When we eat them, they're in plastic from the supermarket and they're called chickens. When they live in modern-day yards, and they say brrrrr, have baths in dust, and stare at you through the kitchen window, most of us can't bring ourselves to eat them. Then, they're called chooks.
Keeping chooks in your backyards for eggs is rewarding. But just take note - these little critters will get under your skin.
If you are looking at getting a couple of chooks, here are a few pointers to start off with.
Safety - Shelter Me
It might seem like a chicken's life is pretty cruisy and hassle-free. Just hour after hour of scratching in the dirt and eating. Which is true - chickens do not suffer financial stress, job insecurity or relationship issues.
But then humans, in comparison, don't have to worry about a fox coming into your bed and eating you in the night if someone has accidentally left your front door open. Which is what happened to my poor chooks. Even though suburbia might sometimes seem beige and danger-free, when darkness falls, foxes prowl. And they love a good plump chicken breast as much as we do.
You have a choice with chickens, whether to let them range free during the day or whether to keep them confined in some way. Free-range is wonderful, and very appealing for those of us with hippy tendencies, but in a situation like mine we are in outer suburbia and commonly without fences between our properties, chooks can roam into other people's yards and get eaten by other people's dogs - which also happened to me. My neighbours adore my chooks roaming in their garden, so there was no hassle with them, but unfortunately the chooks slipped under the makeshift fence at the back of their property and a dog got one of the hens.
Even in a well-fenced property, animals can still sometimes slip under gates, or gates can be left open. So you'll need to balance freedom against safety and consider how free you're going to let your chooks range. An alternative to keeping them all day in a coop is a portable coop on wheels, commonly called a chicken tractor, that you can move around your yard.
Whichever way you decide, at night your chickens will definitely need to be shut up and housed. Wooden chook pens are available to buy from retail outlets or online. Searching on places like Gumtree will yield cheaper options than in the stores.
Chookhouses generally contain a free area for scratching and eating in, and a sleeping section. Chickens like to roost at night, up off the ground, and so generally you will be supplied a roosting perch. A good idea too is to buy a chookhouse that has a nesting box. Lay down some fresh bedding in the nesting box for the hens to sit on. A golf ball placed in the house will encourage hens to lay.
Food A bag of pellet food will provide the basis for your chicken's food. They also like some extra greenery, so scraps from the kitchen are appreciated. If they're free-ranging, you may find that they are getting enough greenery pecking at weeds throughout their day. My chickens were not all that excited about the kitchen scraps I fed them - but they would kill for a piece of bread.
You will need to check when buying pellets that it is a formulation for laying hens. You will also need to check whether it contains grit. Chickens don't have teeth, so the grit that they eat with their food helps to digest it. Free-ranging chickens can often find enough grit on their own, but coop chooks will need an extra source of supply if it is not included in their pellet feed.
A fresh source of water should always be available.
If you're primarily keeping chickens to lay eggs, probably the best breed are Isa Browns. They tend to lay large brown eggs almost year-round, and have sweet temperaments. You can check out some other breeds of chickens here.
What you will be looking for for an egg-laying chook is what is called "point of lay." A "pullet" is a hen under a year old, and "point of lay" is when they are at ... well, the point where they are about to lay, or have just started. This is generally somewhere around four to five months old.
The first time you see an egg in the nesting box is a proud experience. It's almost as if you've laid it yourself. The eggs will begin small, but you will notice them growing as the hen grows in size too.
Roosters are not required if you are looking at havings hens to lay eggs. They will lay them anyway; they just won't be fertilised. (Having said that, if you do have a rooster and they fertilise your eggs - no problem. You can still eat them without any problems at all).
I never thought I would ever have a rooster, but the way I began having chooks at all was when Tristan came wandering into my backyard. A check with the neighbours revealed that he had been wandering around for at least the last couple of weeks. He began roosting in a tree, and I was suddenly the owner of a rooster.
Plenty of people do not have roosters in their chicken flocks. Indeed, there are differing regulations amongst councils about having them, so you will need to check with yours before you plan on going down this route. For me, having a rooster in my first flock has made me wonder now if I can resist having one in my next. There is something very endearing about roosters and chickens together. Roosters are rather old-fashioned in their behaviour when it comes to food. When they find something that takes their fancy, they will squeal in excitement, and the hens come running. Then they stand back and let the hens have their fill first before they begin eating. All very gentlemanly, but their behaviour in the mating department is rather the opposite. No foreplay. Jump on. Over. That's it.
(And just in case you were wondering - chickens do not have penises. They both have what is called a cloaca, and when they come in contact the hen receives the rooster's sperm. All rather unromantic, really.)
If you are considering getting a rooster, there are a few things you can try to stop them crowing in the mornings and infuriating you and your neighbours. As mentioned before, chickens roost. For a rooster to crow it must stretch its neck out. If your roost is high enough to the roof of the chookhouse, there will not be enough room for the rooster to stretch his neck and thus, peace for you. (And while this did not work for me for some reason, may I wish you luck).
You can also darken the coop in some way. I also tried this, but it didn't really work either. I find ear plugs work really well. My rooster was a Light Sussex bantam, so he was much smaller than a regular rooster, which also meant his crow was quieter.
Keeping backyard chooks will provide you with plenty of good fertiliser for your garden. They're friendly little critters, and you might find yourself quite attached to them. Highly recommended.
Wonderful article! Very informative. Reminds me of when I used to have a pet chicken myself. I was never very sure about its gender though, as we originally believed it to be female (it looked like a hen) but it never laid eggs and started crowing in the mornings.
I have my chickens roam around our yard and I keep them in their chicken coop at night to keep them away from any predators. I raise them to have fresh eggs everyday and also love them when they are taking their sand bath.
What an excellent article! So well worded and instructive, it makes me feel like rushing out and buying some chickens. I actually looked at a chicken coop which was so well set up, for our 2 cats, though on reading this I'd opt out for the chickens!