A lot of people ask me if it is hard keeping chooks in the suburban backyard – it’s not at all, and really no different to any other pet. It has also been very good for the Small People to see that produce doesn’t come in a box or bag in the supermarket. And of course there is the added benefit of the fresh eggs, with an obvious taste difference. I particularly also notice the difference in the thickness of the egg whites, they whip like a dream when I am making a cake or biscuits.
I’m by no means a chicken expert, but I’ve learnt quite a lot in the months we’ve had our girls and also done a good bit of reading, so here’s a bit of a guide.
Buying chickens and different breeds
You usually either buy baby chicks (under six weeks old or so), or “pullets” (under a year old, they officially become “hens” after their first birthday). If you buy a baby chick note that you need to keep them indoors and with a heat lamp, they can move outside to a coop after they are six weeks old. If you want to buy a number of chooks, try make sure they are all similar ages, because older ones bully younger ones, sometimes quite severely. Even with a similar aged group, you really do see the phrase pecking order in action, as they establish who is in charge. At first it seemed that Rosie, our Rhode Island Red, was making a play for dominance but one of our ISA’s, Boken, seems to rule the roost.
In Australia, the most popular backyard breeds are ISA Browns and Australorps. Both of these breeds were developed specifically for optimum egg laying. Once they start laying, typically around 22-24 weeks of age, during the warmer months they lay almost every day. Hence these breeds often don’t have a long life span, typically three to four years.
Then there are what are called “pure breeds” – Bantams, Wyandottes, Plymouth Rocks, Speckled Sussexes, and Araucanas to name a few. Araucanas are known for laying eggs with blue shells which are very pretty so this breed is often in high demand and very hard to get, if anything you’ll get them as day old chicks. Similarly the other pure breeds you’re unlikely to buy any older than about twelve weeks, so you’ll need to be patient waiting for them to lay eggs. Some of the pure breeds are very pretty and very friendly so great pets, though they are often not as good layers so there is a bit of a trade off. They may also go “broody” every spring – that is, think they are going be mothers and sit in one spot for a few weeks on their eggs waiting for chicks to hatch. Pure breeds can live up to ten years, though they won’t lay for that whole time.
Make sure you buy from reputable breeders who vaccinate. In Sydney City Chicks (who are also in Brisbane and Melbourne) and Leah’s Chook Shed are great for younger ones and pure breeds. Enfield Produce sell mostly ISA’s and Australorps that are close to point of lay. All of them stock supplies you’ll need.
What are the rules for keeping backyard chickens?
You’ll need to check rules with your local council but in Sydney there are NSW Local Government Regulations for Backyard Poultry. Specifics may vary from council to council but for the most part, you are allowed up to ten chooks enclosed in an appropriately dimensioned coop, and they must be kept at least 4.5 metres from residential dwellings. You’ll also need to regularly clean your coop. Roosters are not allowed. I’ve been surprised at how many coops I’ve seen whilst wandering around our neighbourhood, which is only a few kilometres from the Sydney CBD.
What you’ll need:
You’ll need some kind of coop to house your girls. We started off with a small one from Bunnings which housed three just to see how we liked it, then upgraded to a much bigger coop which we can walk into, making things much easier. The big one houses ten chooks but six is a comfortable number of chooks for us so the girls have plenty of room. You’ll need to make sure the coop is safe from predators – namely foxes and possums. People are surprised to hear there are foxes roaming in suburban Sydney, but yes there are. Foxes can dig down 30cm or so and some possums can open basic latches so make sure you have secured the perimeter of your coop well and put very secure latches on the doors. Coops also need to have an area that provides shade for hot days and pouring rain.
When we are at home we let the girls roam freely around the yard. But don’t do this immediately when you bring them home – keep them in the coop for the first week so they familiarise themselves with their environment and don’t do a runner! Some breeds don’t do well if they are permanently confined and really need the opportunity to roam. Our girls love to explore and scratch around the garden and often traipse through our recently planted camellia hedge.
Grace (silver laced Wyandotte) and Maddie (Plymouth Rock)
A nesting box
Chooks need a nesting box to lay their eggs. One box per three chooks works. Though I have seen two of the girls get into the box at once. When you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go. This was the box we first bought, but our new large coop has three built in nesting boxes.
Hay is great for the nesting box and for the floor of the coop. A bale of hay is about $20-$25 and will last you quite a while. I clean the coop weekly and replace all the hay.
A feeder and a drinker
A feeder is to dispense their food and a drinker is for fresh water. Under sixteen weeks you’ll need to feed the chooks what is called a “crumb”, specific to younger pullets. After that you can buy them laying pellets. The feeds have protein and calcium and other goodies the girls need to grow and thrive. However you can of course give them kitchen scraps but not when they are too young; I started at around 16 weeks. Lettuce and watermelon are always a big hit, spaghetti and rice are popular, bacon scraps send them wild, and mine turn their nose up at zucchini. Avoid avocado, onion and chocolate – it makes them sick. While they need protein, don’t overload them with meat, it apparently strains their kidneys. Every few weeks or so I give them some sardines in spring water as a treat, they adore it. The girls know me as Chief Bringer of Goodies so all I have to do is yell out “Girls!’ from across the yard and there’s a bee line for the coop door in anticipation.
Once they start laying, you may also wish to give them a little “grit” or crushed oyster shells, which are good for calcium, and very cheap to buy. If you notice they are laying eggs with soft shells, its likely they may be a little calcium deficient, which can sometimes happen with prolific layers like ISAs. I just mix a little of the grit in with their regular feed.
Chooks not only love to perch, they physically need to. It is how they sleep. Yes, they sleep standing up.
Shhh, it’s bedtime
For good health
Like other pets chooks are prone to lice and mites so you’ll need to sprinkle poultry dust every now and again. I put it on the bottom of the nesting box under the hay and also on the floor of the coop. I add a little apple cider vinegar to their water every now and again for good gut health. Every three months you’ll need to add an anti-worm solution to their water.
Chooks can be prone to viruses which can be treated with antibiotics, but you cannot eat the eggs while they are being treated. If one of your girls get sick if possible isolate her before she infects the whole flock. Lethargy, lack of appetite, and strange poop can be signs of illness.
Like humans and many other animals, chickens struggle with extreme heat and can die of heat stress, so this scorcher of a Sydney summer has been a real struggle. You’ll see that they are getting stressed because their beaks will be open and they will be panting. They’ll also fan their wings. On hot days vigilance is required with their water as they will not drink warm water; if the forecast is for hot weather I prepare large blocks of ice in the freezer and put it in their drinker to help keep the water cool. On the severe days when I saw they were really struggling, I put cold water and ice cubes in a shallow tub and stood them in it (just 10cm or so) and dripped cold water on their feathers. They generally hate this but it can be necessary for survival. I also pop wedges of watermelon in the freezer which they peck on and it helps keep them hydrated.
So there you have it, this is the crux of what you’ll need to know. It really is fun and I’m so glad that we finally have the space to do it!