One of the fundamentals of permaculture design is to observe, understand and work with natural ecosystems.
It sounds simple enough to apply permaculture principles to chicken keeping. Can’t we just observe wild chickens in their natural environment? The problem is, modern domesticated chickens don’t exist in the wild. Junglefowl are the immediate ancestor of chickens, however it’s not that simple.
Modern chickens were domesticated more than 8,000 years ago and have changed a lot as a result of selective breeding. To get a more complete picture, that accounts for the differences between modern chickens and Junglefowl, I’ve studied the evolution of chickens from the Asian jungle, to modern factory farming and chicken nuggets.
I have distilled this research into 6 lessons for a permaculture approach to happy, healthy, backyard chickens.
Evolution of Chickens
Before I jump into the 6 lessons for permaculture chickens, I’ll start by setting the scene with a brief history and evolution of the modern domestic chicken.
Junglefowl – The chicken’s immediate ancestor:
Domestic chickens can be traced back to Red Junglefowl, from South East Asia and India. Jungle fowl have small lean bodies and they only lay about 20 eggs each year.
If we trace chickens back even further, chickens are the closest living relative of the T-Rex. This makes a lot of sense because chickens go crazy for meat, hunt down insects and even small rodents. And check out this incredible video of a chicken grabbing (stealing) a mouse that was being hunted down by a cat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LwtuoHyLEiw .
Domestication and family farming (1900s to 1950):
Junglefowl were domesticated around 8,000 years ago. Despite domesticated chickens being very different ‘physically’ to jungle fowl, studies show that genetic differences are actually pretty small. This study of the genetic evolution of chickens shows there are two important mutations:
- Broilers / Meat chickens: The TBC1D1 gene which regulates glucose metabolism. In humans, mutations in this gene cause obesity. In chickens it has been used to produce faster growing and more meaty chickens.
- Layers: The TSHR gene (thyroid-stimulating hormone receptor) which restricts breeding to specific seasons. This mutation enables chickens to breed (and lay eggs) all year long.
These genetic variations mainly occurred due to selective breeding in the early part of the 20th century.
The industrial revolution in the 1950’s, caused a shift away from family run farms, to industrial factory farming. This includes the poultry industry, with large numbers of chickens being kept indoors in cages (layers) or crammed so closely together that they can hardly move (broilers).
Factory farming also developed specialised hybrid breeds for egg and meat production. These egg laying chickens produce around 300 eggs per year, which is nearly twice as many eggs as small-scale farms in the 1950s. And factory farmed meat chickens grow around 4 times faster than the Junglefowl.
Recently, more and more people are ditching factory farmed eggs and are turning to backyard chickens, which are tastier, healthier and better for the environment.
Backyard chickens typically produce around 200 to 250 eggs per year depending on the breed. This then starts to drop off after the first couple of peak egg laying years.
6 Practical Lessons for Permaculture Chickens:
From observing the evolution of chickens and how their needs and behaviours have changed, I’ve identified 6 practical lessons for keeping chickens using a permaculture approach.
Lesson 1. Habitat: Instead of grass lawns – provide trees, plants and mulch.
When I think of the ideal environment for chickens, I used to think of open fields of grass. Hens foraging over a nice green lawn is a pretty sight. But a habitat similar to the junglefowl is more suitable, which has:
- Trees and shrubs that provide shade and protection
- Lots of leaf litter or mulch, which encourages bugs and insects.
Lesson 2. Flock Size: A small flock is ideal .
A common myth is that chickens do best in large groups of 6 or more chickens because they are social animals. While it’s true that chickens would be lonely by themselves, Junglefowl flocks tend to be small, with one to two males and one to several hens.
This means a small flock of 2 to 5 chickens is probably ideal.
Lesson 3. Activity: Keep your chickens physically and mentally active.
Junglefowl are very active through the day foraging for food and water. On the other hand, backyard chickens are provided pelleted food which means they don’t have to forage to survive.
That’s why backyard chickens should be provided with an environment that keeps them active and out of mischief (such as trashing your garden bed).
Here are a few ideas for keeping your chickens active:
- Human interaction
- Healthy treats such as healthy kitchen scraps, hanging vegetables, treat dispensers and frozen food blocks
- Toys such as mirrors and chicken swings
Lesson 4. Diet: Supplement grain with as much foraged food as possible (leaves, vegetables, fruit and insects / animal protein).
Grain based chicken pellets were developed for chickens in a factory farm. Pellets were then adopted for backyard chickens because it’s a convenient way to feed chickens.
The problem is, backyard chickens are raised in an environment that is different to factory farmed chickens. Backyard chickens are more active, are outdoors in the sun and eat a variety of foraged food such as grass and insects. Because of this, backyard chickens have different needs to factory farmed chickens.
However, it’s also important to realise that domesticated chicken breeds lay 15-20 times more eggs. For this reason, it would be difficult to meet the chickens’ nutrient needs through foraging and kitchen scraps alone.
Instead, you should aim to supplement grain feed with as much foraged food as possible. This will improve the variety and quality of food in your chickens’ diet.
Lesson 5. Threat from predators: Choose alert breeds, provide secure coops, use fencing and include plenty of trees and shrubs for natural protection.
Selective breeding and domestication of chickens means they are a lot less alert and wary than Junglefowl. They also can’t fly as well to get away from predators. That’s why it’s so important for domestic chickens to be kept secure and safe from predators.
- Secure coops
- Mobile tractors
- Natural cover and protection such as trees, shrubs and piled up branches.
- Choosing chickens with darker colours that blend in with their environment (white colours tend to be more visible).
Lesson 6. Health: Worming, dust bathing and a stress-free environment
Parasites are a problem in Junglefowl as well as domestic chickens. This means that a purely ‘natural’ approach won’t solve all your problems. No amount of mint leaves and garlic will do the job. Instead I recommend a focus on providing a healthy and low stress environment, combined with modern treatments such as worming medication.
Download the e-book
This is a summarised version of a more comprehensive e-book. You can download the free 30-page e-book (PDF), along with a checklist of the practical takeaways here:
Marcus helps busy people grow and cook Real Food at www.PatchtoTable.com. Marcus is also a director at Millen Farm, which is developing a sustainable urban farming system, based on permaculture principles, that can be replicated by other communities.
Photo Credit for Jungle Fowel Picture: