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.
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!