Backyard Chickens -The Ultimate Eco Pet

Pets can be a wonderful addition to home and family life.  They provide company, comfort, affection, and are a source of interest and often entertainment.  As living creatures they help us to connect with nature and be closer to the natural environment. Pets can contribute to our well-being. Perhaps for some they are a connection with a more rural, less urban life style, reminiscent of a time where animals and people were dependent on each other for survival.  For other pet owners, their pets are viewed and treated more as a part of the family, than as domestic descendants of wild animals.  In comparison with the welcome from  uncooperative, unappreciative children, teenagers or other family members, or for someone living alone  returning to an otherwise empty house,  the exuberant of a greeting from a pet at home can help to make up for any amount of stress experienced during a working day, or trip away from home. No matter what kind of day we have had, at least upon returning home, “someone/something will be happy to see us.”  Dogs are well known to greet their owners like a long lost best friend – even after only a few minutes of absence.

Although my cats may play it cool, they also demonstrate their affection once they have forgiven me for leaving them. Feeding times are accompanied by instant attention and affection. Calling the dogs at meals times, or when getting ready to go on a walk are joyous occasions –  In fact they are optimistically anticipated for most of the day.  If only the same could be said of all the other family members.  It’s no wonder that people choose to share their homes with their pets!

Trying to take care of pets and the environment at the same time can be a balancing act.  Many are carnivores requiring a diet of suitable food or specialist equipment, and the waste they produce presents disposal issues. It is possible with some thought and determination to reduce the impact of pets on the environment and reduce the carbon footprint of pet keeping- even reducing the amount of waste being sent to landfill.  However, chickens are pets which can be kept in a back yard, can provide the company, interest, education, and lots of entertainment, whilst also recycling unwanted food scraps into a versatile protein rich source of food, and valuable fertiliser as a by-product. Backyard chickens can make the ultimate eco pet!

If you are thinking that these could be the pets for you, firstly check local by-laws, rental agreements etc to see if chickens are permitted in your part of the city.  If they are permitted, do your research, talk to other chicken owners, or perhaps attend a local course, to determine if they are suitable for you to keep.   Buy your chickens from a reputable breeder, who will have vaccinated them and only sell healthy chickens.  Chicks are cheap from markets and farmers, but a novice may not be sure if they are hens or roosters. Where most neighbours will tolerate a few hens, roosters are a different matter.  They can be very noisy, from the moment it begins to get light, or from the first crow of a distant rooster, as they call out to each other. Chickens can also ‘see’ sunrise 45 minutes before we do, so factor in a roosters noise in the early morning if you keep them in an urban setting. More than one rooster in a flock leads to fighting and even more noise. If you are able to keep a rooster, make sure all eggs are collected soon after laying and refrigerated to prevent a chick forming.

It is a good idea to purchase point of lay hens, who will a have few weeks to settle before laying their first eggs.  Chickens come in many different varieties, shapes and sizes.  Some breeds are able to lay one egg a day, others may lay unusual colored eggs, others may look more attractive.   Smaller chickens known as bantams, take up less space, eat less and make less mess but lay smaller eggs, so before purchasing determine your priority.  I have found the basic hybrid chickens to be the best for laying and the most easy going.  It is possible to mix different chicken breeds in one flock.  Buy at least two, as they prefer to live as a flock, but the amount you can keep depends on the space you have available.  If I replace any I tend to add them in pairs as they fight to determine pecking order, but with less fighting and hen damage than when one lone hen arrives.

After the first couple of years, egg production does decrease.  It also decreases in winter so they may need some form of heat or light, although I have never used these.  I just grit my teeth and begrudgingly buy eggs during times of lower egg production.

 

Housing

Find a sheltered place, as far from the house as you can as there is a certain smell from chickens –  their waste can attract flies and is sometimes dusty. If the chickens are healthy and kept clean then keeping them in the yard usually works out fine.  Their droppings are rich in nutrients and make fantastic garden fertilizer.

Chickens need to be kept in a secure chicken house, with an area for sleeping, preferably with a perch, some soft bedding of straw or wood shavings, and a nesting box for laying eggs. They also need an area where they can have a good dust bath.  A good hen house will allow for easy egg collection without needing to go in, but as chickens don’t read the chicken keeping books, and many other reasons, prefer to lay eggs anywhere but where they should. A practical solution some chicken owners have found is to wait until the hens have laid their eggs before letting them out, if they are going to be free range (HIGHLY recommended), so they can locate their  eggs.  You can choose to have a pen attached for exercise, or they can roam freely around the back yard during the day, if you have secure yard.  Be sure to make your fencing very secure. Smaller holes on the wire mesh can reduce access, but they can be quite determined, as can foxes and other predators.

Most chickens will roost and put themselves to bed at dusk so that all you need to do is shut the door behind them.

 

Food

Chickens eat all kinds of scraps of food, cooked or uncooked.  They also eat corn and other chicken food which can be purchased, including organic, depending on your requirements.  The yolks of the home chicken eggs are deep orange when they have a good diet including grass and other greens.  Watch out for any plants and vegetables or they will eat them, even container plants.

Chickens do need grit readily available which they eat to aid their digestion or they will get sick. You can get this from a feed store and make sure your grit bowl is always full.

Chickens need access to fresh water at all times.  Chicken water and food dispensers are available which can be topped up at least daily. Food can be left out for them in a gradual feeder or fed in the morning then removed at night, with spare food kept in metal bins away from the coop. All breeds of chicken are ferocious eaters and will eat even when full, so try and limit how much you put in or use an automated or gradual feeder.  If chicken food is easily accessible in any way you could end up feeding the local rodent population who could bring diseases to the flock. For further advice on chicken feed go to a local breeder, trusted pet store or agricultural food supplier.

 

Health

Chickens do occasionally suffer from health problems but they rarely need medical attention.

Mites and parasites can be controlled with powders and sprays, but if they have a good dust bath this is kept to a minimum. Diatomaceous earth is a great option as it is organic and works really well! There are other treatments and supplements available from pet stores or agricultural food suppliers but ask around! A local knowledgeable chicken keeper can provide excellent advice.  I paid a local vet a vast amount of money to visit our terminally ill first beloved chicken and put her  to sleep, as we held her little claw right till the end.   Most experienced chicken keepers and local farmers found that hilarious.  Now if it becomes necessary to dispatch them I hand them over to someone who knows how to do that.  I still can’t do that myself.

A word of warning.  Be careful not to get too close to beaks.  They can peck, particularly if startled. I was warned that chickens are attracted to shiny things including eyes, so carefully supervise young children as their eyes are chicken height.

After years of keeping a variety of other pets, when we added our back yard chickens we found a new interest.  My young son, who had long since tired of my pet rabbits, enjoyed watching the chickens, feeding them and collecting eggs, as much as he enjoyed occasionally herding them around the garden. We worried about the family cats attacking them but it soon became clear that the cats needed to keep out of the chickens’ way! The chickens were more dominant.  Even the neighborhood Tom cat knew to stay well clear.  We enjoy naming them, and each has had a character of their own.  We’ve had all sorts of chickens, a variety of breeds – some have been really timid, and some really cheeky.  One pair often used to wander into the house and were even found perching on the couch in the living room. We have also had cockerels in our flock from time to time, and as a result have hatched chicks.  We have watched the eggs hatch, and the mother hen gather her chicks under her wings to protect them. We have learned about life cycles, the food chain and about caring for, and valuing the needs of animals,  and our environment.  We also learned that roosters will protect the flock. One son also learned that roosters don’t like being squirted by water pistols…

Recently we bought two pure bred hens that were supposed to lay blue eggs.  Only one of them did, but we weren’t sure which one until one day I reached into the hen house to gather some eggs, and she laid a warm, slightly damp, blue egg straight into my hand. I dashed inside to boil it and it was ready to eat 6 minutes later – the ultimate fresh, locally produced food!  Actually it tasted like all the other eggs we get from the other hens, which in my opinion is fresher and nicer than any we buy. It’s good to know we can collect our own chickens’ fresh, healthy eggs, without even needing to travel further than the end of our back yard.

 

Further Information

http://www.backyardchickens.com

Check local by-laws and news reports for your location to check on legal issues and permissions to keep chickens in your area – they do vary!

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