Keeping backyard hens (or chickens) is becoming increasingly popular in Australia. Layer hens are social and inquisitive animals, therefore when making the decision to keep hens it is important to realise that they require a great deal of care to ensure they stay happy and healthy.
When keeping backyard hens, it is important to make sure they have a comfortable, clean and secure house that protects them from weather and predators. Hen houses (or coops) bought from stores are usually wooden or metal enclosures but you could choose to build your own. When choosing a house, it is essential to ensure it is big enough to give your chickens plenty of space with both an inside and outside area. The indoor area should provide hens with shelter and room to sleep, roost on perches and lay their eggs in nest boxes. When outdoors, hens need plenty of shade and space to scratch, forage and dustbathe. Your hen house should be regularly cleaned so when choosing a type of house make sure it can be easily cleaned.
To read more about the type of house your hens need click here.
An essential part of keeping your backyard hens healthy is feeding them a complete and well balanced diet. Layer hens are omnivores so they can enjoy a varied diet of seeds, grains, leaves, fruit, vegetables and insects. To ensure your chickens get all the nutrients they need, a good quality commercial poultry feed should make up the main part of their diet. In addition, your hens can be given a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables daily. Never feed your hens fatty, salty or spoiled food scraps. They also should not eat specific foods like potato, avocado, chocolate, citrus fruit, uncooked beans, onion, garlic or uncooked rice . Remember that, depending on your hens’ age, breed and size, the feed type and amount they require will differ. To make sure you are feeding your hens correctly, it is important to check with a veterinarian or get in contact with your local poultry association or local poultry fancier’s society.
To read more about what to feed your hens click here.
Layer hens are very social animals that enjoy the company of other hens. For this reason, it is best to have at least three chickens. For hens to produce eggs, they do not need a rooster so, unless you are planning on breeding, having a rooster is generally not recommended (to read more about keeping a rooster click here). If you notice any change in your hens’ behaviour, it could indicate that something is wrong and you should always consult a veterinarian if you have any concerns.
When layer hens are not provided adequate enrichment (opportunities and objects that encourage natural behaviours), they can develop problem behaviours like feather pecking or bullying of other birds. Enrichment will mentally stimulate your hens and provide them opportunities to perform natural behaviours. Simple activities that you should already be doing will act as a form of enrichment for your hens such as cleaning their house, providing food treats or fruit and vegetables, handling them or letting them roam in the garden. Other types of enrichment include hanging up fruit and vegetables, interactive treat dispensers (such as a plastic water bottle with holes), dust bathing areas, platforms and perches, swings or even pet bird toys. It is important that any enrichment objects you provide are changed regularly to keep the hens’ environment interesting and prevent them from getting bored.
Your hens should be wormed regularly and check with your veterinarian about any other preventative health treatment your hens may need.
Daily or regular handling of your hens is not only a great way for you to interact with your hens but also a good way to check their health. Hens should be checked daily for any changes in their health or signs of wounds, feather loss, scaly legs or parasites (such as mites or lice) . Common signs that your hen may be sick include dropping wings and tail, discharge from the nostrils and eyes, lameness (unable or abnormal walk), being lethargic or not eating. Hens are also at risk of viral or bacterial diseases (such as Avian Influenza, or Salmonella and E. coli infections). Some diseases that hens get can be zoonotic (can infect humans) so it is important to practice good hygiene practices such as always washing your hands after cleaning or handling your hens, not eating food where your hens live and regularly cleaning your hens house and feed/water .
In the unfortunate event that one of your hens gets sick or injured, it is essential that you have a local veterinarian available to treat or if required humanely euthanase your hen.
Remember that there are legal obligations for people who own animals to help protect the welfare of those animals. Make sure to check your state/territory Department of Agriculture or equivalent for information about your legal obligations when deciding to own chickens. To learn more about the legislation in each state and territory click here.