Chickens are a great addition to any homestead or farm. Not only do they provide delicious eggs and meat, but they can also keep insect pests under control and offer valuable fertilizer for your garden.
Plus, let’s be honest, they’re really fun to watch as they peck around in the yard on their daily rounds!
You know what they say, there is no time like the present, and if you’re thinking about getting chickens of your own then you have come to the right place.
The good news is that buying chickens is really easy, and they are sold in more places than you might think. But even so, there is a lot that prospective keepers need to know.
This guide will walk you through the whole process and avoid pitfalls along the way, from finding a reputable seller and learning the right lingo to determining the sex of your new chickens and other essential purchases. You’ll be an informed buyer in no time. Grab your notepad and let’s get going.
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Useful Terms to Know
Before you purchase your chickens, it’s important to learn some useful terms that will help you make heads or tails of the info presented to you, and so you can be sure you’re getting exactly what you want. Here are a few important terms to know:
Chick: A young chicken that is less than six weeks old. Chicks grow rapidly, but have strict nutritional and environmental requirements. Most people who buy chickens will buy them when they are chicks.
Pullet: A young female chicken that is less than one year old. Note that a common misconception is that bullets don’t lay eggs. They do once they reach sexual maturity, not necessarily one year of age.
Cockerel: A young male chicken that is less than one year old. Again, chickens reach sexual maturity with all irrelevant physical characteristics well before one year of age.
Hen: An adult female chicken. Hens are your egg layers, usually smaller than male chickens and possessing a better all-around temperament. Generally, you will want far more hens than roosters.
Rooster: An adult male chicken. Roosters are larger, stouter, and more aggressive chickens. Easily recognized by their more prominent Combs and wattles, showy tail feathers, and sharp spurs on their ankles.
You’ll need a rooster if you want to breed your chickens, as females won’t lay fertilized eggs until they have mated. Roosters also try to defend the flock from predators.
Bantam: Denotes a small chicken that is usually one-third to one-half the size of a standard chicken. Great if you are trying to keep chickens in a small space, or you just want a chicken that is much easier to handle. There are true bantam breeds and bantam variations of larger breeds.
Standard: A chicken that is larger than a bantam and typically weighs between 4 and 8 pounds, the most common size of a chicken.
Cull: A chicken that is no longer considered suitable for breeding or showing due to poor health, low egg production, or other reasons.
These are chickens that would usually be “retired” from industrial-scale farms or other business ventures.
Chickens advertised as such usually need extra or ongoing care, though they might do just fine and live for quite a while in a backyard or homestead setting.
Straight Run: Denotes a group of chicks that have not been sexed, which means you don’t know if they are male or female.
If you let nature take its course when hatching a clutch of eggs, you wind up with a straight-run group of chicks. Usually cheaper, but bad luck means you might wind up with too many males or females.
Sexed: A group of chicks that have been sorted by sex; you know exactly how many males and females you’re getting. Often incurs a small premium regarding price.
Armed with these definitions, you’ll be able to make better sense of the terms that will invariably come up in conversation with various sellers, or that you see printed in advertising.
And, as always, don’t be afraid to ask a seller if something is unclear or unknown to you. Any seller that would give you the runaround or mock you for a lack of knowledge is not one that you want to do business with.
Before You Go: Learn About Various Breeds Before You Buy
It is also worth taking the time to do research on various chicken breeds prior to purchase. Trust me, there is much more to it than what color and pattern their feathers are!
This is something best done before you set out to find a seller, but do keep in mind that all breeds might not be available in your area from any given seller.
See what is available, and if you have questions beyond what the seller can tell you, don’t be afraid to hold off buying until you can do your homework on them.
Although an exhaustive discussion of various breeds is beyond the scope of this article, you should try and buy according to the goals that you have set for your flock.
Do you want large, sturdy birds that are known for good health? Rhode Island Reds are a good choice. Do you want prolific layers? White Leghorns won’t let you down.
If you have an interest in breeding or growing your flock naturally, it would be good to get chickens with a strong nurturing instinct. Dorkings are superb mothers.
Similarly, if you are working in a small space then a Bantam breed can make your life easier. Or, maybe, you just want smaller birds since they are easy to manhandle when the situation requires it.
It would not do to unknowingly purchase chickens of a breed that are against your objectives, because that is only going to lead to frustration.
Step 1: Find a Seller
The first step in buying chickens is deciding where you want to purchase them from. There are many different places you can buy chicks and chickens, including hatcheries, feed stores, and even online retailers.
Each option has its own set of pros and cons, so consider the following while you are doing your research.
Hatcheries are a great option if you’re looking for a specific breed of chicken or if you want the cheapest chickens possible.
Most hatcheries work on a large scale, cranking out chickens in tremendous numbers for sales to farms, private buyers and other endeavors.
Depending on the hatchery, they may specialize in one or two breeds of chicken or they may have a wide selection of breeds to choose from.
Hatcheries can also provide you with valuable information about each breed that they raise, such as their egg-laying abilities and temperament.
Some of the most trusted hatcheries include:
The downside of hatcheries is that they are often located far from where you live, which can make transportation difficult and expensive.
They also might not be terribly concerned with the overall health of each chicken that they raise, since they will just be one among countless thousands, usually.
Breeders are often the opposite of hatcheries, typically being smaller-scale operations run by small groups of people or even passionate individuals.
Most breeders specialize in one or two breeds of chicken or a handful at most and usually raise them selecting for health and the best overall attributes associated with a specific breed.
A breeder is definitely the way to go if you want to form a relationship with another enthusiast, are looking for a particular or rare breed of chicken, or just one extra assurance that you will be getting the healthiest birds possible.
The downside is that breeders usually charge a premium for their birds, and they might have other requirements for purchase as well, up to and including a background check potentially.
This might cause some to bulk, but it just goes to show you how passionate some people can be about these humble birds.
It is usually a simple matter to find reputable breeders in your area by searching on the internet or in chicken enthusiast forums.
Feed stores are another option for buying chickens. They typically carry a limited selection of common breeds, but they’re usually much closer to home and far more convenient than hatcheries.
The downside of feed stores is that the staff is usually not as knowledgeable about the chickens, which can make it difficult to get the information you need.
Also, the lineage and overall health of chickens acquired from feed stores can vary greatly. You might get a great group of extremely healthy birds with absolutely nothing wrong with them, or, lacking experience, a group of sickly chicks that can cause you a lot of problems.
This should not turn you away from buying at a feed store, but you’ll generally be best off purchasing from them after you have done enough research and studied enough to know more or less what to look for and more importantly what you should avoid.
Online Retailers a.k.a. Chickens by Mail
Online retailers are a great option if you’re looking for a wide selection of chickens from the comfort of your own home, or if you have no way to easily transport chickens from the place that you buy them back to your home.
For sheer convenience and selection, this option is hard to beat and it is a surprise to many to learn that you can order chickens online just like everything else these days and that they can arrive in the mail or via private courier like any other goods!
The downside of online retailers is that you won’t be able to see the chickens in person before you purchase them, so it’s important to do your research and make sure you’re buying from a reputable source.
Also, as you might imagine and imagine correctly, sending chicks through the mail can be extremely stressful for them and entail many unknowns.
Chicks are incredibly delicate creatures, and the barrage of unfamiliar sounds, sights, and sensations might be enough to stress some chicks into sickness or right into an early grave.
Farms and other Owners
Another excellent option for sourcing your own chickens, particularly for people who already live in and around farm country, is to buy them directly from a farmer or from another owner.
This is another great way to make a meaningful connection with someone who can help you along your journey as a chicken keeper.
Prices can vary greatly, as can the expertise of the person you are dealing with. An enthusiastic but relatively inexperienced backyard chicken keeper might be willing to give you chicks or even adolescent chickens for a very modest price, but they might not know enough themselves to tell you about the overall health of the birds or even breed specifics.
By contrast, a farmer might know everything there is to know, but because their time is money simply breaking away to interact with you for the purchase might entail a premium on your acquisition.
In either case, checking with either might be a great resource for getting your first chickens and getting them very close to home.
Generally, it is always worthwhile to try and find a reputable seller. This is important because there are plenty of unscrupulous sellers out there who will try to sell sick, injured, or unfit chickens to the unwary and ignorant.
A good way to find a reputable seller is to ask around at your local farmer’s market, feed store or anyone you know who is connected in such areas. They should be able to point you in the right direction.
You can also search online for forums and websites dedicated to chicken keeping, and these can prove to be a great resource for recommendations in your area.
Step 2: Check the Conditions the Chickens are Raised In
When you are purchasing chickens, like any other animal, you want to make it a point to actually see where the animals are raised. This is not necessarily the same place they are being sold to you at.
Seeing where the animal has been kept prior to making its way to the showroom or to your carrier will tell you a lot about how they were cared for.
If you are buying chickens that are raised in cramped, filthy, dark conditions where they have no room to move around they’re not going to be as healthy as those kept in clean, well-lit, and well-tended conditions.
Similarly, you might not be able to see any obvious signs of pest infestation on your new acquisitions, but if they are kept in cages, containers, or brooder boxes with obvious signs of flea or might activity, you can count on your birds being similarly afflicted.
Anytime you have a seller who will not show you the place where the chickens are raised prior to sale you should consider it a red flag.
It doesn’t mean you won’t have great success and a long, happy life with your birds but it does tell you something about their practices.
Step 3: Inspect your Birds for Good Health
Before you pick out any prospective chickens to take home, make sure you give them a once-over to ensure good health.
Sadly, chicks are extremely delicate, and though most that are raised by ethical and invested sellers will tend to be extremely healthy, not all of them survive.
Though you might be moved by sympathy to take home or rescue a sick chick or chicken, this can make things painful and difficult for you later on.
Keep an eye out for the following as you give your prospective purchases a beak-to-tail inspection:
Obvious and major indicators of poor health or other trouble will be things like significant missing feathers, a dirty backside or vent that is clogged with poop, open wounds or sores, and small wounds or hot spots that could indicate self-pecking or pecking by other birds.
The eyes might be the windows to the soul in human beings, but they are also one of the most reliable indicators of overall health and disposition in chickens.
A chick or adult chicken that is healthy will have eyes that are bright and clear, free of discharge or goop, and should stay wide open except when they are blinking. The tissues around the eyes should not be swollen or inflamed in any way.
The discoloration is always an indicator of trouble. Rapid blinking or a drowsy expression is an indicator of trouble. Chicks or chickens that seem sleepy during the daytime might have health issues.
Happy, healthy contented chicks will cheep softly and at a modest tempo. Excessive, loud or rapid cheeping is a sign of distress. They might be hungry, they might be thirsty or they might just be too cold.
Absent any of these obvious issues, might indicate health trouble. Also listen for anything that sounds like a cough, sneeze or a phlegmy, congested sound when they are breathing.
Any such sounds could indicate infection, and infection in one chicken invariably leads to infection in others.
The general attitude and activity level of a chicken, chick, or adult, can tell you much about its overall health and condition.
No chicken young or old should walk with a limp or signs of struggle when moving. Again, adults and chicks alike should hold their heads upright with necks straight.
If the head is drooping to either side or seems to be craning back to look at the sky, that is a serious health problem.
Any sign of twitching, instability, or erratic movement, including a lack of response to stimuli, is a problem.
The beak of any chick or adult chicken should be obviously symmetrical, fit together evenly with no overbite side to side or front to back, and should not be cracked, broken, or chipped in any way.
Nostrils should be clear, dry, and free of any sort of leaking moisture or other discharge.
Neither chicks nor adults should have any bald spots. Bald spots can indicate plucking, prior injury, poor overall health, parasite infestation, or filthy living conditions.
Chicks will be covered in a light, fuzzy down until they mature, but the feathers of adult or juvenile chickens should be uniform, dry to the touch, and smooth.
Except for certain breeds which have naturally fluffy or down-like feathers, any rough or disheveled appearance indicates a problem.
Legs and Feet
Be sure to check the entirety of the chicken’s leg for wounds that might not be obviously visible from a cursory inspection. Look for spots of blood or other discoloration.
The scaly plates of the bird’s lower leg should be smooth, and free of major blemishes. The feet and toes should not be swollen or have any strange pimple-like bumps on them.
Pay close attention to the underside of their foot and between the toes for unseen injuries and any sign of infection.
Also, take a look at the chicken’s toenails. They should be smooth and generally straight, and any crookedness or excessive length could be a sign of a previous injury or just a lack of care on the part of the seller.
Step 4: Determine the Sex of Your New Chickens
One of the most important steps in buying chickens is determining their sex.
This is important because you don’t want to end up with a bunch of roosters if you’re just looking for egg-layers, or buy a startup flock without a rooster if you want to breed your birds or give them a little protection from predators.
This is always a risk when buying “straight run” chicks as mentioned above. There are a few different ways to determine the sex of your chickens reliably.
Vent sexing is a process where the seller looks into the vent (the opening where the digestive and reproductive tracts meet) of the chicken to look for the presence of a small organ called the papilla.
Male chickens will have a small, round papilla, while female chickens will have a larger, oval-shaped papilla.
This process can be done on chicks, but it is somewhat risky and difficult. With practice and experience, you can do this yourself once chicks have aged a bit.
Another way to sex a chicken is through genetic testing. This is a process where a small sample of DNA is taken from the chicken (even while still in the shell) and analyzed for the presence of male or female chromosomes.
This is not something you will do yourself, but some sellers might offer guaranteed chicks confirmed by this process.
Step 5: Get the Gear and Supplies You’ll Need
In order to raise your new chickens, you will need a few other things in addition to the chickens themselves, obviously! Here is a list of what you will need:
This is where your chickens will live and sleep. It should be big enough to comfortably accommodate all of your chickens when it’s time for them to go to sleep at night or when hens go to lay eggs.
Usually has an attached fenced and/or covered run. Your coop should be sized according to the number of chickens in your flock and the size of those chickens. An overcrowded coup will contribute to stress and can lead to fights and other health problems.
A chicken tractor is a mobile coop with a small run attached. The use of a tractor allows you to easily move your coop around your yard, giving your chickens access to a fresh patch of grass for additional food and to keep soft, clean earth underfoot.
Food for young chicks. Nutritionally complete, it has everything that a growing chicken needs. You can usually find it at your local feed or farm supply store.
Specially formulated food for adult hens that are laying eggs. Laying chickens need additional protein and calcium, and this feed is formulated accordingly. Like starter feed above, you can get it from any well-stocked feed or farmer supply store
A container that will hold water for your chickens. It should have a hole or spout on the bottom so that the chickens can access the water. Good ones will be spill-proof and also prevent chickens from defecating in it.
A container that will hold chicken feed. It should have a hole or spout on the bottom so that the chickens can access the food.
Material that you put in the bottom of the coop to absorb moisture and chicken poop, and provide insulation. Straw and wood chips or shavings are popular choices for bedding.
How Much Room Do Chickens Need?
Now that you know what you need to raise chickens after buying them, you need to know how much room they actually need in order to stay healthy and thrive.
The amount of space chickens need depends on a few factors, including the breed of chicken, whether or not they are free-range chickens or confined to a coup, and the climate.
Generally speaking, most chickens need about 4 square feet per bird inside the coop, and 10-20 square feet per bird in an outside ranging area.
So, for a flock of 6 chickens, you would need a coop that is at least 24 square feet, and an outside ranging area that is at least 60 square feet. Of course, more space is always better to a point!
Overcrowding can make chickens grumpy, leading to stress or even fights. Stressed chickens might engage in harmful behaviors like feather-picking or egg cannibalism.
There are some breeds of chickens, however, that require more space than others. For instance, bantam chicken breeds only weigh about 1/4 as much as standard chicken breeds and need somewhat less space accordingly.
On the other hand, larger chicken breeds like the Jersey Giant can weigh up to 12 pounds or even more, and they will need about more space per bird in the coop in order to stay happy.
Note: Younger Birds are Less Expensive
Another thing to keep in mind when purchasing chickens is that older birds cost more. This generally reflects the costs associated with keeping chickens alive and helping them grow, but also the obvious proof that older birds are more likely to be free of various defects that could kill a chick.
When shopping for chickens and chicks in particular you will probably find that the “day olds” are cheapest while chicks aged two weeks plus cost more.
This should be factored into your calculations, but don’t forget to account for the additional care that the youngest chicks need.
You cannot let very young chicks simply run around in your house or out in the coop like a pet because they will die if they are not kept in a warm brooder box.
Can You Buy Adult Chickens?
Yes, you can. Although less popular and most quarters compared to chicks, at least among new owners, there is a brisk market for adult chickens. Adult chickens, as expected, are fully developed with complete plumage. What you see is exactly what you get!
However, adult chickens will invariably cost more than chicks, at least $20 and many breeds can cost $40 or even more than $100 depending on lineage and rarity.
Another thing to keep in mind is that it will take time for adult chickens to get used to your presence, even if they are used to other adult humans. Believe it or not, chickens do recognize people’s faces, and strangers will alarm them more than people they know.
If you diligently raise your chickens to adulthood from hatching, they will know you intimately and trust you.
Be prepared for some potential behavioral problems if you buy adult chickens, though usually, you don’t have to worry too much because these are pretty adaptable birds.
Should You Consider Hatching Your Own Eggs?
Another route that the adventurous or “completionist” owner might consider is hatching your own chicks from fertilized eggs.
This will require the use of a reliable, safe incubator with accurate temperature and humidity control. So long as you can tightly control the conditions that the eggs are kept in, you can expect them to hatch in around 21 days.
After that, the chicks will require constant care, food, and watering for the next several weeks before they are ready to be on their own outside in the coop and run.
This is a great way to be involved in the lives of your chickens from start to finish, but you should be warned that the process always entails a certain amount of risk.
No matter how healthy the eggs, no matter how good their genes are, most broods have at least one or two chicks that just will not make it, either prior to hatching or immediately after.
If that is not something you are prepared to witness, or you’re not prepared to deal with the intensive requirements of raising newborn chicks, don’t do it.
Go Forth and Buy Your Chickens with Confidence
Now that you know all about what to consider when buying chickens, you can head out with confidence and purchase the beginnings of your very own flock!
Be sure to keep the above information in mind when making your decision, and remember that it’s always better to have your questions answered ahead of time instead of blundering through an ill-advised purchase.
With a little bit of planning, you can provide your chickens with everything they need to live happy and healthy lives, and they will be providing you with eggs, meat, and plenty of fun.
Tom has built and remodeled homes, generated his own electricity, grown his own food and more, all in quest of remaining as independent of society as possible. Now he shares his experiences and hard-earned lessons with readers around the country.