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Keeping Chickens in the Back Yard
Hens Are Great Fun To Keep
Here are some of my experiences with chickens in the backyard, and why I loved having them around.
Also why I could do without them in my garden......they can be terrible vandals.
The picture below is Blackie, who was a really friendly girl, one of my first backyard hens. There were quite a few over the years. Unfortunately, there are no longer chickens in my backyard, but they are missed.
All images in this lens are my own, unless otherwise stated.
The Beginning - Why I started keeping chickens
I never intended to keep hens in my backyard, but I'd just moved into a new house, and had heaps of space. Besides, my sister had a few hens and a couple of ducks, and I liked the idea of the hens eating grubs and insects in the garden.
What I didn't actually think about was what the hens would to to my newly planted seedlings, and my veggie patch. There was some very hurried fencing done in the early days, that's for sure.
To start with, the hens were put into a small box overnight, inside a pen about 6ft x 3 ft x 3ft. Not that large, but they did have the run of the backyard during the day, so had plenty of exercise.
Eventually, I built a proper coop and pen for them, around a tree, so that they had shade all day if necessary. The tree liked getting the manure too!
Is It Edible?
Chickens are always on the lookout for food! They always seem to be looking at things and thinking "Is it edible?"
There was very little our hens wouldn't eat, but if there was an oversupply of something, they would quickly get bored with it. Snails were a favourite, but even those were ignored if they were given too many.
Do You Keep Chickens? A Poll
Do you have chickens in your backyard at home?
Sometimes, Eggs Are In Short Supply
Actually, eggs weren't in short supply, we were totally eggless for a while, something I hadn't expected when I started keeping chickens.
Why? Because the hens were moulting, which takes a few weeks. We were certainly glad when the moult was over, and they started laying again.
Fortunately, we didn't have to wait until the end of winter for that to happen, but after moulting in Autumn, that can happen. The birds were well fed, and were given warm food on occasions, and they started to lay again in a few weeks.
Our Back Garden
Chickens and the Garden Environment
Keeping hens can help the environment, but they can also wreck your garden.
When I first got a couple of hens, I went outside to plant a couple of dozen flower seedlings in the new garden outside the bedroom window.
When I looked around, there were the two new hens, proudly pulling up and eating the new plants! I was not impressed, to put it mildly, and of course, they were locked in their pen until I'd finished the job, and also put some protection around the garden.
Hens are, of course, much used in permaculture, although it's not something I've gone into very deeply. A search on the topic will give you plenty of information, however.
Their manure is a great fertilizer, once it is dried out - it's too strong at first. Chicken manure is very strong in nitrogen, which all gardens need, but don't overdo it.
A way I use to spread it around is add about a cupful of poo to a bucket of water, and leave it to mature for a few days - it's a good idea to do this quite far from the house, as it can be quite pungent. The mix can then be sprayed thinly over the ground.
If you have a compost bin, then some manure added to it will serve to enrich the compost as it breaks down.
Usually I give the manure away, as I have far too much for my own needs, but that's a plus, as it helps other peoples' gardens too.
Chickens Are Great At Garbage DIsposal
Once we had chickens in the backyard, there was never a problem getting rid of food scraps - chickens are always on the lookout for food. They were even known to eat egg and chicken leftovers, but I guess they didn't know what it was!
Just about everything went into the chicken bin, except egg shells. Once they get a taste for those, it's goodbye to your egg supply, as they can start to eat their own eggs.
Even bones went into the mix - the fresh ones were really enjoyed because of the marrow, which the hens liked to peck out. Old bones which had dried up were crushed and thrown to the hens for calcium, and it was always eaten straight-away.
There was very little that the chickens wouldn't eat, but they didn't like to have too much of any one thing at a time. Extra cabbage leaves, for example, went into the compost bin. All in all, chickens make very good waste disposal units.
Overnight Freedom For The Hens
Last weekend, we went away to the hills for an overnight stay. Usually when we do this, we leave the chickens locked in their pen, with extra food, but feel mean doing it. This time, we decided to leave them free in the back yard, and see how it went.
From now on, when we go away, they'll have the freedom of the backyard, because they'd obviously put themselves to bed in the coop (I had to clean it out as usual) when they were ready, and were clucking happily around on our return.
Usually when we go away for a holiday, they are shut up except for the short time each day when my sister or my niece come over to feed them, but since they came to no harm, why not let them stay free?
They will still be checked up on every day, and it will be much healthier for them. Of course, I'm not too sure about the plants in the garden's safety, but everything has it's cost.
Paying the Rent
Chickens can pay for themselves in other ways besides giving you enough manure for your garden - they lay GREAT fresh eggs! That's what I call "Paying the Rent" and my current two are very good at it.
Of course, they ARE very well fed and well, let's admit it, spoiled..... but what else are pets for?
Hens at Work
The Vandals Are Coming!
My partner has a sort of love/hate relationship with the hens. He keeps them under control more than I do, as I used to let my hens jump onto my lap to be fed. Of course, this had some consequences.....
We were sitting outside one day having lunch, not really taking much notice of the hens wandering around us. He was sitting with half his roll in his hand, but it was about knee high to the ground.
Suddenly, a white streak grabbed the roll, and took off, followed by the black hen. Both hens proceeded to have a beautiful feast of ham roll at his expense. Unfortunately, I didn't have a camera to hand, so we missed a shot of the white hen taking off with the sandwich.
Ever since, of course, any hens we've had are called "The Vandals".
Crafty Little Hens!
For the past few days, it's been really hot here in Melbourne, so I wasn't surprised when there were no eggs in the chicken coop. I thought they were taking a break.
Recently, we've been pruning some of the trees and shrubs in our front garden, and the branches have been put in a pile in the backyard, waiting for us to mulch them.
Yesterday, I decided to check under and around this pile, just in case the hens had decided to lay there. They have a history of finding strange places to lay, and one girl loved the compost bin.
Just as well I checked - there were the last three or four days worth of eggs, half a dozen of them, nicely laid in a cozy little dip in the ground, under the branches.
My hens are becoming very good at hiding eggs from us. The sooner the mulching gets done, the better, but at least it's a nice clean place. :-)
Don't Let Your Chickens Become Eggbound
On a couple of occasions, my girls have had a problem with laying their eggs. On the worst occasion, I thought I was going to lose one of them, as she just couldn't pass the egg, and was suffering terribly.
I tried to use petroleum jelly to help, and massaged her a little, and it seemed to do the trick, because shortly afterwards, she passed a broken egg. It took her several days to recover and start laying again, poor thing.
After some research, it seems that free calcium in the diet is a good preventative measure for eggbinding, and it's easy to provide also. Another cause of the problem is overfeeding, but cutting down on the grain. especially corn, and feeding more greens can fix that.
One very good way to provide the calcium in the diet that hens require is bones. That's right, bones! The girls love smashed bones, and are always trying to get their heads under the hammer when I'm preparing the bones for them. Sometimes I have to lock them up to protect them from themselves.
Any old bone will do, from the leftover dinner, to ancient dogbones found in the garden. All that's necessary is to smash them into small enough pieces for the hens to eat. They really enjoy anything with marrow left in it too.
Since using this method, I've never had an eggbound chicken, touch wood! As an added bonus, it also solves the problem of how to dispose of bones.
We Love Brown Eggs
Our last chickens were Isa Browns, which are great layers, usually laying brown eggs.
Although brown eggs are often though to be better than white, there is actually no difference in their dietary value. Even though I know this, I still prefer brown eggs.
Sometimes, at the supermarket, I still check inside the container and select the pack with more brown eggs
No More Chickens !
Just before Christmas, I went out into the garden before breakfast, as usual, to feed my hens.
As I neared the pen, there was no happy clucking, and not a hen in sight. Looking around, at first I didn't see Goldie lying dead up against the fence, and after I'd found her, there was Brownie, also dead, next to the coop.
What a horrible thing to find in the morning. From all appearances, it looked as if they'd been killed by an animal of some kind.
Knowing that my next door neighbour has ferrets, suspicion immediately fell on them, because both my partner and I have seen one of the ferrets in our garden.
It was going to be a really hot day, about 40C, so since I was alone at the time, there was nothing else to do, but get a spade and start digging a grave for the poor little creatures. Nothing like that to spoil a day for you, that's for sure.
We won't be getting any more hens, because there's no point with the ferrets next door, running free sometimes. We really miss those girls, because they certainly had character, and added character to the garden.
Vale, Brownie and Goldie.
The Girls Are Really Missed
Last week, we walked around a Sunday market nearby. A couple of the stalls had hens of various varieties and sizes for sale, the sight of these chickens made me realise just how much I still miss our hens.
Although there will never be chickens in our garden again, it doesn't stop us wanting them. Every time we are gardening and find a snail, or a group of earwigs, or anything which they would like to eat, it's hard not to call them.
They particularly loved spiders, and there seem to be a lot of those around this year. Some of these spiders are dangerous, and it was great when the chickens went in the garage and cleaned a few out of the corners and under things. Now we have to do it ourselves!
Our girls were Isa Browns, one of the best layers you can get. They were also full of personality, and were very friendly. When we're gardening, it's impossible not to look around for the hens, even though they've been gone for over a year now. They left a big impression, both on us, and the garden.