In light of the publicity surrounding free range hens (or not) at present, I am once again weighing up the pros and cons of hens in the city.
This in turn made me think of Renee Lang, champion to hens (also dogs) and co-author of Urban Chicks.
Renee has kindly shared with us some of the practical aspects of raising hens from Urban Chicks, which I am sure will be valuable information for those taking the step into hens.
Thanks to Claire Gummer, Auckland chook keeper extraordinaire, who contributed her knowledge to this.
From Urban Chicks by Renee Lang and Trevor Newman, Renaissance Publishing, 2012
Creating a Haven for Chooks
Gallus gallus domesticus your urban chick may be, but she’s still a wild thing. Give her things that the other garden birds like: room to scratch and take a dustbath, access to a bit of greenery, even small invertebrates to snack on.
Like almost everything, poultry-keeping is subject to rules, available on your council’s website or if you ask. These are very specific, including maximum flock size, minimum space, distance from the boundary or ‘occupied buildings’, and cleanliness. Make yourself familiar with them – many are thoroughly sensible – even if your urban chicks choose not to observe every letter of the law.
Cultivate relationships with your neighbours (who may hear a bit more noise when the backyard poultry parties start up), other chicken keepers (through classes or online forums) and, if possible, a vet who knows about chooks (they’re rare birds). Get to know your chickens: hang out with them; they can be very soothing. Learn how to hold them, and do it from time to time. That’s less soothing – they may not like it – but it’s a good habit, helping you to check their health and welfare.
Chook-cessities: the must-haves for hens
Space – allow about 1m2 per hen for the entire run including henhouse (less, if you like, for bantams). Make sure the run offers shelter from the sun and places to take a dustbath.
Henhouse – to keep the weather out, especially in winter, but allow some airflow. It can be purpose built (look through chook books listed on page XX for a range of options) or pre-loved, like the retired bus shelter used by one enterprising chicken-keeper! The construction should allow each hen room of at least 40cm2.
Nesting box – in a nice dark corner of the henhouse, but still accessible by you. This is where they’ll lay their eggs, should they so choose.
Roost – for perching on at night. Allow at least 15cm per hen.
Litter – wood-shavings/sawdust (untreated) or similar to line the henhouse floor, and sometimes the rest of the run, especially in winter.
Drinking water – plenty, fresh, in a clean container, preferably off the ground (above three Ds that chickens do: dirt-scratching, dust-bathing and defecation)
Barriers – between chickens and beloved garden or dangerous predators (next-door-but-one’s precious puss, the cute puppy from across the road). If they’ll keep the voracious sparrows out, even better. Any one of these creatures can be quite determined to get on the wrong side of the fence.
Commercial poultry food – layers’ mash or pellets for hens that have come of age (point of lay and beyond); grower feed from 7–16 weeks; chick crumbs for those aged up to six weeks. It may only be chickenfeed but it’s scientifically formulated with the right stuff and should be the bulk of what your girls eat each day. However, people have fed chooks less formal fare since Adam was in nappies.
Grit – leave ground oyster shell (separate from food) for your hens; they’ll help themselves, and the calcium will help their eggshells.
Company – hens aren’t hermits, so don’t force them to be lone rangers. Even two constitute a flock. Local councils will often allow up to six.
Chick-cessories: things that go well with hens
A composting system for your garden, to make use of that amazing fertiliser!
Straw/garden leaves – they love scuffling around in these looking for things to eat, and straw is good in the nesting box.
Grain, corn kernels (fresh or kibbled) – much appreciated as occasional treats.
Greens – silverbeet, broccoli or cauli heads, lawn clippings, puha, chickweed, wandering willie.
Fruit – scrunched-up apples, tomatoes, berries, split cucumbers or marrows, melons, capsicum seeds.
Invertebrates – worms, earwigs, moth larvae, crickets, snails (though some spoilt city hens require them pre-squashed), even wetas and failed monarch chrysalises. Leave a large rock in the chicken run for a few weeks, then overturn it; the chooks will have a field day!
The Maybe Nots
‘Foods’ to avoid – undigestible kikuyu or couch grass, too much oxalic-acid-rich vegetation, raw potato, nightshade, buttercup.
Males – there are reasons why some towns have bands of outlaws in the form of roving roosters. They are ‘let go’ because they don’t lay eggs, they’re not always friendly, neighbours may not appreciate the wake-up calls, and the council is unlikely to approve of them.
Rats – they like a nice neighbourhood with amenities including food outlets (your chicken run, feed containers and compost bins). If they move in, evict them.
Choose Your Chooks
Most of the people in this book have entered very successful relationships with chickens by adopting any they found available. All the same, you may like to think in advance about what sort you’d like in your backyard. They’re not like the self-invited sparrows; you have a choice.
Ages and Stages
Point-of-lay pullets, at 16–20 weeks, are the easiest to look after from the outset. But you may enjoy older hens rescued from cage life – you’ll see them blossom as their feathers regrow and they learn to be real chooks, and despite being labelled ‘end of lay’, they will produce eggs. Other options include fertilised eggs (in an incubator), day-old chicks (with carefully distributed and monitored warmth), or older chicks, some of which could become roosters. Any chickens younger than point of lay are higher maintenance, but very rewarding to raise. They offer a great opportunity for children to learn and bond with other living creatures. So do the older, wiser birds.
Breeds to Love
These are loosely categorised below according to characteristics that urbanites look out for. The cradle to table trajectory is not a consideration, so if you’re intent on a commercial operation raising broilers, it’d pay to look elsewhere. In breed descriptions from suppliers, look out for chicken-keepers gobbledegook such as ‘docile’, ‘flighty’ and ‘lazy’ (indicating temperament). Plumage patterns can have interesting names like ‘spangled’, ‘splash’ and ‘ laced’. Seek out some of the ‘chook books’ listed on page XX for more information. Please note: individual chickens may vary.
They look and behave like garden-variety chooks. They’ll lay; they may mother; and more:
Australorps (see Egg Manufacturers below)
Barnevelders – ‘good natured’ birds that make good pets, says one supplier. This Dutch breed lays dark brown eggs, but has a reputation for laziness.
New Hampshire Reds – they’re good layers, with plumage a lighter shade of brown than the Rhode Island Reds from which they’re developed.
Orpingtons – big, fluffy birds that won’t fly far and are quite friendly. Colours range from ‘Buff’ (a beautiful orangey gold) to Black.
Plymouth Rocks – the ‘Barred’ type has beautiful dark grey and white patterning. Many people choose these birds for their backyard.
Rhode Island Reds – friendly, curious. Their plumage is a glossy, rich brown with a little iridescence.
Sussex – the Light Sussex is the most widely available of these and very popular, white with a black (‘Columbian’) collar and tail feathers. She lays tinted (off-white) eggs.
Welsummers – another Dutch hen developed in the twentieth century, with plumage that’s a colour mix called Red Partridge. One major plus is that they don’t go broody.
If you have a single nest, and one hen hogs it in the vain hope that she’ll hatch chicks out of those unfertilised eggs, broodiness is a bother. But if you want chicks of your own, it can be the best thing since eggs benedict. Incubators and constant care from a handy human are all very well, but hen-and-chick bonding is special to see.
Orpingtons (see above)
Silkies – not great layers, but wonderful mothers (good with children, too).
Wyandottes – Silver-Laced and Gold-Laced varieties are gorgeous, good layers, and good mothers.
Is your daily egg what matters most? Backyard flocks are seldom subjected to the rigorous routines that make for productivity all year round, but consider the following, all bred as efficient layers.
Australorps – these iridescent black Aussies have the attributes of Orpingtons (to which they’re related), with great laying power.
Leghorns – elegant lines but a big, floppy comb. They can be a bit jumpy and loud (‘sprightly’, says one authority) but they’re wonderful layers. White ones produce beautiful white eggs.
Shavers – not a breed, but a commercial hybrid, these are the chooks you’ll most commonly see and whose eggs you’ll likely get from the supermarket. They’re made to lay, but will appreciate life outside a cage.
So you’re after something far from common: a talking point, a living ornament, a show-stopper or a bird with an exceptional CQ (cuteness quotient)… You’ll find it – whether chic chick or handsome hulk – among the following.
Araucana – more feathers on the head and face than your common-and-garden chook, and beautiful green or blue eggs. Loves her greens. The ‘Lavender’ (grey) is a real looker.
Bantams – almost any breed has a miniaturised or ‘bantam’ version but ‘true bantams’ (a breed in their own right) are also available, of which the Pekin is a popular example.
Faverolle – a sturdy-looking bird, quite rare in New Zealand, with feathers in interesting places. ‘Salmon’ is a lovely colour.
Frizzles – a half-washed or ‘dragged through a bush backwards’ look, with feathers curling up towards the head. Some people view Frizzles as a breed, but any breed can hatch the odd ‘frizzled’ chook.
Old English Game – all the game breeds were developed as fighters. These are handsome birds, but you may want to limit your choice to the Bantam type.
Silkies – their feathers are soft and furry (please protect them from the mud and wet) and they wear amazing headgear. They make great pets.
Selected useful guides and interesting information. If selecting breeds, it’s best to use a source from your country, as not all international breeds are available everywhere.
Care and General Information
Chicken – Annie Potts, Reaktion, 2011. A fascinating little book of natural and unnatural history, written by a Kiwi.
Choosing and Keeping Chickens – Chris Graham, Bounty, 2007. Published in association with Britain’s Poultry magazine.
How to Care for Your Poultry – Nadene Hall & Sue Clarke, New Zealand Lifestyle Block, 2010. Comprehensive, inexpensive, and written for New Zealanders. Note, though, that the section called ‘How to Dress a Chicken’ is not haute couture for urban chicks.
Keeping Chickens: An Australian Guide – Nicholas Brasch, Penguin, 2007
Your Chickens: A Kid’s Guide to Raising and Showing – Gail Damerow, Storey, 1993. From possibly the most prolific of poultry book publishers.
http://yourpoultrynz.blogspot.co.nz/ (NZ Lifestyle Block magazine blog)
www.lifestyleblock.co.nz/lifestyle-file/livestock-a-pets/poultry.html – this NZ site free-ranges from hen society to setting broody hens
www.nrm.co.nz/pdfdownloads/NRM-ChookBook-0412-1.pdf – a free and comprehensive care guide produced by a New Zealand feed company.
www.rarebreeds.co.nz/chooks.html – Rare Breeds Conservation Society of New Zealand
RD 1 – from back issues of New Zealand Lifestyle Block magazine, these down-to-earth articles include a ‘Sick Chicken Checklist’ and ‘Why Did My Chicken Die?’
SPCA – brief information on welfare.
The courses on offer are less regular than your daily egg, but here are a few. Do some digging online, or ask at your local high school for evening or weekend classes.
www.greenurbanliving.co.nz – Hawke’s Bay landscape architect Janet Luke’s range of courses includes chicken-keeping, and she has a free online booklet.
www.mountedenvillagepeople.co.nz – workshops include ‘Keeping Chickens in the City’.
www.leisuretimelearning.co.nz – their adult and teen community learning includes classes on urban chicks.
Forums on the Web
www.poultrycentral.co.nz – New Zealand’s own, with a diverse flock of chicken-keepers who won’t judge you for being a newbie.
Interesting Individuals, Clued-up Companies
Frugal Kiwi an enterprising migrant incorporates chicken-keeping in her new green life.
www.animalsanctuary.co.nz – adopt rescued birds, or donate.
www.eggventurous.blogspot.com – life with Alice, Amelia, Emmeline, Henemoa, Vanessa, Victoria and others.
– a South Island-based business.
www.incubatorsnz.co.nz – equipment for raising and keeping poultry.
www.omlet.co.uk – chicken coops to die for (though not literally), and more.