I would love to see a day when every household with its own backyard has a few chickens running loose, every apartment block has its own henhouse and every farm has fresh eggs available for its neighbours. Chickens can play an important role in your garden’s ecosystem: plants thrive when fertilized by chook droppings. Hens also provide excellent eggs and meat and are easy-to handle pets, the perfect choice for inner-city dwellers.
But you don’t have room? Don’t think you could give them a good life? Well, think again. Consider the life of a commercially farmed chicken. They are given unnatural feed, little room to run around and a shortened lifespan. I am sure any chook would prefer even a small backyard with fresh food and room to move to a lifetime in a small metal cage under UV lights. What’s more, chooks are gorgeous and hilarious creatures that will add character to any backyard or vegie patch.
Choosing your chooks
Chickens come in all shapes, sizes, temperaments and laying capacities. You can buy them from markets, wholesalers, or even at roadside stalls. Places that breed battery hens will often let you purchase their breeding hens for next to nothing when they are finished with them. Sometimes they give them away for free. These hens will be tame and quiet. You will get the satisfaction of giving them a second life and watching their personalities develop, as they go from being shy and timid to friendly and even a little boisterous.
If you are living in an inner-city or suburban area where noise is a problem, it is probably easiest to buy one of the more domesticated breeds such as Isa Brown or Australorp. These lay well, are very tame and reasonably quiet. Silky Bantams (commonly referred to as ‘fluffy-bums’) are also very good-natured, but tend to lay only a few eggs per week. Their eggs are well worth it, however – they are smaller than normal eggs and exquisitely delicious.
If you have a little more room, and more tolerant neighbours, you might try some of the heritage varieties of chickens such as Light Sussex, Leghorns or Rhode Island Reds. The list is endless, and we should be supporting more of these rare breeds to keep diversity and flavour in our chicken market. They are a bit more expensive (you could be looking at forty or fifty dollars per hen) and their personalities may be less domesticated. But they are beautiful to look at, and you might just find yourself mooning over them most mornings, watching them fossick around your backyard.
What your hens will need
First, you’ll need a secure henhouse that is impenetrable by foxes. If your chickens are out and about everyday, their henhouse doesn’t need to be very big. For a while, when living in the inner-city, we had a henhouse that was 1 metre by 50 centimetres for two friendly Isa Brown hens. This was all the space they needed, as they only used the henhouse at night. You can buy henhouses online, or convert an old cubby house or shed. Hens like to be elevated, so if your henhouse isn’t high off the ground, be sure it includes an elevated perch. This makes them feel protected from predators. They’ll also need somewhere to lay, either nesting boxes or a pile of straw in their henhouse, and somewhere to shelter in extreme heat. You can insulate their henhouse with vines and straw. Chickens like to bury themselves in the dirt to keep cool, so let them do this.Chickens need a constant supply of fresh water. Hens like their water cool (no warmer than 5ºC) and they prefer a dripping tap or some other source of running water. It makes them feel like they are drinking from a stream rather than a stagnant pond. Adding a few drops of apple-cider vinegar to their drinking water every now and then will help to keep their digestive systems clean and free of parasites.
As omnivores, chickens like a diverse supply of food on demand. The easiest way to provide this is with a chook feeder stocked with grains, supplemented by kitchen scraps. Chickens love their food fresh, especially their greens. When you are pruning your silverbeet or clipping your lettuces, be kind and throw some to your hens.
Clipping your chickens’ wings (the feathers, obviously – not the bone!) will stop them from escaping. You need only clip one wing, and it isn’t painful for them.Very occasionally, you may find that your chickens have started pecking at their own eggs. This must be stopped immediately or they will make it a habit. You can buy fake eggs at pet shops. Put some of these in your henhouse and gather the real eggs as soon as they lay them. Within a few days they should lose interest.
Chooks love kitchen scraps, so this should be one of the first things you feed them. Chickens are omnivores (not vegetarians, as many people believe), so they require a varied diet of vegetables, grasses, worms and some grains.They are also clever. They will pick through your kitchen scraps and take what they like. Very rarely will they eat anything that would make them ill. A tiny bit of meat in their diet is a good thing, but only feed it to them in moderation. In a natural environment they are always hunting for worms and snails, as these are the most nutritious food source. But in the wild, these are only available in small numbers, so form only a tiny part of their diet.
In addition to kitchen scraps, you should always have grains available for your hens, so that they can access food on demand. Various chook feeders are available on the market, many of which are rat-proof and pigeon-proof. Wheat is the most commonly available chicken feed, but you can also feed them oats, maize and sunflower seeds. ‘Shellgrit,’ the leftover sea shells that wash up on the beach, is also essential in your chickens’ diet, as it provides an important source of calcium to keep their bones and egg shells strong. You can collect it from the beach or purchase it from an animal feed store.
If you are buying chickens straight from a battery farm, you might find that they will only eat pellet feed for the first couple of days. Buy some of this pellet feed so that they can ease into their new diet. It may take them a while, but with time they should adjust to a natural diet of grasses, worms and grubs.
Chickens love to scratch, and they love to peck and mow at grasses. They will keep your lawn nicely trimmed and eat any old lettuces and greens you have springing loose. However, be warned that if you let them loose in your vegetable patch they will get rid of any grubs and weeds, but they may also destroy some of your plants with their reckless pecking. Just be prepared!
An ideal set-up for chickens is to have them in a movable pen or within temporary fencing. That way you can rotate their position, moving them around your backyard so that they always have access to fresh grubs, dirt and grasses. Another clever idea is to grow hardy fresh greens such as silverbeet or spinach around the outside of their hen house. They’ll always have a source of fresh greens, which they can peck at easily every day (ensuring very nutritious eggs), but they won’t be able to destroy the whole plant.
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