Frequently Asked Questions

 Q: What's the difference between a chicken, a hen and a rooster? 

A: A hen is a female chicken. A rooster is a male chicken. Both are chickens. 

 

Q: Do you need a rooster for eggs?


A: No. Hens lay eggs with or without a rooster. Roosters are needed only for hens to produce fertilized eggs. But like humans, females produce eggs whether or not they are fertilized. Eggs typically available for sale are unfertilized. 


Q: Are hens noisy?


A: When people say chickens are noisy, they are thinking of roosters, not hens. Roosters make a lot of noise, but hens are generally quiet. They make soft clucking sounds, which are usually about the same volume as a normal human conversation, and much quieter than barking dogs or common wild house sparrows. Their loudest cluck is when they lay an egg, and they never make noise at night, because they go to sleep when it's dark out. Prince George's Hens is only interested in allowing residents to keep backyard hens, not roosters.

 

Q: Do hens smell?

A: Just like any properly kept household pets, properly kept backyard hens will not smell bad. Hens need to have their coop cleaned, though not as frequently as a cat's litter box or even a hamster's cage. The amount of manure produced by six hens is roughly equivalent to the waste produced by a 40-pound dog. And unlike dog or cat waste, hen manure is not harmful and can be easily composted into valuable garden fertilizer. 

 

Q: Where do hens live?

A: In a hen house! Most people keep hens in a small hen house / coop in their backyard. There are many commercial varieties, but many pet owners build their own. A hen house consists of a bed, an indoor space to keep dry and move around in, and a larger, enclosed area for them to run around in, known as a run. 

 

Q: Why do people keep backyard hens, and how common is it?

A: More and more communities have been relaxing their zoning laws to allow hens to be kept as pets in urban and suburban areas. Many people find chickens to be charming, lovable companions. They are particularly great for families who can't have cats or dogs due to allergies. Also, as part of the growing awareness in this country of living “green”, many people are interested in growing at least some of their own food. Many already have a vegetable garden, and raising chickens for eggs, pest control, and garden fertilizer is the next step.

Backyard chickens are legal in Baltimore City; Gaithersburg; Chevy Chase; Annapolis; Howard County, MD; Herndon, VA; Charlottesville, VA; Dover, DE; Durham, NC; Charlotte, NC; Cleveland, OH; Atlanta, GA; Los Angeles, CA; Seattle, WA; Brooklyn, NY; and New York, NY - and that's just a short list of the MANY cities around the country that allow hens. (Yep, that's right - hens are legal in Manhattan!)

 

Q: Do I have enough room for a hen?

A tidy suburban coop




A: Most urban or suburban backyards offer more than enough space to keep a couple of hens. Different varieties of hens also need varying amounts of space. Bantam hens, which are smaller, need less space than full-sized ones. Ideally, you want at least 4 square foot of coop space and 10 square foot of run space per bird. There are lots of online resources for backyard hen owners such as www.mypetchicken.com that provide more information on space needs.

 

Q: Do hens get lonely? 

A: It's not entirely clear, but they are social animals, and most people keep more than one. 

 

Q: Will hens attract predators or pests?


A: There are many natural predators in the area such as foxes, hawks, and raccoons. But people keeping backyard hens have every interest in making sure their hens are kept safe. That's why Prince George's Hens recommends guidelines for owners to keep hens in predator-proof, yet humane, enclosures. Guidelines for safe enclosures are readily available to potential hen owners. 

 

Q: Can hens survive a winter?


A: Yes. Some breeds are known for their cold-hardiness, including the many heritage breed chickens bred in New England in the 1800s. These hens can easily survive a winter in Maryland. Less hardy breeds are susceptible to frostbite, especially of the combs. Hence, for those breeds it is important to insulate the hen house, provide a heat source (including even an incandescent light bulb), and ensure that their water does not freeze, which may be accomplished with a heated dog-bowl, a bird-bath de-icer, a heat lamp, or an ordinary light bulb over the water container.


 

Q: What do hens eat? 


A: They will eat just about anything! Commercial poultry feeds (regular and organic) are available, or you can make your own mix. People feed their backyard hens corn, oats, wheat, rye, soy, fresh greens and weeds from the garden, table scraps, worms, and bugs. Hens will "mow" your grass and gobble up insect pests if allowed to peck in a portable, enclosed chicken run that can be rotated throughout the yard. The more greens hens eat, the yellower the yolks will be, and the higher the healthy omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients in the eggs!



 

Q: Can I use the manure as fertilizer in the garden? 


A: Absolutely!  Composted chicken manure is a wonderful garden fertilizer, and people often purchase it to improve their soil. Fresh manure is high in nitrogen, so it is considered too "hot" to apply directly. You'll need to compost it before you add it to your garden.  If kept in an enclosed, portable run in the garden, the day-to-day low levels of scattered hen droppings will fertilize the garden without needing to be composted.



 

Q: How many eggs can we expect? 


A: A typical hen will start to lay eggs at about 5 months and will continue for 4-6 years. The eggs will start out small, then get increasingly large. During the first year of laying, the hen will lay one egg almost every day until winter. The birds will then molt in the late fall or winter and either lay less frequently or stop laying temporarily.  They will start laying eggs again in the early spring. As the hens get older, they will start to lay fewer eggs, but the eggs will be much bigger. 

You may even find the occasional double-yolked egg! 

 

Q: Aren't chickens mean? 


A: Just like any animal, it's all in the upbringing. If you took a bunch of parrots, cockatiels, kittens, or puppies and stuck them in a pen with minimal human contact beyond food and water, they probably wouldn't be very good pets. Just like these animals, chickens that are hand-raised from chicks can be wonderful pets. They come when they are called, enjoy being held, and are beautiful and even affectionate pets. Check out the links area for websites like "My Pet Chicken" and "BackyardChickens.com" for more information.

 

Q: Are homegrown eggs better?

A: Most grocery-store eggs – even those labeled “cage-free” or “free-range” – come from hens that eat only grain-based chicken feeds. Backyard hens can eat a more balanced diet that includes grass, weeds, bugs, and kitchen scraps. Not surprisingly, this makes them lay more nutritious eggs.

 

Studies show that, compared with ordinary store-bought eggs, eggs from hens with access to plants and bugs have less cholesterol and saturated fat, but several times more beta carotene, Vitamin E, and omega-3 fatty acids. They also have much more vitamin A, vitamin B-12, and folic acid.



Cooks notice the brighter color, firmer texture, and improved tastiness and digestibility of fresh eggs from their own backyard. Some of the health and taste benefits of homegrown eggs come from their sheer freshness.  Federal agricultural guidelines allow for store-bought eggs to be eaten up to 80 days after they are packed.  By that time, the eggs can lose a lot of their nutritional profile, texture, and flavor in comparison with eggs that are eaten the day they're laid, or within only a few days after that.



For more information:

Mother Earth News article, “Meet Real Free-Range Eggs”

Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems article, “Vitamins A, E and fatty acid composition of the eggs of caged hens and pastured hens.” 

 

Q: How do I keep my hens healthy and clean?

A: People who keep their own hens can make sure their birds are living in clean, low-stress conditions. In contrast, people who buy eggs in the store have NO control over the sanitary conditions where their eggs were produced. Commercial egg producers are supposed to protect consumers from disease -- but sometimes they don't.

After the 2010 salmonella outbreak that sickened 1,900 people and prompted a recall of 500 million eggs, the Food and Drug Administration did its first-ever inspection of the egg producers involved. Inside hen houses, they found rodents, wild birds, and piles of manure up to eight feet high. Salmonella infected the water used to wash the eggs.



Researchers don't fully understand why salmonella infections have surged in U.S. poultry since the 1970s. However, the stresses of industrial egg production are a suspected factor. Commercial laying hens live closely packed together in enormous flocks, with their lighting and feed manipulated to make them lay as many eggs as possible. Salmonella has been found at one organic farm, but most recalls have been from commercial operations. By comparison, a small group of chickens with healthy, spacious living conditions are less likely to harbor disease, and the impact of any household outbreak is much more limited than one at an industrial farm. 

Like all other pets, chickens occasionally carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans.  In the case of chickens, the most common is salmonella.  Salmonella can be easily prevented in the home by following common sense practices: washing hands after handling chickens and coops, supervising young children around chickens, and eating only fully-cooked eggs. 

Many people are concerned about the risk of avian flu.  However, the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian flu virus exists only in Asia and Africa.  It has never been found in the western hemisphere.  In fact, North America has never documented the transmission of any highly pathogenic avian flu virus from birds to humans. The U.S. Center for Disease Control says that keeping a small flock of chickens is safe: “In the United States there is no need at present to remove a flock of chickens because of concerns regarding avian influenza.”

For more information:

Centers for Disease Control web page, “Keeping Backyard Poultry.”

The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences extension service article, “Avian Diseases Transmissible to Humans.” 

 
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