Raising a flock of chooks in your backyard has a number of benefits beside freshly laid eggs. Chickens are also great, low-maintenance pets, which will hoover up your kitchen scraps – and keep you company.
We spoke to Jason Nethercott, who runs Talking Hens – a business dedicated to rearing backyard hens and selling poultry supplies – with his partner Giuliana Postregna.
If you’re thinking about adding some clucky companions to your household, follow these tips on coop construction, choosing the right chickens, and what you can and can’t feed them.
Do your homework
First step: check if your local council has any regulations around keeping backyard chickens. Some will require you to have a permit, but most won’t.
The majority of councils allow four to 10 chickens per household. For example, it’s 10 in Maribyrnong in Melbourne’s west, but it’s five in Yarra in the city’s south and Darebin in the north, and four nearby in Moreland.
Roosters are generally off limits because of their loud, early-morning antics.
Build a comfy coop
The perfect chicken coop has three main components: a nesting box for laying eggs, an elevated perch for sleeping, and a mesh exterior to guard against predators.
You can also add an enclosed area outside the coop, known as a run, where the chickens can roam free during the day. It should be lined with wood shavings to absorb droppings and exposed on the sides (but covered from the elements).
Or you can DIY by upcycling materials (such as unused furniture, wooden pallets or corrugated iron) you have lying around. “A coop can just be four posts in the ground [with a mesh exterior],” says Nethercott. “You can do it fairly simply with a bit of googling and there are lots of ideas online.” (Get some inspo here and here.)
Choose the right chooks
“My rule of thumb is: one more chicken than the number of eggs you want for your household,” says Nethercott. “That way if one is feeling under the weather for the week, you still have enough eggs.”
When deciding on a breed, consider what’s most important to you – eggs, temperament or appearance.
Hyline chickens are good for first-time owners. “They give a regular egg supply and make very good pets,” Nethercott says. “They’re very inquisitive, and children can pick them up and cuddle them and take them on the swings.” While heritage breeds such as Leghorn and Ancona are large and beautiful, he says they don’t lay as many eggs in winter.
Another Nethercott suggestion: get a minimum of two chooks – they’re very social creatures.
Look after your chickens
“With the right set-up, it becomes easy,” says Nethercott.
All they need day-to-day is fresh, clean water, chook pellets and a mix of seeds and grains such as barley, corn and sunflower seeds.
You can also feed them food scraps from your kitchen, such as leafy greens and root veggies. (Find a definitive list of what you can and can’t give them here).
Chickens generally start laying eggs at about four months old, and “what comes out is only as good as what goes in”, Nethercott says. He suggests letting them eat all their food before replenishing the supply – they will often cherrypick the larger pieces and leave the powdery bits, which are chock-full of vitamins and minerals.