Keeping Chooks – The Easy Version

It’s been bought to my attention (Thanks Elly!) that my Chook Compound Post, while instructive, is a bit intimidating.

I agree too. I over-engineered that thing to just within the limit of my abilities. Really, what’s needed is a bare-bones description of how to do it; what’s the pass mark to own chooks and keep the buggers happy?

The Chicken Happiness Index

Chooks are pretty simple creatures with simple needs. They need food and water. No brainer. There are plenty of good foods available through pet stores and even some hardware stores. Water is easy too. They don’t drink much during winter, but it ramps up during summer. Our birds have a ‘just turn it upside down’ waterer that gets emptied (regardless) and cleaned bout once a fortnight. This was cheap, at $20 or so. They’ve also got a couple of big, flat bird-bath style dishes in their run, which with the recent rain have easily kept them in water. We also give them a lot of vege scraps, from which they derive a decent percentage of their water requirements.

Some might argue, but they need companionship too. The term ‘pecking order’ is often tossed about with some negative connotations, but in reality, chooks like it; it is their social cohesion. Sure, there will be some dramas from time to time as birds come and go, orders are changed, but really, it is their touch stone. How they make (limited) sense of the world. For that reason, I would NEVER own a single bird; at least 2 always.

They also need space to scratch around and stretch their wings. In another post, I’ve discussed the ball park figures for ‘Space Per Chook’ standards and they’re a pretty good place to start. Sure, they’ll probably be happier with more room and a richer environment, but in reality, about 1 bird per square metre scratching space will be tolerable. I definitely wouldn’t go below that for extended periods of time.

At night, they need security from predators and protection from the elements. So they need a house that keeps the wind, rain and foxes out. It needn’t be too flash; feathers are pretty amazing things and birds know how to use them. But a cold, wet wind will kill a lot of birds if you’re not careful. Foxes are just about ubiquitous in Australia, even in the suburbs. Additional predators include snakes (mostly for chicks), dogs, cats and some of the big raptors. Wire mesh and timber is adequate to stop all of these.

From 2009-10-05 Chooks

Lastly, if you want eggs, you’re better off with a nice nest box. Again, it’s not rocket surgery; just a dry, protected place with clean straw in the bottom will do the job. In my A-Frame house the nest box is just at the back of their sleeping quarters. Simple.

Free Ranging in the Backyard?

Chooks are ‘smart’ in their habits, and it’s something I love about them. It doesn’t take much to get them to lay eggs in the same place every day and they’ll put themselves to bed at night.

So backyard free-ranging is pretty simple. It’ll depend a bit on your breed, but a 6 foot fence will keep just about any chook in; less for something silly and placid like a Chinese Silky. In the early days, we let our birds roam around the yard during the day, then locked them away at night. This is fine, and even a weekly free-range will keep your birds happy. On top of scratching and stretching, they love a weekly dust bath, which they’ll probably make in a corner of the yard, somewhere sunny. So, I reckon if you kept them in a little A-Frame house, then let them out weekly for a few hours you’re keeping up your end of the bargain.

But free-ranging, remember to make sure a dog can’t get into the yard during the day. I don’t think cats are much of a threat; I actually think our big laying birds would put the wind up a domestic cat pretty seriously.

Day to Day Care

Day to day, there’s not a whole lot to do. Once they’re laying, you’ve got to collect eggs; but even every second or third day is acceptable. Don’t over think it; some books I’ve read recommend ‘checking for eggs at least 3 times a day’. That’s a tiny bit excesive.

You need to check their water and give them food. Daily on the water (you’ll get a feel for how quickly they drink) and have food available all the time. There are a number of feeders available to fix this.

We do quite a lot of chicken watching, so I’ve usually got a pretty good idea of the health of the birds, but if you’re busy, a weekly check of their health is recommended. You’re looking for anything weird in their eyes or beak; any cuts, scratches or injuries (like a limp), and a look at the feathers around the ‘vent’ (bum) is worthwhile. Feathers should be clean and fluffy.

Breeds and Recommendations

If you’re nervous and just starting out, a couple of good laying birds and a simple A-Frame house are ideal. 2 good birds in full lay will give you about 12 eggs a week. The red birds here keep us well and truly in eggs. The grey one keeps us supplied with comedy and evolutionary superiority.

From Completed Chook Shed, Run and Tunnel.

I like the colour and movement of having the birds around, so I would also consider some interesting birds; sacrifice some laying regularity for some funny feathers or blue eggs. A flock of 3 Chinese Silkies would give you up to a dozen eggs a week, but they’re smaller, and that figure will vary wildly. But they’re cute little buggers and very placid. They essentially can’t fly, they aren’t aggressive and (if you’re into that sort of thing) can actually be trained to be a ‘pet’, that likes to sit on laps and be stroked.

From Canberra Royal Poultry Show

A couple of Prize-Winning Silkies from the Canberra Poultry Show.

And a Wyandotte, an old American breed I believe to be a pretty good layer.

From Canberra Royal Poultry Show

Talk to your local breeders about what they’ve got, and if they’re not being helpful, find someone who is. We’re fortunate in Canberra as there are numerous breeders and sellers around, all of which I’ve found to be exceptionally friendly and informative.

I think I’ve covered it all. Any specific questions, leave them below, as always.

EB

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About evcricket

Extreme gardener, engineer and bird nerd.
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5 Responses to Keeping Chooks – The Easy Version

  1. Rachael says:

    Nice post with great advice. To add to your excellent suggestion re regular health checks, it is a good idea to pick up your birds regularly to get an idea of how much they should weigh and how bony a normal chook is (much more bony than the chooks you buy in the supermarket). A sick chook will start to lose weight pretty quickly and this can be a good early clue to there being a problem.

    Please forgive me a moment of pedantry 😉 Wyandottes are an American breed. I’ll definitely second your recommendation of them as a good backyard chook.

  2. ellymc says:

    Ha! I’m a publicist Ev, it’s what I do!

  3. evcricket says:

    Agree on the vege garden; it was the Leek Incident that lead me to confine the girls a bit more seriously.

    And love the run as compost heap approach Naomi. I dumped about 5 cubic metres of liquidamba leaves in the run at the start of winter and the organic matter at the bottom now is sensational. Looking forward to the weather warming up and the fruit trees going off.

  4. naomi says:

    I gave up free ranging because of (a) the poo (b) the cost of wiring up the veges to keep them safe from the chooks outweighed the cost of the wire to confine the chooks. So the chooks lost out! But they are fine, inside a giant run that houses their original A-frame. And it means I have more poo for where it’s needed in the garden. I still move the A-frame around, to provide less of a haven for flies and other nasties.

    I tend to treat their run like a giant compost heap – anything they like goes in there, along with weeds and grass clippings. They work it all over and I end up with a chooky poo humus that is great for mulch. Chooks are heaps good to have.

  5. Agreed all round. Most problems or concerns can be taken back to first/good husbandry principles- have they somewhere safe and clean to eat/drink/sleep? Chicken wrangling comes highly recommended from us.
    You have however failed to mention the monumental number of times a chicken poos a day. This is of course wonderful in the compost heap and the sooner our girls learn that the back stoop is not the compost heap the better.
    Louise

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