“Chickens scare me. I don’t like them. They seem a little floppy or something. “- Scarlett Johansson
Chickens are a great addition to any backyard garden or homestead. They have much lower carbon footprint compared to other livestock. Chickens can provide you with healthy, and organic eggs – products that can not only save you money but could also make you money. These two-legged animals are very useful in gardening. They help keep pest population down and their droppings are known as one of the best garden fertilisers. Mixed with mulch, the nutrient filled chicken manure aids the growth of plants.
(note: Chicken manure is magic in your garden or your compost, but it can be toxic if it’s not cleaned out of the coop quickly. Hygiene is essential to the health and well-being of your flock!)
All of these benefits might make you want to go and start raising a flock, but before deciding to do so, there are certain things you need to be aware of.
1. Pecking Order
Stay in your lane or get pecked! Chickens have a strict pecking order, so once these behaviours start, it can be tough to correct. Much like in reality shows, the top chickens fight to determine who gets the best resources. You can catch some chickens giving death glares and side-eyes to their competitors if they “bok” out of turn. Expect some feathered contestants to play dirty (pecking and feather-pulling). Keep an eye out for these behaviours, so you can act quickly to stop a bigger problem from developing.
2. Refusing to Lay
You may have brought home some chicks, or even full-grown laying hens, in anticipation for having eggs as a staple in your daily breakfast. If your chicken isn’t laying any eggs, there could be a few causes. One cause could be stress, as chickens can be delicate. Once stressed, don’t expect these birds to pop out eggs. Nutrition may also be a factor for the lack of eggs. A chicken low in protein, or in the middle of moulting, won’t be able to lay eggs since 80% of its protein is in feathers. A dehydrated chicken may also stop laying eggs. Chickens drink around three times as much water as they eat food. Ensure your chicken is getting enough water, and get mealworms, nuts, and seeds, and other sources of protein into their diet during a moult.
3. Laying on The Ground
Much like with pets that pee anywhere, chickens that haven’t been properly trained or taught might just start laying their eggs on the ground. This could be bad for several reasons. Firstly, it means you could lose eggs in the long run since they are at a risk of getting stepped on. Secondly, another opportunity for more “egg loss” will present itself eventually, as your chickens start eating them. Like mealworms and nuts, eggs are a source of protein, even for chickens. To avoid this somewhat disturbing catastrophe, teach your chickens to lay in their coop or nest boxes by using fake eggs, like eggs made of wood, or even golf balls, to teach them where the eggs go.
Refusing to Roost
There are several reasons as to why your chickens may refuse to roost away from the floor.
- Your chickens have a had a recent predator scare
- You’ve added new members to your flock
- Your chickens were moved to a bigger coop
Refusing to roost is terrible for their health and can cause everything from swollen joints to breathing problems. The best way to properly coop train your chickens is to confine chickens to the coop for a week at a time until they can recognise the coop as home, and their nest-boxes as their “bed.” Note that you may have to lift the hens up to their nest boxes a few times before they get the message.
5. Eating Eggs
Remember that problem of laying eggs on the floor that we talked about? It almost always leads to your eggs being eaten by your chickens. Prevent this by collecting eggs promptly, and as often as you can. Keeping your chickens on a regular schedule, and providing for their nutritional needs means they won’t need to resort to eating the eggs. Doing this would mean more eggs for you. If you are finding your chickens aren’t getting the nutrients they need, you might want to consider placing extra food and water dishes out. Lack of resources can lead to bigger problems later on.
Chickens are territorial, and they can get aggressive. If they sense a weaker chicken in the flock, they will bully it badly, often pecking until the bird is injured. The scent of blood from an injured chicken can result in cannibalism (see below).
There are several things that can cause aggression. As we mentioned, chickens can be territorial birds. If you’re adding to your flock, make it easier on yourself by choosing chickens of similar size, colour, and breed. Chickens will notice an odd bird out, and different breeds don’t always get along.
Secondly, ensure you have enough resources to go around. Add extra food and water dishes when you’re adding to your flock – this will curb a lot of aggressive behaviour from your birds. If you notice aggressive or hostile behaviour from your flock, try separating into two flocks. The chickens should reorder themselves naturally.
Finally, if you notice a bird struggling, either from illness or injury, keep it away from the others. If you have free-range birds, this could be as simple as a fenced-in enclosure until your weaker bird heals up, and is no longer a target. The flock should go back to normal when everyone is healthy again.
Cannibalism isn’t as rare as you’d think when it comes to chickens. If chickens smell blood, it can send them into aggressive behaviour, which often leads to the death of your birds. Cannibalism, like aggression, has many causes, including stress, changes in diet, or overcrowding. Some chicken breeds are more prone to cannibalism than others, because of a more sensitive temperament. Make sure your flock is always getting enough food and water. Limit their access to light to avoid stress, and watch your flock carefully for signs of injury or illness. As your flock grows, make sure you have enough space. A good rule of thumb is about 2-3 square feet inside the coop, and about 15 square feet per chicken in a chicken run. We recommend free-range chickens since they’re good for the lawn and garden, but if your backyard has any kind of wildlife, chances are they’re a predator to your flock, so you might want a fenced-in enclosure.
Chickens are a great addition to your backyard. They’re good for your garden, great for your grocery bill, and they make a great pet for anyone with a serious interest in permaculture and homesteading. Generally, your flock is low-maintenance, but they do have specific needs. When there’s overcrowding in a coop, a fight for resources or chickens simply just aren’t learning how to lay properly, you can risk the entire flock picking up bad habits. Keep an eye out for these behaviours when you’re taking new young chicks, to avoid bad behaviour in the future!