I am one of those crazy chicken owners who has more books about chickens than actual chickens. In fact, the ratio right now is three-to-one in favor of the books. 

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Chicken-raising is one of the most entertaining enterprises you might ever undertake, but it has its harrowing moments: fragile, day-old baby chicks and their weirdly specific temperature requirements (95 degrees, no more, no less, or you risk freezing or roasting them); young layers and the strange eggs they sometimes lay (double yolks, no shell, enormous eggs one day and tiny eggs the next); and, of course predators. Everyone has a horror story. A chicken is everyone’s lunch. Dogs, hawks, bears, raccoons, skunks, possums—they all go after chickens.

So I think it’s reasonable to read up, and I’ve yet to find the one book that covers every possible chicken contingency, from hatching to old age. But here are two that I love.  They’ll get you through coop construction and past that freaky, vulnerable hatching stage.  After that, chicken keeping becomes a much simpler matter anyway.

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Chicken Coops by Judy Pangman (Storey Publishing, 2006) is the best guide to building a coop that I’ve seen. Even if you already have a shed, an outbuilding, or a dog run that you plan to convert to chicken housing, give this book a read. It will not only help you figure out the space requirements, ventilation and other issues that go along with housing chickens, it will let you evaluate your proposed coop against other, perhaps better-considered, plans. 

I’m particularly fond of the toolshed henhouse, which stands 8-feet high, giving the chickens room to flap around and making it easy for you to get in and out. One vital piece of advice that might not be immediately obvious when you’re flipping through this book—you, as the chicken keeper, need to have access to all parts of the coop. If there’s a fenced-in run that you can’t get into, build a door for yourself. You don’t want an injured bird or a nasty mess to be just out of your reach in the coop. Also, your flock will sort out its pecking order much more easily if the less dominant hens have room to fly up into roosts to get away from the boss. So give them height and give them more space than you think they’ll need, especially if they won’t be free-ranging much.

Once the coop-building is out of the way, it’s time for the fun part—the chicks! Chick Days by Jenna Woginrich (Storey Publishing, 2010) is the most charming and most beautifully photographed book on chicken-raising I’ve ever seen. It’s a sort of What to Expect When You’re Expecting for chickens that takes you week-by-week and month-by-month through the process.  Unlike other chicken books that round up generic photos of hens to illustrate each chapter, Jenna’s photographer Mars Vilaubi photographed his own chicks as they matured. As it turns out, watching real chicks grow up in a real backyard is infinitely more useful than a more general, abstract discussion of chick-raising.

In addition to the usual advice on food, shelter, temperature and so on, you’ll get suggestions on how to introduce the chicks to children and pets, how to make sure they’re tame enough that you can pick them up (important if you have to tend to an injury or just quickly get them out of harm’s way), and—my favorite—how to teach them tricks. This is not a book on chicken farming scaled down to a backyard. It’s a book that acknowledges that your chickens are pets, not livestock, and that makes all the difference.