I get asked questions about the chickens more often than anything else. And I always try to reply to people, and these replies often duplicate each other because people ask me the same thing… so here it is, distilled into one post – my top 5 beginners’ tips for keeping chickens (including ‘do chickens eat ants?’). There are lots more than five, but things would get too long. So I’ll write another post if enough people read this one.

If you’ve just got some chickens and are feeling a little foolish because you don’t know what to do then – welcome to the club. I wrote about my inept and bumbling early chicken-keeping attempts in my book Sex and Bowls and Rock and Roll – go find it on Amazon for the ideal gift for the would-be chicken keeper in your life.

Tip 1 – chickens just get on with it.

I mean, I know we worry about feeding them and stuff, and we’re probably right to – but essentially, as long as they’ve got something to eat and something to drink, and somewhere to hang out in, they’re quite happy pecking around and doing their own thing. Honestly – they can live with that water that’s left from yesterday. They’re chickens. So don’t worry if you’re occasionally going to be too busy in the morning to perform the full maid service.

Tip 2 – what do chickens eat? Everything.

Frankly, there is only one thing that chickens don’t eat. That’s chicken food. Everything else you put out for them will be devoured. Chickens are the piranha fish of the bird community, and will attack anything that looks vaguely edible with a frightening enthusiasm. If you want them to eat their chicken food then don’t put anything else out for them until later. And even then, they’ll probably hold off from eating the stuff that’s good for them, and give you a bit of a look. It’s a game of wills.

Tip 3 – no really, what do chickens eat?

Er – well, everything out of the fridge that’s gone out of date, all the scrapings off the plates (if there are any) and anything else that happens to be lying around. (They love cheese rind, and bacon fat is an all-time favourite). You’re not meant to feed them meat if you’re selling their eggs – but this is more to do with combatting evil battery soylent-green type operations than dictating to a man with a couple of chickens. Chickens eat ants. And ants are meat.

Thinking about it, my chickens don’t like red peppers, mushrooms or carrots. And it goes without saying that you should not feed them chicken. They love left-over Chinese takeaway, sweetcorn and spaghetti. Watching chickens eat spaghetti is one of the great pleasures in life.

Tip 4 – get cheap straw.

Do not go to the pet shop for your straw (or indeed anything else). It is financial suicide. Pet shops are for buying parrots in, and wheels for your hamster. Go to your nearest farm and ask politely if you can buy a bale of the stuff. They are farmers, and will have some, and will want to sell it to you, as they’re self-employed and you will probably give them cash. Then lob it in the boot (or put it on the roof-rack of your Smart Car, if you are an Eglu owner) and it’ll last you for months.

Edit! – Nik in the comments points out that shredded paper is an excellent free straw substitute, if you have a shredder, and some paper.

Tip 5 – build a chicken run yourself.

Chickens don’t need anything magical – just a reasonably cosy place to live, like the rest of us. There are loads of cheap chicken houses available online – they often come flat packed and so you will have the pleasure and enjoyment of working out how side panel (B) fits to egg box (C2). The ‘run’ is just any area in which you’d like the chickens to remain. You can build it yourself, with bits of wood and chicken wire, or do as we did which was stand around ineffectually whilst Len the Fish did it for us.

The chicken run’s there to keep the chickens safe from predators, not to stop the chickens from wandering off. Or it should be, anyway. They’ll usually pop back to sleep and to lay an egg should you leave the door open – just be careful at night if there are foxes about. Or during the day, if you have garden plants that might look attractive to hungry chickens.

Anyway, if you build the chicken run yourself then you will be able to point to it and say ‘I built that,’ and it will probably have a ramshackle quality that will add a rustic aspect to your garden.

If you enjoyed this post, found it helpful, or are just embarking on amateur chicken-keeping yourself, then you’ll probably like my book ‘Sex and Bowls and Rock and Roll,’ which covers the time when I was new to it and utterly clueless.

42 thoughts on “Beginners tips for keeping chickens

  1. Sewmouse says:

    Thank you for these informative tips, Jonny. I do have a couple of questions.

    1) If the chicken lays an egg, will it PECK you if you try to gather said egg for a nice breakfast omelet?

    2) Are there any other things you might do that would incite a pecking incident? Are there rogue hens who peck humans indiscrimately?

    3) How much does a Len the Fish cost, and where does one obtain same?

    Inquiring mice want to know.

  2. I look forward to next week’s One Billion Recipes With Eggs.

  3. JonnyB says:

    Thank you for your enquiry, Sewmouse.

    A pecking incident can, indeed, be a distressing event. It is wise to start off with a good-natured chicken breed, as admittedly some of the wilder varieties can be a little pecky. Of the pecks reported here, most could have been avoided by taking two simple precautions:

    a) don’t wander into the chicken run waving your sandwich around like a fuckwit. The chickens will think it is for them. Victim: the Toddler.

    b) don’t poke and prod the chickens whilst they are trying to get comfy in the egg laying area. They will leave the egg laying area when they are ready, and poking and prodding will only irritate them. Victim: the Toddler.

    Len is available for coops, weddings, bar mitzvahs etc.

  4. David says:

    Our chickens will in fact eat whole mice (alive or dead). Not on a regular basis of course, just if they see one in passing. In fact I do have suspicions that the surprise death of one a few years ago was down to a mouse choking incident.

    And I did get told once to use wood shavings rather than straw as it is less likely to give them respiratory diseases. So we do. But that might just be bollocks propaganda put about by the timber industry to encourage the wholesale pillaging of native forests the world over.

    I am not showing off here but we also made our chicken house (suitable for up to 6 hens) using a book borrowed from the local library. Wouldn’t do it again mind. You will probably save time and money by just buying one off the shelf.

    nb. Don’t forget to get some grit (unless you have a very gravelly field / garden / tarmac playground / other chicken area)

    nnb. Real chicken lovers don’t approve of eglus. You can literally see the other chickens and birds in the area pointing and laughing as the chickens go home to bed. If you have never seen the face of an emabarrassed chicken then buy them an eglu.

  5. JonnyB says:

    Excellent input, David. I have high hopes for the expertise of this comments thread. The dignity of chickens is a major factor and may (see comment #1) be a contributory factor in pecking incidents.

    Do you have any idea where I can get wooden egg boxes cheaper than I do now? They are really expensive, but I read in ‘Wood Review Monthly’ that they shield against salmonella rays.

  6. guyana gyal says:


    Should chicken owners give their chickens names? If so, what kind of names? Please don’t say ‘Chicken Licken’.

  7. Phil says:

    How many birds in how big a run, and do you say ‘birds’ or is that a dreadful townie solecism? I’ve always wondered about this since reading Reginald’s thoughts on the matter –

    Imagine the other day, just when I was doing my best to understand half the things I was saying, being asked by one of those seekers after country home truths how many fowls she could keep in a run ten feet by six, or whatever it was! I told her whole crowds, as long as she kept the door shut, and the idea didn’t seem to have struck her before; at least, she brooded over it for the rest of dinner.

  8. JonnyB says:

    Guyana Gyal – that is an excellent question. The key is: no puns. You can call hens anything you like, but nobody will respect you if they have names like ‘Princess Layer’, ‘Hen Livingstone’ etc.

    Phil: I prefer ‘chickens’ to birds, otherwise you can get them confused with sparrows etc.

    You should get as many as you like, and give them as much space as you can, just to be specific.

  9. Just because the current fashionable flu happens to be Swine rather than Avian, don’t imagine you’re off the hook, Jonny. When the inevitable doomsday dawns, you will still be dragged out and butchered by your hacking, shivering, rotting neighbours seeking bloody revenge before their strength fails them.

    Mind you, much more Sunday morning banjo practice and you won’t need to wait on the flu for that…

  10. JonnyB says:

    Thank you for your question, Ivan.

    Avian flu shall be back!!! Like digital watches, the Zombies and Prawn Cocktail.

  11. Z says:

    I am entranced. Truly. First you display a deep feeling for chickens – chickens have been an important part of our life for the last couple of decades and my husband sometimes snatches my plate away if I just pause between mouthfuls, assuming that I’ve finished eating and that he can give the rest of my meal to his little darlings. Then Phil quotes Saki. I could hardly be happier.

    Our chickens are all called Girlie, unless one has a clutch of babies, when she’s called Mummy unless she happened to be broody and the eggs weren’t ones she had laid, in which case she’s Auntie. The cockerel (not that we have one this year, but usually) is called Cockie.

    I’m afraid that chickens are perfectly happy to eat chicken if they get the chance. If one is poorly, then she quite likes to be picked up for a cuddle, brought in the house and given a piece of cheese.

  12. Ceeej says:

    How do you make a chicken coop out of a book from the library? Even if you could find one big enough to house chickens in, surely the library would fine you for not taking it back on time or getting it covered in chicken poo?

    As for names, perhaps zinger, fillet and hot wings?

  13. JonnyB says:

    Ceeej, it is basic economics. Library fines are about 20p per week. So you can have a book-coop for at least a year before it becomes more expensive than even the scabbiest run.

    Z – That is a good naming convention. I like it.

  14. Zed says:

    What is a wooden egg box? Do chickens climb into a box and drop an egg? I thought it was done on straw.

    Do you lock your chickens up at night – we have a nasty, pooey fox in the neighbourhood.

    How much ‘run’ per chicken? 1m?

    Does the food that you feed the chickens affect the taste of the eggs?

    Do they need central heating during the winter?

  15. Richard says:

    Chickens lay eggs?

  16. JonnyB says:

    Golly Zed, that is a lot of questions. Move along to the ‘six questions or less’ aisle please.

    Well most coops have a special egg-laying area. The chickens might or might not respect this. Mine lay their eggs there, but also do enjoy it as a place to have a nice quiet uninterrupted shit occasionally.

    For your other questions, ‘as much space as you can’, ‘people say so but I’ve never noticed it’ and ‘no, because they can’t work the thermostat with their beaks’.

    Do they have the same sort of chickens in Belgium? I always thought Continental hens were a bit… fierce.

  17. ellie says:

    I like to eat chickens.

  18. Zed says:

    I need photos to my answer. And what to do with them in the freezing cold. And what to do with them at night.

    I’d tell you about tortoises – but then you never asked.

  19. Cliff says:

    I can’t not comment on this post which will become your top google referral, much like my “songs about rivers” one, but much more practical.

    PS. How about “Cluck Rogers”?

  20. For names I like Henrietta, Claudine and Chicken George.

  21. Indigo says:

    Ooo, about time we had a chicken post from JonnyB.

    On the evidence of the moonscape that is next door’s urban garden, where three hens have free-ranged since last May, I can tell you that the only thing they don’t eat – apparently – is dahlias. Where there used to be huge courgette plants, brussels sprouts, lettuces, nasturtiums, and so on, there is nothing but the dahlia and a small shrubby thing that I can’t identify. Or perhaps they are “leaving the best until last”.

    My chicken run (which I built) looks like something out of Steptoe and Son. “Ramshackle” is what people say about it when they are being polite. Even though I used a spirit level when banging the corner posts into the ground, one side leans inwards.

  22. Indigo says:

    Don’t most hens choose their own names?

  23. Ceeej says:

    Ahh, I understand now. I’ve never ventured into the economics section of my local library because the scary man with the dirty overcoat and elastoplast assisted spectacles lurks in that area but obviously you’re right, nobody else goes there either and the books are rather large so they’d be ideal for use as a chicken coop.

  24. When my mum was a teacher she would often hatch chicks and ducklings in an incubator at school. I remember feeding them hard-boiled eggs for a while. So the whole operation could become self-sufficient – all you need to do is teach the chickens how to use a hob and a saucepan. And an egg-timer.

  25. Pat says:

    ‘Ooo, about time we had a chicken post from JonnyB.’

    Well we’ve had it now.’

  26. Nik says:

    Tip 4: don’t bother with straw at all

    We use shredded paper. Junk mail, phone bills, fliers – anything that will fit through a £20 Office World shredder, in fact. The chickens love it. Because it’s free we can give them a ncie deep nest, which they fluff up around themselves when they settle in to lay an egg.

  27. JonnyB says:

    Cluck Rogers… Henrietta… any more of that and YOU ARE BOTH BANNED.

    Nik – that is a truly top tip, which I should have included myself. I will edit the post. I don’t have a shredder myself, but Big A over the road beds his chickens down in shredded paper, and they are all warm and cosy and stuff.

  28. spazmo says:

    Good info, Jonny. Our local municipal council recently voted to OUTLAW the keeping of chickens on residential properties. Those fascists. Now I shall never know the joys of chicken husbandry…or wifery for that matter.

    Also, do pet shops really sell wheels for hamsters? Any idea what the average cruising speed of a rolling hamster would be? Because I may have solved your transportation problem.

  29. Megan says:

    No one has asked the question I think most pressing.

    When the chickens get on a bit, or start limping and playing penuche and listening to Soft Radio do you actually…er… have to help them along out of this vale of tears? I mean, you know, what with mortality stalking all of us, even contributors to society like chickens, is there a resource for How Best To Assist Your Chickens To Suicide?

    I mean, my sister keeps chickens and family legend tells of a dark night and a hatchet (well, actually a very early morning and a newly discovered rooster with more enthusiasm than tact) but that’s all I know about the dark side of chickenry.

  30. Ric Locke says:

    Megan, no advice on proper chicken-keeping is complete without at least approaching the question should I keep chickens?

    Chickens do not make good pets. They do not come when their names are called, they are impossible to house-train, they do great damage to carpets and upholstery, and they hog the remote, flipping through channels looking for reruns of Death Cluck 2000.

    Neither are they an endangered species. It is not necessary to spend money providing coops, runs, nesting boxes, &ct., in order to insure that our grandchildren will have chickens available to lend awe to the Wonder of Nature. Attempting to increase the world supply of chickens is a good deal less beneficial to society than attempting to increase the world supply of, say, rubbish tips.

    Chickens are, on the other hand, delicious and healthful food. If the process of converting them from the animate form, running about the run or neighborhood clucking, to the savory form found on the table at dinner time disturbs you or makes you squeamish, you should definitely not keep chickens.


  31. kermit says:

    Megan, if you wait until they start yelling at the neighbourhood youth to get off the damn lawn and turn down their devil music, I’m afraid their meat won’t be much good.

    From my grandmother’s observations, I think it’s best to send them to a death panel when they reach middle age and are trying to recapture their youth. From what I remember though, my grandmother’s system involved offing them in order of least well-behaved first.

    In an attempt to teach me the ways of the world, my grandmother demonstrated once just how one can catch an unruly rooster and prepare it for soup. Needless to say, I most certainly didn’t think the episode would be just like they show you in cartoons – after decapitation, they really do get up and continue running about headless.

  32. Jennifer says:

    Am procrastinating tonight. Thought I would read a bit of the best of craigslist.

    I saw this entry and thought of you.

    i need help moving chickens

    Any advice for the poor chap on moving his chickens?

  33. JonnyB says:

    I dunno Spazmo – presumably you could wire it up to a generator etc? (the wheel, not the hamster). Then it could power your Prius or whatever they’re called.

    From the comments above, it looks as though there is an opening for a sort of chicken version of Dignitas?

  34. JonnyB says:

    Jennifer – from his problem surely it would be best to move things TO the chickens rather than vice versa.

    I like the fact that he’s given it a go. In his van. And realised that it’s not going to work…

  35. MissT says:

    I realise I am a bit late to this, but thought it was worth mentioning that my parents’ chickens so appreciate a bit of gardening. They flock around the trowel/fork/spade and love a nice bit of worm.

    They are called “The Miracles”, apart from the one called Sharon.

  36. Justine says:

    So, You Want Chickens?

    I’m cultivating cobwebs
    Collecting lint and dust
    Only doing housework
    When I absolutely must

    You see I have a reason
    For this abundance of refuse
    It’s not a very valid one
    Just some fowl excuse

    There are chickens in my garden
    I got them just to lay
    Now I find I’m captivated
    Watching them all day!!!!

    So, fair warning if you’re pondering

    And trying to bribe the spouse
    You may find yourself on telly
    On ‘How Clean is Your House?”!

  37. Martin says:

    I have 3 chickens – Doris, Elsie… and Dave.

    Dave is the boss naturally but lays far smaller eggs than the other two.

    Bloody mice are becoming an issue though – My better half really did not appreciate 3 demented chickens ripping the shit out of a little mouse!

    Any suggestions?

  38. Justine says:

    martin…clear away food/water containers at night. Keep them in a shed or something. Keep stored food in mouse proof containers. We keep our mash in plastic dustbins inside a shed. Brush up any spilled food as best you can at night or get mouse/rat proof feeders.

    Finally you could lay some traps but avoid using poison because if your chooks eat a poisoned mouse it would very likely be fatal for them.

  39. Sarsparilla says:

    I have chickens. They love especially to eat other chickens,more then anything, and if a cat or the flu takes out a baby chicken, they seem to enjoy pecking out their young baby’s brains the very most.

    Just wanted to share that.

  40. Rachel says:


    I have no grass in my garden, just patio slabs.

    Is this suitable to keep chickens on?


  41. JonnyB says:

    Hullo Rachel,

    They’d have eaten the grass within a couple of days anyway. My view is that it will be fine as long as you a) keep everything clean, as droppings etc will just sit on the top otherwise, and b) add a few features of interest for them to play with, as they won’t be able to do much digging and/or pecking. Maybe put some shingle down?

    What do other people think?

Comments are closed.