Hens will aggressively scratch at the base of any plants or shrubs that you water. They’ll dig them out down to the roots. They’ll do the same around any/all planters, retaining walls, foundations, and structures. Thus, if they have access to any of these things, you need to keep a few yards of topsoil and a shovel handy because you’ll need to spend several hours every week filling in the holes that they dug.

If you install drip irrigation tubing, they will scratch and puncture it. If you repair it and then bury it six inches underground, they will dig it back up and then scratch and puncture it again. Nine hens could undo three days worth of my work in less than two hours.

They absolutely will not scratch and peck in any areas that you guide them too but, rather, will return to any sensitive areas and destroy them the second that you turn your back.

You Need a Triage Area or Second Run

Hens can be VERY nasty to each other. Yes, they have a pecking order but it’s fluid and changes from time to time. The amount of bullying of individual hens depends entirely on which hen is at the top of the pecking order. It does NOT (as others would have you believe) depend on the amount of space that the hens have.

Oftentimes, they will gang-up on a single hen and target her mercilessly for weeks. They’ll peck out her tail and neck feathers leaving her bald and raw. They’ll peck her comb until it bleeds. They’ll mount her repeatedly. They’ll chase her away from food and water. You get the point. So, when that happens, which it often does for extended periods, you need an entire second setup including a run, feeders, watering pans, etc. in order to separate the hen that’s being bullied from the others. Otherwise, they’ll kill her in the most gruesome manner that you can imagine.

Believe it or not, the hens bullied my rooster. Every winter when the humidity dropped, Jesse would get dry feet. The hens would peck at his feet and legs and rip the skin from them, leaving him bloodied and incapacitated. So, for a good portion of the year, Jesse would have to roam around outside of the run alone and fend for himself against the hawks that were constantly on the attack. Additionally, we had to put a lot of time into cleaning/disinfecting his legs, and we had to spray-paint his feet three times a day with Blue-Kote — a ritual that he did not enjoy at all and would do anything (i.e. make us chase him) to avoid. Not fun.

They NEED Air Conditioning If You Live Somewhere Hot!

Sounds ridiculous right? But I’m serious. They can’t survive it. We live in north-central Texas. Last summer (2022), we had stretches of 100+ degree days that lasted weeks. This was coupled with zero rainfall for more than ten months, and extremely humid weather with dew points (at midday) in excess of 72 degrees. This summer, it’s shaping up to be much the same. Already in June, we’ve had multiple days in a row where the temperature was greater than 100 degrees and the dew point was a crazy 74 degrees. Personally, I can last outside for about 10 minutes before I start having trouble breathing, feel light-headed, and am drenched in sweat. In the same weather, the hens last less than 20 minutes before showing signs of heat stress, which includes: panting, lethargy, fanning feathers/wings, dilated pupils, etc. Jesse dropped dead from heat stroke DESPITE having copious amounts of fresh cool water readily available, being in a completely shaded location, and having access to an air-conditioned coop. All of this and he still just dropped dead.

Everybody suggests using misters (fine water spray nozzles) like those that you find waiting in line for thrill rides at Six Flags. Sounds great right!? Wrong. The reality is that chickens fucking HATE being sprayed or misted with water. They will do ANYTHING to avoid getting wet, including moving farther into the sun, and heating themselves up even more. Even if chickens loved misters, the spray nozzles clog every three days (due to hard-water deposits) and are impossible to keep functional. On top of that, misters saturate the ground with water, rotting all of the grain that the chickens have kicked out of their feed bowls, and create a massive fetid rotting mess that draws thousands of flies and can be smelled 100 yards away. Keep in mind that the run is full of chicken shit too.

A final note related to summertime care of the hens (in hot locations): Be prepared to invest A LOT of time into their well-being. On hot days, we had to put on our boots, trudge out to the coop, tromp around in their poop, and refresh their water EVERY HOUR. It’s extremely challenging to keep up with this schedule even if you work from home. Our water source was about 100 feet away from the hens, which means that the water in our black rubber hose (90% exposed to the sun) heats up a lot and comes out at a scalding 160 degrees. It has to be run (i.e. water wasted) for several minutes until we’ve evacuated our entire pressure tank and are drawing new (cool) water up from the well. This is because the tank and the water contained within it are in thermal equilibrium with the ambient temperature in our well-pump house, which is 100+ degrees on hot days. I think you get it by now but let me describe the scenario…

You’re outside standing in an inch of slimy stinky chicken shit and rotting grain. A cloud of biting flies buzzes aggressively around your face, which is dripping with sweat, and they make a point of trying to penetrate your lips, ears, eyes, and nose. You’re wearing leather gloves (saturated with sweat) so that you can handle a ridiculously hot garden hose, and you’re spraying scalding water into the air while trying like hell not to let it touch any of the nearby trees lest it should burn what little vegetation they have remaining on their branches after being brutalized by the summer heat and drought. After several minutes of doing this, the water finally cools down enough to start refilling the hens’ bathing basin and assorted waterers. Prior to refilling their water, you must dump out the existing warm/stale water, which creates a big sloshy mess (on top of an already big sloshy mess) in their run. This whole process takes roughly 15 minutes unless one or more hens escape from the run while you are exiting it, in which case it will require an extra 10 minutes of chicken chasing. Finally, you return to the front door of your house, drenched in sweat, exhausted, and covered in shit. You rush back to your computer to get some work done before you have to repeat this entire process 45 minutes later. You do this 10–12 times a day, every day, Monday to Sunday. But, if the hens have an air-conditioned coop, you might only have to do it four or five times a day (because the water in their coop will stay cool).

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Alex Niemi

I'd write more if I didn't spend all of my time coding.