Whether you would like to keep a few chooks (chickens) or more in the back yard, they are sure to provide you with many hours of entertainment!
Deciding on a breed and how you source those breeds will take you down avenues you didn’t quite expect. Having decided on keeping a few chooks you may already have decided on rescuing some from a commercial laying farm, then again maybe you are looking for some old fashioned girls (rarer breeds)? Maybe you would like to keep a few ‘girls’ as I call generally call them, for the benefits they provide which are hours of entertainment, rich fresh eggs, recycling of food scraps, pest control and of course a ready source of useful manure.
Now if you live in suburbia you may have a problem as many people in the suburbs are not so tolerant of chickens let alone any roosters so the first thing you’re going to have to do is check with your local council what the restrictions are for keeping chickens in your back yard and how many they will allow. Councils also have not only limits on how many but on how close the enclosure (chook house) can be to/from the fence. Regulations you know!
While sexed young chicks are available from breeders and seeing fluffy tiny chicks grow up is something kids love (they do require adult supervision to ensure those chicks don’t get cuddled to death) you may be thinking of starting with pullets which are young hens soon to be laying, and can be bought for about $20 each (for Isa Browns one of the commercial breeds). Commercial farms only keep their birds for approximately 18 months so you can often buy these ‘old girls’ very cheaply for around $10 and although these girls will often have lived their lives in cages indoors, may need teaching how to roost and be suffering exhaustion from the unnatural accelerated egg production that commercial breeds are required to do, they will after awhile of loving care start to pop out an egg every few days or so and once settled into their new home and accepting their changed circumstances provide you with every much as much entertainment as any other chook.
For older (rarer) breeds If you are in Perth there are a few specialist breeders that you can track down. For breeders both up in the city and around the state of WA (as well as interstate) a good place to visit for advice is this site www.chooknet.com.au Chicks are not available all year around so be patient and also be aware that these breeds are more expensive at between $30 to $40 each depending on both the age of the bird and the breed. There are some breeds which are just gorgeous to look at and some have very distinct coloured eggs
Good housekeeping and hygiene will keep birds healthy. They can be prone to parasites, stick fast fleas, etc, but there are remedies (both commercial and natural/homemade) to deal with most of them. Clean out your pens regularly – the waste makes great compost! Ensure clean, cool water is always available and make sure the chook pens are fox proofed.
I love our girls and they have provided us with many hours of entertainment. Whoever said chickens were dumb birds didn’t know what they were talking about IMHO. My girls have memories like elephants as I find I only have to do something once then the next day they are there waiting for it or me so they can do it all again. My DD recently looked after them while I went away for a few days and on my return admonished me for not telling her that she would be mobbed! by them when she gave them a treat.
I had told my DD to encourage the girls to go and scratchy around a specific area and not my garden I would take a small jug of wheat with me to the area of my choice and spread it around for them there. The girls love wheat treats so DD took the jug and opened up the pen, well the girls are not used to DD opening the door and when she did this they stayed back being the cautious girls that they are. After a few minutes of encouragement and not seeming to get anywhere DD left the gate open and walked off towards the front of the house. When she got there she rattled the jug only to turn around and find herself suddenly confronted with 10 running squawking and wing flapping hens coming right at her. She tells me it was just like a cartoon as they not only came running right at her but then pulled up short and started pecking around her like it was an everyday occurrence and she was just feeding them out in the yard. Do you know Mum, they were all huddled around the gate the very next day at the same time as I had let them out yesterday? So who said chickens had small brains? Well small they might be but they still hold good memories!
What chooks eat and what they should eat are not always the same thing. Chickens are omnivores. That means they’ll snarf down just about anything, or at least try to! I’ve seen a hen catch and slurp down a snake like spaghetti. I’ve seen a chicken snatch a toad by its leg and all of the other hens go in a raucous chase after it, only, at the end to discover that a toad is not good eating. Chickens also eat less exciting foods, like vegetables, fruits, flowers and grass. They eat grains and seeds. They scratch the ground and find bugs and specks of things that we can’t see. So, the question isn’t really what chickens eat, but what the right diet is for them.
In the 19th century most chickens were barnyard scavengers. They hatched out under their mamas and were taught to look for grain in the horse stalls, and for bugs and greens in the garden. The farm wife tossed stale bread and kitchen scraps to the hens. The hens back then laid only a few eggs a week. This haphazard diet was enough sustenance for them. But, flocks became larger and more confined. Chickens were bred to lay more and more eggs. Instead of 90 eggs a year, a hen now might lay over 300. With the increase in egg production came an increase in the nutritional requirements of the flock.
Commercial layer pellets (or crumbles which are the same thing but smaller) are designed for today’s productive hens. The pellets have the right proportion of protein, minerals and energy for the chickens as creating a daily egg is depleting for your girl/girls. These pellets should make up the bulk of your flock’s diet. Your chickens should have access to the pellets all day long. They should go to bed with full crops (the crop is the pouch in their throat where the food is first stored after it is swallowed.) Do you know it takes over 25 hours to create one egg?
Even though the commercial feed contains calcium, it is good to provide another source. Coarsely broken up oyster shell is the most easily absorbed form (even better than finely-ground.) Having shell grit available also helps with grinding down the food that sticks in the hens’ crop as they don’t have teeth to do the work.
As good as it is, commercial feed should not be the only thing that your hens eat. However, it remains essential for our backyard hens to have a varied diet beyond the pelleted ration. Greens and dirt to scratch in are key components to keeping your flock healthy. If you can let your hens free-range, they’ll find plenty to eat. Chickens appreciate table scraps. They’ll eat most anything, from coffee grinds to stale toast to soggy green beans. Some things they won’t eat, and sometimes it’s a matter of personal preference such as mine don’t like raisins and are not that keen on spinach stalks either. Not all of the foods tossed in the compost pile are ideal for chickens, but if your hens are getting most of their food intake from laying hen pellets, then it’s unlikely that they will overeat any one item in the scrap pile. There’s only one item that I know of that is lethal to chickens and that is avocados. Contrary to what you might have read out there, potato skins and eggplant leaves aren’t going to cause any harm and some foods are better than others. If you offer too many carbs, like bread and stale cereal, your hens will get fat and won’t get enough protein. So, dole those out judiciously.
We all love to give our hens treats. Unlike so many others in our lives, chickens are raucously grateful for the smallest offerings but don’t over indulge them with these treats or you will surely kill them with kindness. One food that my girls love is cracked corn, which is like lollies to them, but in the grand scale of things it has no nutritional value other than calories. It’s okay to give a little in the winter when the weather is really cold, but otherwise it has no benefits and it quickly makes them fat, which can lead to serious egg-laying glitches. So, as much as your girls are gleeful about cracked corn, don’t feed it to them every day. I give it to mine once or twice a week maybe.
Yes, it’s good for chickens to eat bugs, bugs they have worked for and found themselves, bugs that are part of an active life, and one in which the insects are part of other things that the chickens are sorting through and ingesting. A chicken should have to work for her treats, by scratching and exploring because hens that are active and outside are the healthiest, I’ve also started to develop a compost pile in the chicken run because it keeps them busy scratching and there’s always bugs and tidbits for them to find and eat. Bit of laziness on my part here I am afraid as it means I don’t have to do the rounds of the garden to cover up those areas I don’t want the girls to scratch in. My girls also seem to like to dig holes to China under and right beside my prized veggies. Hulled sunflower seeds are also a nice treat – in moderation. They have that extra bit of protein, and also contain good essential fats which is why also moderate these types of treats too. I also grow plants especially for the girls because there are a number of common herbs you can grow for chickens for their general health. Herbs can also be used to treat chooks for infestations of worms, lice and mites.
When herbs are used as a food for chickens they will only eat what they need from the bushes or plants of these herbs. I grow wormwood, comfrey, chick weed, fever few, gotu kola, nasturtium, nettles etc. This is just a few of the herbs that you can give to your chickens; there are many salad herbs that are quite safe to feed to your chooks.
General poultry tonics and laying stimulants include, garlic, onion, chickweed dandelion, fennel, wormwood, rue, cleavers, cress, marigold, mint, comfrey, mullein roots, thyme, marjoram, sage, nasturtium, goats rue, gotu kola and parsley.
Parasitic worms, body lice and mites are the most common problem of chickens. I also lay some of these herbs in their nesting boxes to deter mites and lice and on the floor of their chook pen for the same reason.
I hope I have given those of you interested in keeping back yard chooks some information to get you started. You will of course find plenty of information out there on the net and there are several chicken forums other than ‘chooknet’ for you to peruse and gain further advice from.
What ever your thoughts are in relation to keeping a few backyard chooks; if you take good care of your birds, you will be greatly rewarded!
‘info for this article is taken from personal experience, Storey’s Backyard Chickens and the Alan Moore book on keeping chickens’