In our grandparents’ day chickens were commonly kept in residential backyards, but the growth of the poultry industry and the mass production of eggs, led to a decline in its popularity. These days however, as people are looking for healthier alternatives to supermarket-supplied, processed, and mass-produced foods, there is an increasing interest in keeping chooks. Even for those of us in the city, could they in fact be an egg-cellent pet?

Why keep chooks?

In addition to a “green focus” and desire to reduce costs, many people are choosing to raise their own chickens due to concerns about the ethics of the poultry industry, and simply because they prefer the taste of fresh, home-grown produce. Eggs laid in your backyard are also going to exceed supermarket shelf-lives of commercially produced eggs. Further, many people find that keeping chooks is great for their garden due to the nutrient-rich manure of chickens, and they can also be helpful in pest and weed control.

It is therefore hard to argue that chickens aren’t useful pets, and they can be great for kids too, but as with any pet they have their own unique care requirements, and it’s important to understand what they are before you start building your chicken coup.

Type of chickens to buy, and where

Buy poultry only from a reliable supplier. Age will be a consideration if you’re buying them for eggs, and if you’re wanting eggs relatively soon the birds should be around 16 to 20 weeks old. One of the risks of buying very young birds is that you might inadvertently buy roosters, and many councils do not allow them because of the noise they make. They can also become aggressive and are therefore usually less suitable around children. Unless you intend to breed, or you have a particular interest in them, there is probably little point in getting roosters for your backyard farm.

If you don’t know where to start, search for breeders online and ask questions of anyone you know who keeps chooks. You’ll soon learn what to look for, and where to find good suppliers.

Feeding chickens

Feeding chickens is relatively inexpensive, and in addition to weeds, grass and bugs, you can feed them a variety of kitchen scraps. Buying grain for them of course is an option, but growing plants for them to eat can save the effort and expense. If they’re relying on grain alone, each chicken will require about a cup per day. Chickens ideally should have some variety in their diet, and a combination of grains, bugs and greens, with a supply of fresh clean water, is a good mix.

Keeping chickens safe

Chickens can be targets for pet dogs and cats, and their eggs can attract lizards and snakes. Also, beware if you have foxes in your area, as they can be predators as well. It is therefore necessary to ensure that your chickens have safe and secure enclosures, and even though these can sometimes be a blight on the manicured backyard landscape, they’re important. Aside from their safety, chickens that aren’t in a secure enclosure can run amok and create havoc in your backyard. Their comfort must also be considered, and they should have somewhere warm and dry, especially when roosting.

Signs of unhealthy birds

Sick birds can eat or drink less or be less active than normal. They may also have difficulty breathing, have discharge from their nose or eyes, or diarrhoea. Ruffled feathers or the production of fewer eggs, can also be signs of illness. Sudden death of a chicken might indicate that there could be health issues with the others. If you suspect that your poultry is sick, contact your vet for advice.  

Keep coops and enclosures clean and prevent the build-up of droppings. Use disposable gloves when cleaning them and never pick up droppings with bare hands.

Keeping chickens can be a lot of fun but it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into, and what they need to be healthy and to thrive. Sadly, many chickens are dumped when they’ve stopped laying, and fall victim to predators. Responsible ownership of chickens is just as important as responsible ownership of a dog or cat. As with all prospective pets, be sure to do your research first, and if you have any questions about the care of poultry please get in touch.