Chickens make great pets but it's important that people do their research first. If you basically go out and buy a chicken without first researching the topic, you are in for some problems.
Chickens are pretty hardy and fairly cheap to feed. They will eat a variety of foods and there are special feeds on the market - including mash and pellets - to cater for the various stages of a chicken's life.
With basic care, a laying chook will live for three to six years, with some having been known to live to 10.
Hand-raised chooks will get to know you and will be up for being gently patted. Additionally, watching them fossick around is a great pastime. Debra from Book a Chook in Melbourne says if you think an aquarium is relaxing just wait until you've watched a hen scratch around for awhile. She thinks it's the ultimate in anti-stress therapy!
The first thing you need to know when considering acquiring a pet chicken is that they are flock animals, so they don't do well on their own. You should buy at least three to meet their social needs. It's important that you check with your local council for regulations on how many chickens you can keep in a back yard. For example, in Brisbane the limit is 20, and roosters are not permitted. But of course a rooster is not needed for a hen (an adult female chicken) to lay eggs.
The main reason that people keep chickens is for a daily supply of organic, free range eggs. Other benefits include keeping worms and bugs at bay - especially lawn grubs - and a continual supply of garden fertiliser.
In her first year, a hen may lay up to five eggs per week but her production will decline with age.
The downside to keeping chickens is the potential for vermin. Because there is plentiful feed, if the chook house is not kept clean and well netted, it can attract rats, mice and predators. So it's important that the chickens are housed appropriately and food isn't left lying around. Basic hygiene is imperative.
The Department of Primary Industries in Queensland recommends spending a few extra dollars to build a hen-house that is easy to manage.
The house should be easy to clean, free from draughts and be easy to enter. To get best results the hens need fresh feed and water every day. Watch for signs of disease; sick fowls may stop laying, some may die and others may recover but be poor layers.Poultry keepers have a duty of care for their welfare of their birds, as for other animals. You will need to find a vet who specialises in poultry and can guide you about the various poultry diseases.
Rats and mice may breed unless the shed is properly constructed and managed. The shed also needs bird-proofing or wild birds may introduce disease. The two types of housing recommended are the deep-litter unit and the cage system.
Councils may also have by-laws regulating the size of a backyard poultry shed and its site. Check with councils before building.
When it comes to food and water, commercially prepared feed should be used as it supplies the correct balance of protein, vitamins and minerals necessary for the bird's health and maximum production. Poultry feeds are available from produce merchants in mash, crumbles or pellet form. Make sure the feed is approved for the type of poultry to which it is fed. Feed manufacturers label their product accordingly - that is, suitable for chickens, growers, or layers.
To help your hens grind their food and digest it more efficiently, they should have an insoluble grit to pick at all the time. Shellgrit or calgrit also helps the hen build stronger egg shells.
Feed should be available to the birds at all times. Self feeders are recommended. To avoid feed wastage, adjust the height of the feeder trough level with the hen's back and do not fill troughs more than half-full. Clean the feeders regularly and remove stale, wet or mouldy feed.
Novices tend to think that chickens will eat whatever scraps they are given. There is a legal requirement aimed at combating the introduction and spread of exotic animal diseases so no animal matter, or other waste contaminated by animal matter, is allowed to be fed. While it is okay to feed poultry vegetable matter from the kitchen (where there is no risk of its being contaminated by animal matter) or the garden, it must never be substituted for the birds' normal diet. As a guide, feed small amounts that the flock will eat in five to 10 minutes. Avoid scraps that are high in salt or contaminated with insecticide. Silver beet, cabbage or cauliflower leaves can be given to hens. Fresh lawn clippings are excellent but large amounts are not recommended as they tend to go mouldy before being eaten.
As an egg is made up of 70 to 75 per cent water, laying hens need a constant supply of fresh, clean water. Water troughs must be kept clean and shaded from the sun.
If you think you are up to maintaining the appropriate housing, feeding and care requirements, it's time to think about what types of chickens to get.
You can acquire day old chickens or "point-of-lay" pullets (female chicken). If you buy day-old chickens you should ask the supplier to confirm the chicks have been vaccinated against common diseases such as fowl pox and Marek's disease.
It is important to incubate chickens at the correct temperature in an area free of draughts and with plenty of light. Young chickens should have clean, fresh water and feed at all times. Keep an eye on the chicks, especially during the early brooding period and make sure they are comfortable. Use a chicken starter mash or crumble during this brooding period. (You will need to read up more on incubating chicks.)
The point-of-lay pullet is around 18 weeks old and should start laying when she is about 22 to 24 weeks old. The four to six week period between purchase and first egg allows the pullet to get used to her new surroundings and settle in.
It is not recommended to mix birds of different ages and colours as this can upset the flocks established pecking order.
Commercial crossbred pullets are the best performers under most conditions as they are good layers, not prone to broodiness and don't eat as much as other breeds. Which ever breed you do choose, make sure they are purchased from a reputable supplier. There are specially bred birds, for egg-laying and for table purposes.
Laying chickens are commonly bred from White Leghorn/Australorp crosses but several other new crosses are also available such as Pekin Bantams, Old English Game Hens, Frizzles and Indian Game. The meat type chickens originated from White Leghorn, Australorp, Indian Game, Rhode Island Red, New Hampshire and other breeds. They can also be used for egg production but do not perform as well as the layer types.
For more information be sure to read up on the topic and search the internet. There are plenty of good books around to help you prepare for your new pet. Once you have all the information you need, your household poultry flock will be a rewarding hobby that supplies fresh eggs and natural fertiliser for the garden.For more information on caring for your pet chicken and chicken shed options, phone your state department of primary industries or check their website. For local regulations on the number and type of poultry you can keep and shed requirements, contact your local council.