It has been just over six months since we introduced our three ladies to the garden so I thought this would be an opportune time to provide an update on how the chooks are getting on and what we have learned so far. I have to say I am still completely enamoured with our chickens and they are now such an integral part of our back garden. I tip my cap to them every morning as I leave for work and they run out to greet us whenever we open the back door. They have also become very tame and they hunker down and lift their wings when we are near, expecting a stroke on the back. So lovely!
So here are some of our observations and learnings in our first half year of chicken keeping, based on the original chicken requirements and outputs of my first Urban Chickens post.
You may have read my post (Building Chicken Coopery) about the trials and tribulations I encountered in building a worthy shelter to house our chickens. Well, shortly after adopting our girls, during the hot summer, they started ignoring their palatial lodgings and opted to sleep outside on the ground. They would use the shelter to lay but they refused to sleep there at night.
And they continued sleeping outside on the ground throughout autumn and into the bitterly cold months of June. At first I thought there might be some parasitic infestation that was deterring them from the coop. There was initially some evidence of red mite but even after I dealt with that, the hens still refused my accomodations. Apparently the mansion that I had sweated many months over was not good enough for these ladies. It is only in the last few days, with no tangible explanation, that they have stated sleeping indoors again. It’s a mystery.
Food & Water
Chickens appear to be insatiable. They are constantly foraging and they seem to hoover up almost all the scraps that we feed them, with perhaps the exception of raw vegetable peelings and some fruit. Combined with the compost bin and the occasionally utilised Bokashi bucket, we don’t send any food waste to landfill.
In their constant forage, chickens can strip a patch of grass bare in just a few days. When I rejigged the fencing for their forage area in April, I planted a wheat grass crop outside their run that I hoped would provide a fodder crop later on. I can now see that, while they may enjoy it, several months of growth will only last a few days when I eventually expose them to it.
Shade was an over-sight in my initial design for the chicken run. It was real hot last summer and apparently chickens don’t sweat so they need to be able to keep cool. I jimmied a tarp over the fencing which did the trick, albeit wasn’t aesthetically pleasing. Eventually I want to incorporate multi-purpose shrubs in the run to provide shade and shelter, but they’ll need to be chicken tolerant, so deep rooting shrubs will be best.
As a necessity, I planted a languishing lemon tree in the chicken run in autumn. I already had the tree and my long term design positioned the it within the temporary coop area. Citrus have a fairly shallow root network, so I used the dish racks from an old dishwasher upturned at base of the tree to keep the chooks from damaging the roots. It seems to have done the trick and with the benefit of a supply of cast seeping through the surrounding soil, the tree has tripled in size already.
Grit and Dust Bath
I didn’t anticipate how significantly the heavy feet of the chooks would impact the ground, and the dry area that was to be their dust bath area was soon trodden into the muddy soil. I’m still to remedy this with some sharp sand from the beach or river but they are making do for now with the dry area under the coop.
It has been a challenge to provide enough material for the girls to scratch about in. They are perpetual foraging machines, constantly turning over detritus in their run, stripping the soil bare of plants and loose matter. I’ve thrown in buckets of wood chip when I have had it available but this also gets compacted into the bare soil – certainly the soil will need to be aerated when I move them on.
One thing I do have had in plentiful supply is wandering willy (Tradescantia fluminensis) which chickens appear to love. Every weekend I pull out armfuls of this pesky weed from the bank and give it to the girls. They feed off it, rumage around in it for bugs and then turn it over into soil. Time will tell if any of the nodes of this readily rooting pest remain viable. But so far there have been no new sprouts in the chook run.
When we started out, I picked up some second hand poultry fencing like the product available here. It seems to work really well and allowed a number of different configurations off the side of the coop. However, the 5 square meters it afforded the girls was quickly stripped bare of all vegetation and as the autumn rains started was turning into an unsavoury mud bath.
With a few random pieces of mesh and chicken wire, a sheet of corrugated plastic and some zip ties, I rigged up a fence around the base of the trampoline with a chicken-sized tunnel leading from the coop area. This quadrupled the run area and (temporarily at least) gave them some fresh grass to forage in. It has also allowed me to rest another area of the garden which I aerated and sowed a green crop, which will eventually become more forage fodder.
The extra space has been great for the girls but I would really like them to be able to forage in an area with established plants and shrubs that can provide them shelter as well as habitat for other tasty morsels. I have bought some plants specifically for this purpose but this area will eventually be established in the front garden.
We have consistently received 2 to 3 eggs per day since January, even after the days became shorter. We were sure that the laying would tail off but I guess Hylines are bred to lay. It is wonderful having a surplus to give to family, friends and neighbours and my daughter has been making the most of them in her baking.
I have to say it. Chicken poops are freakishly huge and fascinatingly varied in size shape and colour. When they are allowed to roam, you have to be a little careful where you stand, but it is really no big deal to clean up with the hose.
While they have been enriching the soil of an area that will eventually be turned into a herbal medicine border, I haven’t reaped the benefits of their manure output yet. The shavings cleaned out of the coop are too rich to be used directly on plants and need to compost first.
I have seen first hand speed, voracity and ruthlessness of our raptors.
Jake, our tubby tabby, had been toying with a mouse on the lawn, allowing it to leap away before pouncing on it again. Only he let it escape into the garden bed adjacent to the coop. As quick as anything, Sophie had her head through the fence and plucked the poor wee mouse out of its hiding place and swiftly put it to death. A bit of a ruckous followed as her sisters attempted to wrestle the prized catch from her. The remains of the mouse were never found. Jake was not impressed.
Chickens can make a helluva mess in the garden borders. Several escapes have left my neatly mulched beds strewn to the winds, plants uprooted or eaten. They have also scraped away the soil around several new plants in the herb border, and caused them to whither.
However, they can be extremely useful for clearing ground planned for news beds; they can strip a patch of soil in no time at all. We also have a mutually beneficial arrangement when it comes to spreading grass clippings and compost. They dive in and feast off the grubs and bugs, spreading the material far and wide, and I get to clean up after them!
Other Chicken Observations
Chickens are canny escapologists. Lyra was regularly escaping from somewhere under the tramp, but she bloody well knew when I was watching her to see where she was getting out from. No sooner had I turned back to my gardening, than she was next to me scratching in the soil soil I had just exposed.
When left to roam, the girls are never far from where I am working. They keep a keen eye on what I’m doing in the garden and often come when called if they believe there is something in it for them. I really enjoy turning over stones and logs for them and letting them rummage underneath. They also tend to stick their heads into the kitchen now and then to see what’s cooking.
One of the biggest suprises about owning chickens is how low maintenance they have been. Admittedly we have been lucky to have young healthy birds, but for the amount of enjoyment, eggs and other outputs we reap from them, it is well worth the effort needed to keep them. I just hope they are as happy with their home as we are with them.