The keeping of backyard chooks is an age-old tradition which we are pleased to see returning to our area. Chickens are full of personality and turn a regular suburban backyard into a hive of activity. You will be amazed how individual their personalities are, and how attached you get to each of them just as you would to a dog or cat.
Also read our feeding guide at Feeding chickens
How To Look After Chickens
Under welfare law, three square metres is the minimum space requirement for up to 3 chickens (or 6 bantams), with an extra 0.25m2 for each extra bird. Most owners will exceed this easily by providing free range foraging during the day. However, imported chicken coops sold in Australia are too small for these requirements.
There can be as little as one elevated nest box per five birds but this will depend on the social arrangements. New birds need to be introduced slowly, but some fighting will still occur for a few weeks until the new social order is established.
Please take the time to watch this USDA video which is also highly relevant to Australian chicken care.
Chickens need a secure roofed and latched nighttime roost (coop) or it is a matter of time until the local urban fox (or even goshawk!) discovers them. People have trouble believing foxes are as common as they are until something goes wrong. Read Myth 5: My backyard is safe at night for more information.
They also need an area to scratch, which often reduces the lawn to bare dirt if too small. If you are thinking about wing clipping, read our guide to clipping birds wings here.
Selection of chickens is very important to ensure they come from a healthy source, as there are many common infectious diseases. Vaccination against Marek’s and respiratory disease is ideal but may only be available for commercial breeds.
Commercial layer breeds (the commonest type at fodder stores are HyLine or ISA Brown) will produce a large if not excessive egg supply. It is worth considering ‘heritage’ breeds like Light Sussex or Australorp for lighter laying and improved health.
Note that due to noise complaints, Adelaide local councils prohibit the keeping of roosters. There is no reliable way of preventing crowing.
When do Chickens Start Laying?
Most hens start laying at 18 to 20 weeks of age, and then continue until they go into their first moult. Commercial breeds like HyLine or ISA Brown will lay an average of 6 eggs a week, heritage breeds laying usually 3 or 4 weekly.
Under natural lighting, chickens will often go into a moult cycle as day length decreases. This provides a natural break from egg laying when they can regain lost weight and renew their feathers. You can usually tell the moult from illness by your chicken’s gain in weight and the regular pattern of feather loss going from head, neck, body, to wings. It is possible to manipulate the timing of the moult using artificial lighting.
Broody hens are those who have started sitting on eggs instead of laying more. Many heritage breeds are more prone to do this, perhaps with the exception of Australia’s own Australorp (pictured above with an HyLine or ISA Brown). To reduce broodiness, pick up eggs every day or reduce access to nesting areas. If your chicken becomes broody, make sure she is in a comfortable place and looking after her health until she finishes.
How Long do Chickens Live?
Sadly, commercial breeds are bred for high rates of lay and short lives. They usually succumb to egg peritonitis before the age of three. However, if you get them treated (assuming they respond), or choose older breeds less prone to ‘internal lay’, your chickens can live 8-9 years. Read more about egg peritonitis here.
The most important thing to know about sick chickens is that they usually show no obvious sign of illness. Like the majority of ‘prey’ species, they are adapted to show no weakness to potential predators and will act normally until very late in a disease process. They may be a little quieter, and eat less, but will usually continue to walk around and peck at food like the others.
So how do you tell if a chicken is sick? There may be specific signs like sneezing or diarrhoea, or your chicken may just be quiet, fuffed up and not laying. Our guide to the signs of illness in chickens cover all the things to look for.
By weighing them regularly you can often identify sickness earlier, as they will lose weight when unwell. By owning a set of baby scales (easily purchased on eBay!), you can train your chickens to stand in them once a week for a weigh-in. Once recorded on graph paper, app (Loggr pictured left) or a spreadsheet this gives a good idea of trends over time so you can identify any birds in trouble and get them to your chicken vet.
Chickens are just as prone to disease as any other animals, and many of their diseases are made better by good management (see respiratory infections, for example). See the feeding guide at Feeding chickens to help you feed your chickens for health. Their coops should be out of the weather so that they should never have to roost on mouldy bedding. This helps prevent fungal air sacculitis.
Intestinal parasites can be a serious issue in some flocks. It is hard to tell in the live birds but you can submit a faecal sample to the vet for a faecal flotation to look for eggs. See our guide at Parasite prevention.
It is a good idea to take any dead birds to an experienced chicken vet (like us) to have a post mortem examination performed. Although this may seem gruesome, it allows the cause of death to be determined and corrective measures taken to help the rest of the flock. That way, their death can save others. We do not charge exorbitantly for this service but to be useful, the necropsy should be performed the same day of death or the chicken stored in a refrigerator.