Keeping Chickens For Dummies (UK Edition)
Keeping chickens can be a wonderful hobby for the whole family, but with the fun comes the responsibility. Chickens are living, breathing creatures that rely on you to look after them. This cheat sheet gives you some of the essential, need-to-know information you need in order to do a good job.
Looking a Picture of Chickeny Health
Knowing what a healthy chicken looks like may stop you from mistaking illness or deformity for the normal appearance of a chicken. The following quick pointers can help you determine whether a chicken is healthy and normal:
Activity level. Differences exist between breeds, but a healthy chicken is rarely still during the daylight hours. Some breeds are more nervous and flighty; others are calm but busy. In very warm weather, all chickens become less active.
Eyes. Chicken eyes should be clear and shiny, with no discharge or swelling around them. When a chicken is alert and active, its eyelids shouldn’t be showing.
Feathers. In general, a chicken shouldn’t be missing large patches of feathers. One exception to this is hens kept with a cockerel. These hens often have bare patches on the back and behind the head that are normal and caused by mating. However, you should never see open sores or swelling where the skin is bare.
If you take on ex-battery hens, they’re normally quite bare when you first re-home them. Commercial egg farms get rid of the hens when they do because their laying slows right down, perhaps stopping altogether for a while, because they’re in the middle of their first moult, and are never quite so prolific afterwards. With some TLC they soon feather up again.
A healthy bird has its feathers smoothed down when it’s active, though some breed differences do exist. For example, a Frizzle with its twisted feathers never looks smooth. A bird with its feathers fluffed out that isn’t sleeping or taking a dustbath is probably ill.
Feet and toes. A chicken’s three front toes should point straight ahead, and the feet shouldn’t turn outwards. The hock joints (like knee joints that bend backwards) shouldn’t touch, and the toes shouldn’t point in towards each other. Chicken feet shouldn’t be webbed (webbing is skin connecting the toes), although occasionally webbed feet show up as a genetic defect, and you shouldn’t see any swellings on the legs or toes. Check the bottom of the foot also for swelling and raw, open areas.
Mental state. Chickens should appear alert and avoid strangers if in a lighted area. Unless they’ve been tamed, inactive birds that allow easy handling are probably ill. Chickens in the dark, however, are very passive, which is normal.
Mouth. Chickens breathe with their mouths closed, except in very hot conditions. If cooling the bird doesn’t result in it breathing with its mouth closed, it’s ill.
Nose. Both nostrils should be clear and open, with no discharge.
Vent. The feathers under the tail of the chicken around the vent or cloaca, the common opening for faeces, mating and passing eggs, shouldn’t be matted with faeces, or the area have any surrounding sores or wounds.
Wings. Chickens of most breeds carry their wings close to the body, but a few breeds have wings that point downwards. (Study the breed characteristics to see what’s normal for your breed.) The wings shouldn’t droop down or look twisted. Sometimes droopy wings signify illness in the bird.
Knowing How to Clean Your Chicken House, and When
Looking after your chicken housing is important for the health and well being of your birds. At the very least, your chickens need the following conditions to stay clean and healthy:
A dry space.
Avoid using water for cleaning unless the floor drains well, the day is warm and sunny and you can use ventilation to dry the house quickly. Try to avoid getting anything wet that won’t dry before nightfall.
Clean litter and nest boxes.
Keep nest boxes clean at all times as well, and frequently replace any dirty or lost bedding. Clean nests make clean eggs and happy hens, and clean eggs are healthier for both eating and hatching.
Don’t clean the nest of a hen you’ve left to sit on eggs. If you notice smashed or leaking eggs, remove them and any soiled nest material. If the area around the nest becomes filled with droppings, you may want to pick them up. After the eggs have hatched, immediately clean out that nest box completely.
Clean food and water dishes.
Brush out any caked feed, wash and rinse them and then spray them with an anti-bacterial spray, or use a commercial poultry-safe disinfectant, following the directions on the packaging. Rinse and dry in the sun if possible, and ensure that the feed containers are totally dry before refilling them.
Keep algae, slime and scum from accumulating in water dishes. You may need a bottlebrush to clean these items. Check the nipples of automatic water devices for rust or hard-water scale build-up; if needed, soak them in a lime and scale remover liquid. An old toothbrush is handy for cleaning nipples and other small surfaces.
A general purpose cleaner and a cleaner for windows are fine for cleaning chicken houses. Most of the common human household cleaners available at feed stores and your local shop are safe for general use. Steer clear of ammonia, though, which isn’t good for the lungs.
Unless you’ve had a disease problem, don’t worry about disinfecting the general quarters. If you have had this problem, ask a veterinarian what products you need to use to eradicate traces of disease, and always read and follow the label directions exactly.
If you have a problem with lice or mites, use specialist products stocked by animal feed suppliers to deal with them. To get rid of any mite eggs that are lodged in cracks and crevices, run a lighted blowtorch over them.
Deep clean everything once or twice a year, when it smells or gets wet or when the bedding gets too high. Start your cleaning by shooing out the chickens. Then take the following steps:
Scrape off the roosts.
Dust out the cobwebs.
Brush down the walls.
Remove all the dirty litter.
Some people lightly dampen the litter to lessen the amount of dust that gets stirred up, but don’t overdo the wetting. Removing litter is easiest when the litter is dry, and so wear your dust mask.
Sweep the floor with a damp broom.
Wipe light bulbs carefully after they’ve had a chance to cool.
The bulbs get coated with dust, which reduces light.
Clean any windows.
Wipe off any screening that protects windows or ventilation flaps.
Place fresh litter in the house.
Keeping a Chicken’s Diet Interesting by Offering Treats
Chickens’ diets need to be well balanced, but an occasional treat can be good for the birds. Treats can help relieve boredom in confined chickens, including those that are being kept inside because of bad weather. Treats may deter chickens from pecking at each other or eating things they shouldn’t, such as the paint off the walls.
Feed treats in small quantities and clean up any the chickens don’t eat straight away. The following treats are good and safe for chickens:
Dark, leafy greens. Hanging a cabbage up above head height for chickens to jump and peck at is an old tried and tested trick, providing food, amusement and exercise all at the same time.
Fruits. Apples, pears and other fruit raked up off the ground provide excellent treats, especially if wormy, unless they’ve been sprayed with pesticides. Most fruits can be fed to chickens, although they probably refuse to eat citrus fruit. Fruit can be soft or damaged but not mouldy.
Home-grown grains. Growing your own dedicated chicken feed is perfectly possible. Just scatter your chickens’ whole grain in a patch of the garden and harvest it by stringing up bundles; the birds do the rest. Sweetcorn, maize and sunflower heads can contribute to chickens’ diets too. Just remember the golden rule: don’t take them into the kitchen.
Modern feeds and oyster shell. Before the advent of chick crumb, people would commonly hard boil an egg and mash it up as chick food. Eggshells baked and crushed were returned to laying birds to supplement their calcium needs. These practices are considered old fashioned now. Feeding eggshells to layers, no matter how well disguised, can encourage egg eating, a nasty habit that’s difficult to break and miserable to experience. Modern feeds and oyster shell are a better solution. Put the eggshells on the compost heap.
Other green, orange and red vegetables. As long as they come straight from the garden, allotment or greengrocers, and not via the kitchen, these treats are fine to feed to your chickens.
Potatoes and potato peelings. Don’t feed raw potatoes or peelings to chickens. The sprouts and green areas of skin can be poisonous.
Pumpkins and squashes. The ‘guts’ from a hollowed out pumpkin are quite popular with chickens. You can even feed the rind after Halloween if it isn’t mouldy. Chickens also adore those monstrous marrows and gone-to-seed cucumbers that no one else wants.
Weeds from the lawn and garden. Most weeds are quite nutritious. Just make sure that they haven’t been sprayed with pesticides. Every area has weeds that are poisonous, and so consult a book or authority before feeding your birds unfamiliar weeds. Never feed yew (a soft-needled evergreen common in churchyards) trimmings to any animal, and don’t include any mushrooms or fungi in your offerings. Dandelions, goosegrass chickweed and thistles are all safe. A little cut grass is okay, but don’t overdo it.
Miscellaneous. Cooked nuts are fine, as are raw crushed acorns and walnuts. Wild bird seed and sunflower seed are okay, and leaving the hulls on is fine. A little dry pet food or a few pet treats occasionally are okay, but don’t feed too often or too much. Rabbit pellets can be an occasional treat as well.