Chickens in the garden, eggs in the kitchen: Part 4

I keep my little flock of back garden hens in funky coloured, plastic coops. For the first, smaller hen house I consulted my children and we agreed on the colour purple. It has a very pleasing, rounded shape that reminded me of an egg. We called it The Purple Palace. Our second, larger coop is pink which we thought sat well alongside purple. It was picked up second hand so we didn’t really choose the colour. It is raised off the ground allowing the hens to forage and shelter underneath. We call it The Pink Penthouse. I opted for plastic over the more traditional wood for ease of cleaning. Both coops can be quickly taken to bits, power hosed and reassembled when required. Cleaning the coops is never going to be a job to look forward to so making it as easy as possible helps.

Both coops are cleverly designed with integral perches, nest boxes, hatches, removable poop trays and externally operated doors. Our hens have always seemed very content in them, although from time to time we will find a bird determined to sleep in the nest box rather than perch. As this is not good for their feet, legs and feather condition it is to be discouraged. We bought the coops with attached wire runs which provide safe enclosures when we are not around to allow the birds to free range. We have plastic food and water containers that match the coop colours and these attach to the sides of the runs. I have cut and stripped suitable branches and run these above chicken head height in the runs to give the hens somewhere to perch in the day. The roofs of the wire runs have a rather untidy looking collection of shower curtains, camping ground mats and sun shades attached to help protect the hens from the elements.

There are many hen keepers who dislike these plastic hen houses, prefering the look and build of a traditional, wooden coop. I have been very pleased with plastic.¬†One of the issues that chicken keepers must be aware of is the possibility of parasites infesting the hen house. These tiny creatures can make a bird’s life miserable, causing itchiness and discomfort whilst feeding on their blood. If left untreated these tiny creatures can eventually kill a hen. The most common parasite is the red mite which will burrow into the wood of a coop and be extremely hard to eradicate. Mites cannot burrow into the solid structure of a plastic house and power hosing then disinfecting the crevices that do exist will take care of any that try.

I learnt a great deal about keeping chickens from reading widely on the subject; on the internet, from my growing collection of books and from a specialist magazine I subscribed to. I also become quite active on a couple of on line discussion forums and after a couple of years of keeping chickens myself felt confident enough to start giving advice to the many new domestic poultry keepers who were joining the hobby. My enthusiasm for our plastic hen houses resulted in me volunteering to work at home and garden shows for the company that sold them. Although I only managed to do this for a few months before family commitments precluded me from continuing I did enjoy the experience,

Working the shows introduced me to a wide variety of people. There were many who already kept chickens and all had their own firmly held beliefs about how best to treat their birds. The company that I represented was more interested in the new, urban chicken keeper looking to keep just a few hens in a small garden. These people welcomed my advice and experience and I made many sales. Days spent at the shows were long and tiring but I enjoyed the expenses paid travel and the non stop chicken talk. I also learnt about keeping rabbits, guinea pigs and bees as the company sold housing for these creatures. The sort of chicken keepers we signed up wanted pets to cherish. Those who were critical of our set up were generally more interested in keeping utility birds – good egg layers that can be fattened up for meat at the end of their laying lives.

I am not a vegetarian and will eat chicken so have looked into raising birds for meat. Given the way broiler chickens are raised commercially I know that I could give a meat bird a much better quality of life prior to dispatch. It is perhaps a project for the future though. While we continue to choose our cute little pullets in small numbers, give them names and cuddle them daily it is hard to consider ending their lives in order to eat them. The old ladies of our flock can continue to look forward to a peaceful retirement for now. It may not make sense financially, but what pet does?

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Chickens in the garden, eggs in the kitchen: Part 3

One of the more obvious advantages of keeping a small flock of chickens in the garden is the constant supply of freshly laid eggs. I will never tire of the pleasure of going to the hen coops and opening the nest boxes to check for these treasures. We got our first egg from our first chicken within a few days of them moving into our garden. I haven’t had to buy an egg since. When our hens lay more eggs than we can use I have friends who will buy them from us which provides a welcome contribution towards feed costs. The number of eggs laid by the flock depends on many things:

  • the age of each hen;
  • her breed;
  • general health issues;
  • the number of hours of daylight in which she may feed;
  • the ambient temperature;
  • whether she was spooked by a scary aeroplane flying overhead or a sudden noise.

I learnt early never to go into the chicken garden with an umbrella. Better to get wet than to frighten my poor birds with this huge, flying object.

When a hen lays an egg she goes to a familiar place where she feels safe and comfortable. She will move the bedding around with her beak, throwing a little over her shoulder to the right and to the left as she squirms down into a comfy position in the nest that she has made. Having sorted herself out she will wait a little while before rising up slightly and laying the egg that she has been growing in her body for the last twenty-four to twenty-six hours. Some hens, when they lay the egg, will immediately leave the nest box. Others will settle down in an attempt to warm the chick that may be inside. They will check it from time to time, gently turning it with their beak. Once you observe a hen laying an egg you will never again take it for granted. Each egg is a little miracle, produced with such care by these affectionate, funny and loyal birds.

A hen will lay an egg whether or not she runs with a cockerel. Keeping a cockerel will help to maintain order in the flock, minimising the risk of bullying, and will also allow breeding. As I have no wish to raise chicks at this stage I keep only hens. My little flock is made up of different types of hybrid hens of different ages. This is not an ideal set-up. It is recommended that a flock should be of the same age and the same type of bird to minimise the risk of bullying. Pecking can be a serious issue as, if blood is drawn, the birds can become cannibalistic. Thankfully things have never got that bad amongst my birds.

A pullet will come into lay from around twenty to twenty-four weeks of age. It will take a few weeks for her to settle down into regular egg laying during which time eggs will vary in size and some may be soft shelled. A good egg layer will soon be providing an egg nearly every day. Laying hens have large, bright red combs and wattles and should be fully feathered, glossy and sleek. Almost all of their energy goes into producing that delicious, daily egg so they carry little fat. They should be alert and bright eyed, happily running with the flock in search of tasty treats to eat.

Hybrid hens should continue to lay eggs regularly until they are around three years old. As they come to the end of their laying lives the eggs may become larger with weaker shells. When they have laid their lifetime supply of eggs their combs and wattles will turn a pale pink and shrink back in size. These old ladies of the flock will continue to demand the respect of their juniors with a sharp peck if they are not allowed to feed when they wish. They will move more stiffly and face feathers will look paler. Hens do not grow grey and arthritic but that is what comes to mind when I watch my elderly hens as they move around the garden.

There are times in a laying hen’s life when she may take a short break from egg production. It is natural for a hen to moult periodically. This can appear quite dramatic with bald patches appearing and dropped feathers floating around the garden in large numbers. The hens can look worryingly ‘oven ready’ between dropping their old feathers and regrowing their sleek, new, personal duvet. The energy required to produce the replacement feathers can take all of a hens energy leaving none available to produce an egg.

Some types of chicken are also prone to broodiness. When this happens the hen will remain sitting in the nestbox with all the eggs she can find warming under her. She will turn them periodically and leave them only once a day to fill up on food and water, and to rid herself of one enormous, very smelly, broody poo. It takes around twenty-one days for a fertilized egg to develop a chick and hatch. A broody hen will sit on eggs for that length of time. As I do not wish to raise chicks I try to discourage broodiness by removing eggs regularly and lifting the hen out of the nestbox. She will always try to go straight back. If a determined broody is shut out of the nestbox then she will settle herself down as close as possible to where she thinks the eggs are. For the twenty-one days that she displays this behaviour she will lay no eggs.

I am always looking at where I am going next in my hen keeping adventure. When my current birds reach the end of their lives I am considering replacing them all at once with one type of bird. I will stick with hybrids as they lay more eggs per year than pure breeds. Pure breeds are now aimed more at keepers who wish to show birds or who wish to watch pretty little things run around their garden. I find my birds quite pretty enough, and I want them to keep laying me lots of yummy eggs.

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