It's great keeping chickens in the garden and they do make wonderful pets. Over recent years more and more people have taken to keeping poultry, they're fun and every day there's a fresh egg or two waiting in their nesting boxes, and hens are brilliant at recycling a lot of your kitchen waste. However, before you buy any chickens, you might like to take a look at a few rescue centres and their websites, you'll find all sorts of poultry desperately looking for loving and caring homes to go to and if you can a couple home, the chances are you'll be saving their lives.
The first thing you have to do is make sure you're allowed to keep chickens in your garden and that neighbours would not object if you have a few birds running around. Chickens are very busy creatures with lots of energy and they have a their set routines. They are also extremely inquisitive, which means they might get into a neighbours garden – quite by accident. You'd need to know your neighbours won't get too upset if a bird or two wanders over their side of the fence.
Adopting chickens is not a decision that should be taken lightly because just like any other animal, hens and cockerels need a lot of attention and you need to be dedicated to looking after them – which means cleaning their hen houses out every day come rain or shine and making sure your poultry want for nothing.
Sadly, keeping a cockerel in a town garden is a bit of a no-no. Remember, these lovely birds can be a little vocal first thing in the morning and then late at night. Although many people believe cockerels only crow where the sun comes up – this is not strictly true - they will crow if a noise disturbs them any time during the night too! Your neighbours might be okay with you keeping a few hens but a cockerel might be a bit too much.
Adopting adult chickens means you know there'll be no cockerels in your flock because when young, it can be hard to tell whether some teenage chickens are female or male – it's only much later that you will be able to sex them, and the chances are if you buy very young birds, there will be cockerels amongst them.
Many people invest in young birds thinking they have purchased only females but then find there's a mixture of hens and cockerels – this is how many cockerels end up in rescue centres or worse get put down. Some poor cockerels just get dumped and abandoned which is a horrible thing to do but sadly it happens all too often.
Adopting adult hens through a rescue centre is by far the better route to take, and if you can keep a cockerel where you live, then you might want to think about re-homing one to keep your hens company and watch over them – cockerels make great body guards for the hens! However, you need to be careful should your hens go broody, because you could end up with lots of chicks – the majority of which could be cockerels and this just makes matters worse. The chances are you wouldn't want any more males birds which means you'd need to find good homes for the males you've hatched which is not always that easy.
You may find it's easier to adopt a cockerel from a rescue centre than it is to re-home some hens. The reason being more people want hens but another option is to contact people who re-home battery hens and there are many who do dotted around the country. You might have to put your name on a waiting list because there are only certain times of the year when these lovely hens are put up for adoption, which is when they're not good layers any more. When the hens are ready to be re-homed, someone will contact you to let you know where and when you can pick your birds up.
You need to have everything ready before you bring your hens home and this includes setting up a safe place for them to live. You would also need to make sure you have a secure enclosure where they can spend the day scratching around and doing what chickens do best. The hen house needs to be fox-proof – and if you have other predators that may like to get to your chickens, you need to make sure they can't get at the birds either – this includes rodents, cats and dogs!
The thing to remember about chickens is they are heat and cold sensitive. Their chicken house needs to be nice and dry, cool and well ventilated during the warmer summer months but it also needs to be warm and well ventilated during the colder winter months too. Chickens and poultry in general need to be protected from extreme temperatures and they need to have access to shade and warmth when they need it.
You can use fresh clean straw in chicken houses which adds a warming effect the the coop. However, the straw needs to be cleaned out on a regular basis otherwise it becomes dirty and will affect the overall health and well being of the birds. You also need to make sure you've got some nice cosy nesting boxes in your coop for your hens to lay eggs in.
You will also need to set up perches for your hens to sleep on at night and these should be as high as possible. Hens also love to scratch around in the dirt so if you can put a little sand on the floor of their coops, they will enjoy not only scratching around in it before you let them out in the mornings – but they will use the sand as a dust bath too. Putting a little sand on the floor of a coop also makes it that much easier to clean out every day.
If you're planning to keep your chickens free-range, then you need to make sure they are safe from predators which can be quite hard to do. Ideally, you need to set up an enclosure where foxes and other predators cannot get at the birds. The chickens also need to be able to get back into their hen house when they want to whether it's because they want to lay eggs during the day or just to get out the sun or bad weather.
Just like any other domestic pet, chickens will need veterinary care from time to time. Which means you need to find out if your local vet actually treats poultry because not all of them do. Your birds will need to be regularly wormed and you should add vitamins and chicken “spice” to their food when they're in moult – there's a lot more to keeping poultry that first meets the eye!
Chickens are great fun to have around. They are a constant source of amusement and fresh eggs. However, just like any other creature, if you are thinking about adopting a few hens and maybe a cockerel, you need to know you can afford to keep them and that if they get sick, you will be able to take them to the vet. Chickens love company and will look forward to seeing you when you arrive with their breakfast – and they'll chase at your heels when you've got a special treat for them, and the best part is that each and every one of them has their own unique personality!