Fresh, free range eggs… without question these are one of life’s little pleasures. An even greater pleasure lies in being able to scuttle out your backdoor in the morning and collect some eggs from your very own hens. I mean, you know the eggs are free-range, the hens are happy, there are no weird eggy additives (Omega 3 in eggs… what’s that all about?) and they look and taste amazing in comparison to most store bought cackleberries.

Now, before you tune out and declare that chooks are only for country folk, think again. A couple of hens can be kept quite happily in a standard backyard, and the joy they will bring you and your family (especially the kids) is amazing, not to mention the (hopefully) plentiful supply of fresh eggs. I reckon that every good, sustainable garden should have a couple of chooks, and I’m not alone in this belief. Practioners of permaculture and oracles of organics have raved about the benefits of chooks in the patch for eons, so there has to be something in it. So, without further (cock-a-doodle) ado, let’s enter the wonderful world of backyard chooks!

Eggscellent Neighbourhood Relations

Alright, first things first, where are you going to put your feathered friends? You need to bear a few things in mind. You need to research your local council regulations regarding the keeping of cluckers. Loads of councils will specify whether or not roosters are allowed, how far from the property boundary the chook house needs to be and the like, so avoid neighbourhood disputes and run-ins with the municipality, and check this out first. Probably not a bad idea to have a yarn to your neighbours (especially in suburbia) and let them know that you are thinking of getting chooks. Assure them that, despite what folks may think, chooks don’t smell and they are pretty quiet… roosters excepted of course! Of course, bribery through supply of fresh eggs may just be the thing to win them over!

Cluckingham Palace – A Humble Home for Hardworking Hens

Chooks are not real demanding, but there are a couple of accommodation necessities that need to be considered and constructed prior to the arrival of your egg laying machines! Firstly, chooks have to have a house with a nice comfy perch. This gives them somewhere to roost at night, a place to shelter, and a general hang out spot if it all gets a bit hectic. Ideally, the chook house should allow about .5m² of floor space per hen, as well as 23cm of perch for each bird. While you are designing your Cluckingham Palace, remember to incorporate some nestboxes, at a rate of one box for every three chooks. This will minimize “congestion” come egg laying time, and gives the hens the space they need to be cozy and secure while doing their thing! Oh, and a hot tip here is to locate the chook house away from bedroom windows (yours and your neighbours). Chooks (and especially roosters) are really early risers, and while the sound of clucking and chortling chooks may seem idyllic, it may wear thin over time.

Your chook house will need to be attached to a “run”, an area where your new arrivals can scratch, feed, roam, and generally have a good time. This run needs to be big enough to accommodate your chooks, but not so big that you are wasting valuable patch space. A decent rule of thumb is to give the chooks about 1m2 space each, but this can be smaller if you plan to let them wander about in the garden from time to time (more on that later). The run should have a good bit of dirt (cluckers LOVE a dirt bath), and a permanently shaded area (you could use an existing tree, a hollow log cut in half and placed upside down, or rig up an artificial shade).

Now, for all you home handy people, there are loads of resources available on how to build your own chook house and chook run. I have seen some incredible structures, from Cluckingham Palaces to Mudbrick Mansions, and, quite simply, chook house design should be limited only by your imagination (and your space, time, and wallet of course!). For those of us less handy on the powertools, or lacking in time, there are some great pre-built houses and runs available fairly readily.

Stayin’ Alive

A dead set necessity of all chook houses and runs is security. Chickens are a meal waiting to happen for a number of hungry critters, including foxes, dogs and cats. The secret to a predator free existence is diligence, and a whole lot of chook wire. Make sure your wire is buried at least 10 – 15cm under the ground, and flared outwards. This stops the cunning little carnivores from gaining access to your clueless cluckers. Now, dependant on where you live will determine whether or not you need to put a nice wire roof on the run. In rural areas, especially those with foxes and birds of prey, a roof is pretty much a necessity. For those in suburbia, it’s your choice; your chickens may not feel any differently having a roof or not, but you may be able to rest a little easier knowing your feathery friends are safe.

Which Nest Is Best?

Now, if you’re wanting eggs, you need to give your hens somewhere to lay and that’s where nesting boxes come in. A couple of rules of thumb here with nesting boxes: they are best attached to the chook house, they should be between 75cm – 100cm off the ground, and, for easy egg collection, should be able to be accessed from the outside of the chook house. Nesting boxes don’t have to be elaborate, and each chook doesn’t need its own. Generally speaking, one nest box between three to four chooks is perfect. Boxes should be around 40cm x 40cm, although I have seen old mower catchers used to great effect! Whack some lovely soft straw in the bases of your boxes, a ramp or similar so they can get in, and cross your fingers. If your cluckers are reluctant to hang out in the nestboxes, try popping in some “fake eggs” for a while… they’ll soon work out what the idea is!

Check Out The Chicken!

So now we get to the fun part… choosing your chooks! Assuming you are wanting to purchase hens for egg production, top notch garden fertiliser and delightful pets, than purchasing pullets are the best way to go. Technically, pullets can be anywhere from one day old to one year old (after a year they are known as hens), but I reckon the best way to buy them is at “point-of-lay”. Point of lay pullets are generally between 18-20 weeks old, and should start popping out the cackleberries fairly quickly, pretty much providing you with instant omelets! The pullet year for hens is their most productive, and you may find yourself inundated with eggs for the duration. That said, hens will continue to lay for about three to four years, but their production will decline over this time.

There are a couple of other options when it comes to pickin’ chickens, and these can be a whole load of fun, especially if you have kids (or kids at heart!). Buying fertilised eggs, and hatching them in an incubator is incredibly rewarding, and not as tricky as you may think. There are a number of places that now rent out incubators, and can provide you with three guaranteed fertilised eggs (check out the links at the base of the page). If you do go the egg option, remember that your chicks need to be housed in a nice, warm “brooder box” for about six weeks, at which time they can be introduced to the rest of the hens and their humble home. Again, you can rent these heated houses from a number eggcellent enterprises.

Whichever way you go when selecting your new family members, there are a couple of things to look out for. If buying chicks or pullets, check out their general appearance. Look for bright, shiny eyes, glossy feathers, parasite free tail and bottom, and all-round happiness. They should be alert (but not alarmed), active and interested, and look… well… like chickens are supposed to look. Always buy “sexed” chickens, so you can be assured you are getting an egg layer, and not a rowdy rooster.

Which Breed is Best?

Well, this all depends on whether you want a backyard breed for baskets of eggs, a cute and cuddly clucker, or a stunner to show off. The hot hen tip here would be to ask you local poultry breeder, hen fancier, and some of your neighbours and see what they recommend. Personally, I love the productivity and placid natures of Isabrowns and Light Sussex hens, but am also partial to a Pekin Bantam, Chinese Silkie and Frizzle Pekin Bantam because they are just so darned adorable!

One is the loneliest number…

Chooks are, by nature, incredibly social, and it is important to remember this when planning and purchasing. One chook on it’s lonesome will be very unhappy, slightly distressed and will probably “go off the lay”. Bare minimum number of hens is two, but, as a general rule of thumb, go for three chickens for four people, and, if you feel so inclined, one extra chook between every two people. Oh, and before you go stocking your patch with poultry, remember to check out your local council regulations. A number of councils have a cap on the number of birds you can keep in the suburban backyard (generally about 8 – 10), and also have rules restricting roosters.

There is a bit of an old wives tale that no more than twelve hens can be kept in the same run at once, and, to be perfectly honest, it’s not really true. Provided chooks have the appropriate space in the run and hen house, there shouldn’t be too many issues. The pecking order does indeed exist though, and new girls should be introduced to the others two at a time to avoid some fairly unpleasant behavior.

Hug a Hen!

Who would have thought that hens love a hug? Raising chicks is fantastic, for both your family and the cluckers, as gentle handling, pats, cuddles and love will have your chooks literally eating out of your hand. That said, even hens bought as pullets can learn to love your love, just by talking to them, socialising with them and, eventually, holding them. Kids are especially good at children/chicken relations, and will bond pretty quickly with the collection of cluckers, unless they are prone to terrorising animals, in which case they should probably be directed away from the hen house. If chooks become stressed, either from loud noises, rough handling (that includes the pulling of tails), barking dogs and the like they can go “off the lay”, so be mindful of this.

Your Girls in the Garden

Okay, so they make top pets, and crank out the eggs, but what impact do chooks have on the garden? Well, that depends on what you allow them to do in the patch. Left to “free-range” (i.e.: chooks left to their own devices through the garden), your hens can wreak a bit of havoc, especially when there are young seedlings in the patch. Think scrub turkey… but smaller! Chooks love nothing more than a big ole’ scratch in some fresh mulch while they hunt for worms, and show little disregard for your precious plants. That said, they are fantastic at the end of a growing season in the vegie patch, ‘cos they will turn the whole lot over, while pulling out the remains and fertilising up a storm.

More established vegie patches can seriously benefit from poultry patrol, particularly if you are having insect issues and weed worries, and, unless the plants are super sensitive (think lettuce and spinach) the chooks will give them a miss. Sensitive plants can be fenced off with some temporary fencing, to prevent attack from roaming hens. As chooks are fairly reluctant to leave the ground, a fence about 600mm high will keep them happily contained. If they do happen to take off, they won’t go too far, as they miss their mates too much. Check the nearest fruit tree!

It’s also good to remember that chooks love a dust bath, and can rapidly convert a sparsely planted area into a dirt ditch. Your chickens need to have access to a dust bath to prevent lice and mites, but, if you are reluctant to allow them to desecrate a section of your garden, give them a bowl or dirt and sand or similar in their run, and they’ll be happy as… well… hens in dust!

The Poo!

Probably one of the greatest benefits to backyard chooks is the bountiful, and seemingly never-ending amount of poo produced by your poultry. As any gardener will tell you, this stuff is full-on fantastic fertiliser, and, if you use a straw based bedding material (think pea-straw or Lucerne) this stuff can be cleaned straight out of the coop and shoveled into the compost. Now, if you are using wood shavings in the nesting boxes and chook house, you can also add these to the compost, but be aware that they can be painfully slow to decay, and need to be left to rot down until the shavings don’t look like shavings anymore, otherwise your garden will suffer. Oh, and ensure the wood isn’t treated with any sort of chemical or similar, bad for chooks, and for the patch.

If the chooks have been wormed, or treated with any anti-biotics, it is not recommended that chook poop collected at this time be used in your compost or garden. Just pop it in your green waste bin for a week, and, after that time, you will be ready to rock and roll once more!

The longer you can leave your chook poo to compost the better, as this stuff is really high in nitrogen, and can do more harm than good when applied in big doses to the garden. Be particularly mindful of this around young seedlings, and plants with sensitivity to high doses of nitrogen.

I love chooks, and can’t imagine living without them. They do wonders for my garden, my stomach, my back pocket and the planet… plus they are just plain fun! Why not consider the try before you buy option offered by a few different business (what a great idea!). This way, you can hire all the gear you need, and a couple of chooks, and see what poultry as pets is all about. For those already convinced, there are some awesome references available, both online and in books, a selection of which are listed below.

So go on, what are you waiting for… get clucking!

Hire a chook!

Read a book!

Brasch, N. (2007) Keeping Chickens – An Australian Guide, Penguin, Camberwell, Victoria.
Moore, A (2008) Backyard Poultry, Naturally, Bolwarrah Press, Bolwarrah, Victoria.