Animal HousingBird LifeLivestockWorking Animals

Keeping Chickens

The scientific name for chickens is Gallus domesticus for domesticated chickens. Domesticated chickens have been bred by humans from Asian jungle fowls. The chicken is the closest living relative to the great Tyrannosaurus rex. In a Permaculture environment all animals are important, but by breeding smaller animals you will receive more benefits than breeding larger animals, because:

  • Poultry provide eggs
  • Small animals breed more often
  • Small animals, including fish, produce more meat on less land mass, using less water and food than large animals
  • Smaller animals are better for the environment and there are ways of using chickens to work for you. They can help with pest and weed control.
  • Less meat is wasted because small animals can be killed for meat as needed in smaller amounts compared to large animals.

What are the benefits of raising chickens?

They are easy and inexpensive to maintain when compared to most other pets and meat providers. They provide eggs that are fresh, great-tasting and nutritious. They are chemical-free bug and weed controllers and they manufacture the world’s best fertilizer. You can make animals a part of any farm and household by maximizing their benefits and managing them in a sustainable way, for now and for the future.

Chickens are usually left free and they nest in trees or bushes. This method is easy because it requires little maintenance, however there are some common problems, such as other animals, like foxes, weasels, dogs, cats, rats and snakes, which feed on chickens and/or their chicks and eggs, and because a chicken can’t see well in the dark they could become easy prey to other predators.

Also, when chickens are left free to roost wherever they like, chicken eggs can sometimes be difficult to find! Chicken manure, which is a valuable fertilizer, is difficult to collect as well.

The chicken’s needs

  • Feed
  • coop
  • water
  • laying box
  • protection from predators
  • shade

Animals must be kept and cared for well. Give attention to the animals’ health, because the best medicine for animals is to maintain them well and keep them in good health.

Always provide animals with good quality food, enough water and comfortable, clean housing. This will help to prevent disease and other problems. If animals are healthy, happy and breeding well, they will produce more meat, eggs, and offspring. This will also improve the lives and health of people.

Chicken coop

Chicken coops can make raising chickens easier because then they are all in one place so you can give feed consistently, small chicks can be protected, it will be easier to keep track of chickens, and chicken products, like eggs, meat and manure will be easier to manage and collect.

Chickens usually lay eggs from early morning till midday. So, don’t let them out during this time, only after midday do you need to let them out to roam free. Train the chickens to come back each afternoon by providing some food in their coop.

A chicken coop will be much easier to manage if it is placed closer to the house and to a source of water. The coop should provide protection from rain and predators. Inside there can be a place for the chickens to roost and lay eggs. Use available, inexpensive materials.

A simple structure with 4 to 6 poles – depending on the size, which in turn depends on the amount of chickens you have – with chicken wire around, a doorway, and some zinc plates or poly-carb roofing to give a waterproof roof will suffice. Of course if you are so inclined you could really build something elaborate but there are certain requirements that are essential:

The chicken coop should provide all the chickens’ basic necessities, including:

  • Water containers. Clean water should be provided at all times to keep the chickens healthy.
  • Laying boxes. Chickens need a comfortable and safe place to lay their eggs, this could be a box or nest made of grasses. Collecting eggs will be easier because they will all be in one place. However if your chickens are free range they will be inclined to make their own nesting places which is a task the rooster fulfils. The rooster will also stay in close proximity to the hen on the nest to warn her and protect her against any possible intrusion or predator.
  • Roosting poles. Roosting poles must be made off the ground, naturally with enough space above so that the roof does not intrude on the space of the chicken which means at least half a meter. On these the chickens can roost at night and have protection from predators. Chickens do not like to sit on the ground to sleep.
  • A dry floor. The floor of the coop should always stay dry to keep chickens from getting sick. A layer of grass can also be added. This grass can be chicken feed. The grass and manure should be cleaned out regularly and can be used for compost.
  • Fresh air. The chicken coop should allow wind and air to pass through it. Don’t leave chickens in the coop all day long. No fresh air is very bad for chicken’s health.

Chicken yard

If your chickens cannot roam around freely then it is advisable to make a chicken yard for them located close the coop so that they do not wander too far away. A permanent chicken yard will make chicken management easier and provide more benefits than just having a chicken coop.

In the chicken yard, grow crops which can become chicken feed, like mulberries, vine plants, passion fruit, beans and pumpkin. Make fencing surrounding the chicken yard, which can be made of bamboo, which will also function as trellising to grow vine plants, or living fences can be grown with legumes and bamboo, which will provide shade and many other benefits besides chicken food, like fruit produce.

Coops can also be made as part of a chicken yard, and chickens only need to be kept in the coop at night.

Movable chicken coops

If your chickens are not running free then another possibility is a chicken coop which can be moved from one garden plot to the next. This could be done about once a month and will then also fertilize different areas.

Food

Chicken food should be provided every day if your chickens are not free ranging. This could be kitchen food wastes, weeds, fruits or vegetables. Chickens also need some grains. Every day they should be given at least a handful of grain for every 10 chickens.

Chickens scratch the ground searching for insects and worms. Good scratching areas can easily be provided by covering an area of ground with a layer of plant husks, grasses or weeds, which will then encourage insects to live under it. Just let the chickens happily hunt for insects under this layer, and eventually this layer will decompose and there will be a lot of chicken manure to be collected there. This is a very high quality compost fertilizer.

Shade

Chickens need shade. Remember, chicken ancestors come from the forest and they need shade to stay healthy!

Dry Soil

Chickens will dig hollows in dry soil and spread the soil through their feathers to clean their bodies from lice. This is very important for the chicken’s health. If chickens are free in nature, they will search for dry soil themselves. If they are in a yard, you must provide the dry soil for them, especially during the wet season.

Put some neem leaves in the holes. Neem leaves are a natural pesticide which will help to reduce lice on the chickens, but will not adversely affect the chicken’s health.

For problems with worms, there are two natural remedies using papaya seeds or mulberry leaves. Chickens like eating these, especially young papaya seeds. Feed it to them regularly to prevent worm problems. Chickens also like eating chili and garlic, which will help them to fight off some minor sicknesses. Crushed eggshells and sand are also good for chickens. Chickens will naturally eat this if it is mixed in with their other food. It will help their digestion and help them to produce eggs with stronger shells.

Health

Chickens are generally independent, healthy and capable of caring for themselves. To prevent chickens from becoming sick, keep the coop dry and clean it regularly. Separate sick chickens from the flock until they recover to prevent diseases from spreading.

Friends

Chickens live in flocks or families. Too few or too many chickens in a small space is not good. If chickens are kept free, they will naturally decide their flock size. If you keep the chickens in coops, you must decide the flock size for them.

The ideal number is 1 rooster for every 8 – 10 hens. When the young chicks begin to grow into roosters or hens, the roosters can be separated or placed into another coop with some hens or for eating later on.

Chickens know who’s boss — they form complex social structures known as “pecking orders,” and every chicken knows his or her place on the social ladder.

Chickens with vegetable crops

You can divide the garden into different sections. For example each section could be 5 m x 5 m. Each section should have a fence surrounding it or use other methods of stopping chickens from escaping. Keep chickens in one section of the garden while using the other sections for growing vegetables. It is mostly only when the plants are still seedlings that they are vulnerable to being eaten and when the earth has been freshly turned.

Personally I have found the smaller chickens like the Silkies and Bantams are the best in the vegetable garden. Leaving lots of what is generally called weeds in the garden prevents the chickens from demolishing your crops. There is a wide variety of weeds that they eat when roaming free.

After each harvest, let the chickens in to eat the leftover stalks, weeds and insects. The chickens will also continuously provide fertilizer for the area they are kept in. Return the chickens to their coops at night.

Chickens with fruit trees

Place about 50 chickens for every area of land sized 50 m x 50 m, and they will help clear weeds and fertilize the land around the trees.

This system should only be used with fruit trees over 1 year old. Make a stone ring surrounding each tree, about 1-2 m from the tree trunk, and place lots of compost and mulch inside the ring. The chickens will scratch the soil, but the stones will keep the compost and mulch in place, closer to the trees.

Plant legume trees as living fences and between the fruit trees. You can prune back the legume trees and use the cuttings as chicken feed, while at the same time providing nitrogen for the fruit trees.

Useful information to know about chickens

Chickens have pain receptors that give them the ability to feel pain and distress. Therefore when trimming the spurs on the rooster if these grow too cumbersome, you have to be careful not to cut too far down.

Chickens have full-colour vision — no colour-blindness here! You can also see when a hen is ready to lay when she is young or after she has reared her chicks as her comb turns a strong bright red.

Chickens experience rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which means they dream just like we do.

Hens defend their young from predators and will get rather aggressive if she feels that they are in any way threatened.

Chickens have more than 30 types of vocalizations to distinguish between threats. They perform complex communication skills where calls have specific meanings. There are many types of vocalisation with meanings varying from calling youngsters, alarm calls, and alerting others to the whereabouts of food. Chickens have different alarm calls for specific types of predators, which allow others to know the type of threat they face and what sort of anti-predation behaviour to perform.

Another remarkable thing I found with roosters is that they will find the nesting spot and then sit in the nest and sing in the most appealing way while the hen stands by and decides if she will lay in that spot.

Hens are just like human mothers who talk to their babies in the womb. A mother hen begins to teach calls to her chicks before they even hatch.

Chickens feel empathy for each other. Researchers proved that domesticated hens show a clear physiological and behavioural response when their chicks are mildly distressed.

Hens and eggs

Female chickens are called pullets for their first year or until they begin to lay eggs. For most breeds, around 20 weeks is a typical age for the first egg. Some breeds lay eggs daily, some every other day, some once or twice a week.

Some individual hens never lay eggs, due to narrow pelvises or other anomalies.

Normal laying routines can be interrupted by moulting, winter daylight shortage, temperature extremes, illness, poor nutrition, stress, or lack of fresh water. Hens usually return to normal laying habits when the disruption-causing factor ends or is corrected.

Most hens are productive layers for two years before declining in production, but some continue to lay eggs for several years.

Hens will lay eggs whether or not they’ve ever seen a rooster. Roosters are only necessary for fertilization of eggs and not the production of them.

Egg development and laying process

A female chick is born with thousands of tiny ova, which are undeveloped yolks. Once she reaches maturity, an ovum will be released into a canal called the oviduct and begin its journey of development.

At any given time a productive hen will have eggs of several stages within her reproductive system. The eggs most recently discharged from the ovary are just tiny yolks, and the eggs farther down the oviduct are progressively larger and more developed.

From the time an ovum leaves the ovary, it takes approximately 25 hours for the egg to reach the vent for laying. During that time period, the yolk will grow larger while being surrounded by albumen (egg white), wrapped in a membrane, and encased in a shell. Pigment is deposited on the shell as the last step of the egg production process. If sperm is present, the yolk will be fertilized before the albumen is deposited. Hens do not have an oestrus cycle. They can mate and develop fertile eggs at any time. Sperm can remain viable in the hen’s oviduct for three to four weeks, so one mating will fertilize numerous eggs.

As a chick embryo develops in a fertilized egg, the yolk provides nourishment and the albumen cushions the embryo.

Although a hen has only one exterior opening (the cloaca or vent) for egg laying and elimination, eggs are not contaminated during the laying process. Two separate channels, the oviduct and the large intestine, open into the cloaca. As the egg nears the end of the oviduct, the intestinal opening is temporarily blocked off. The egg passes through the cloaca without contact with waste matter.

The typical interval between eggs laid is about 25 hours, so a hen that lays an egg every day will lay a bit later each day.

Hens don’t usually lay eggs in the dark, so once a hen’s laying cycle reaches dusk time, she will usually not lay till the following morning.

Eggshell production drains calcium from the hen’s body. The comb, wattles, legs, and ear lobes will fade as the calcium leaches out. Calcium must be replenished through either feed containing calcium, supplements such as oyster shell, or high amounts of calcium in the soil of birds with no outdoor access.

Chicken-and-egg behaviour

Most hens will lay eggs in the same nest box as flock mates, so it’s not necessary to have a nest box for each hen. Some hens like to lay their eggs in private and others will join their sisters in the nest box. Often two or three hens will crowd into one box while another nest box remains empty.

Sometimes a hen will sit on previously laid eggs and add her egg to the clutch. Another might prefer to sit in another area and deposit one egg by itself.

Often a hen will sing “the egg song” before or after she lays an egg. Some will sing during the process of laying. It is a cheerful song that seems to be a proud announcement.

Chickens learn by example, so a fake or real egg left in a designated nest box may encourage hens to lay there instead of on the floor or outdoors.

Unconfined hens may lay eggs anywhere outdoors if they don’t want to return to the nest box. Sometimes a free-ranging hen will go missing and reappear weeks later with a parade of chicks.

Chickens like to eat eggs, even their own. An egg that gets accidentally broken will likely be eaten by one of the chickens. If you occasionally find pieces of shell or egg yolk in the nest box, it’s usually nothing to be concerned about.

Some chickens become habitual egg-eaters that break eggs open and eat them. An egg-eater should be culled from the flock if you wish to have eggs for the kitchen. Not only will that chicken continue to eat eggs, but others will learn from watching and you may end up with several egg-eaters.

Holes in eggs and cracked eggs do not necessarily mean there is an egg-eater in the flock. A hen can accidentally crack an egg in the nest when she sits down or adjusts the nest to lay her own egg. Sometimes curiosity or boredom leads a chicken to peck at an egg without the intention of eating it.

Chickens can be fed their own or other eggs either raw or cooked. Eggs provide protein and the calcium in the shell is beneficial for laying hens. A potato masher can be used to break boiled eggs into pieces of egg and shell.

Empty eggshells from the kitchen can be fed back to chickens as a calcium supplement without concern for developing egg-eaters. However, to be safe, crushing the shells or running through a blender is a good idea.

Brooding and hatching

A broody hen of any breed can be used to hatch eggs and raise chicks from other hens of any breeds. She will sit on any eggs, whether or not they are fertile and regardless of who laid them. To gather a suitable clutch of eggs, she will not only lay her own eggs but may roll other hens’ eggs into her nest.

While a hen is brooding, you can daily remove any extra eggs she gathers into her clutch.

A sitting hen will usually leave the nest at least once a day to eat, drink, and defecate. The eggs are not in danger of cooling off too much during a normal foray into the coop or run.

Typically, chicken eggs hatch about 21 days from the beginning of incubation or nesting by a broody hen. A few days early or late is not unusual, and some breeds lean toward earlier or later hatches.

Not all fertile eggs will develop into embryos. Some never develop due to egg deficiencies or temperature fluctuations.

Not all chick embryos will successfully hatch. They can die any time before hatching, even after pecking a hole in the egg. Double yolk eggs rarely hatch due to crowding during embryo development.

If a broody hen has pushed an egg out of the nest, she probably knows something is not right with that egg or embryo.

15 Comments

  1. very nice post
    i have rised chickens myself but finally i sold all them because they were eating off all the new leaves of my fruit trees.i think my mistake was not having a proper chicken coop to stop them from free ranging.i would like a post or few photos regarding a good and simple chicken coop,once again a nice,knowledgable and practical post

  2. Thanks for this post. I have been reading about chickens for the last few months and we hope to have some in the next few months after building a chicken coup next to a greenhouse (To use the chicken’s body heat at night).
    Your post was very interesting.

  3. our chickens eat all sorts of meat (not chicken) fish, prawns, rice, greens. we give them a layer mash but one bag lasts for about 2months and as they half free range the coop only needs a scoop out once a week. and we have the best eggs ever. love em

  4. Your article completely forgot about providing chickens with a source of small stones for their gizzards and a source of calcium to make egg shells. Chickens without gizzard stones don’t lay many eggs because they cannot digbest their food, but the small stones may be a component of the land they roam. Lack of calcium will give soft-shelled eggs–an egg covered by skin, nearly transparent, and easily deformable like a balloon.

  5. “Hens are just like human mothers who talk to their babies in the womb. A mother hen begins to teach calls to her chicks before they even hatch” I like this! Pretty funny watching a Mareema pup getting to know chickens for the first time. The egg-laying time noise gets them all up and concerned until they get more fluent in Gallus.
    I would suggest deep litter systems for any permanent coop on the ground (aparently not legal in all local councils…). Maintain a cover of at least 30 cm, adding carbon if it starts to smell a bit. Use any old prunings and clippings, kitchen waste as organic matter. The hens can scratch around and compost while waiting to be let out. Harvest from the bottom for well made garden compost deluxe!

    1. We use the deep litter method in our coop and it works amazingly well. We layer up to 50cm deep over the entire floor of the coop and over the month they dig through and add their droppings and scratched around food to the pile. They quite often get some seed start to grow in it, which they LOVE to eat when it is sprouting, and at the end of the month we rake it all out and it is already partially mulched with worms and everything – awesome!

  6. This is a very detailed post, and covers everything pretty well. My granddaughters keep these chickens and baby chicks as pets and we benefit from the eggs!

  7. Thank you for your post!

    Our young flock had their (our) first breed last week, 4 little beautiful chiks, but yesterday i found one of the chiks killed (I say killed because of the blood involved in the crime scene…) in the ground, do you have any explanation for this? is it normal? The flock has 1 rooster and 4 chikens. It is possible it was killed by one of them? Maybe a mouse? All the best!

  8. I mulch neem tree suckers to make compost and also put directly on my garden for mulch. My chickens love rooting around in it, but I have just been told that neems can affect their fertility. Is this true? Cheers

  9. I have some passionfruit vines to plant which may creep around to where the chickens roam, will it hurt them if they peck at the leaves? Also the ducks love Moses in the Basket, will this hurt them. What a delight chickens and ducks are, bring one down to reality!!

  10. i have rised chickens myself by egg incubators for sale however finally i sold-out all them as a result of they were uptake off all the new leaves of my fruit trees.i think my mistake wasn’t having a correct henhouse to prevent them from free travel.i would sort of a post or few photos relating to a decent and straightforward henhouse,once again a pleasant,knowledgable and sensible post

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