20 September 2013

What it's like to have chickens

We've had the chickens for 6 months now, and I thought I'd do a post talking about how it's been, if having chickens has been what we expected, how much work is involved and some of the things they do.

I wanted chickens for ages before getting them. I had read a bit about chickens and thought that besides being adorable and good pets and providing eggs, they seemed to be pretty low maintenance and inexpensive to keep. So, did they live up to expectations?

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Are they good pets?
They have made me so much happier than I had even anticipated! Just seeing them out of the window makes me happy. They are so sweet and funny and full of character.

Chickens that have been reared from chicks are used to being handled and generally at least one in the flock will be at least somewhat cuddly. Our chooks were hatched and reared on a poultry farm and weren't used to being handled. But when they started laying they started doing this funny crouch thing sometimes when you come near them - it's called the egg squat and apparently it's instinct and they are preparing themselves for a rooster's attentions. Anyway, when they squat we can stroke them or pick them up and they are getting more used to being handled.

When we need to give them any sort of medical / hygiene attention, like when we dusted them for lice, we simply pluck their sleepy forms off the perch after they go to bed.

They do the funniest things and are such fun to watch. I just love their fluffy bums.

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They run over to me when I go outside and follow me around. If they even see me through the kitchen window they come running to the door. Of course, they have me well trained as I can't resist giving them treats (they like whole wheat berries) when they do.

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They are so funny when they tilt their heads and look at you with one eye. One of our favourite things that they do is when they scratch - they look around all nonchalant ("Nothing to see here...") while their little legs scratch scratch scratch the ground, then they hop backwards and inspect the spot they scratched ("Did I scratch up anything interesting? Did I??") I wish I'd been able to get it on video, it's too cute.

They can be pretty thick sometimes (bird-brains). We got them a Chooketeria, which is a feeding trough with a lid that opens when the chicken stands on the little platform. We had to get something with a lid as the sparrows were eating their food. This is how the Chooketeria looks when new.

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For the first few days you prop the lid open. Then you lower it slightly for the next few days, etc, continuing until the lid is closed. By then your chickens should be trained that the food becomes available when they stand on the platform.

Not our chickens.

They just would not get it. The ones who typically stood on the sides to eat expected the lid to open when they stood at the sides even if there was no other chicken to stand on the platform. So Grant had to put boards to block off the sides and direct the chickens onto the platform.

Then they would stand in front of the platform, waiting for the lid to open, not getting close enough to the trough to actually step onto the platform. So Grant had to extend the platform. Here is how our Chooketeria looks now, just so our hens can handle it.

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There are four of them and I can throw four treats out for them and one will pick up a treat and the other three will chase her - they all want the same one (like children).

They sometimes come to the back or front door and call for us, and then seem to have stories to tell when we open the door (sometimes they even knock on the door by pecking). In this video clip Marble had been calling at the door for a while but by the time I got the camera and opened the door she'd moved away a bit. She still seemed to want to tell me something.



We just let them free range all day and they don't go too far and always stick together. We have no fences around the property and the neighbours play with their dogs nearby but they show absolutely no interest in the chickens. We have, however, twice had random dogs come onto our property and chase the girls, which was really frightening (for me and for them!) so we are making plans to enclose part of the yard. Third time might not be so lucky.

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They are just hilarious when they run, they look like dinosaurs. I tried to capture it on video but I don't think it really shows how cute and funny it is.



As far as noise goes, chickens are pretty quiet. The only time they make a noise loud enough for the neighbours to hear is when they see a cat (not that they've ever been bothered by one!) or sometimes when they've laid an egg.

This is their distress call after seeing a cat while they were all eating - Marble started it and Tulip joined in.



This is Marble's egg song - she'd laid an egg and wanted everyone to know about it!



Of course, we also love having fresh eggs every day!

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Marble has gone broody twice. When a hen goes broody it's like a switch has flipped in her and all her instincts tell her to hatch her eggs, whether they are fertile or not. She stops laying eggs, stays in the nesting box, pulls some of her feathers out to feather her nest, hardly ever eats or drinks, and growls and clucks and will sometimes peck and get aggressive if you come near her.

If removed from the nesting box she makes a beeline straight back to it. Of course, although we have three nesting boxes the chickens all use one (remember what I said about them all wanting the same thing?) and when Marble was broody and hogging the box the others would squeeze in there next to her or even sit on top of her to lay their eggs!

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The first time she went broody we broke her of it by dipping her belly in cool water (this lowers her temperature and helps switch off the broody instinct) and putting her in solitary confinement under the trampoline so she couldn't get back to the nesting box. She got over her broodiness in two days and went back to laying about a week afterwards.

She recently turned broody again so we decided to get her two fertilised eggs to raise. We got them from the same dealer who sold us our hens. Here's the picture I Instagrammed.

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We had to shut her off in the nesting box at first or the others sit on her and lay their eggs next to her and the risk was that she would adopt their (non fertile) eggs, which could result in her fertilised eggs being jeopardised. We did ensure that she ate and drank every day. Now that the rest of the hens are used to laying in the other nesting box we've cut that wood partition in half so that she can come and go as she pleases. Here's the noise she makes if I open the nesting box lid - she just wants to be left alone:



We're so excited for the chicks to hatch, which should be around the fifth of October. We're hoping they're both girls (if we get any roosters they will have to go back to the dealer and he'll swap them for girls).

How low maintenance are they?
We have no floor to our coop and Grant has attached wheels to it. Every day or every other day he pushes the coop a little way to a new spot, revealing all of the poop that the chickens drop in the night (man, they poop a lot at night. Actually they poop a lot, period.) Luckily we have a big enough yard that he can keep doing this for a while and by the time he needs to push the coop back to the original spot the rain has taken care of all of the chicken poop left on the grass. In the summer I'll be scooping it up and putting in into the veggie garden.

All this to say that coop cleaning is infrequent - we have to check the wood for mites and bugs and occasionally refresh the straw in the nesting box but we don't actually have to clean out their poo, which keeps the maintenance down.

We have had some health issues with Kiki that we had to take care of. As you know, she had lice so we had to dust her and the others for that. Then she was pretty unwell and miserable so we treated her with a general de-worming medicine (Aviverm). She seemed to show signs of gapeworm so we treated her for that (Ivermectin). She was still a bit unwell and we were trying to figure out what was wrong with her when we found a growth in her mouth. While we were researching to find out if it was wet rot or canker she seemed to be getting better, and upon checking her again we found that the growth was healing all on its own. She's since recovered her health and has started laying eggs. The others have needed no special health maintenance.

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Other than cleaning their water bowl and ensuring that they have fresh water, their food is topped up and the straw in their nesting boxes is sufficient and clean, there's really nothing else we have to do for them. They put themselves to bed at dusk and we just make sure we go and bolt their coop door closed sometime during the evening before we go to bed. They take their sweet time going to bed, but they don't need reminding or herding, they do it themselves when the sun goes down.



So yes, they have proved to be pretty low maintenance.

How much do they cost to keep?
A bag of food costs $30 and it lasts for about two months. I can't remember how much the big bag of straw cost but it wasn't much and I'm pretty sure the whole bag will last about as long as our chickens will. So they have definitely proved to be inexpensive pets to keep - especially factoring in the fact that we never have to buy eggs anymore.

Overall experience?
Overall our chicken-owning experience has been overwhelmingly positive and I think everyone should own chickens! We absolutely love our fluffy girls and can't imagine life without them now. They are spoilt rotten - in fact, we're currently working on a beautiful new house for them that I've designed. Our princesses need a better palace! I can't wait to spend more time outside with them this summer, and enjoy the babies growing up too.


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7 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing your story and especially the videos. They are making me smile too. We have a move coming soon to a more rural home and my husband is hoping to try his hand at raising chickens. Our first attempt was not successful as a neighbourhood dog destroyed the fence that we thought would keep them safe. Next time we will be more cautious.

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  2. Thanks for sharing about the girls, Jen. They are very cute :-).

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  3. they are so cute i wish we could have chickens in brooklyn.i have a question.do you still eat chicken and if you do , do you feel weird about it.

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    1. Yes we do and no we don't :)

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  4. Such a lovely informative post Jenny
    We 've had sadness in our house the past 4 weeks with the death of 2 chickens ;'(
    Here is to a healthier coup now I've paid the $$'s had the post mortem and found out that my girls were calcium deficient

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  5. Oh cute! We look forward to having some one day too! Looking forward to seeing the wee chicks!

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  6. I really enjoyed this post!! Waited for the weekend to watch all the short video clips! Marble is such a star and I love the colours in her feathers - wow!!

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