Yes, here it is, at last and by popular demand: the ‘How to Choose Your Bird’ edition. Please note that this is in no way a comprehensive guide, but it should serve to support you in making your decision about how to start your flock.
There are essentially four ways you can get started with your backyard flock. Fertile eggs, day-old chicks, started pullets and laying hens. I’ll cover those here, with my own personal thoughts on each. I will also discuss some of the ways to get your chickens (at whatever age you choose).
Fertile Eggs: To hatch these eggs you need a broody hen or an incubator. Assuming you don’t have the former, incubators range greatly in type and cost. If you are not good at routine, I’d go for one that automatically turns the eggs. We have only one type in stock at cluck! but there are often incubators available second hand through craigslist. Some folks incubate with friends and this works out well if you have to buy a large number of eggs from your source.
Pros: you can choose your breed(s), you know how they are raised and you are involved in the entire process of raising a bird.
Cons: eggs may not hatch, a percentage will be roosters. Even with an auto-incubator, you have work to do! You must be committed to the process demanded of your specific incubator.
Timing: typically eggs will hatch in 21 days.
Expense: egg cost depends on breed, but can be as little as free to a couple of dollars each. Incubators can be affordable to very expensive depending on features.
Chicks (usually referred to as “day-old chicks:” Once you have the chicks, you have to care for them with precision-no vacationing or extended periods away. You’ll need a brooder set up with a light, a feeder and a drowning-proof watering set-up. And patience-you’ll need that too. And you must be prepared for health issues (‘pasting up’ for example, when a chick cannot poop it is almost always fatal if not caught in time). In the event that you have a straight run of chicks, you must be prepared for what to do with the roosters if you live in an area where roosters are not allowed. And, even if roosters are allowed where you live, depending on flock size, you may hatch too many for your hen/rooster ratio.
Pros: As with fertile eggs, you get to watch the whole process, choose your breed(s) and know that the chickens you keep have been well taken care of. Some say this results in a “nicer” bird, more familiar to humans, but I think that is somewhat magical thinking (more on that when we discuss breeds).
Cons: some loss (during transit and once you have them) is likely and, if you buy straight-run, you have a 50% chance of having roosters. You can sometimes, for a bit more money per bird, buy sexed birds (usually hatcheries only and some chance of mis-sexing does exist) or sex-links. Most hatcheries (and most breeders) have minimum chick orders and that minimum may be too many for you alone.
Timing: to go outside, weather dependent, 8 weeks is usually safe-assuming secure housing and ample “feathering in.” Determining sex takes a bit longer, up to three months (although you may suspect sooner!).
Started/ Started and Sexed Pullets: These young birds pick up where those of you who raise them from fertile egg or day-old chick leave off and it is by far my personal favorite way to acquire new birds. When acquiring started and sexed pullets, there are no rooster surprises, the birds can be out in the coop and you get to enjoy them while you wait for their first egg! A more immediately expensive endeavor than others, but if you do the math on what it costs to raise birds from fertile egg or chick, the price makes perfect sense, and may even seem like a steal!
Pros: you know you have a female, you are close to them laying and they can go right into the coop.
Cons: if you like a process, you miss out on the baby stage. Some say you bond less with your birds (I am not sure I agree on this).
Timing: egg laying can vary with time of year (for example, pullets started closer to winter may not lay until spring), but generally, hens lay at six to eight months.
Expense: started pullets can go for as little as five dollars to as much as thirty-five or forty (or more, if you are getting a rare breed). Once you know what goes in to raising young birds and factor in the rooster problem, this becomes very reasonable for the backyard chicken enthusiast.
Laying Hens: This one is pretty obvious-your eggs arrive with your new chicken and all the things discussed above are behind you (for better or worse).
Pros: You choose the bird fully-grown, you know what you are getting.
Cons: Laying hens can be hard to find and you have to be careful about taking a hen that someone is getting rid of. Why are they getting rid of the hen? Chances are good that the birds are slowing down in their laying.
A little more detail about where to get them:
Most fertile eggs come from hatcheries or private breeders (online or in person). Chicks (even most of those you buy at a store) come from hatcheries. Some hatcheries also sell pullets (Please note that there are lots of politics around hatcheries and this is not the forum for such discussion). I attach a list of hatcheries you may consider below. You will need to pay close attention to minimums and shipping costs. The least demanding on minimums is my pet chicken. The most exciting (and the most expensive) is Greenfire.
Feed stores carry chicks every spring. You often get a barnyard mix (or an unknown breed) but some stores are more informed and can tell you what breeds they sell. They often supply themselves from hatcheries and, less often, from local farmers and breeders.
For chicks, started pullets or hens, you can try and work directly with a farmer or breeder (this is how cluck! will be offering chicks in 2014). Craigslist and bulletin boards (at feed stores, cluck!, etc.) are a good place to start making these connections, but you have to use good judgment. You want to get chicks from a source that knows its breeds, can answer questions about vaccination (if this is what you choose) and is clearly in the business of raising chickens. If you make an appointment to pick up birds but you arrive at the location and get a bad feeling (cleanliness, knowledge, treatment-just follow you gut!). Cluck! does not recommend livestock auctions for new chicken keepers.
An anecdote about getting chickens: Our small farm’s first birds came as an adult flock from a woman who had raised them from chicks but could no longer care for them because she had to regularly travel outside RI to care for family. She turned away many people before she chose us. While time consuming, it was a perfect storm. We found her though craigslist after passing on some other “deals” that sounded bad.