This month, in honour of the days finally becoming longer and our chickens starting to lay eggs again - we’re celebrating all things backyard chooks!
We have kept our own hens for over 4 years, and can honestly tell you they make the most wonderful pets. From their quirky and curious personalities, to their ability to produce wonderful fertiliser and fresh eggs - you may just find yourself falling in love with your feathered friends.
Looking back now I find it hard to believe that I never really wanted chooks. One day my husband just decided to start building a coop, I wasn’t too keen on the idea but I told him that was fine as long as he would look after them! That all changed as soon as they arrived, I was completely besotted. Keeping chooks has turned out to be one of the best things we have done. We find them to be friendly, intelligent and curious – they love to be close to you wherever you are in the yard, and will always run to you for treats which is just about the cutest thing to watch! Owning chickens has been a big part of our shift towards a more simple life; it’s hard to explain, but there is no doubt in my mind that they have helped us become more connected to our little patch of land.
Having said all that, you can’t just pop some chooks in your yard and expect them to be self-sufficient. Just like other pets, they require fresh food and water, warm housing, freedom to do the things they love (such as free ranging) and occasional medicines and other treatments. We can’t cover everything in one blog post, however we are more than happy to answer any chook-related questions you may have. Please keep in mind we are only offering advice on what has worked for us, we are by no means experts but we do enjoy sharing and learning from other chicken lovers!
Setting Up Your Coop and Run
It’s important your chicken coop is well protected from predators. Our fence is approximately 7 foot high and cantilevered at the top so a fox would need to defy gravity (aka crawl upside down) to get over it. Because we don’t have wire flooring covering our entire run, we dug a deep trench to bury the fencing into the ground and also fanned it out to prevent a fox from digging under. We also have netting covering the whole roof of the enclosure, which keeps the birds away. Our next project is to add a more permanent roof that still allows plenty of sunlight into their enclosure, but for now the netting is working just fine. Before we had this netting we had magpies and other birds constantly harassing the poor chooks, so we always recommend a roof over your run.
Our coop is elevated off the ground by approximately 1 meter, and has a ladder for the chickens to climb up and down. Our entire coop is made of wood, including the nesting boxes and perches. A lot of people also recommend using other materials such as plastic piping for your perches, as bugs and mites are attracted to wood. If you don’t keep your coop clean it’s true that lice etc. can become a problem – but don’t worry we talk about this a bit later!
Automatic Doors! A Must Have
As an extra protection for the girls, we installed an automatic door in their coop. It is set to a timer so they are safe and sound while they sleep. They are super easy to order online and well worth the investment. The door is set to open at daybreak and close at dusk – but we recommend watching what times your hens naturally wake up and go to bed and set your timer accordingly with half an hour as a buffer at night. In the unlikely event that a fox was to somehow get over the cantilevered fencing, through the netting and into our run, it would most likely be during the time they are safely locked inside their coop, and no doubt our dogs would alert us to the kafuffle.
Bringing Your Chooks Home
We did some research before bringing our girls home, and decided the best thing for us to do was to start by putting them inside their coop and locking them in for a few hours with some food and water. We had brought them home in cosy boxes with straw on the bottom and plenty of air holes, and simply placed the boxes inside the coop with the top open so they could jump out when they were ready. When we opened the entrance to the coop they all slowly made their way down the ladder - so now they knew it was safe inside the coop and they also knew how to get back to bed. Once they all made their way back inside the coop at bedtime, we checked to make sure they had all figured out how to jump onto their perches – we had to lift one or two up but the rest of them had worked it out.
Introducing the Dogs
We gave the chooks a few days of scratching around their run and enjoying their coop before we decided to it was time to introduce them to the dogs and vice versa. We made sure we had given the dogs a nice long walk beforehand, and had also given them some food. We brought them out on their leads, and slowly walked them towards the coop starting about 10 meters away. We made them sit and stay and praised them when they calmly sat. We kept repeating this a few meters at a time until we were right outside of the run. If they showed too much interest we just corrected them and rewarded them with treats when they were nice and calm. We let the dogs observe us holding and petting the chooks, and even let them have a little sniff up close when we were holding them. Luckily for us, they started ignoring the chooks pretty quickly, and didn’t show any signs of stalking/wanting to attack. This isn’t always the case - so if your dogs aren’t calming down around the chickens then some more intensive training may be required. If you aren’t completely confident in your dogs behaviour then always keep them in separate areas of your yard.
It was about a week before we let the chickens out to free range with the dogs under our supervision – they did sniff the chooks a couple of times but were quickly put in their place by a peck or a flap of wings – the hierarchy was quickly established at our house – humans, then chickens, then dogs. We never imagined it would be the dogs that are scared of chooks – but to this day that’s still how it is! We have seen a chicken go up to one of our dogs and take a treat right out of her mouth, it was hilarious. The dogs have now turned into little chicken bodyguards, they chase away birds who try to swoop them and will run outside if they hear a chicken squawking to check if things are above board.
We recommend cleaning out the chook poop every day. It takes about 2 minutes to do – and you can throw it straight into the compost! We use a kitty litter scoop that has holes in it, and simply give it a little shake so we are just left with the poop and not wasting their bedding. A clean coop is an important factor in keeping a healthy and happy flock. We can highly recommend using hemp bedding, which we keep about 10-15cm thick on the floor of their coop – it is more expensive than other commonly used beddings such as straw and wood shavings, however you don’t need to replace it as regularly as it produces less dust - we also find the bugs don’t like living in it as much as they like wood shavings! So you may find it to be just as economical in the long run.
We remove all bedding every 3 months, and scrub the entire coop down with hot water mixed with tea tree oil, apple cider vinegar and sometimes additional essential oils like lemon or eucalyptus. We remove all bedding first, including from the nesting boxes, then simply use a course brush to scrub all surfaces with the water and vinegar solution. We always spend extra time scrubbing their perches to make sure we kill anything that might be living in the wood there. If you want to go another step you can also paint their perches with a mixture of eucalyptus oil and borax. Scaly leg mite is a nasty condition that does a lot of damage to your chooks feet and legs – it is painful for your hens and can also hinder mobility and lead to other issues, so be sure to clean those perches well especially if they are made of wood. Many mites and other bugs will live in the wood or in their bedding when they’re not living on your chickens.
Food and Water
Don’t feed your chooks on the ground every day (especially avoid putting soft or slushy food on the ground) – when we give our girls treats we feed them in bowls (about 1 bowl for every 2 birds) that attach to the wire around their run - they are raised off the ground but you could also perch them on some bricks. It’s important that your chooks can’t eat where they do their droppings. Worms can live in droppings for a very long time, so if your chooks eat off the ground you are likely to have a regular worm problem. Scrub containers out regularly.
Shell grit – a must have for your chickens. We always have oyster shell grit available for our chickens to peck away at as needed, not only does it help them to digest their food properly by grinding down the food in their gizzard, but it also gives them a great calcium boost – which is needed for healthy bones and nice strong egg shells. Your chickens will find grit when they are out and about free ranging, but don’t rely on this – buying shell grit is very inexpensive – simply keep a little bowl topped up somewhere undercover in their run.
We use an automatic feeder so they have round the clock access to their pellets - this is the main staple of their diet – an automatic feeder tends to keep the rats out of their food. We avoid the super cheap chicken pellets - always read the ingredients and ask the pet store owner or vet if you’re unsure.
Change their water at least once a week – we change it twice – and add a dash of apple cider vinegar, you don’t need much! Apple cider vinegar is fantastic support for your chicken’s immune systems, just like it is for us. Every time you change the water make sure you give the water feeder a good scrub.
Add garlic flakes/granules to their feed regularly! You can buy it in bulk from poultry/animal supply shops. Garlic is great for preventing loads of health issues in chickens, again just like it is for us humans. A little goes a long way.
We add ground up egg shells mixed in with their treats as a nice calcium boost. We always dry our egg shells in the oven on low for about half an hour or so to sterilise them. You don’t want them to know their eating egg shells, so to avoid starting an egg eating habit, we grind them quite up until they’re quite fine.
Herbs, herbs, herbs! We like to have a fresh bunch of rosemary or another herb hanging in their coop as a natural insect repellent, and we also sprinkle fresh herbs in their nesting boxes. Herbs and chickens are best friends. We grow herbs and berries around the outside of their enclosure, so they can peck at it through the wire but can’t destroy the whole plants – it’s a win win! Try wormwood, grapes, gooseberries, rosemary, mugwort, kiwi – there’s an endless list of great options.
Treats – giving chooks your kitchen scraps is one of the great benefits of chicken keeping, but there are right and wrong things to feed them. We don’t tend to feed them meat as they get plenty of protein from bugs and worms in their scratching around the garden - but they do occasionally get some tuna or salmon. If you are giving them meat, treat them as you would yourself, it needs to be well cooked and never raw. And please, no chicken! The best treats are fruits and veggies, porridge made with water, a little bit of natural yoghurt, and a teeny bit of leftover cooked rice, pasta or soaked bread is okay now and again but remember this is a treat. Never anything mouldy and no processed foods.
Other general health suggestions
Similar to other pets, chooks should be wormed every few months, and don’t worry its super easy. You can purchase a worming liquid from most pet stores or your vet - we just add ours diluted in their water – make sure you read the instructions carefully beforehand.
A dust bathing box is essential to help keep them free of pesky mites and other bugs. We add sand, soil and a little food-grade diatomaceous earth to ours. Wood ash is also a great addition. We have a roof on our dust bathing box to keep it dry for the chooks. It is so cute watching them roll around in the dirt having a bath – just like watching them sunbake - I couldn’t stop laughing the first time I saw it!
Moulting is a very natural part of a chooks life. It means your girls are shedding their old feathers to make way for some lovely new ones! Moulting also means chickens get a well-deserved break from laying eggs. Adult chickens generally moult a couple of times a year, and when they do it can look absolutely horrible. They can lose a lot of feathers and their combs become paler – it’s very normal for you to have a little freak out when you see a chicken go through a moult for the first time! But rest assured it’s very natural. The best you can do for them is to ensure they have plenty of protein. Feathers are made of roughly 80% protein so they will need the extra boost - remember it takes a lot of their energy growing their gorgeous new plumage – energy that can’t afford to spend on anything but growing new feathers. So hence, no eggs.
Chickens eat more in winter as it actually helps them to stay warm! Even though they naturally want to and should eat more, this doesn’t mean they need fattening up – just ensure they have access to their standard feed to graze on throughout the day, and supplement their diet with healthy treats such as kale, broccoli, cabbage or cauliflower (we tie these raw vegetables with a string to some trees in in their run as pecking at them also gives them something fun to do). In winter we like to feed our chooks warming food such as oats, and occasionally we’ll scramble a few eggs for them.
Moisture isn’t your friend in winter – ensure your coop is nice and dry and kept clean of poop as chicken manure is predominantly comprised of water – hemp bedding is great at absorbing moisture, but even more importantly make sure you don’t have a leaky coop! Your coop should be protected from rain but should still have plenty of ventilation.
Your chickens will also love to bathe in some winter sun - so if you’re run doesn’t get much, let them out into the sunny parts of the yard whenever you can. It’s common for your girls not to lay many eggs in winter, or even none at all. This is mostly due to the drastic change in weather and decreased light, but is also a side effect of moulting. Let their bodies have the natural break they need, and don’t try any artificial ways to get them to lay – it is simply nature doing its thing. Our job as chicken owners is to ensure they have plenty of nutritious food and fresh water during this time, their bodies will do the rest.
When your chooks are hot in summer, they often hold their wings away from their body to help them cool down. They will also open their beaks and pant – look out for these signs to ensure they aren’t overheated. On a very hot day, you will likely see them do this no matter what you do. Some great tips for cooling them down is to firstly always ensure they have all-day access to nice cold water – try adding some ice to their water feeder. Your enclosure should have plenty of shade for them to escape the direct sun. We also make ice treats to help cool them down in summer – just grab a silicone muffin tray and add some corn and berries into each mould, then top up with water – pop that into the freezer and your girls have some nourishing icy poles to peck away at! Another great treat is frozen watermelon – they will love you for this. When we turn on the sprinklers to water the garden, the girls love getting close to them to cool down – don’t go spraying them with a hose or anything crazy like that – they will likely jump the fence and never come back! You can however try a light water misting spray over their enclosure – it will give them some nice relief on very hot days. Another tip is to add frozen water bottles near the front of their nesting boxes, it can get very hot in there and laying an egg is hard enough without the extra heat!
Once again I want to point out ventilation – a well ventilated coop is very important at all times of the year, especially summer. A lack of fresh air can lead to respiratory problems in your chickens.
Chook Predators & Egg Thieves
We’ve had our share of predators, trust us on this! We had an unfortunate incident with a fox visiting our backyard when our chooks were outside of their run. We had let them out earlier than usual for a few weeks and the foxes didn’t take long to clue onto their change in routine – we were sleeping when the attack happened and didn’t hear a thing, the dogs didn’t either so don’t rely on that. We lost 3 to foxy and well and truly learnt from our mistake, it was heartbreaking. It was spring time and we since discovered this is when an adult fox often takes their offspring out to teach them how to hunt. Be extra vigilant in spring! The best thing you can do on top of having a secure coop and run, is to never let them out of their run too early or put them to bed too late. You can also try adding sensor lights as they are known to scare predators away at night, which unlike ours, tends to be the common time for fox attacks. Also, never become too relaxed – we had our girls for about 3 years before anything happened.
BIRDS OF PREY
A few months ago, in the middle of the day while our chooks were out free ranging, one of our lovely girls was killed by a pair of wedge tailed eagles. Now we live near the forest and are quite elevated, so this won’t necessarily be a problem for many suburban chicken keepers, but it’s not an uncommon occurrence and in our experience it is much better to be vigilant than to risk losing a precious chook. When you let your chickens out to free range, either supervise them or ensure they have netting overhead or a lot of trees/shrubs to hide under. Previous to the attack our chooks weren’t too bothered by birds, but now they are extremely alert – and although they learn quickly we still don’t let them out without being around to check on them.
EGG THIEVES! MAGPIES, CROWS, RATS, YOU NAME IT!
Before we had a roof over our chook run, we saw magpies walk up the ladder and inside the chicken coop to get to eggs! We also had crows bothering the chooks no end and were also after the eggs themselves. We recommend a roof to keep your chooks and their eggs safe and sound!
Rats however, almost go hand in hand with growing food and keeping chickens – it’s an ugly truth that a lot of gardeners and chicken keepers will readily agree with if you ask them, although many don’t like to talk about it! Rats are after eggs, food scraps, water, and the pellets which are your regular chicken feed. It is extremely difficult to keep them out of your chicken run as they get into the tiniest gaps, can dig tunnels, climb any fencing and even chew through wire. We recommend feeding only the amount of scraps your chickens can consume during the day, and never leaving any food scraps around overnight. We have also installed an automatic feeder, which the chickens have to stand on to open and get to their pellets – the rats are unable to open this but will still come and eat any that have fallen on the ground.
Raise your chickens water off the ground and out of reach of rats (we recommend a hanging waterer) - but make sure your chickens can comfortably reach it.
Don’t leave your eggs in the coop for too long - collect them every day as soon as you are able, not only will this be a preventative for rats, it can also prevent your chooks from going broody!
As we mentioned above, it’s a good idea not to leave eggs in the nesting boxes for too long, as this can lead to a broody hen! It’s only natural for your chooks to get broody at one stage or another in their lives, they simply want to hatch a little baby and do their job. Some breeds are much more inclined to get broody on a regular basis, so watch out for this. Broodiness can be the ideal time to place some fertilised eggs under her to incubate – so take advantage of this time if this is your plan – your hen will certainly love having some babies to look after!
Whenever we have a broody hen, we take extra care of her to ensure she eats and drinks, as they tend to neglect their own needs in order to sit on their eggs and keep them warm. They may leave the coop once or twice a day for a bit of water and food, but they tend to become undernourished and lose condition.
It’s a good idea to separate any broody hens from the rest of the flock, and to try placing them in a wire cage that is raised off the ground so their bellies can cool down. Part of being broody is staying very warm, so when this isn’t an option they tend to snap out of it a lot sooner. We do not recommend dunking your chook in cold water or on top of ice – we think this is just plain cruel. It is not uncommon for broodiness to be catching, so if you separate the broody girl quickly it may prevent other members of your flock from following suit. If you get onto it quickly, it may only take a week or so in a cage for her to shake the broodiness. Be sure to have plenty of food and water in easy reach within the cage – you can let your broody hen out to free range, but keep in mind if she has access to the coop she will run straight for it and be back to sitting on eggs in the blink of an eye! If you work from home or are able to spend a lot of time around your hens, you can also leave your broody hen to do her thing in the main coop and handfeed her treats and water every day to ensure she stays well nourished. It will take a lot longer this way, however we often do this if we can as it seems like the kind thing to do.
Our FAVOURITE Things About Owning Chickens
- The joy we get watching them free ranging around the garden (particularly when they do some weeding for us!)
- The sounds they make when they find an extra special treat like a juicy worm or land crab – and how the rest of them chase after the one with the treat!
- The way they follow us around, and hop/fly/run to us when we have a treat or just because they’re happy to see us
- Their manure – it feeds our garden and enhances our composting
- The deeper connection with our land and understanding of our garden that has come from owning chooks
- Watching them interact with our dogs, the chooks have the upper hand every single time – it’s hilarious to watch!
- Lovely eggs from happy hens, they are the cherry on top
We hope you enjoyed our post! If you love the idea of keeping chickens, know someone who does, or you already have chooks but want to learn more – check out our great selection of instructional books and chook-related gifts here – watch this space as we will be constantly adding to our range xxx