What comes first, the chicken or the egg?
In my situation, it was definitely the chicken. On the anniversary of ‘the gals’ (as they have become known) coming to live with us, I thought it was an appropriate time to discuss why a couple of ‘plant based eaters’ bothered to go to the trouble of putting chickens in the back yard.
Like the hoop house story, it is a story born out of the Covid-19 lockdown.
For more years than I care to think about, I have coveted the idea of having chickens roaming the back garden. I am a romantic at heart. The idea of stepping outside and finding happy, clucking chickens wandering about the garden, turning over the soil and picking at pests appealed to me more than I cared to admit—even to myself.
The issue, of course, is always space, time (local authorities!) and what you actually want to do with your back garden. My situation wasn’t helped by the fact that I have a son who has a bird phobia. Yes, it’s a thing and it’s called, Ornithophobia. We still don’t know why he suffers, but we think it might have something to do with a swan at our local lake.
Anyway, when he found out that I’d invested in chooks (he was living in London at the time) he swore he was never coming home. But I’m pleased to announce that he’s here and he even ventures out to the chook house when I’m not home to tuck them in at night. So, he’s testament to the fact that phobias can be managed. But he still doesn’t like it when the gals move at pace.
As I write this, the gals are sheltering from a southerly storm that is gripping the country. We have built them a sturdy chicken coop, but they didn’t start out with such sturdy housing and I know that I’m going to be able to write an entire blog post about their housing, so keep an eye out for that.
Of course, I’m getting way ahead of myself. There were questions that I had to ask myself before I decided that I was going to add the gals to our back garden.
These are some of the questions I (and many people) ask before committing to chickens:
Can I keep backyard chickens?
In New Zealand the answer to this question is a firm, ‘yes’. Where I live in Auckland my local council says that I can keep 6 chickens but I may not keep a rooster. You don’t need a rooster for the gals to lay eggs, but you do need a rooster if you want fertilised eggs to breed chicks.
I also have to take care to make sure that the chicken coop is not situated too close to the boundary and that my chooks do not cause a nuisance to my neighbours.
The gals’ coop is situated just in front of my bedroom window, so if there are ever any issues with noise (there is!) or smell (there’s not) I will be the first to know about it. My chooks also free range, but we’ll get to that.
We discovered once the gals started laying that they like to ‘announce’ to the world that they’ve laid an egg. I got terribly concerned about the noise and the neighbours. A quick trip to those most affected by the noise (aside from me!) confirmed that my neighbours love hearing the chooks sing the songs of their people.
Now that we’re in winter (and the gals have taken a break from laying) the neighbours have advised me that they actually miss the cheery announcements of another egg in the nest box.
What chickens should I choose for my backyard?
That depends entirely upon what you want them for. As plant eaters we were not in this for the eggs. I’ve always wanted chickens for their gardening capabilities, their powerful poop and their ability to help with pests in the garden.
For the above reasons, our choice was a heritage breed, lavender araucana. They are lovely pets, even if sometimes they chatter and behave like a bunch of dizzy teenagers. They don’t tend to fly (much) they have a gentle nature (until they get broody!) and they like turning over the garden looking for bugs.
The bonus is that they also look absolutely adorable and they lay green/blue eggs.
Do your research and look for the traits that you want in a chicken.
Are you more interested in egg production? Then you might want to look at a brown shaver. Do you want pretty pets and you don’t have much room? Then silkies might be the answer. Like me, do you want birds to turn over the garden—then araucana’s are your bird. Also, as a first-time-chicken owner, I wanted chickens that would be reasonably placid and easy to mange. That’s the other reason I chose araucana’s they have the most delightful nature and are more like pets than livestock.
How many chickens should I have in my backyard flock?
I decided on four. I really only wanted three, but I was terrified that I might mange to kill one and then I’d only be left with two birds. As chickens are a flock animal, I wanted to make sure that there was enough of them that they felt safe, but not that many that I had trouble managing them in our small back garden.
As it turns out, I’d happily add another two to my small flock, but integrating new birds into an established flock has issues. They call it a ‘pecking order’ for a reason. I think I could probably write an entire post on what I’ve learned about adding new chickens to an established flock.
What about rescue hens for my backyard?
I thought about rescue hens and I fully support the rescue hen movement.
Unfortunately, I know how attached I become to anything and it doesn’t just have to be a living thing! Ask my dearly beloved about my connection to ALL THE THINGS!
So, having done my research and knowing that rescue hens are a commercial breed that are bred solely for massive egg production, weighing up how long they are likely to live after they come out of the laying sheds (despicable places!) and wanting my birds more for garden services than egg production, I decided to give rescue hens a miss.
On the other hand, rescues may be perfect for what you want and there’s no denying the wonderful stories I’ve heard about people who change the lives of rescues—one hen at a time.
How do I house my backyard chickens?
There are many ways to house the backyard flock.
We looked at a lot of the commercial backyard chicken houses that were professionally built in New Zealand and were astounded at the expense.
In hindsight, having ordered a flat pack from the internet and ‘modified’ it, we probably would have been better off making the investment in the NZ made product in the first place.
However, having said that, we now have a perfect coop that fits our ideal space and I’m happy that our chooks are housed in a coop that will keep them safe.
We have been through a fairly hot summer and have been through some really wet parts of winter thus far and our chooks have stayed cool in the summer and warm and dry this winter.
I’ll do a separate post on how we built the chook house. It deserves one of its own!
Our main concern was predator-proofing the coop. We don’t have snakes or foxes here in New Zealand, but we live across the road from a wetland reserve and we are concerned about weasels and stoats. Our solution has been to completely enclose the run in wire mesh, so even if predators try to tunnel into the coop at night, they won’t be able to get through the mesh—good for keeping out the local rat population as well.
What should I feed my backyard chickens?
I was led to believe that chickens will eat just about anything—but I’ve found that not to be the case. My girls will eat lots of things in the vegetable garden that they’re not supposed to eat—and have taken a shine to fruit tree blossom!
Silverbeet (chard), however appears not to be on the menu. I can’t blame them for leaving it alone because they prefer to graze the comfrey that I grow around the garden. The bees are missing out on comfrey flowers as well, because they also seem to be at the top of the girls’ menu items.
My girls free range during the day, but they also have a commercial grain available to them in a feeder. I take this feeder out of their coop at night, because I don’t want to attract predators (especially in winter, when food is short). This also encourages them to ‘clean up’ the mess that they drop on the floor.
Thus far, the local sparrow population do not seem to have found the feeder (crosses all the things). It may be because there is a plastic roof over the coop which keeps the whole area dry.
Can I leave my chickens in their coop?
You absolutely can, as long as they have enough room to scratch, dust bathe and get away from each other if anyone is picking on anyone else.
We have made the coop big enough so that if we we want, we can load enough food and water in the coop and leave the girls for a couple of days and know that they will be okay. We haven’t actually had to do this (yet) but it’s all part of the bigger plan that we had in mind when we made the coop.
The girls are also on a deep litter system, which means that there is plenty for them to scratch around in during the day if they choose to remain in their coop—which they tend to do on windy and rainy days.
I’ll do another post on the deep litter system.
Is it worth having backyard chickens?
That’s an absolute ‘yes’ from me.
My girls are better than therapy! I can go out to the coop (or the garden if they’re out and about) and they will come and say ‘hello’.
They follow me around when I am gardening. I like to think it’s because they like the company, but really I think it’s because I disturb the insects and they find lots more to eat.
Their ‘poop’ is incorporated into the garden system and it’s like ‘super grow’ fertiliser. I swear that the fruit on our trees has doubled in size since the girls have been in residence.
It’s taken me a long time to take the plunge and invest in my small flock, but it’s certainly worth it. Not only do the girls supply us with fresh eggs during the summer months, but they have become an indispensable part of the garden ecosystem.
Like I said at the outset, I’m not in this for the eggs—but they are appreciated. I simply love having the girls around as part of the garden landscape. They make me laugh, they bring me much joy and they also get me out of bed on cold, winter mornings because they demand to be fed.
Love & Lettuce,