Why should you be keeping chickens right now?

Thankyou for your interest in keeping chooks in the backyard, they've given me lots of pleasure and eggs over the 20 years I've kept them. Now we would like to offer the opportunity for you to experience keeping chooks with the option of returning them if it doesn't suit you.

The aim of our business is to encourage as many people as possible to keep chooks in their backyard.  Chooks are very easy pets to keep and require about the same level of experience and maintenance as a goldfish in a bowl!

Chooks and the Law!

There are some simple legal constraints (as there are with dogs even) but if you don't live in a unit you should be able to meet these quite easily. Here are the salient points (based on the Local Government Act (the chook law if you like)).  I got these pointers from an Environmental Health Officer from Warringah Council (where I used to work).

Understandably, as we now all live far too close to one another (and have little tolerance, especially in the early morning!).  Not having roosters will not affect the hens laying at all, it only means the eggs are infertile and cannot turn into chicks.

This means you have to look after them, quite easy – read on.

The birds must be housed in a suitable coop (the term suitable is very loose, meaning not too small for the number of birds, and able to be kept reasonably clean). It also means that it is permitted for them to free range in your yard as long as they are prevented from escape in some way. This usually means having an enclosed yard and clipping their wings.

When I say an enclosed yard etc, really the only thing that matters is that you get along well enough with your neighbours that they won’t go ballistic if a chook should escape into their yard.

Clipping a wing is just like giving a haircut or clipping fingernails and all you are doing is trimming the flight feathers in one side so they cannot fly accurately.  All the chooks we sell have their wings clipped.

I have been told the 4.5m relates to the old practice of people building a fixed chicken coop along their fenceline in the backyard.  You can imagine that if such a coop had lots of birds, was not maintained, and was located right next to the neighbour’s kitchen window, there could be a hullabaloo (hence the 4.5m rule).

To clarify these rules, the local council will only become involved if there is a complaint.  Notably, at the time of writing (with over four thousand chicken coops sold all over Sydney (and Australia)) we have not had a single one returned because the Council has required the chooks to go. 

Other Points About Keeping Chooks

Foxes are found in all urban and suburban areas (even in the middle of densely populated suburbs) and chooks need a coop that can be locked up and is foxproof at night.

To be foxproof, the coop will need a wire base or have the wire dug into the ground as foxes will burrow into a cage to kill the birds (they often kill the whole flock to take one, it is very distressing).

Don't worry about having to herd them into the coop at night as they will perch in there naturally, all you have to do is lock them in. They are also very dopey and easy to catch at night, so if one does decide to roost in the macadamia nut tree (as some of mine do), you can easily relocate her.

Chooks will also need food, water, shade and preferably some dirt to dust bathe in (they have a shower in the dirt, it's funny to watch).

To maintain laying (and the health of laying hens), chooks should always have access to a seed/meal mix (mash or layer mix) or pelletised chookfeed.  For most laying breeds 15%-16% protein in the chookfeed is considered essential to maintain regular laying and this is especially important for cross bred laying birds such as Isa Browns.  All commercial feeds should have the protein content written on the bag.

I promote and sell Certified Organic stockfeed.  Why would you want to pay more for organic?  Because, to gain certification:

If you want more reasons to go organic, just ask me, I’ll happily bore you rigid on the subject!  Another bonus is, that when you are bragging over the frittata you brought to the brunch-with-friends, you can tell them the eggs were homegrown AND organic!

If you are determined to do me out of a sale (or you live outside the Sydney region) chook feed is available from quite a few supermarkets or in bulk from pet shops and stockfeed suppliers. The bulk chook food should be kept in a mouse proof container.

Other food is kitchen scraps, including the contents of the 'land at the back of the fridge' (take away dinners, pizza etc, they love it!).  Don’t be afraid to feed chooks meat, pasta, cheese or an ex-curry, they are robust eaters and will give most things a go.

Whenever you put food out for pets (dogs, cats, chooks etc) you will attract mice and/or possums. The best way to keep this under control is to put the kitchen scraps out in the morning, so the chooks have the whole day to eat-em-up before the nocturnal nasties come for a bite.

I don't have a problem with mice (even running a chook business) because I manage the feeders in such a way as to ensure the chooks don't spill feed onto the ground.  You can also put out baits (or traps) for the mice if you need to.  We sell tamper resistant bait stations to keep the chooks, other pets and your kids out.  The possums are another story though, and I’m having a Mexican standoff at the moment with  the blighters eating my pecan tree!

Chooks also supplement their diet with scratchings from your garden (they will eat weeds better than a rotary hoe and devour recurring pests such as Onion Weed and Wandering Dew).

In my yard there is plenty of mulch for them to scratch around in, and some grass for them to peck at, but neither of these is absolutely essential.

Eggs are the free bonus and should be collected regularly. They are soooooo tasty and can be kept for weeks. You'll soon discover the pleasure of a rich, gooey fresh egg and won't ever be satisfied with the bland, pasty, shop-bought offerings again! (note the number of exclamation marks, I’m pretty enthusiastic about this stuff!!)

If you have too many (as can happen with a young flock) give them away to neighbours and workmates (an easy way to make friends). Also, dogs and cats love them (nothing is wasted) and the shells I crush and chuck in with the chook scraps.

Cats (yours, or local tresspassers) are not a problem, the chooks are too big to interest your average fat suburban moggie.  To date, we haven’t yet had a single customer call to say their chook has been injured by a housecat.  That being said, it is always advisable to supervise the interaction between your existing and new pets.

Most dog breeds are ok with chooks. The exception can be with Terriers as they attack birds instinctively, but with all dogs it is advisable to watch the interaction between the chook and the mutt initially.

Chooks live for approximately 5 – 8 years and lay the most eggs in their first laying year (6 months old to 18 months old) and the two years after that.  Over time, most chooks will gradually reduce the number of eggs they produce but some stop and don’t restart and others lay an egg a day every day until they die (of exhaustion presumably!).

Generally, as the chooks get older they give fewer but bigger eggs. The biggest egg I’ve had was a whopping 106 grams, and the chook was squarking and walking around like a Texan rancher for a while (similar to George Bush after “Mission Accomplished”).

Chooks also lay best in spring and summer, and fewer eggs in autumn and winter (generally).  I’m told it relates to the length of daytime. 

Chooks normally start laying eggs between 20 and 26 weeks old, but some chooks starting to lay will delay starting laying if that age comes in autumn or winter and some won’t commence laying until spring.  Extremes of weather can also delay the onset of laying.

If, after regular laying, you are suddenly not getting eggs, go on an egghunt, you may have a secret second nest.  Failing this, they may need worming, or alternatively you could try a feed with a higher protein content to kickstart them laying again.  Remember, the egg laying generally slows down in Autumn and Winter and as they get older.

I use a professional sportsman analogy (say a rugby player) to describe the process of laying eggs in older hens; In his teens and twenties he can score tries all day and drink all night, in his thirties he spends a lot of time with the physio, and in his forties he has to eat bran, sleep well and behave to stay in the game.

So it is with hens.  In their first laying years, they are more tolerant of poor diet etc, but as they get older they need high protein, calcium and a bit more care to keep them laying.

You should worm your chooks (about every 3 months) and there is no withholding period for eggs after the worming with the common wormer.  The wormer is a liquid you put in their water or tablets you put in their mouths (beaks). 

Chooks can also get mites and lice (from native pigeons etc) and this is easy to treat for by dusting the birds and coop with a powder called Pestene, or a similar product. If you suspect this is a problem (ie you see them or you are inexplicably not getting eggs) flip the chook over and have a look at its underside. Chooks will stop laying if they are being hassled by pests.

Chook medicines available from a stockfeed supplier or petshop, vets usually have them too if you have very deep pockets (I sell some too).

In terms of other chook health problems, often the best thing to do (for a small domestic flock) is to wait and see if the bird recovers.  I had a customer once tell me they were charged $460 by a vet for a check-up, overnight observation, euthanasia and disposal of a chook worth $30 to replace!  I had a new record from a customer in 2012 who paid $2700 for blood testing maintenance and medication on a pair of isabrown hens, crazy!  Don't do it.  I know they become pets, but a little perspective is appropriate.

A peeled clove of garlic can also be added to their water if they look unwell as a natural medicine. Garlic is wonderful for enhancing the immune system.

For more information there are plenty of books on chook keeping in most local libraries (remember them?) and Earth Garden and Grass Roots Magazines often have articles for reference.  In this modern information age, many people forget how good a local library can be for reference material, go on try it, I dare you.

Good luck and go for it, I love my chooks and I'm sure you'll enjoy yours as much.

To find out all about buying a coop and chooks see this page.

To find out all about renting a coop/chook setup have a look here.

Dave 'Mr Chicken' Ingham