So where was I? Oh yes…Feeding your chucks is very easy and they tend to be voracious eaters. Feed them layers pellets or mash – we go through about one £7 20kg bag every two months or so for three girls – plus kitchen scraps, sweet corn etc. They also go mad for pasta and bread, which fed as an occasional treat is fine, apples and lettuce and bird seed. But be careful not to feed them raw potato peelings or anything rotten. And they love foraging for snails, slugs, worms etc. Don’t assume chickens are vegetarian. They will happily eat anything they can get their beaks on. I have had to prize our girls from dead frogs, slow worms and – horribly – an old chicken drumstick somebody threw over our fence which they found delicious. Thelma regularly raids the kitchen looking for cat food. Yuck! You’ll also need to offer them grit to help them digest their food, and ensure they get enough calcium. Sometimes older birds can have a problem with calcium uptake, so ground oyster shell in a small feeder can help. Don’t forget to give them regular flea and lice treatments too.
Many people ask whether it’s safe to keep cats and chickens. Don’t worry! While chickens are wary of cats, they will happily have a go at one that gets too close. Dogs and foxes are another matter, though. You need to be very careful of them. If you have a dog, introduce your new pets under supervised conditions, especially if you have a hunting breed of dog. Foxes are the enemy and will quickly kill every chicken in a coop if they get in. Usually they are around during the early morning, twilight and night hours but they are getting bolder and I have seen many in broad daylight. So don’t take any chances. After Thelma survived a fox attack a couple of years ago we now only let them out when we’re physically in the garden or the kitchen to keep an eye on them.
Of course, the whole point to keeping chickens is that they will provide you with lots of eggs. Usually you will get your hens at ‘point-of-lay’ – about 18 weeks old. Normally you have to wait a couple of weeks until they’ve settled before they will start laying. How many eggs they lay will depend very much on the individual breed, and there are lots. Choosing and Keeping Chickens by Chris Graham is a great book on breeds. Our girls are hybrids and lay one egg each day, six to seven days a week. They will tend to take the odd day off, and stop laying altogether during their seasonal moult because they need their energy to grow new feathers. They also lay less as they get older.
Get them to respond to your voice so you can get them back in the run when you need to. We find using sweet corn or other treats to reinforce our whistles helps enormously as chickens love food! They will quickly come running as they learn to associate your calls with grub. Also ask the person selling you the chickens how to hold them and clip their wings.
Find a good vet who understands poultry or birds. This was the mistake we made when we got our girls first. When Louise fell ill, we took her to a small animal vet who didn’t have a clue. The problem is farmers who keep hens tend not to spend a fortune on them at the vet because it’s uneconomical. So many vets are only used to diagnosing illnesses in poultry at post-mortem, which isn’t much help! Ask around. Hen keeping is becoming more popular so some vets are taking the time to do their research. We’ve now found a great vet who is fascinated by chickens and keen to learn more about them.
Something else to bear in mind is your neighbours’ reaction. It’s a good idea to let them know that you’re getting chickens and make sure they’re happy about it. We find leaving eggs on their doorsteps helps! After all, you might want to enlist their help when you go on holiday need somebody to take care of the girls!
Almost forgot. Be aware of the pecking order. One chicken is always the top bird and the others will quickly learn their place. Another ‘deputy’ may take over the reins when the top bird is ill or dies. So do bear in mind that if you bring new birds into an existing pecking order pandemonium can ensue as it is re-ordered. Louise was top chicken and when she died and when we bought new birds Thelma spent a lot of time pecking Lexi and Molly and bullying them as she established her authority. It wasn’t pleasant – she wouldn’t let them out of the hen house to eat or drink at one point – but it did settle down eventually. Some owners resort to keeping two sets of hen houses when they get new chickens to avoid the fights.
Have a great weekend xxx Piper.