New chicken owners – heads up
I recently got back in to chickens. I previously had them when I was a child (well, my family did and I helped), so I didn’t remember a LOT of things about keeping chickens. After having them for a while and relearning about them, I thought I’d share some of my re-realizations.
First and foremost, if you have a weak stomach, chickens are not for you. I’ll give you a milder example of ‘chicken gross’; You know how animals have that basic instinct of “don’t eat your own poop”? Chickens don’t have that. In fact, sometimes it will seem that they intentionally poop in their water dish. I have a theory that it may be an evolutionary thing so they can ‘own’ water sources, since nothing besides a chicken wants to drink chicken-poop flavored water. That’s about a 4 on the ‘chicken gross’ scale. I’ve seen much worse.
Second, if you are uncomfortable with playing doctor (including minor surgery), and don’t have enough money to spend on a veterinarian visit whenever one of your chickens need medical attention, chickens probably aren’t for you. There are seemingly countless ways a chicken can become sick or injured. If you can’t handle the death of a chicken, think about keeping different animals. Chickens are also very low on the food chain. Every carnivore/omnivore on the planet has chicken on the menu, including chickens (see above ‘chicken gross’ paragraph). Some of your chickens will die. It’s possible a disease or predator will cause ALL your chickens to die. The end of my youth chicken experience was caused by a bobcat getting in the coop and killing every single chicken. There were about 30. There are also diseases that can cause close to 100% mortality. As I write this, there is a very serious epidemic of Virulent Newcastle Disease in Southern California. It can cause up to 100% mortality. If your flock gets it, the government will destroy 100% of ALL birds in your care (not just chickens), and will then check every bird within a 1KM radius and possibly destroy all those birds as well. Chickens die. Having said that, chickens are also surprisingly resilient. When properly tended, they often heal quickly and continue to thrive. I have a neighbor who had to amputate a wing from a rooster (home surgery), and it made a full recovery and is still doing his rooster thing.
Now the ‘warnings’ are out of the way, let’s get on to tending chickens!
Baby chickens (chicks)
Most people will get their chickens from a feed store, or by direct mail from a hatchery. This means you will start with young chicks. There are special things that chicks need in order to survive. You will basically have to be the “chicken momma” for these little fuzz balls until they are old enough to fend for themselves. There are several things you should have lined out before you even get the chicks. They are:
- Set up a brooder – this is some sort of box/container that will house and contain the chicks. I use a plastic tote for the really young ones, then move to a larger, wire brooder when the chicks get old enough. It doesn’t really matter as long as it gives them enough room, and can be easily cleaned.
- The most important part of your brooder is warmth. Small chicks will die quickly if they chill. They are too small to regulate their own body temperature, and even “room temperature” is lethal. They will get better at temperature regulation and require less added heat as they grow, but it is critical. Most people use one of those infrared heat lamps for warmth. While they do work, they are very dangerous. They get extremely hot. If you have it too close to the chicks, it will overheat them. If the bulb breaks or falls down, it can easily start a fire (many chickens have burned to death from this). I have switched to a heating plate. They do cost a little more money, but they are lower heat, provide a place for chicks to ‘hide’, and allow the chick to control how hot or cold it gets by simply how close it gets to it. Do not use a blanket, chicks don’t generate enough of their own heat. They must have a radiant heat source.
- The next most important thing is water. If they are day-old chicks from a hatchery, they have never eaten or taken a drink. They likely will not understand what food and water is by sight alone. Chicks with a real ‘chicken momma’ will be shown what water is and will be shown what food is. The chicks would learn by example and be able to eat/drink. Since you are their ‘chicken momma’, you will need to teach them. Giving them water before feed will help prevent “pasty butt” (yes, that is what it’s called, more on that later). To teach a day-old chick how to drink, put your drinker in the brooder with them, and then one at a time, dip each chick’s beak into the water. The chick’s instinct will kick in, they will realize it’s water and something they need, and will now know where it is and what it looks like. They should be able to drink on their own from then on out. Any that didn’t get it the first time will learn by watching the other chicks get a drink.
A side-note on drinkers. Chicks can drown in small amounts of water. Chicks who get wet can die from being chilled, even in a heated brooder. Choose a drinker with that in mind. I found a galvanized metal drinker that uses a mason jar as a reservoir. This seems to work well in my brooder. It’s also easy to clean, and you will be cleaning whatever you use often.
- Food is also important. For young chicks, you will need a starter feed. Make sure whatever you buy says “starter” on it. Some people don’t like ‘medicated’ starter for “gotta be all natural” reasons, but nearly every chicken has or gets coccidiosis parasite, and the medicated starter helps prevent it from being a problem. A quick side-note about feeding your chicken “all natural” stuff; hope that not even the tiniest piece of Styrofoam ever blows within their reach. There is nothing more un-natural than Styrofoam, and chickens eat it like popcorn. No matter what you do, your chickens WILL eat un-natural things, unless you have them in an enclosure that would make the ‘bubble boy’ say, “wow, that’s extreme”. A little medicine when they are young is not going to negatively affect their health or their meat/eggs. Not having the medicine can negatively affect them by allowing the coccidiosis parasite to grow, causing symptoms (which include death). Choose a feeder wisely. You have seen chickens scratching at the ground. This is an instinct that is present even in day-old chicks. If you put it in a flat dish, the feed will be quickly scattered everywhere, including in the water. I have found a galvanized feeder that uses a mason jar as a reservoir. It has several round openings that allow the chicks to peck at the feed without allowing them to ‘scratch’ at it. The feed still gets a little messy, but it does a pretty good job of containing it.
- Your brooder must protect your chicks from dangers. These include predators (your cat, dog, birds, snakes, etc…). It must protect them from your children. It must protect them from anything that will intentionally or unintentionally harm them.
- Get used to poop. You will deal with it daily. Keep your brooder clean. Some people put down pine shavings as bedding, some put down newspaper. Whatever you use, be sure to change it often. Daily is best. You will need a separate, temporary brooder to put the chicks in while you clean.
Speaking of poop, read up on “pasty butt”. You will find a lot of information on it on the internet. It is a common affliction in young chicks. It can start fast, and kill the chick in less than a day. Examine every chick a couple times a day for the first few weeks to make sure you catch any cases early. The sooner you fix it, the better chance the chick has of surviving. The older the chicks are, the less likely they will get pasty butt. Having your day-old chicks drink lukewarm water before you feed for the first time helps prevent it. If you bought your chicks from a feed store, they have already drank water and have eaten.Grow, baby, grow!
Most chicks grow quickly. Different breeds grow at different rates, so if you bought different breeds, you may have birds the same age that are very different sizes. Right now in my brooder, I have three “easter-eggers” (crosses between the Araucana and something else), and three Buff Orpingtons. The Easter-eggers are 21 days old, while the Buff Orpingtons are 15 days old. The Easter-eggers are easily 3 times the size of the Buff Orpingtons, and already have a lot more feathers. It’s not just the six days difference, but the breed makes a difference. The Buff Orpingtons are the size the Easter-eggers were when they were 7 days old.
When chicks are born, they are covered with down feathers. It’s appears more like a fuzz than feathers. They will start growing feathers almost immediately, and you will be able to watch their progress. Feathers seem to grow on wings and tails fastest. In about 6 weeks (depending on breed), they will be ‘fully feathered’ by having all their downy feathers replaced by regular feathers. At this point, the chicks can do a much better job at regulating their body temperature and will need little, if any, external heat. They are typically ready to live outside. Since you are reading this as a ‘new’ chicken owner, or a soon-to-be new chicken owner, I’m not going to talk about integrating new birds with existing birds. However, if you do have existing birds, read up on how to integrate them, because it can be lethal.
So now your chickens are ‘grown’ and ready to live outside. Let’s talk about their new needs.
Their biggest need is a home. You will provide that by either buying or making a chicken coop. There are different schools of thought on how a coop should be constructed, but all theories include a couple common requirements:
- Coop must be able to keep out predators
- Coop must be free from drafts (breezes that will directly hit the chickens)
- Coop must be well ventilated – this confused me at first. How can it be draft-free and well ventilated? Well, when chickens sleep, they poop. A LOT. In their poop is nasty stuff, like ammonia. The heat from their warm bodies will usually cause an up-draft that will take the nasty gasses up with it. A coop needs multiple vents near the ceiling of the coop that will allow these dangerous gasses to escape. Having the vents up high will make sure the only breezes are up high, and don’t reach the chickens on the perches. This makes it draft-free and ventilated.
- Coop must have perches
Perches: My personal thoughts on coop requirements include all of the above, but also for perches, use 2x4 lumber, sand it smooth so there are no chances of splinters (this will cause bumble-foot and either you being a surgeon or you taking the bird to a vet). Make sure the 2x4 is ‘flat’, meaning the 4” wide side is the side they stand on. They are not like the tweety birds that like round perches, they are a ground bird that walks on flat ground all day and tend to be more comfortable with their feet on a more flat surface. I have experimented with the 2x4 on its side and ‘flat’. Mine have always preferred ‘flat’. Perches must also be higher than the highest nesting box, or the chickens will perch inside the nesting boxes (this is bad, chickens poop A LOT while they sleep). They want to perch as high as they can. For younger (smaller) birds, it is a good idea to include some type of ramp they can use to reach the perches. My mature hens (and rooster) just jump/fly from the ground up to the perches, which are about 2’ off the ground. None have used the ramp since they were small. Offset the perches to make sure that the sleeping/pooping chickens won’t poop on chickens that are on lower perches.
Heat: Do not heat the coop unless you live in truly extreme temperatures and have a breed that can’t handle the cold. Most chicken breeds are cold tolerant, if they can acclimate themselves. Some are not. Where I live, it gets down to -15° in the winter, and up to 108° in the summer. They get used to the cold in the winter and can find shade in the summer. If I heated the coop, and one winter night the power went out, the drastic temperature differences could kill them. Just be sure to read up on the breed of chickens you have (or plan to get) to see how well they can handle the temperatures where you live.
Nesting boxes: I also have nesting boxes inside the coop. They say 1 nesting box per 3-6 birds, but I have six boxes and currently 5 hens. They use two of the six boxes. They will stand there clucking at another chicken for 30 minutes waiting to use their favorite nesting box instead of using the one right next to it. Sometimes, they will try to get in the nesting box with the hen, and sometimes they will bully the hen into getting out of the nesting box so they can use it. Chickens are weird.
Ground level coops: I also believe in putting the entire coop off the ground. I custom built my coop. It is 6’X8’ and sits 2’ off the ground on stilts. It is also 8’ tall on the inside. Having the coop off the ground means it is much harder for predators, parasites, mice, etc… to get established. A skunk can burrow. So can a coyote. My coop is built similar in construction to my house. Skunks and coyotes can’t get into my house, and they can’t get in to my coop. Mice don’t like my coop because there are no good hiding spots. They can’t run under the floorboards, because then they drop two feet to the cold ground. I have a wood floor, and I found some cheap linoleum at Lowe’s to cover the floor. This allows me to sweep and mop out the chicken poop.
Chicken run, it’s not just a movie: You will need a ‘run’ for your coop. A ‘run’ is just a fenced off area around the coop the chickens can roam around in. If you plan on always having your chickens locked up, make the absolute biggest possible run you can. There are formulas for minimum space, but I can tell you now, the bigger the space, the happier the chicken. You can get away with the ‘minimum’ if you will free-range your chickens. Free ranging is letting them roam around outside the run. Chickens know where home is and will return to the coop at night in most cases. Free ranging gives you the happiest chickens, but will also give you the most headaches. My chickens like to visit my neighbors. They are also exposed to neighborhood dogs, hawks, coyotes, etc… while they free range. Occasionally, you’ll have one that decides it’s time to hatch out some babies and will find a secret laying spot, causing you to go on an Easter egg hunt. Occasionally, you’ll get some that decide to go rogue, and not roost in the coop. When either of these happen, I just don’t let them out of the run for two days (three nights). It resets where they think they need to sleep and lay, and they are good for a while. This is why you need a run, even the minimum size. When you first put your birds in the coop, do it at night, and set them on their perches. Then, don’t let them free range for at least two more nights. I usually make sure they find their way back to the perches on the second and third nights, and place them there if they didn’t get there themselves. This will set their brains on where ‘home’ is, and they will return to their coop at night.
Food and water: You will need to provide water and feed for them. I don’t have a waterproof feeder, so I have my feeder inside my coop. I am planning on getting a waterproof feeder so I can keep the feed in the run. Feed in the coop invites mice and insects into the coop. I have the water in the run. I let my birds have access to food and water 24/7. They don’t overeat. Since I free range, the feed I give my birds is supplemental. They will forage first, then come eat the feed to top off. Speaking of free-ranging and eating, I mentioned earlier that a chicken will eat Styrofoam. I don’t know why, but they absolutely LOVE it. I have no idea if it is harmful to them, but if you free-range, be sure to do a quick patrol daily for Styrofoam that may have blown into their realm. I get soda cups that have ridden the wind quite often, and I usually find them with little beak-shaped triangle pieces missing from them. Chickens are weird. For feed, be sure you feed them a complete grower feed if they aren’t of laying age, or a complete layer feed if they are. Scratch is not a complete feed and should be used in small amounts only for treats.
Drinkers: Chickens will poop in their water. Chickens are gross. Like I said, I think they might do it on purpose. In any drinker that does not have an actual valve, the poop will not only permeate through the entire drinking area, it will also get into the reservoir. I gave up on the gravity-fed drinkers, because I was having to clean them daily. I now use a 5-gallon bucket with drinking cups at the bottom. The drinking cups have valves that close, and when the valves open, water flows out. This prevents any of the cups with poop to contaminate the rest of the bucket. It also means there are small, individual pools of water, so if one does get pooped in, it only contaminates that cup. I have two styles, one that only releases water when the chicken pushes on a lever in the cup, and one that will keep the cup filled to a certain level. I use the lever ones in the winter, since they take longer to freeze, and the one that fills the cups in the summer so the girls can dip their wattles in the water to help cool off.
Speaking of poop… Whatever you have on the floor of your coop, it needs to be cleaned often. I clean mine weekly, and probably should do it more often. Make sure you have something easily cleaned on your coop floor. Excess poop will attract flies, parasites, and other nasty things you don’t want, like city officials citing you for a nuisance. Many places have restrictions on chickens, so be sure you are aware. My city doesn’t allow a coop to be stinky.
Dust Baths: Chickens use dirt to clean themselves. Yes, it sounds like an oxymoron, but it works. They need dirt to dig up and throw all over themselves. If they free range, they will find a spot, usually exactly where you don't want them to. If you keep them in the run all the time, you will need to provide the dirt for them. The internet has many suggestions on different 'blends' of dirt for dust bathing if you keep them in the run.
All grown up
So your chickens are full grown, and living in the coop. What now?
Eggs: Once a hen reaches maturity, she will lay eggs. This ‘maturity’ point depends on a lot of things. Many breeds reach that point around 16-20 weeks. Some take longer. My only ‘pet’ chicken didn’t lay until she was closer to 8 months, while all the others were laying by the end of month 5. Laying eggs is natural to your chickens. Laying them in the nesting boxes might not be. You can buy ‘fake’ eggs to put in the nests to give them an example, but usually chickens think golf balls are eggs, so you can use those as fake eggs. Be sure to have some type of padding as nesting materials. Chickens drop the egg from their vent while standing up! They will sit there for about an hour until it’s ready to pop out, then stand up to get it out, then sit on it for several minutes afterwards. If there is a hard bottom to the nest, you will risk the egg cracking. If the egg cracks, the chicken (or other chickens) will eat it. That can lead to a bird being an “egg eater”, which is a habit that is usually only cured by eating the egg eater.
Your chickens do not need a rooster to lay eggs. They will still produce beautiful, tasty, hard-shelled eggs. Your chicken’s breed will determine the color of egg they lay. There is no nutritional or flavor difference between white/brown/blue/green/chocolate eggs or between fertilized/unfertilized eggs. There have been scientific studies about that statement that prove it correct. Many cities do not allow roosters, so it’s a good thing your girls will still produce amazing eggs!
Roosters: If you free range, and are allowed, it is beneficial to have a rooster. A rooster will allow you to hatch your own babies, but the best thing about roosters is their leadership. Roosters live for their hens. If they find amazing food, they will call their hens over to eat it with them. They will help keep the social order of the hens and stop fights between them. One of the best things about a rooster is that he will literally lay down his life in order to protect his hens. He will fight off anything he can, and die trying to fight off anything he can’t. This sacrifice will often allow the hens to escape to safety. This is also the downside to a rooster. A rooster isn’t the best judge of character, so they tend to err on the side of things being a threat. This means that he can mistake you for a threat. It also means he can mistake your kids for a threat. Some roosters are just mean assholes that will attack anything and everything that moves. Some roosters are sweethearts and know you are the one that brings them tasty things he gets to share with his hens. While different breeds have different ‘typical’ rooster temperaments, there are always the ones that stray from typical. You could have an Old English Game Cock (know for aggressiveness) that is a total sweetheart. You could also have a Buff Orpington (known for its gentleness and friendliness to humans) that will try to kill you every chance it gets. However, different breeds are known for their different temperaments for a reason. Study up on different breeds and pick according to your needs. My Buff Orpington rooster keeps his distance from me, but knows I bring treats, food, and water, so he still comes running to see what I have whenever he sees me, always hoping for some grapes! If you get a rooster that is aggressive, there are many theories on how to make them less aggressive, but my theory is there are plenty of gentle roosters, and aggressive roosters taste good.
Roosters are noisy. Occasionally giving a dozen fresh eggs to neighbors will help them be less annoyed with a rooster. There are also “crow collars” that are a specially designed Velcro collar that doesn’t allow them to crow as loudly as normal. There are also more extreme methods to control crowing, but you can find those in a Google search.
The ratio of roosters to hens is subject to debate. I believe it depends on what your goals for the roosters are. If you are planning on breeding, a rooster can only copulate with so many hens. Too high of a ratio means a greater chance of infertile eggs. Having too many roosters in a flock means too many fights for dominance. Be sure to read up on the different thought processes about the number of roosters to decide how many you should have.
Chicken. It’s what’s for dinner. Wait, that’s from the beef council, but it is more accurate with chickens. ANYTHING that is a carnivore or omnivore will eat a chicken and be happy to have eaten it. This does include other chickens! Coyotes, dogs, cats, skunks, minx, foxes, raccoons, weasels, bobcats, mountain lions, hawks, owls, eagles, goats, sheep, horses, and maybe even aggressive squirrels, just to name a small number of things that like to eat chicken. I’m serious about the goats, sheep and horses. I’ve seen videos of it! When you build your coop and run, be sure to consider what might want to eat your chickens. I laid down ¼” hardware cloth under the ground of my run, followed by a 4’ high fence of hardware cloth with a 3’ high section of 1” chicken wire above it making 7’ high sides, topped off with a ceiling of 1” chicken wire. My posts are close together, and all sections of fence are wired together. The floor hardware cloth is wired to the sides, the side hardware cloth is wired to the top layer of chicken wire, and the ceiling chicken wire is wired to the sides. I have MANY neighbors who don’t follow leash laws, so I get their dogs in my yard. I also am on the very edge of town, which means that I get deer, elk, coyotes, skunks, foxes, more coyotes, hawks, eagles, coyotes, owls, and to top it all off, coyotes in my back yard on a daily basis. I frequently get bobcats. Bears and mountain lions have been seen in my neighborhood. I built a run and coop that would hopefully protect them from most of those predators, although it would take a lot to stop a hungry bear.
You’ve built a strong coop and run. You have a rooster to protect your hens. You do everything right, so nothing is going to happen to your chickens, right? Wrong. If you own chickens, you will eventually deal with an injury or illness. If you have chickens, injuries and illnesses are as inevitable as chicken poop. It will happen, and usually at the least convenient times. There will be predator attacks, bumble foot, pecking injuries, respiratory infections, fowl pox, avian influenza, scorpion stings, and a multitude of other issues. When these happen, you need to act quickly to give your chicken the best chance of survival, or to humanely end its suffering.
Many issues can be effectively treated if caught in time. Pay attention to your flock. If something seems “off”, it probably is. Chickens will naturally try to hide any injury or illness from not only you, but the flock. Chickens are ruthless. For example, an open wound on a chicken will draw the attention of the rest of the flock, who will then peck at it until they have killed the injured bird. This means they are hiding injuries and illnesses to save their own lives. If you suspect anything at all, investigate.
If something happens, and you are fortunate enough to be able to afford a vet visit, and you are fortunate enough to find a vet that treats chickens, lucky you. The rest of us will have to deal with the injury or illness ourselves. There are chicken medical books. There are websites for chicken owners. There are Facebook groups for chicken owners. There are many resources you can use to help diagnose and treat your chicken’s ailments. Use them. Find them in advance, so you don’t have to try to find them in a chicken emergency. I have found collective knowledge of online chicken groups to be very thorough. Other chicken raisers can help you figure out what you’re up against and give you advice on what to do.
You’ve heard of the “pecking order”. It comes from chickens. There is a status hierarchy even if there are just two chickens. One chicken is always ‘the boss’. That chicken will peck any other chicken that does anything to displease them. The second in line will peck any other chicken, except the boss. The next will peck any below it, but none above. All the way down to the chicken at the bottom of the pecking order, who doesn’t peck anyone, but gets pecked by all. This pecking order is the basis of the entire chicken social order and determines everything from who eats first to where they sleep at night.
If chickens are raised together from a young age, this pecking order is figured out very early and only makes minor changes throughout the flock’s life. Once in a while, a bird will realize it doesn’t want to be pecked by a certain bird, and will be aggressive enough with that bird to re-arrange the pecking order. This usually involves minor incidences. However, there are times big incidences occur, and there are times the pecking order becomes lethal.
Every rooster wants to be the top of the pecking order. If you have one, it usually ends up at the top. If you have two, you will have conflict. Like most animals, males will occasionally challenge for dominance. A young rooster will challenge the flock leader for leadership. This isn’t a one-fight-and-it’s-over challenge either. It generally takes a war between them, until the weaker rooster is finally convinced he cannot win. Want to know who the top rooster is? It’s the one that crows first.
The pecking order can become very lethal. This generally happens when you introduce new birds to your flock. Chickens are said to be the closest living thing to a tyrannosaurus rex, and you’ll believe it when you introduce new flock members. For one, chickens don’t like outsiders. Any bird you introduce will be an outsider for quite a while. The established birds will want to run this chicken off or kill it if they can’t run it off. Once the bird is finally accepted as part of the flock, its pecking order will have to be established, and that can be dangerous as well. There are many opinions on introducing new birds to a flock, so be sure you research and come up with a plan before you attempt it. One thing everyone can agree on is not to just chuck new birds in with established birds. It takes preparation and time to successfully introduce new members to the flock.
Speaking of adding birds. It does not matter if they are babies. Chickens ONLY have a maternal instinct for chicks they have personally hatched. It does not matter if they are that hen’s biological babies you hatched in an incubator, if she didn’t sit on it until it busted free from its shell, she will not think of it as hers. If you throw a baby in with hens, the hens WILL kill it… quickly. Having said that, there are tricks you can use, but it involves a broody hen and very, very young chicks. Even then, she may kill the chicks.
The pecking order is brutal. You must let it happen, and only interfere if blood is drawn. Otherwise, you will extend the process and likely make it more violent. Provide places for birds to hide. Provide multiple feeders and waterers. This will allow birds to escape and hide, and sneak a quick bite and drink during this process.
Be very careful separating flock members. If a chicken is separate from the flock for more than a couple days, the flock will view them as an outsider. This means fights, pecking order re-establishment, and possibly death. Sometimes it’s required to separate a bird in order to treat it. If it’s not a contagious disease you are treating, be sure to let that bird be seen by the flock daily. I have a wire dog crate I will put an injured bird in so she can be ‘with’ the flock, without the flock pecking at her injuries. This makes sure she is kept as a member of the flock. If separation is required (contagious diseases), you will have to reintroduce the bird just as if it’s a bird the flock has never seen before.
If you have just a few chickens, identification may not be a problem. It might be easy enough to learn their minor variations in appearance and behavior without some alternative identification method. However, if you have a multiple of the same breeds, identification gets much harder. I had two chickens of the same breed. One was already a hen, the other I raised from a chick. For the longest time, it was easy to tell them apart. The younger one was smaller. Then, she grew to about the same size, and I had to look at their combs to tell the difference. The younger bird’s comb was much smaller. Now, the pullet has turned into a hen, her comb has grown, and the only way I can tell them apart is their behavioral differences. The younger one is a pet and wants to be picked up. The other does not. If it weren’t for that, it would be extremely difficult to tell them apart. Now imagine having five hens that all look exactly alike. It is very unlikely you will be able to easily tell them apart. It’s a good idea to establish an identification method. There are several available. Toe punching and wing bands involve small, generally harmless injuries to the birds. Toe punching leaves holes in the webbing between the toes as a means of identification. There are 16 different toe punch identities (if you count “no punches” as one), so unless it is used with a secondary method, it is limited. However, toe punches won’t “fall off” and leave you wondering which bird it is. Another method is wing band. This involves a metal band on the wing that pierces the large, thin flap of skin on the wing. The bands can be engraved with all sorts of information. The method I use is leg banding.
There are two types of leg banding I know of. Number banding and color banding. They can be used separately, or together. I just use color banding since my flock is small. There are specifically made leg bands designed for chickens, or you can use zip ties. I use zip ties.
Before you decide to use zip ties, be aware there are dangers with zip ties. In adult birds, zip ties can get hung up on random things, essentially trapping your chicken. I have not had this happen personally, but I have heard others say it has happened to them. In chicks and young chickens, their legs can (and will) outgrow the zip ties. If unmanaged, the leg will grow around the zip tie, causing serious harm to the bird. In fully grown birds, make sure the zip ties are loose, but not too loose. Be sure to check them on at least a monthly basis to make sure they are not a problem. Even if it has not been a problem for a year, still check, because problems can still arise. In chicks, I leave the zip tie very loose. In fact, I put it on loose enough that I could easily slip it off their foot. You don’t have to worry about that happening, because chickens don’t naturally close their toes small enough for it to fall off. You will get a good idea of how loose you can leave it after doing it a few times. The extra room allows the chick to rapidly grow, without its leg growing in to the zip tie. Be sure to check a couple times a week on growing chicks, because their size changes rapidly.
With zip ties, you can use many combinations to identify specific birds. With colored zip ties, you are not just limited to the few colors, you can put two bands on a leg. You can put bands on each leg. You can come up with many different combinations to mean what you want them to mean. For example, every rooster (or cockerel) has a black band on its left leg, and a colored band to show parentage. The right leg is for individual identification. On my hens and pullets, I use the left leg to show parentage, and the right leg to show individual identification. Look around the internet and get ideas of how other people are using leg bands and find a method that makes sense to you.
It is very smart to keep records. I keep records of hatch dates, breed, appearance (color), father, mother, name, leg band colors, behavioral instances, injuries, illnesses, eggs laid, temperament, when they go broody, how many eggs they sat on, how many hatched, if I broke their broodiness, identification picture, date of death, and cause of death. I add items I track when I come across things I think I need to track. You don’t have to track all of that, but I would strongly suggest you keep track of approximate hatch date, name, leg band colors, injuries, and illnesses. This will make sure you identify the bird correctly, know their medical history, and how old the bird is. My records allow me to get a bigger picture of a bird and decide if I want to hatch their babies as additions to my flock or not. For example, if I have a hen that lays 6-7 days a week during the summer, and 4-5 a week during the winter, I would rather continue with her offspring than a hen that lays 5-6 days a week during the summer, and 3-4 days a week during the winter (or even stops laying in the winter). Maybe you have a hen that is a spectacular mother, and a hen that can’t raise a brood to save her own life, it would make the flock stronger to hatch babies from the good mother instead of the bad mother. Records allow you to better tend your flock and improve your flock, no matter what your goals are.
So those are the basics. It’s all stuff I wish I had already known before I ever got my first chick. Hopefully they will help you start the rewarding adventure of chicken ownership.