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Caring for your Poultry

Chickens can make great pets, they can be very social animals, and will usually bond easily with you once they know you are the one who provides the food. The average lifespan of a chicken is 8-15 years; therefore you will need to be committed to their regular daily care and attention. It will depend on you to provide food, water, medical care and shelter.

Choosing our pet
There are a wide range of breeds available, but all need care and attention. You may be able to own some ex-battery hens, which are hens that have spent their life in a very small cage, laying eggs. These hens will need special attention, as some may have little or no feathers, so will need good protection from the sun (for sunburn) and other natural elements. Some of them may also need to be taught to roost, dig and use nesting boxes, although quite often it will come naturally. Some may also need to be slowly introduced to open spaces.

Getting them home
Your chickens will need to be transported securely within boxes or carry cages, with air-holes. They will also need to be in an enclosed secure vehicle, not on the back of a truck. Do not stop on your way home and leave the chickens in the car, they can overheat in vehicles easily. Introduce your new chickens to their new house by confining them inside for 24 hours with food and water, so they accept it as their new home.

All animals need shelter, especially chickens. You will need to have your chicken-house set up before you bring any chickens home. This should be set up on well-drained land that will not flood. There are a lot of different options; you can research at the library or on the internet. The house needs to provide a minimum space of 2 square metres for 10 birds; this also depends on the size of your chickens. They will need a lockable door or a pop-hole which is essential to keep out any predators. Good ventilation is very important to provide fresh air, but you would also need to prevent draughts. Nesting boxes should ideally be provided for each chicken to lay their eggs, however you can provide at least one nesting box for up to five hens as long as there are enough nesting boxes for them to use without competition. The nesting boxes should be filled with either wood shavings (non-treated) or straw. The floor of the chicken house should drain freely and be kept clean and dry and there must always be dry areas for roosting. The floor should also be covered with wood-shavings for ease of cleaning and for the birds to scratch and forage in. Ideally the house should be cleaned daily but a thorough clean should be done once a week. The house will also need to have roosting perches. These should be raised off the ground enough to protect them from predators or rodents but low enough so they are readily accessible without the risk of injury to the birds.

All chickens should be able to go outside and forage. A run can be provided for this, for protection from predators including birds such as hawks. If the outdoor area becomes very muddy or dusty and has little vegetation, then the chicken-house and run should be moved to provide fresh vegetation.

Food and Drink
You can buy a variety of commercially-prepared foods for your hens which provide all of the nutrients that hens need, try a pet store or stock feed company. If you let your birds out during the day to run around, it is a good idea to feed them in the evening in their house, so that sparrows don’t get their food and you can easily put them away at night, as they will follow you to where the food is going. Fresh food including sweet corn and lettuce they will also like, although ex-battery hens may take some time to enjoy this food, as they will not be used to it. You can scatter. The food on the ground outside if it is dry, so they can  peck and scratch for it, but if you have adopted hens that have had their beaks trimmed, their feed will have to be put in a bowl, as they will be unable to pick it up from the ground. You should also always provide fresh water everyday. It is best to provide this in a water fountain/feeder, which can be raised above ground level on bricks or suspended. This is to prevent the chickens from scratching soil or dirt into it. You should also provide some grit, which often comes with the commercial food in a separate container; this will aid egg production by providing calcium. All dishes for feeding and drinking should be cleaned daily.

Handling your chicken
To pick up a chicken encircle its body with your hands, holding the wings down while supporting the body from below. You can then carry it by placing it under one arm gently to prevent it extending and flapping its wings.

Chicken behaviour
Chickens are very social animals; they will develop a ‘pecking order’. Dominant birds will control movement, feeding and socialisation. They are also pretty easy to handle, and intelligent animals that are able to distinguish and give different alarm calls when threatened by various predators. They also (especially ex-battery) can feel nervous in open spaces as this can make them feel vulnerable to attack, so introduce them slowly to any large open spaces.
Broodiness – A hen will sit on the nest box making it unavailable to other hens. This is why it is best to have one nesting box per hen, although you can stop this behaviour by separating the hen for a while from the others.
 Feather pecking – Sometimes you will find that one or two may attack other hens. Sometimes they may even draw blood. If this does occur, first treat the victim with veterinary treatment. They should sort themselves out, with some of the ones being attacked perhaps roosting more than others. If the problem does persist then you can try separating the attacker into a temporary pen within sight of the other hens, for a short time, this should cure the problem.
Moulting – Old feathers are shed and new feathers grow to replace them. This happens about once a year and the new feathers take about 1-2 months to grow. If you adopt some ex-battery hens, you may find that they do not have feathers. This is from rubbing their bodies up against the battery hen cages, their feathers will grow back within a month or two.

If you think your chicken is ill, the best thing to do is consult your vet. A sick bird may look depressed, hunched up with feathers fluffed out and the head carried low or tucked under the wing. It is a good idea to monitor food and water intake everyday, because a reduction could be an early sign of ill health. Here is a list of common ailments;
Coccidiosis – A common problem in poultry. It is a disease of the intestine that results in dullness, diarrhoea and weight loss and sometimes death; it is caused by a tiny parasite. You should put into practice a coccidian prevention method; you can talk to your vet about this.
Bumble Foot – This occurs when a wound under the foot heals but pus remains underneath. Watch out for any limping birds and make sure there are no sharp stones in the run. You should consult a vet if this occurs.
Mites – There is two common mites in New Zealand, the northern fowl mite and the chicken mite or red mite. The northern fowl mite is more common in caged layers particularly around the vent where it can cause blackening of the skin due to soiling. The red mite is more common in free-range systems. These parasites hide in crevices in the chicken-house, emerging at night to feed on the roosting hens. Birds become anaemic and emaciated. A warning sign is if birds are reluctant to go inside, another is if small drops of blood are spotted. The house must be cleaned thoroughly and sprayed with anti-mite product.
Lice – There are several pieces of lice which live entirely on birds and cause irritation by feeding on feathers and skin. They usually lay eggs at the base of the feathers especially around the vent or around the head which will cause head shaking. You will need to consult your vet on how to treat these if they occur.
Scaly leg – This is a condition caused by mites burrowing into the skin between the scales of the legs. It produces white crusts which distort the leg scales and is extremely infectious. Clean the house, move the birds onto fresh ground and consult a vet.
Impacted crop – Symptoms include hens with no appetite, who look miserable and whose crop feels solid. It is caused by ingestion of unsuitable material such as long stalks of grass. It is best to consult a vet.
Worms – Chickens are susceptible to infestation by worms. Symptoms can include a reduction in the rate of egg-laying, an increase in hunger, and sometimes diarrhoea. If you suspect your chicken has worms you should consult a vet for the appropriate medication. They can also help to start you on a worming programme for your chickens.

You can read more on the Code of Recommendations for Keeping Poultry on the MAF website.