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The art and science of keeping backyard chickens



Backyard chickens - the romance and the reality by Patricia Thompson

As a lifelong urban dweller I used to have a rather romantic view about what it would be like to keep a few chickens in the back yard. I pictured them strutting around decoratively, clucking contentedly and delivering a daily gift of beautiful fresh eggs on a bed of sweet smelling straw.

Twelve years of chicken-keeping later, I still love backyard poultry husbandry – but the rose-tinted specs have gone. I look forward to the welcoming clucky clamour which greets me each morning, the cuddles my five ‘ladies’ demand, their ‘help’ when I’m weeding and chicken legs waving from the sunny dustbowl they’ve scratched up outside my kitchen window. A gift of fabulous golden-yolked eggs is an added bonus – I appreciate knowing the journey of my eggs from chicken to plate.

However, the other side of chicken-keeping involves toiling come rain, come shine - and frequently, for me, in the teeth of howling Wellington winds - doing the weekly ‘mucking out’ of the small mountain of manure even a few chickens will produce. You’ll need somewhere to compost it too. You may need to deal with broody hens, sick, injured or egg-bound hens and the interest hens can inspire among the local dog, stoat or rat population.

Back yard chicken-keeping can quickly lose its allure. I have two elderly white Leghorns and three red Shaver hens. I bought my Shavers in the depths of last winter, from a first-time chicken keeper who was bailing out after a few months. The look of sheer relief on her face as I loaded the box of feathered ginger hooligans into my car spoke volumes. Keeping a few backyard chickens, doesn’t mean ‘free’ eggs either. My experience is you’ll be lucky to break even on costs. Chickens can live for 8-10 years or more - so that’s years of care and feeding long after they’ve stopped laying. You also can’t eat the eggs for some time after worming or other parasite treatments.

Decent coops are costly – unless you can build your own. I’ve tried the relatively cheap mass-produced flat pack type, as have friends, but we’ve all eventually moved onto something more robust. It’s essential that chickens are secure, and warm and dry at night. Many people think chickens can live on household scraps. But for chickens to lay well and be healthy, they need chicken-specific food. Mine are largely fed on layers pellets, a small amount of dog roll, for extra protein and I gather puha/rauriki native greens for them and grow silverbeet, borage and comfrey to supplement their diet.

The ideal is to have a fenced off area of your garden for your chickens to roam during the day – but be prepared to adapt the height of the fencing. Different chickens, like any animal, have different personalities and physical abilities. My shavers are content to potter behind wire but my leghorns are experts at vertical takeoff. Not surprisingly, the main cause of chickens ending up in SPCA care is because they’ve been found wandering the streets. Even when you are confident your chicken security is sufficient to keep your birds in, you need to consider if it will keep unwanted visitors out. Our own dogs are socialised around the chickens but we’ve experienced two traumatic chicken attacks by a high-jumping neighbourhood dog.

We think the cost and effort is worth it for the pleasure our chickens bring to us – but I’d advise anyone thinking of “keeping a few chickens” to go into it with eyes wide open, research done and rose-tinted specs off.

chickens 2Patricia’s costs for five backyard hens

Set up costs

• Good quality coop: $400 – plus additional materials to build a larger run.

• Poultry bell hanging water dispenser – because chickens will just kick dirt or chook poop into a bowl: $30.

• Chooketeria – automatic poultry feeder - to help prevent wild birds eating the pellets - and potentially spreading parasitic infections to the chickens: $135.

• Point of lay pullets: $25-$30 each

Ongoing costs

• Hay bale for bedding: $16 about every six weeks.

• Layer’s pellets: $12 a fortnight.

• Grit/oyster shell: $6 for three months’ supply.

• Diatomaceous earth, to repel mites: $17.50 every three months.

• Worming costs and vets’ bills: Varies.

The art and science of keeping backyard chickens

Chickens can be wonderful companions and are energetic, inquisitive, and friendly animals. Keeping backyard chickens is also becoming increasingly popular as part of local, sustainable and organic food movements. Chickens are a lot of fun to have but the decision to keep them should not be made lightly. Chickens need dedicated and consistent care and, just like when considering adding a cat or dog to your family, there are important issues you need to consider before you made the decision to start your own chicken flock.

Chickens need company, so you should have a minimum of three chickens in your flock. Consider carefully what kind of chicken will be best for your circumstances; there are many different breeds of all shapes and sizes.
Be aware that if you are hatching eggs there are generally half male and half female chicks as a result. People can find it difficult to find homes for the males but roosters deserve homes too and should never be dumped. Roosters will crow so if you have male chickens you need to be aware of this and of council requirements for keeping chickens and noise control. You should never use a rooster collar to try and stop a rooster from crowing; these devices are cruel. Getting pullets (young female hens) or hens that have already started laying (~21 weeks) is a good way to avoid this. Please consider adopting chickens from your local SPCA or rescue group.

chicken 3Your chickens need somewhere safe to live, away from other animals that might hurt them (cats, dogs, birds of prey and other potential predators). This can be provided by a well set up coop. The coop should be the biggest and best you can afford. 

The coop should have:

- An indoor area where the birds can shelter, sleep and nest. This needs to protect the birds from the sun, rain and wind but it also needs to be well ventilated.

- Adequate roosts/perches at different levels so that all your chickens can perch at the same time. The perches should not be positioned over each other or over areas that should not be covered in waste (e.g. not over water or food).

- A safe outdoor area where the birds can exercise, enjoy the sunshine and fresh air and express normal behaviours such as scratching, foraging and dust bathing.

- Nest boxes with appropriate bedding in them such as straw or wood shavings. Nest boxes should be secluded, warm, clean and safe and there should be enough for all of your hens (at least one nest box for every 3-4 hens). This area needs to be cleaned regularly to minimise problems with parasites such as red mites. Some food grade diatomaceous earth can be added to the bedding in the nest boxes to help with parasite control.

- A dust bathing area. Dust bathing is an important normal behavior for chickens. You can fill a tire or paddle pool with dirt, sand, or peat. You can also add a little food grade diatomaceous earth to this, which can help with parasite control.
- A container of ‘grit’. Chickens need small pebbles and grit to help them to digest their food (remember they don’t have teeth to chew their food!)

- They also need extra calcium once they start laying and especially as they get a little older. You can get soluble calcium grit or add dried out eggshells (bake the empty shells in the oven and then crush them) to provide the ladies with extra calcium for their eggs.

- Clean water from a watering system that is easy for the birds to drink from. Birds don’t have lips, so it can be hard for them to drink water when it is down low. The water container should be placed somewhere where it is out of the sun (so it does not get too hot). Hanging drinkers can be a good way to achieve this. Fresh water is always best!

- Good quality commercial chicken feed in a feed container that is not accessible to other birds.

- Grit, water and feed containers should be placed somewhere where they cannot be tipped over, dirtied or walked in by other birds.

- Enrichment such as green leafy vegetables (e.g. kale or brussel sprouts) strung up in the coop so the birds can peck at them, watermelons, food toys, ramps and different levels within the coop, areas in which they can scratch and peck, are all great ideas for enriching your chicken coop. There are lots of fun ideas out there for chicken enrichment!

- And if you’re really keen, chickens are very easily trained with clicker training to do all sorts of tricks….

Your chickens will need some good quality commercial layer hen pellets as well as getting supplemental fresh food. The pellets contain an important and balanced mix of vitamins and minerals that the birds need which can be lacking in diets consisting of simply kitchen scraps. Chickens should not just be fed kitchen scraps, as they need a balanced diet, just like you and me. Be aware that certain plants and foods can also be toxic to chickens. For example, you should not give them 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 (for example, give them plenty of leafy greens and limit the quantity of foods such as corn and fruits that have a high energy and sugar content). Chickens need fresh feed and water every day and food that is old, moldy, or stale should be cleaned up and thrown away.

chiIdeally your chickens should be able to have some time out of the coop and free-ranging in the backyard if it is safe. The outdoor ranging area should have good cover to protect the chickens from predators (this can be bush, shrub or tree cover or man made cover). Remember that other species of bird can bully chickens (for example, ducks, turkeys etc). If it is not possible for your chickens to free-range then it is of even greater importance to provide them with enrichment and a varied diet, including a balanced chicken feed and fresh vegetables and fruit. Check for poisonous plants and weeds in the area the chickens have access to and keep the grass short to avoid the birds getting grass impaction from eating long grass.

Remember that hens do not lay eggs all year round. They need some time off every now and then just like we do! When your hens are laying don’t forget to collect the eggs every day to prevent the eggs going rotten, hatching (if you have a rooster), getting broken or the hens starting to eat them.

Chickens should be checked daily for wounds, feather loss, parasites such as red mite and general health. Chickens are a lot smarter than most people think and can be trained! You can train them to be handled and to come into their coop at night and allow themselves to be picked up so you can check their health every day. Plus, it’s fun to hug a chook!

Your chickens should be wormed every three months and possibly treated for red mite (talk to your veterinarian about this). It is a good idea to include the chicken coop in your regular cleaning routine. Remember that after giving any kind of medication to your hens you will need to avoid eating their eggs for a certain amount of time (this is called a withdrawal period, varies with different medications and will be stated on the medication information). Remember that your chickens will need veterinary care so take this into account when considering the costs of caring for your chickens.

Observe your chickens regularly, not only is it fun to watch them, but you will get to know your different birds, their personalities and what is normal and abnormal for each bird. If a chicken is behaving abnormally this is usually a sign that something is very wrong. Birds tend to hide signs of illness until they are very ill so please get veterinary care as soon as possible if you notice any problems. If you already have chickens and are introducing new birds to your flock you should temporarily quarantine the new birds for two weeks, treat them for parasites, watch the birds closely for signs of illness and only introduce the new chickens into your flock if they are healthy.

Don’t forget that your chickens will need daily care if you go away on holiday. It can be very rewarding to have chickens and they can be excellent companions for adults and children alike. However, in order to keep the chickens as happy and healthy as they deserve, they need a lot of dedicated care. There is a lot to consider before making the decision to start your own backyard flock.