Feature

Getting clucky

Why not consider chickens as your next backyard pets?

chicken

Thought of raising chickens as family pets? Kids love them and they adapt well to urban life, being willing gardeners and providing fresh eggs for breakfast.

Credit: iStockphoto

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Imagine farm-fresh eggs from your own chickens just beyond your back door. The good news is that you don't need a farm or even a huge backyard to do it - an average-sized suburban garden will do the trick.

Sustainable Gardening Australia's (SGA) Mac McVeigh says you don't need to have many chickens, either. "I would recommend two or three to start with because when they are on the lay each chook will produce one egg a day," he says.

Great green gardeners

Besides producing delicious free-range eggs, chickens are also excellent green gardeners. Chicken poo makes top-notch fertiliser. But because it's high in nitrogen, you'll need to let it break down in your compost first or it could burn and kill plants if it's directly added to them.

McVeigh says if you grow your own vegetables, chickens will become an integral part of your composting and fertilising system. "It's a whole rotational wheel," he says. "Feed your vegetable scraps to the chickens. They will scratch over it and aerate it, and then their manure will break it all down ready for your compost heap."

Chickens will eat kitchen leftovers including fruit, vegetables, rice, noodles and bread. They can also eat meat, fish and cheese scraps, but be wary of vermin if food is left lying around.

In the garden, chickens love eating bugs and weeds. They also love scratching in the dirt, so watch them because they can destroy sensitive areas such as vegetable patches in one 'fowl' swoop.

A solution to this potential problem is a portable cage, or chicken tractor, which is moved around the lawn or garden beds. With this, chickens can weed, scratch and turn the soil while being enclosed.

Eggcellent pets

Chickens make great pets, especially for children who love hunting for eggs and having something to care for and play with. And young chickens respond well to gentle pats and talking.

"Once you get to know your chooks they have real characters," McVeigh says. "Our chooks come and tap on the back door, and when our children were younger they used to pick them up.

"My son used to make a bit of pocket money from selling our eggs. People loved it because they would give us their old egg cartons to fill and my son would write on the bottom of each carton which hen had laid their eggs."

McVeigh adds that even his well-trained terrier dog gets in on the act by playing with the chickens. "The chickens actually chase the dog," he laughs.

Before you start

Chickens provide many benefits, but there are a few things to consider before you set things up. Start with your council. Some councils don't allow chickens, while others have regulations about how many chickens you can keep, how far from your fence the coop should be, what sort of coop you can have and whether you can keep roosters.

It's also a good idea to tell your neighbours of your plans. Assure them that chickens don't smell (if looked
after properly) and are pretty quiet, except for roosters of course. A bribe of fresh eggs could also help.

Choosing your chooks

You should start with pullets for good egg production. Pullets are female chickens from one day old to one year old. After a year they're called hens. The pullet year is the most productive period of a hen's life because egg production declines with age.

Chickens are social creatures, so always purchase more than one. A chicken by itself can be unhappy and distressed, which can stop her laying. A healthy chicken is alert and active, with glossy feathers, bright, shiny eyes and a parasite-free tail and bottom. Ensure chickens are sexed so you know they're hens and not roosters.

There are many different chicken breeds to choose from. Chicken expert Maria Ciavarella says Isa Browns or Australorps are good egg layers - however, if you also want a good pet, you should choose a specialist breed such as a Pekin or a Houdan.

Housing your chickens

Chickens need a house where they can roost, sleep, feed and lay eggs.

The house must be dry (because wet conditions can breed tapeworms), well drained and well ventilated. It also needs sun in winter and shade in summer. Heat kills chickens easily because they have no cooling mechanism. Chickens are early risers and love to cluck, so locate them away from bedroom windows.

Maria Ciavarella runs backyard chicken-keeping courses through the Bulleen Art & Garden Centre in Melbourne's eastern suburb. She says each chicken should have about one square metre of enclosed space.

"However, more space is better," she adds. "Chickens are happier with space to run around, scratch and stretch their wings, so let them out when you can."

Nesting boxes provide an area for chickens to lay eggs and feel secure. The SGA recommends boxes be around 40 cm x 40 cm, with one box for every three chickens. Boxes should be attached to the chook house and be, preferably, between 75 to 100 cm off the ground because chickens like some height to lay. Add a ramp into the boxes. Boxes should be dark and accessible from outside the chook house for easy egg collection.

Line the boxes with soft straw or sawdust to absorb odour from droppings and replace it regularly - this makes an excellent addition to your compost.

Perches provide a spot for chickens to roost. Ideally they need to be at least four to five cm in diameter or chickens will struggle to balance, which is stressful and can affect their laying. Keep perches away from the feeding area so chickens cannot soil their food and water. Position feeders so that rain cannot spoil their feed.

A run is also essential for chickens to scratch, feed and roam, but it should have some shade and dirt. Chickens love a dirt bath to cool off and clean themselves from lice and mites.

Keep dogs, foxes and cats away from your chickens with a strong mesh fence that is buried at least 20 cm under the ground and flares outwards in an L-shape. A roof is also good, particularly if hawks are around or your chickens are flighty. Finally, install close-fitting doors and sealed corners, as this will keep vermin, goannas and snakes out.

Feeding your chickens

Laying hens are hungry and can eat about 1 kg of food every week. For good laying, provide chickens with constant access to food and water. If chickens are free-ranging in the backyard, they'll still need a food supplement, so buy a ready mixed mash, pellets or crumble. Chickens will also need calcium such as shell grit if it's not included in their feed.

Not sure if chooks are your thing?

* Enrol in a local permaculture or chicken-keeping course to see if it's your thing.

* Hire some chickens. Chook-hire businesses rent out chickens and coops. If, after some time, you like the chooks, buy them. If not, return them. Try these businesses, depending on your location - www.bookachook.com (Melbourne), www.citychicks.com.au (Brisbane) or www.rentachook.com (Sydney).

* If you don't have much space, try Japanese quails as they're a more useful pet than a budgie and their droppings are great to compost. Quails are ideal for balconies, courtyards or small gardens because they don't need much living space. They produce smaller eggs, too; as a typical guide, three eggs will fill one egg ring.