When it comes to chicken care and health, providing enough space and a clean environment is vital. Allow at least a square metre per bird in the chook yard, and if it’s practical, let them out during the day to forage over a larger area.
Chickens are also vulnerable to a range of physical and behavioural problems, and you should know how to solve them.
Here are six things to be aware of when keeping backyard chickens.
1. The pecking order
Chickens are very sociable animals, but the pecking order can be brutal. If your queen bee is making another chicken’s life a misery, put the aggressor in a cage where she can watch the rest of the flock enjoying life as usual. Reunite the flock after a few hours. If the aggressive behaviour starts up again, repeat the treatment until she gets the message.
2. Dealing with broody hens
Mature chickens may go through periods of sitting on the eggs in an effort to hatch them. Left to their own devices, some will sit for weeks, neglecting to eat or even drink. The most humane solution is to pick them up and lock them out of the hen house during the day. It may take several days before they return to their normal behaviour.
3. Preventing heat stress
Chickens are extremely sensitive to heat stress. If they’re free ranging, they’ll generally find some sort of shade. If they’re confined to a chook yard, make sure it’s protected from the afternoon (western) sun. Ideally the yard will be shaded by trees. If not, you’ll need to rig up some shade over summer. This can be shade cloth, a tarp or even an umbrella.
Provide plenty of clean drinking water out of the direct sun and replenish it regularly. On an extreme summer day, they will probably enjoy being sprayed with a fine mist from a bottle. Ensure there is plenty of ventilation in the hen house, and don’t shut them in until it’s cooled down.
4. External parasites
Be alert for signs of mites, lice, fleas or ticks, such as scratching and pecking at the base of their feathers. In nature, hens use dust baths to help keep mites and other parasites under control. The poultry keeper’s fix is along the same lines - dust your chickens with lice and mite powder or diatomaceous earth.
You’ll also have to disinfect your chickens’ bedding and accommodation. Move them out of the way while you do this, preferably on a hot, dry day. Remove all straw from nesting boxes and the henhouse. Don’t compost this as it will be full of mites and eggs.
Spray the inside of the coop, with a high pressure hose, scrub nesting boxes and perches, and spray with coop cleaner. When dry, dust all surfaces with the mite powder or diatomaceous earth. Replenish with fresh clean straw and readmit the flock.
5. Internal parasites
If your chickens are losing weight, they may have worms. Other symptoms include pale egg yolks and runny, smelly droppings. You will also see tiny white worm larvae in the droppings.
Intestinal worms are extremely common in backyard chickens and can spread quickly among the flock. It’s important to remove wet, soiled straw as soon as possible. Even then, it’s highly likely your flock will become infected at some stage.
Since worms are so common, it’s worth treating your flock every six months as a matter of course. No, you don’t have to hold each chook and chuck a tablet down its throat! It’s simply a matter of adding a worming mixture to the drinking water.
6. Addressing calcium deficiency
Laying an egg a day takes a lot of calcium, so good commercial feeds are fortified with it. It’s also a good idea to have a permanent supply of shell grit available, which serves the double purpose of providing the grit they need to grind food in their gizzards. If despite all this, your chickens are laying eggs with soft shells – or even without shells at all – add a soluble calcium supplement to their drinking water.
There are a range of other potential problems in chickens, but they can be tricky to diagnose. If you are worried about a chicken, the first step is to isolate her - first to protect her from bullying by the rest of the flock and second to stop an illness from spreading. Leave your sick chook somewhere quiet with water and feed and see if she improves. If not, it may be time for a visit to your local vet!