Pets are some of our best companions, coming in all shapes, sizes and with their own personalities. While dogs, cats, rabbits and fish might be what first comes to mind when you think of great pets, we’re here to tell you about an unlikely but fantastic pet to consider keeping in your backyard: chickens! Today we’re taking a look at the benefits of keeping chickens (besides an endless supply of eggs) and how to look after them to ensure that they’re happy and healthy.
Why Keep Backyard Chickens?
There’s a lots of reasons to introduce some chickens into your backyard, whether it’s having a constant supply of fresh eggs, wanting to become more sustainable, or if you’re looking for some friendly pets that the kids can look after.
First and foremost, chickens love eating most scraps, so you’ll be cutting down on your food waste by feeding it to your chooks! And, while there are some things that they shouldn’t eat, such as mouldy food, raw potatoes and potato skins, and other foods listed here, a lot of these items can go into your compost heap - if you’re looking to start a compost heap, have a look at this easy composting guide for some top tips and how-tos.
Plus, having some chooks around can boost your garden’s health. Chicken manure (which you can add to your compost heap) is chock-full of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, and can improve moisture retention, drainage, and aeration of the soil, as well as increase the soil’s earthworm population. To top it all off, chickens love their greens and bugs, especially when it comes to weeds and garden pests, so letting them wander through the garden means you won’t have to worry about using weed killers or pesticides (which can harm other animals or linger in the environment for a long time after they’re used). But, if you’re worried about small plants being uprooted by some overenthusiastic scratching, you can cover susceptible plants with cloths or wire.
There are several misconceptions around keeping chickens that we’re happy to bust. Some of the biggest misconceptions is that chickens are smelly, not very intelligent, noisy and unfriendly. However, chickens are very clean, often giving themselves daily dust baths, and are smell-free if they have plenty of room and their bedding, coop and enclosure are kept clean. When it comes to noisiness, it’s true that chickens can be noisy, especially if they’ve just layed, but there are plenty of breeds that are known for being quiet, such as Rhode Island Reds and Pekin Bantams. Chickens are also pretty cluey and very friendly, once they’re used to you they might even let you give them a cuddle or two!
Setting Up A New Home For Your Chooks
The most important thing that chickens need before they are brought home is a clean and secure coop with plenty of room. The hen house needs to be protected from bad weather and predators that may fly in, dig under, or chew on the coop. Hen houses are available from produce stores and some pet stores and are typically made of wood or metal, or you can build your own using this guide from the RSPCA.
Besides a coop, you’ll need to decide on how many chickens you’ll have and whether they going to have free rein of the backyard or restricted to a particular area within a larger enclosure. Chickens are social animals, so it’s best to have at least two or three and ensure that they have enough space. If they are free range, it’s best to check that your fences are escape-proof and that they won’t come across any poisonous weeds or plants, such as tomatoes, potatoes, and other members of the nightshade family. Or if you’re building an enclosure or setting up some fencing, it should also be protected from predators, with wire or fencing extending underground to deter foxes and other animals that might try to burrow their way in.
You should also check any requirements that you need to meet with by your local council, such as the number of chickens you can have, or the height and design of your coop. Plus, some councils run free chicken keeping courses where you can find out about council requirements, which breeds you should keep, and even how to grow your own chook food!
How To Look After Your Chickens
Once you’ve set up your coop and your chickens have settled into their new home, it’s pretty easy to look after them. Everyday they need to be fed, their water should be checked and topped up, and their nesting box and coop will need a quick check for eggs and cleanout if it’s dirty. You might also need to check your chickens for mites, give them a bath, and give their coop a deep clean every so often as well.
Besides scraps, you should feed your chickens a mix of chicken feed and grit. Grit comes in two basic types: shell grit, which is a huge source of calcium and is made from crushed oyster and cockle shells, and hard grit, small stones that chickens eat to help grind feed so that it can be digested. Shell and hard grit is relatively inexpensive and can be found at your local pet store. And you can even make your own shell grit by crushing up egg shells into small pieces and feeding them back to your chickens, but it’s best to mix home-made and store-bought since chickens need two to three eggshells for just one egg!
If you’re ready to bring home some chickens, you might need to do some internet sleuthing to find a seller near you, including pet and garden stores such as Enmore Produce, as well as sellers advertising on Gumtree, or even your local RSPCA. Once your chickens are laying, have a look at some of these top-notch recipes to use your eggs!
For more info on all things chicken keeping, you can check out Backyard Chicken Coops’ complete guide for beginners, this handy guide for what you can and can’t feed chickens from the RSPCA, or find out which breed you should choose here.