There are lots of great sustainability reasons to keep chickens, such as gobbling up food scraps and eating pesky weeds we don’t want to put in the compost. Keeping chickens in the suburbs also means you can enjoy a bit of the rural good life in your backyard and the perks of urban life outside the front door.
Chickens keep us amused with their quirky personalities and provide opportunities for children to engage with and look after animals. All going well, they will also regularly deliver us as a gift a delicious free-range, still-warm, fresh egg. In exchange, we need to provide them with food, shelter and space to do their chickeny things.
But what do chickens really want and need?
A new book, What your chickens want you to know: Backyard chicken-keeping in Aotearoa, by Dr. Andrea Graves, promises to explain everything.
* Six reasons why having chickens in your backyard isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
* Designer chicken coops: From chandeliers to AC, how some owners pamper their pets
* Study finds concerning amounts of lead in backyard chickens and eggs
* An egg a day is the reward for keeping a hen in your backyard
* Talking Rubbish: Chickens make great pets and waste disposers
Answers found in chicken poop
Studying for a doctorate in animal behavior science at Oxford University, Graves says her relationship with chickens began in a laboratory – where she spent a good deal of time studying chicken poo, collecting the brown-and-white blobs, freeze-drying and grinding it up to look for signs of stress hormones.
Ethology is a division of biology exploring the theory that behavior might be shaped by evolution in the same way bodies are. Graves brings her knowledge of this area as well as her practical experience with keeping chickens to develop ways to keep chickens that keep them happy, healthy chickens that align with their primal instincts.
Graves says chicken minds reflect where they came from before humans began to corral them, so your chicken-keeping habits need to weave around the needs that result from those origins.
“Chickens have stubbornly quirky minds. There is no point negotiating with them about being anything other than thoroughly chicken”, she says.
Written specifically for New Zealanders, this readable guide how to fit chickens into your backyard, even if it is small, satisfy their foraging obsessions, provide what they need to stay happy and healthy, manage their social lives and use them to grow healthy food.
Chickens are hardy, resilient creatures that survive a range of conditions, but as Graves says, that doesn’t mean it’s fair to ignore their instinctive needs. For an animal to be provided with the best possible welfare and kept in the best health, it must be in an environment that suits it.
Experiments have revealed that to get to a nest box, chickens will push as hard against a heavy door as they will to get food and water. A strongly built coop, some sort of weatherproof structure to keep your chickens out of the rain and wind, will become the center of their universe.
Chickens are descended from junglefowl of Southeast Asia, India and China. An animal’s chances of surviving in the wild rest on those instincts and behaviors. They are so fundamental to an animal that many of them remain intact despite millennia of domestication.
Although chickens seem to have come a long way from their jungle origins, they have changed much less than might be expected, for instance the chicken that never previously left its shed will lunge for cover if a hawk flies overhead.
Chicken keeping 101 starts with these basics:
Get a coop with a nest box and a perch.
Decide where to put it in your garden – some sun and shade are ideal.
If you can, make a fenced-off pen outside the coop to give the birds some space (while protecting your garden).
Add a few chickens. They are flock animals so like to have company.
Keep them fed and watered.
Collect and eat their eggs.
A strongly built coop, some sort of weatherproof structure to keep your chickens out of the rain and wind, will become the center of their universe. They don’t need to be flash and together with a run can be created using repurposed materials, such as the pool fence with extra strips woven through (pictured above).
This book is a handy read for anyone with, or considering getting, chickens.
What Your Chickens Want You To Know – Backyard Chicken Keeping in Aotearoa, by Dr Andrea Graves, $29.99, is published by Potton & Burton.