The keeping of backyard poultry, once an almost universal practice in Australia, declined in the 1970s and 80s, but is now enjoying a resurgence in popularity. People are keeping poultry for food (e.g., eggs), as pets, and as show birds. The breeding of once-endangered or rare species is another area experiencing great interest. There is now an estimated 2 million non-commercial backyard and fancy breed domestic fowl in Australia.
However, the keeping of chickens as pets is a relatively new phenomenon, only dating back a couple of decades. Chickens are generally calm and docile, and will bond readily with people, hence their popularity as companion birds. They now rate, world-wide, as the second most commonly kept class of birds, coming in just behind parrots.
So, whether your backyard chickens are pets or food producers or both, the following article and linked articles will give you advice on caring for them.
Is keeping backyard chickens right for me?
The most common reasons for keeping chickens are for their company, for food, as a hobby (showing), or just for relaxation.
There are plenty of studies that prove chickens are very intelligent. They are very clever; they can comprehend and learn things; they have excellent memory. They need care, the right food, mental stimulation, and security. Chickens are a flock animal and, as such, need chicken companions and mental stimulation. They can be loud, or they can be very quiet. They can be destructive in your garden or keep garden pests under control. They can seek your company or keep to themselves.
So, if you are looking for these qualities, chickens may be the right pet for you.
Is this the right chicken for me?
But which chicken? There are some breeds that are not suitable as pets and others that bond very easily to people. Some lay white eggs, others lay brown, spotted, blue, or green. Some are very small, and some are very large. What characteristics fit in with your plans? The key to knowing the answer is research. Read up on the chickens you are interested in, ask other people about them, talk to breeders, visit online forums, visit the poultry pavilion at your local show, and so on. Have a look at this article for more information.
How many chickens should I have?
Chickens have evolved as communal animals, living in flocks that provide greater and better opportunities for feeding, protection against predators, and a rich social life. So, it stands to reason that chickens should not live a solitary life. Wherever possible, chickens should have another chicken (or more) as a companion.
Not all chickens are compatible, though. They must be given the opportunity to learn to like each other and form a bond.
Where can I keep chickens?
Backyard flocks are kept as pets, food producers, or show chickens. They can be kept in fixed sheds (coops), often on deep litter with a run attached) or in mobile pens. Many are allowed free range of the yard during the day, returning to their coop at night.
There are legal restrictions on the keeping of backyard poultry. There are no federal or state/territory government regulations on the number of household layers, but local council regulations may restrict:
- The number and types of birds that can be kept – e.g., many councils prohibit the keeping of roosters in residential areas, others also ban guinea fowl and peafowl.
- The size and location of a backyard poultry shed.
See this article for more information on siting a chicken enclosure.
Where can I get my chickens?
You may be able to purchase a new chicken from a produce store, a hatchery, a breeder, some pet shops, or a friend or relative. You may even be able to adopt a pet chicken from shelters (such as the RSPCA) or from reputable rescue groups. There are pitfalls in selecting where you can get a chicken, and this article raises some of the issues and planning that you need to consider before you buy a chicken.
What does a healthy chicken look like?
When looking at chickens, you must be aware of the masking phenomenon. Chickens are, for the most part, a prey species – i.e., other animals eat them. A natural survival instinct, developed over millions of years, is to hide signs of illness from potential predators – including people. So, sick chickens will attempt to look healthy until they are so sick they can no longer hide their illness.
This means that, on first look, chickens may appear healthy even if they’re not. Fortunately for us, most sick chickens cannot keep this pretence up for more than a few minutes; leaving the chicken undisturbed while you chat to the seller gives them enough time to relax and start looking sick (if they are, in fact, sick). Then look for any signs your chicken is healthy. This article will help you know what to look for.
What do I need to get ready for my chicken before I bring them home?
Always try and resist impulse buying of chickens, as often you don’t have everything set up at home ready for new chickens, and this can lead to problems, stress, and even disease outbreaks. So, take your time to think things through before you buy chickens – perhaps a deposit to secure them until you are ready, but try to make the transition from the place of purchase to your home a stress-free event.
Firstly, is this really the chicken you want? Are you in a good place where you can commit to the needs of your chickens? These chickens will be with you for many years – do you have travel or other plans that will have an impact on your chickens and your ability to look after them?
Next, do some research on where you can keep your chicken (particularly if you are renting or live in a crowded city). Are there council regulations or body corporate rules that may affect your ability to keep chickens? What about your family or housemates? Phobias of chickens are quite common, and this is a question that needs to be asked.
If the answers to all these questions still gives you a positive vibe for buying your chicken, you will need to get everything ready before your new companion comes home. Things to think about:
- Where are you going to purchase a suitably sized coop? Or will I build one?
- Where are you going to position the coop?
- What are you going to furnish the coop with (perches, water and food dishes, perches, nest boxes)?
- Is the enclosure (and your yard) chicken-proof and escape-proof?
- Is the enclosure and your yard protected from predators – dogs, cats, snakes, rats, mice, and even hawks?
- What are the chickens currently eating, and what do you want to feed them? You will need to transition your chickens to a new diet over a few weeks, so you may need plenty of both diets.
- Have you made an appointment with a vet experienced with chickens so I can have my new chicken checked over and tested for diseases? If you don’t know any avian vets, you can start by looking here.
- If you are adding to an existing flock, where will you quarantine new birds until you are sure they are healthy and not carrying diseases?
- Are the chickens vaccinated?
What am I going to feed my chickens?
Although there is growing awareness that grain is not a complete diet for chickens, veterinarians still see chickens with nutritional diseases – obesity, liver disease, heart problems, bone disease – resulting from a long-standing but incorrect belief that “grain is all a chicken needs.”
Did you know that, of over 9,000 species of birds, we know the nutritional requirements of just one – the chicken? Millions of research dollars have gone into formulating the best diets that chickens need, and we can use that information to give your chickens a balanced and healthy diet.
For most chickens, a balanced and healthier diet can be achieved by feeding a mix of a quality commercial diet, safe table scraps, grit, and some grain.
How can I use environmental enrichment to provide opportunities for my chickens to experience good welfare?
Chickens are, by nature, bright, active, intelligent, inquisitive – the list just goes on. In the wild, where life is a little more focused on survival, 80% of their day is spent looking for food, but they still spend the other 20% engaged in self-maintenance behaviours (such as napping and grooming,) and socialising with their flock mates. In captivity, when they no longer have to search for food, they need something to fill in the rest of the day. All too often, they don’t have to opportunity to keep themselves occupied and health and behaviour problems can start to develop.
What’s the answer?
Environmental enrichment – providing physical and social opportunities to promote chicken behaviour that is important, valuable, and specific to them. It encourages and allows chickens to do things that matter to them, resulting in positive experiences based on their individual interests, which underpins good animal welfare.
A key concept in environmental enrichment requires is that we know what chickens like to do, also referred to as ‘species‐typical’ information. Then we can select enriching strategies that are behaviourally relevant and physically feasible for the bird.
Animals who can express species‐specific behaviours, and have choice, control, and problem-solving opportunities are more likely to experience good welfare. Because they are physically and mentally challenged in positive ways, they are less likely to feel frustrated or display abnormal behaviours.
It’s a lot more than buying some cheap toys, though – you need to sit down and write down an enrichment plan and then implement it each day. This is not as onerous as it sounds – it’s more about writing down some ideas that you can rotate regularly. Have a look at this article for some ideas for how you can use environmental enrichment to provide opportunities for your chickens to experience good welfare.
How will I keep my chickens safe against backyard hazards?
Every year hundreds of chickens suffer from health problems caused by their environment. Their human companions are often shocked when they discover that their chicken has been exposed to a hazard in their own home, often a hazard of which they were not aware. Chickens, in many ways, are like toddlers – capable of finding new ways of hurting themselves as soon as we turn our backs on them for even a moment!
Have a look at this article for more information on backyard hazards that can hurt (or even kill) your chicken.
General care of chickens
How should I handle my chicken?
At some time, you, the owner, must handle (and sometimes restrain), your chicken (e.g., to take them to the vet, give them medication, move them away from danger, groom them).
Many chickens have learnt to trust humans and regard them affectionately. Destroying this trust through aggressive catching and handling techniques can adversely affect the bond between owner and chicken. This relationship must be preserved and handling techniques for chickens should emphasise minimal stress and fear. No form of restraint should ever be taken lightly, as each restraint has some effect on the behaviour, life, or other activities of the chicken.
This article discusses ways that you can handle your chicken without hurting and with minimal damage to the human-chicken bond that is so important to the trust between you.
Many chicken owners like to groom their chickens, i.e., trim their wings, nails, and occasionally beaks. This has to be done carefully, as your chicken may be injured if the correct techniques are not used. Often these procedures are best done by a veterinarian experienced with chickens but if this is not possible, this article describes the procedures.
Preventative health care
It is often said that chickens are ‘soft’ – healthy one minute, sick the next. A lot of this is because chickens hide signs of illness as long as possible. But a big part of this problem is that chickens are often, incorrectly, considered low maintenance pets. In fact, no pet is low maintenance, especially not chickens. These suggestions may help you to keep your chicken happy and healthy for many years to come.
- Take your chicken to your veterinarian immediately after purchase, then at least once annually for examinations.
- Provide prophylactic (preventative) treatments as recommended by your vet – worming, lice control, vaccinations, etc.
- Feed a fresh, high quality commercial diet with scraps and whole grains according to the manufacturer’s recommendation.
- Provide clean, fresh uncontaminated drinking water and change frequently. Some chickens can be trained to use a water bottle which, if working well, minimises spillage and prevents contamination of the water.
- Provide stimulating environmental enrichment by offering social interaction, and foraging opportunities.
- Many chickens enjoy bathing. Try providing a dust bath, or gently spraying with clean warm water daily if possible.
- Avoid spraying the yard (or anywhere your chickens go) with insecticides and other poisons.
- Consider pest control. Chickens attract rats and mice, and rats and mice attract snakes. How are you going to control rodents?
Chickens are prone to a lot of external and internal parasites.
Getting worming right can avoid bird suffering and a lot of heartbreak when a loved companion or a valuable breeder is lost to something as simple as worms. You can also save a lot of money by not wasting money on worm medications that are not needed. So, how do you decide how often to treat your chickens, and what to use? This article discusses these issues.
An important fact to be very conscious of when medicating your chickens with anything:
The federal government considers chickens to be a major food-producing species – alongside cattle, pigs, sheep, etc. There is no distinction made between commercial poultry flocks and backyard chickens.
As such, the use of medications in backyard chickens is highly regulated by the Australian Pesticide and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA). This is done for very sound reasons – to prevent residues of antibiotics and other medications ending up in our food, which can lead to allergic reactions, cancer, and – most importantly – the development of strains of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.
This article discusses the role you and your vet play in preventing drugs entering our food supplies.
Chicken fanciers often seem to speak their own language, a complete mystery for the novice. This guide may help you to crack some of their secret codes!
|Chick||A young chicken|
|Pullet||A young hen, usually under 6 months old. Sometimes used to describe a hen who has yet to lay eggs|
|Cockerel||A young rooster|
|Hen||A female chicken who has laid eggs|
|Rooster/cock||A male chicken over 6 months of age|
|Layer||A hen, aged over 20 weeks, who is laying eggs|
|Point of Lay||A pullet who is old enough to lay, but has not yet done so. Usually aged 16-21 weeks|
|Broiler||A meat chicken who has reached a slaughter weight, usually at 30-60 days|
|Bantam||A miniature version of a recognised breed.|
|Broody/Clucky||A hen who is ready to lay, or is sitting on eggs|
|Candling||Examining an egg, with a bright focal light in a dark room, to assess fertility|
|Frizzle||1. Feathers that curl, rather than lying flat
2. A chicken breed
|Hackles||The feathers on the neck of a rooster|
|Comb||The red appendage on the top of a chicken’s head|
|Wattles||The fleshy appendages hanging either side of the lower beak of poultry|
|Soft feathers||Feathering on soft feather fowls is moderately broad and long with dense and abundant fluff that masks the body shape|
|Hard feathers||Feathering on hard feather fowls is moderately narrow, hard, firm, and resilient with a minimum of fluff, revealing the body shape|
Doneley B (2018) Avian Medicine and Surgery in Practice: Companion and Aviary Birds, 2nd ed. CRC Press
Smith C, Zielinski S (2017) The startling intelligence of the common chicken. In: Sci Am. Accessed 26 Jun 2023