Raising backyard chooks: why it’s not all it’s cracked up to be 

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Fresh eggs are one of the benefits of raising chickens at home

I’ve been on the chook roster at our community garden for over a decade: happily putting their little feathery butts to bed on Saturday evenings and mucking out their stilt-house (it has rafters for straw storage, perches for roosting and plenty of nesting boxes for the all-important egg laying). I’ve fed, watered, medicated and even chauffered them to the vet, on the odd occasion. The rewards have been great: more fresh eggs than I could possibly count and watching with wonder the pecking order and hierarchal shenanigans of a suburban hen house.

But would I raise chooks in my own backyard? Probably not. Unfortunately, plenty of people come to this same conclusion after they have acquired chooks. How do I know this? Because I’ve seen the ignorant ramifications of it more times than I like to remember.

As a long-standing community garden with an established — and well looked after chook pen — we seem to be the default dump-a-chook destination. We’ve had more chicks, hens and baby roosters dumped in, or beside, our garden than I care to remember. And why do I not want to remember? Because on a number of occasions the outcome has been hideously dire.

This week two new chooks turned up in the garden. They’re a little timid and young, but seem healthy and well looked after so who knows why their owner decided to off-load them. So far they seem to have assimilated quite well into the established fold, although they’re clearly at the bottom of the pecking order. One of our newcomers was tucking into a leafy green when an incumbent chook waddled up to her and took it right out of her beak. The new girl froze in submission. She’s one of the lucky ones.

Recently three hens were abandoned on the sports field adjacent to our garden: we took in two but unfortunately a third was attacked and killed by a dog. Similarly a few years ago a number of young chickens were dumped by the garden and attacked, most likely by a feral cat. We’ve had chicks thrown over the fence and left to fend for themselves amongst a brood of incumbent full-grown chooks, who are more likely to peck the life out of a fluffy, defenseless chick than welcome it into the fold for a group hug.

People have turned up and pressed unwanted chooks onto us. But always when adding newcomers to the brood, we do it slowly — step-by-step. We tend to segregate newcomers into a smaller chook-house at night, or separate them in a designated part of the pen so they don’t get attacked, or picked on. They’re introduced incrementally to the brood. They’ll always be at the bottom of the pecking order, but it’s a far safer introduction.

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We used to have a rooster, Wilfred, who was the love of our communal life. One day I turned up at the garden to find another rooster in the pen with him. They were engaged in full-scale cockfight. Someone — someone stupid, or cruel — had scaled the fence, opened the gate to the pen and tossed their unwanted rooster in. I can’t begin to explain the horror of having to separate two fighting roosters — it’s the kind of fight-to-the-death mentality that you don’t want to interfere with barehanded — or the distress of picking up a wounded, hurting and bleeding rooster (not our Wilfred, thankfully) and drive it to the local vet, as I cried like a child.

Backyard chooks bring lots of benefits: first up, they’re downright adorable, it’s a great way to teach children how to nurture an animal, and to explain the beginnings of the food chain: eggs come from hens, not from cartons in the supermarket.

At the garden the chooks are our little mascots: few people walk past and don’t stop to look, chat, inquire about our lovely brood. Then there are the eggs. Organic, fresh, free range eggs with plump yolks that plop into a bowl and turn omelettes and scrambled eggs buttercup yellow, not an insipid pasty colour. Mayonnaise made from home-grown eggs is a gorgeous pale yellow colour, not pallid off-white.

But raising backyard chooks is not always what it’s cracked up to be. Eggs aren’t guaranteed. Hens can go off the lay with the season, with stress, and with age. I suspect many backyard chooks are dumped because they don’t lay (or pay their way). Instead of working out what is wrong and trying to optimise their living conditions, people just abandon them.

Hens can also attract vermin, including rats that seek out eggs and food scraps. If you don’t clean our your chicken coop daily, flies will also be attracted to their excrement and mosquitos to stagnant water sources.

We hand-powder our chickens with an organic treatment to deter lice, scaly feet are rubbed with vaseline, sick chooks are taken home and nursed back to health, or go to the vet for medication if symptoms persist. Along with their daily grain intake they receive plenty of greens from the garden, calcium-rich poultry grit (which helps form strong egg shells) and plenty of treats. I take them sardines, another member gives them grated carrot, and in the hot summer months they’re given lots of chopped cucumber,  watermelon and squashed grapes, the water content of each helps keep them hydrated. Like any animal, or pet, they need to be looked after and nurtured.

I know of plenty of backyard chooks that are loved, and well looked after and doted on. They’re the lucky ones.

If you’re going to dump a chook, don’t throw them into a pen with an incumbent flock, or abandon them on public parkland hoping someone will take them in. Man up to your mistake and knock on our gate, explain your predicament and we’ll very likely take them in.

There are now 13 in our ragbag brood. Hopefully the new girls will fit in.

Long live chooks!

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14 Comments

Filed under Reflections

14 responses to “Raising backyard chooks: why it’s not all it’s cracked up to be 

  1. Enjoyed reading about your chookies. My chooks live to a ripe old age mostly and then are buried under a tree or shrub. Unfortunately my goldens cant resist the opportunity to chase them so when the chooks are out, the dogs are contained and vice versa. Joy

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    • We, too, have a chook cemetery dotted around the garden. A flower bed was built over our lovely rooster, Wilfred’s, resting place. I like the sound of your dogs and chooks chasing each other. Our chooks have got a pretty impressive peck, if you catch them in the wrong mood!

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  2. Maureen | Orgasmic Chef

    That’s awful. When I had my chooks I was accused of being an idiot because I cleaned out their house every day, dusted them, took them for walks, dug slugs for them to eat and tossed them peas to watch them run after them. When it went to over 40 degrees for 3 days and one of the girls died of heatstroke, I got an evaporative cooler for outside their pen. Nothing like seeing the girls flap their wings in front of the coolish air. My husband thought I’d lost the plot.

    I didn’t. I loved watching them and found it to be one of the most relaxing things I’ve ever done.

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    • Maureen, you’ve just catapulted yourself to the top of my ‘hero worship’ list for equipping your chook pen with an evaporative cooler and taking them for walks! What a woman. I know where I want to live if i come back, in another life, as a hen!

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  3. There’s no doubt that lots of folk don’t take into account what they will do with old hens when they embrace backyard chooks. There will come a time when hard decisions must be made about what to do with ladies who are off the lay. We are lucky as we have the space to let ours live out their days in peace, although I have to say that our rooster doesn’t agree. I have noticed that he was quite unpleasant to one of the older girls just before she died.

    You are much kinder to new inductees than we are. When I first needed to add to our flock I consulted the permaculture expert who helped us in the early days. His advice was to just put them in and walk away, the easiest option for us but not necessarily the hens. Even so, the unpleasantness doesn’t seem to last long.

    I’ve always liked Maureen, but like her even more now that I know she bought a cooler for her chooks. What a woman.

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    • Thanks for your thoughtful response, Amanda. Yes … those tough decisions, I don’t envy the backyard chook keepers who have to make them. Oddly enough, most of the abandoned chooks that have been shunted our way have been young (and usually) in reasonably good health. I suspect they’re dumped because they’re not laying – for whatever reason – or the owner has realised there is more to it than just collecting eggs each morning. I suspect neighbours who complain about the noise/smell/vermin are another problem. Hope your chooks are healthy and happy, Amanda x

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  4. i agree with absolutely every word you have written here, rachel. keeping chickens is rewarding and relaxing, but it is work, as i have seen with my parents’ flock (currently 24; they live happily and truly free-range). and there can be bloodbaths and senseless fights as you have portrayed.
    i am so glad you have also drawn attention to the dumping of chickens. we have a problem here in tassie with people dumping roosters and chickens by the side of the road in certain known locations. it’s kinds nice to drive along and see all these magnificent roosters, but i then my thoughts turn to how cruel and cowardly those humans were to leave them to fend for themselves in the bush and amongst the feral cats.
    i am going to tell my dad about maureen’s cooler. i think he would have the same reaction as your hubby, maureen, but it’s a beautiful thought.

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    • Yes, we’ve had a lot of unwanted young roosters left on our doorstep. I can’t believe you have a stretch of roadway that is renowned for rooster dumping. You are right, Elizabeth. People are cruel. I hope your parents’ flock is healthy and happy. 24 – wow!

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  5. Man, some people are such utter shits. I sat with mouth open in shock reading your account of the horrifying rooster fight – who the hell does that? I will never understand how people can do this sort of thing.

    We’ve been thinking about getting a couple of chooks for our garden, so this really piqued my interest. It has given me pause to consider whether we can really look after them properly and I think that yes we probably can, but I’m nervous. I’ve signed up to do a one day ‘intro keeping chooks’ type of class in a few weeks time so we’ll make a decision after that.

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    • Good on you for signing up to your intro to keeping chooks class, Erin. A wise move and i’m sure you’ll come out it ready to make an informed decision. Chooks are certainly lovely to have around. Best of luck!

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  6. Eek, sounds rough! I had backyard chooks in Malaysia years ago, and I think in some ways it may be easier there. Ours knew that their home was with us, but they were also free to wander around the neighbourhood. They were actually jungle fowls so they could fly as well, which was very cool, and allowed them to escape their enemies.

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  7. lizzygoodthings

    Such an interesting and enlightening post, Rachel. I haven’t ever kept chickens, though my father sometimes had a chook or two running around our back garden in the 1960s. Now I know why he didn’t continue with it. Peter and I have a large courtyard at The Blue House, so keeping birds is off the agenda, but we sometimes look lovingly at The Gourmet Farmer, etc, thinking how nice it might be to have chickens. Your post has made me realise that perhaps we really don’t have time to look after them properly. Thanks. And what rotters people are, just dumping unwanted birds on the community coop!

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