I'm thinking of adopting backyard chickens
Whether you’re a suburban dweller, or lifestyle blocker, the humble chook can provide a family with lots of eggs and years of entertainment.
Before you decide to adopt chickens, it is important to carefully consider whether you have the time, resources, knowledge, as well as the right environment to care for them properly. Below are some important considerations you should think about before adopting chickens.
Providing a good environment for backyard chickens
Chickens need a safe and enriching environment to live in, away from other animals that may harm them. This can be provided by a well set up coop. The coop should have an indoor area where the birds can shelter, sleep, roost and lay their eggs in clean nest boxes. The coop needs to protect from the elements and needs to be well ventilated.
Ensure that perches allow all your chickens can perch at the same time. The perches should not be positioned directly over other perches, or areas where food and water is provided.
Create nest boxes with appropriate bedding, such as straw or wood shavings. Some food-grade diatomaceous earth can be added to the bedding in the nest boxes to help with parasite control. Alongside this, give them a dust bathing area, made up of dirt, sand, or peat for your hens in a shallow container.
Your chickens should also have access to a safe outdoor area where they can exercise and express normal behaviours, such as scratching, foraging and dust bathing. The outdoor area should have good overhead cover to protect the chickens from predators (this can be bush, shrub or tree cover). Keep the grass short in this area to avoid grass impaction from them eating long grass.
Get to know your chickens
Chickens need company, so you should have a minimum of three chickens in your flock. Observe your chickens regularly, as you will get to know their personalities and what is normal for each bird. Birds tend to hide signs of illness, so ensure you get veterinary care as soon as possible if you notice any problems.
Like all pets, chickens sometimes need medical attention. It is important to find a vet which specialises in poultry or avian medicine before you adopt your chickens.
The best way to maintain your chicken’s health is to prevent disease in the first place. The chicken coop should be cleaned out regularly to prevent build-up of droppings and ideally their grazing area or run should be moved monthly. Talk to your veterinarian about parasites to watch out for in your area (such as worms and mites) and treatments options. Remember after giving any kind of medication to your hens you will need to avoid eating their eggs for a certain amount of time, which will be stated on the medication information.
Hens do not lay eggs all year round. When your hens are laying eggs, collect the eggs every day to prevent the eggs going rotten, possibly hatching (if you have a rooster), getting broken and to stop your hens eating their own eggs.
Ensure that housing and nearby buildings that chickens may have access to are not painted with lead based paint, and that any areas that do have lead-based paint cannot be accessed by your chickens. Chickens will eat old paint and a recent study in New Zealand found lead in the eggs of backyard chickens. If you have concerns that your chickens may have been exposed to lead and/or ingested substances containing lead, contact your veterinarian for advice on testing requirements.
What to feed your backyard chickens
Chickens need fresh feed and water daily. Any food found in their coops that is old, mouldy, or stale should be cleaned up and thrown away. Chickens need good, quality commercial layer hen pellets, as well as supplemental fresh food. Commercial chicken pellets contain a balanced mix of vitamins and minerals your chickens need to produce eggs and grow well.
- Provide clean, fresh water from a watering system that is easy for the birds to drink from. The water container should be placed out of the sun.
- When feeding kitchen scraps, be aware that certain plants and foods can be toxic to chickens, such as raw green potato peels, dried or undercooked beans, or avocados. It is better if chickens are given mostly fresh foods that are not too energy dense or sugary.
- Give them plenty of leafy greens, and limit treat foods, such as corn and fruit, which have a high sugar content.
- Green leafy vegetables (e.g. kale or brussel sprouts) can be strung up in the coop for your chickens to peck as a form of food enrichment. Watermelons, food toys, ramps and different levels within the coop, areas in which your chickens can scratch and peck, are all great ideas for providing enrichment, too.
- When feeding kitchen scraps, be aware that certain plants and foods can be toxic to chickens, such as raw green potato peels, dried or undercooked beans, or avocados.
- Provide your chickens with a small container of ‘grit’. Chickens need small bits of stone or gravel to help them to digest their food. These small stones help grind up their food when it is in their gizzard.
- Hens need extra calcium once they start laying. You can get soluble calcium grit which can be given to your hens in a separate feed container or you could use dried eggshells. To do this, bake the empty shells in the oven and crush them before adding to a separate container for your hens. Another option can be to use crushed oyster shell.
- Grit, calcium, water and feed containers should be placed somewhere where they cannot be tipped over, dirtied or walked in by other birds.
Years of friendship
Chickens that are well cared for can live a relatively long time, sometimes even longer than dogs. It’s common for a hen in a backyard setting to live 8-10 years. Chickens are a lot smarter than most people think and can be easily clicker trained to do tricks and even obstacle courses. You and your feathered friends will soon be life-long friends and bring each other years of happiness (and lots of eggs!)
Be a good neighbour
Before adopting chickens, you should check with your local council to see what their rules are regarding backyard chickens. Council bylaws will state the maximum number of chickens permitted, whether you may have a rooster, and, for urban areas, bylaws usually require the poultry are contained to your property and not causing a nuisance.
It’s also a good idea to talk to your neighbours before adopting chickens. If they have concerns, you can discuss them. The offer of occasional free eggs should also help to keep the peace! When locating a chicken coop, think about how it may affect your neighbours and locate the coop in a place that is least likely to cause a nuisance.
Be aware that rats are very attracted to chicken food. Using rodent-proof feeders can help keep your chicken’s food fresh and free from uninvited dinner guests!
Consider a rooster to keep your hens happy
Roosters crow and not just at sunrise. While some people love their dulcet tones others may not be so appreciative - be sure to discuss this with your neighbours before bringing a rooster into your flock. Rooster “collars” should never be used to prevent a rooster crowing as these prevent crowing by constricting the rooster’s throat, causing distress and sometimes leading to accidental death due to restriction of the airway.
If you’re able to offer a home to a rooster, we encourage adopting one from SPCA or another rescue organisation. A rooster will be happiest when he has a group of hens to ‘watch over’. He will protect them from danger by crowing to alert them to any predators and he will source yummy grubs and morsels for the hens to enjoy.