Backyard chickens are increasing in popularity across Australia, as more people discover how wonderful, engaging and full of personality they are, and realise the appeal of fresh, homegrown eggs on their doorstep.
Not only do backyard-laid eggs taste great, but producing your own eggs ensures your chickens have a good quality of life.
However, caring for these curious creatures takes time and effort.
There are a few things you need to know to ensure you will have happy hens and be rewarded with delicious poached eggs on a Sunday morning.
Companionship is key
Chickens are highly social creatures.
As a prey species, they feel safer in large groups and prefer to spend their time in the company of other chickens.
Giving them the opportunity to socialise and express themselves is important, so consider having at least three hens in your backyard chook flock, preferably more.
Hens can also bond with humans provided you spend some quality time with them.
This is most successful when they are young.
You will quickly realise chooks have quirky, individual personalities just like cats and dogs, and become loved companion animals for many who welcome them into their lives.
Secure, spacious shelter
One of the best things you can do for your chickens is ensure they have a safe space to live. Chicken coops can be purchased, or you may opt to make your own.
Coops should be designed with an indoor and outdoor space with room to sleep, perch and lay eggs in relative privacy.
The indoor space should be well protected from the elements and provide a place to retreat if it rains or gets too hot.
The outdoor space should have enough room for the chickens to display normal behaviours such as moving around, exploring, foraging, scratching, pecking, dust bathing and flapping their wings.
Many commercially sold chicken coops are too small and do not provide adequate space for your hens.
The exact amount of space your hens will require depends on the breed, age and size of your hens, as well as the type of house and external environmental conditions.
Provide as large an enclosure as possible. At an absolute minimum to ensure hens have enough space, they should have at least two to 3.5 square metres each, but ideally their enclosure should be larger than this. If you want to let your chickens roam freely around your backyard it is advisable to supervise them at all times.
Alternatively, create a large, safely-contained and predator-free area they can enjoy.
Healthy hens, healthy eggs
Looking after the mental and physical wellbeing of your chickens is critical for their happiness and, happy, healthy hens are more likely to lay high quality eggs for you.
When hens get bored or stressed, they can develop unwanted behaviours, such as feather pecking or bullying other birds. Enriching the lives of hens is quite simple.
Make sure they have a clean living space and have a variety of interesting foods to eat including fruit, vegetables, grains and leaves; these can be made even more enjoyable for the hens by hanging up their food so they can leap for it/pluck and peck at it and using interactive treat dispensers (such as a plastic water bottle with holes).
They should also have types of enrichment provided such as dust bathing areas with different types of substrate (like sand, peat moss or wood shavings), straw bales, platforms and perches or even swings.
Hens also need to be wormed and treated for external parasites like mites routinely, so check with your veterinarian about how and how often to do this.
Regular handling of your birds will also help identify any signs of mites, wounds, feather loss or parasites.
Take care of your chooks
Like any animal, chickens require love, care, enrichment and access to good quality food, shelter, water and medicine. Having chooks can be an extremely rewarding decision, but owners must put in time and effort to ensure birds live a happy, healthy life.