“The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.” ~ Arnold H. Glasow
Ah, chickens. You know how much I love them.
This month, our coop has had a bit of a population explosion.
We have our own three lovely ladies, plus we are minding a few chickens from the kid’s school for the holidays, plus two more chicken refugees from a friend who could no longer keep hers.
Seven chickens in total. (Actually, it should be eight, but sadly, one of the old chickens from the kids’ school got sick and died, and now rests under the passionfruit vine.)
You’ve decided to get chickens! Excellent news.
So how many chickens should I get for my backyard?
My council allows up to a dozen chickens in our area, which is pretty generous. Other Perth councils have a maximum of six, I’m not aware of any council that bans them entirely. Of course, there are some guidelines around the construction of the coop, the area provided for each chicken and the distance of the coop from the road/fenceline. Attempting to keep chickens on your balcony or courtyard will likely result in a visit from your Ranger. Don’t do it!
But frankly, you don’t want to start with a dozen chickens if you have no previous chicken experience.
I like to recommend three chickens for the new chook owner. One chicken is just miserable, two chickens tend to pick on each other all day long, whereas three seems to be just right. If you can, source all three, same breed chickens from the same, reputable supplier.
When you introduce your chickens to your coop, provide more than one water and food source. A chicken at the bottom of the pecking order can commonly be denied access to the sole food and water supply by the boss-hens so more than one source improves her chances of survival and cuts down on squabbling.
Plus, starting with a small flock gives you an idea of what level of feed they need, how much poop they produce, how much maintenance is required and how much (if any) noise they make in consideration to your neighbours.
But wait! You want MORE?
Should you decide three chickens are so great you want more, there are some steps you can take to ensure the introduced chickens have an optimum chance to thrive. The strategies below are also good ideas to try to settle an existing, rowdy flock if you have chickens already.
Stick to the same breed.
Some breeds of chicken are more aggressive than others and don’t take well to mixing with other breeds. It pays do some research before you introduce them to each other.
Make sure you have enough foraging area.
My council mandates at least 0.3 m2 per chicken which I happen to think is woefully small. Crowded chickens will fight, with certainty. The more space you can afford them, the better. I think at least a 1.00 m2 is an acceptable start for home chickens, if you have a larger area where they can be let out to forage. Keep in mind the maximum for free range chickens is 2,500 chickens per hectare which is 4 m2 per bird.
Quarantine your new chickens.
If you possibly can, put the new chickens into a separate space to quarantine them to ensure they have no transferable diseases or pests for at least a fortnight. Quarantining also reduces the stress of introductions.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to quarantine all the school chickens, so they went straight in with my existing girls. And by the end of the week, I noticed red mites clustered around the pecked comb of one of the school chickens. Admittedly, the stress of the change of environment likely would have made the chickens more susceptible to mites. I cleaned out and treated the entire coop and flock.
I’m paranoid about mites and have kept a close watch since, but no further infestations have happened.
The school chickens go back to school in a fortnight’s time, so I will ensure to treat the chickens and coop again a week before, just to ensure that I’m not inadvertently returning mites with the chickens!
Prepare for some kerfuffle.
Understand there will be some squawking and fighting for a day or two until the new pecking order is established. While it is tempting to intervene and scold, (which is exactly what Miss 11 tried to do) the best thing is to just let them get on with it, so they can quickly get over it. Of course, keep an eye on them. An injured, bleeding bird will be vulnerable and may need to be quarantined for the sake of her health.
A heads-up to your neighbours with an assurance of some shared fresh eggs is usually enough to make that noisy transition time peaceful for humans too!
Supply extra feeding and watering stations.
Consider supplying another feeding and watering station, for the same reason as mentioned above. A bullied chicken needs more options to eat and drink!
Supply extra roosting boxes
More chickens, more eggs, more demand for roosting boxes! I supplied my chickens an extra three boxes, two cardboard boxes, one recycled plastic covered cat litter tray. They clearly favoured the litter box for laying eggs, but the other boxes were popular for shelter and retreating from the rest of the flock. You will need at least one roosting box for every three chickens. And don’t be too surprised if they all eventually end up using the same one.
Provide some chicken enrichment activities.
This strategy I borrowed from my kids Kindergarten teacher. When you get a bunch of new kids together, it helps if you have a lot of activities to distract them and keep them occupied. I put in a few old chairs destined for the recycle center (they were discovered at kerb-collection) to provide alternative roosts. I even strung up a swing roost recycled from the kid’s playset, but so far, I haven’t witnessed any of them using it.
A few lettuce “pinatas” hanging from the ceiling can keep a pecky chook otherwise busy. I also have hung an empty hanging basket that I dump all the kitchen scraps into. This time of year (it’s summer down under) a frozen ice block with scraps inside is popular, as is a frozen watermelon.
If you want to get really fancy (and have a couple of school-holiday-bored kids on your hands), you could string up some cut fruit on some cooking twine and tie into the run.
Piles of worm castings, compost or even a hay bale for them to scratch through will also keep them busy enough to distract them from each other.
So there you go, you’re on your way to urban chicken-bliss! Do you have any tricks that work for you? Any other questions? I would love to hear from you! Please leave me a message in the comments.