Aloha everyone, it’s Geoff here again to share another chicken-related post with you fine folks! My 10 top tips for keeping backyard chickens.
Now, not all of this information may be applicable. We live in the tropics and don’t have any natural chicken predators. It’s also nice and hot all year round, so no weather issues to deal with! But sit back and enjoy…and go out there and get yourself a couple of chickens. You’ll wonder why you never had one in the first place.
1) The coop
Now, first things first…you are going to need a place for your little nuggets to live. There are plenty of chicken coops out there for you to buy ready-made. However, I suggest you try to build your own if you have at least a tiny bit of wood-working experience. We are on awesomeon20.com after all!
The most important things in the coop are the roost (somewhere for them to sleep) and the nestbox (somewhere for them to lay eggs). The dominant chickens always want to sleep above the lower-ranking birds so make sure you have a couple of levels for them to roost on. You will probably want one nest box for every three or four chickens.
We don’t have any predators of ADULT chickens here in Hawaii but the chicks can easily be taken by cats, mongoose, dogs, owls etc. Make sure that you don’t have any large spaces for these predators to get through or small spaces that your chicks can get out of!
2) Collecting eggs
Your chickens are going to start laying eggs. If you want them to lay eggs in your nestbox then you need to show them. I recommend buying a set of ceramic “dummy” eggs. By placing these eggs in the nextbox and showing them to the chickens, they will start to lay in the correct place. We also had a problem where our nuggets started to eat their own eggs. This was also corrected by placing the ceramic eggs in the middle of the garden. When they would try to peck them, they didn’t break and they soon became bored.
3) Pick them up
One of the most important aspects of keeping chickens is to get your girls used to being handled. Try to pick each of the nuggets up at least once a day. As well as giving you some awesome chicken-time, this desensitizes the girls to being picked up. You can check them for any scrapes or cuts and carry them around. The earlier you start this, the better. We raised two of our chickens from day-old chicks and they got used to being handled pretty quickly. Make the experience more appealing by giving them a treat as you pick them up!
4) Chicken enrichment
We touched a little on chicken enrichment in a previous blog post, here. Chickens are actually pretty clever animals and they can easily become bored. Make sure that you have interesting things in the garden for them to peck at or climb on. Change things up as often as you can to keep their bird-brains active. Hang food in interesting places so they have to jump up to get it. Place shiny objects in the garden so they can check out their reflections . . . I mean, check out the other chicken staring back at them. I built a swing for our chickens but they didn’t seem too thrilled. Other chickens I’ve seen online seem to love their swings. Each chicken has her own personality, likes and dislikes!
Every so often, you are going to have a sick chicken. I’m definitely not professing to being an expert in chicken health, and this should not be a substitute for taking your chickens to the vet, but I have a couple of handy tips that helped me.
The first brush with illness involved eye-worms. After an extensive Google search, I bought some medicine online, VetRX. This is a kind of Jack-of-all-trades medication that claims to help out with a variety of illnesses. Dropping the medicine into the chickens’ eyes was easy enough (although they didn’t talk to me for a while after that), but the bottle also called for swabbing the liquid on the inside of their upper beak. If you’ve ever tried to swab inside a chicken’s beak…you’ll know that it’s pretty difficult. I came up with the idea of coating a small chunk of bread in the liquid and getting them to swab their own beaks as they stuffed their faces…
Another harrowing illness involved having to tube-feed one of our chickens. We had gotten a quick lesson from the vet, however nothing prepared us for having to do it ourselves. Take it from me, this goes MUCH more smoothly if you have a helper. It takes one of you to hold the chicken down and another to hold the head and do the feeding! Watch out that you don’t pour food down her windpipe too . . . always aim your dropper down the side of the throat!
A common problem with chickens is egg-binding, where an egg gets stuck inside the hen. We had a chicken who became egg-bound. One trick that can help her pass the egg is to give her a warm bath. Fill up a tub with warm water that reaches above her vent (chicken butt) and place the chicken in. She will probably not like this all too much. Gently massaging her abdomen towards her vent can sometimes help the egg out. Unfortunately this particular girl didn’t make it. She did perk up a little after I managed to get the egg out but we think that she had more underlying health issues!
Incidentally, handling your chickens regularly (see point #5) will help you to identify problems pretty early!
Full instructions on how to build a super-easy automatic food dispenser can be found here. You will invariably attract a whole host of neighbourhood birds with your chickens’ food. We found that we were going through food at an astronomical rate when we first put out girls outside. I’d seen automatic feeders online that open when the chickens stand on them. This took wood-working skills and tools that I did not possess. After creating my own feeder, we didn’t waste so much food!
Molting is super scary! Your chicken basically loses all of her feathers and grows new ones. This usually happens with the shorter days in the Fall and she will most likely stop laying eggs while this happens. Make sure that you give them plenty of protein to help them produce new feathers. If you can get them some lovely juicy worms or jumping crickets they will love you forever. Try to avoid handling them during their molt as it can be quite painful for them, and try to avoid adding any extra stress into their lives.
8) Clipping their wings
Wing clipping can be traumatizing, both for the chickens and for you. If you don’t feel comfortable restraining a chicken whilst you clip off the ends of her flight feathers, then ask a friend to help. Our chickens told us that they needed their wings clipped after then got into the neighbour’s garden. The easiest way that I found for a stress-free clipping session was to wait until dusk. Sitting in the garden, stroking a sleepy chicken in your lap, gently stretch out one of her wings. You should probably watch a few videos on YouTube before attempting the ‘snip’. If you snip off too much, you will see blood…and potentially a dead chicken. Remember to only clip one wing. It’s not the shorter feathers that stops them flying, it’s the imbalance that this causes.
Your neighbours are going to crucial to you mental well-being whilst you are keeping chickens. They can complain to your landlord, or they can become your bestest buddy. If your garden backs on to a neighbours garden, make sure that you little nuggets can’t get into their vegetable patch! Chickens are voracious feeders and can decimate a patch of lettuce or cabbage or basil in minutes! They are also little poop machines. I’m sure that your neighbour doesn’t wasn’t to clean up chicken poop from their decking.
Chickens can and will make noise. It doesn’t matter that you don’t have a rooster, your girl cackle and crow like the best of them. If our hen, Daenerys, notices that we haven’t gotten out of bed in time, she will proudly walk over to our window and crow like a rooster…well…kind of like a rooster being strangled! All this noise is bound to upset a light-sleeping neighbour.
Keep the neighbours sweet by loading them up with fresh eggs! No one can stay mad at you for too long if they never have to buy eggs from the store again! Encourage the neighbours to give them treats and talk to the chickens as often as possible…you can’t stay mad at a fluffy ball of feathers that follows you around the garden!
10) Plant pots
This may seem strange, but out chickens are terrified of plant pots. Maybe its the way they move? More likely it’s because a giant pile of plastic pots toppled over when our girls were just learning how to fly and they landed on it. We use this to our advantage by tying pots to anywhere that we don’t want the girls to go. We have some on our gate, some on top of the washer and some on the fence separating our garden from the neighbour’s garden. This now means that we don’t have to clip their wings anymore…they don’t even try to go near the pots! Now, I realize that this is a very specific thing to be scared of. Chances are your chickens won’t be petrified of plastic pots. Chances are they are scared of something though! Use this knowledge to sculpt your birds’ behaviour and make things a little easier for yourself. They are clever animals but they are also chicken sh*ts…
I hope that these tips have been helpful for any prospective or existing chicken owners. If you have any questions or suggestions please feel free to leave them in the comments below! Until next time, friends…