For the good of your soul.
Chickens are terrific companions. They make few demands on their keepers but give back hours and hours of fascinating melodrama. Not to mention the eggs they happily provide to their owners.
They are the easiest livestock to maintain requiring relatively little space if that’s all that is available.
Chicks are “ready to go” as soon as they hatch and while the hens make great mothers, chicks will do just fine on their own. They just need a little care from you.
Chickens are friendly and trusting if you spend time with them. They will play coy and run from you in the beginning but once they recognize you as the provider they will lose their instinctive fear and allow you to pick them up and cuddle all you want.
But be careful of roosters. Once they mature, they can annoy your neighbors with crowing and can become quite a nuisance and aggressively chase you, your pets and especially little kids. They can rake you with their spurs and beat you with their wings. And they will attack when your back is turned! Unless you have a defined pen, tolerant neighbors and some experience with them, don’t raise roosters!
The hens have the opposite personality. They are easily content. They are fine on their own as long as they are not “alone”. They are “flock” beings and will seek out company of others.
We have always kept a few chickens just for the reasons above but the flock dwindled down through owl, coyote and the neighbors dogs. Before you judge, consider that we offered them a completely free existence just like they would experience in the wild as the jungle fowl that they descend from. Shelter in the form of a heated and insulated chicken house and enclosed coop. But all year, as long as they were content to go out, the gate was open for them to roam. They love this! Scrounging and scratching, sunbathing and dustbathing. All under the supervision of Izzy, the rooster. Life for these chickens is as good as it gets.
But over a few years, one by one, they were picked off. Mostly by owls but some by coyotes. Finally, we were down to just one hen and we planned to get another older hen from a friend to keep her company. Before the companion arrived, the little hen would run as fast as she could over to me when I arrived home from work. She greeted me the same way as the dog, clucking and circling, looking for a pat and some attention. Sometimes, I would look outside and she would be sitting, settled and content with the company, between the dogs paws, as Eva the Rottweiler napped in the sun!
The grass is always greener under the neighboring hens feet. Should one hen discover a worm or something interesting, the others, who keep each other under close scrutiny, will immediately race over to share (steal). The squabbling is friendly and quickly over. Beware, they will peck and strip some plants leaves. They love fresh green leaves and shoots. We pull up handfuls of clover for them while they are in the coop. We put up chicken wire around our gardens instead of trying to chase them out.
Chickens will be pleased to help you with table scraps. Basically, if you can eat it, so can they, as long as they can peck it free. If you want to give your chickens a vegetarian diet, they will do very well providing you ensure a balanced selection of grains and greens. We give only cracked or pelletized grains and legumes as feed for our flock but they scratch up as many bugs and worms as they can outside the coop when they are let out. In the winter, we give pelletized grains and legumes including alfalfa for the nutritional value it adds.
Things You need to know!
Chickens have a crop or gizzard between their beak and their stomach. The gizzard is a muscle around the digestive tract that squeezes and works the food into smaller bits before it reaches the stomach. Chickens peck up and eat small bits of sand and stones known as “grit” which lodges in the gizzard and acts to grind the feed before it exits. Chickens know instinctively which bits of sand and tiny stones they need to pick up. Just offer them a sandy mix. We screen ours at 5mm. The grit eventually wears down and is passed through the digestive tract and needs to be replenished continually throughout the life of the chicken.
Clean and fresh and always available. Use a water feeder that is easily accessible and higher than their bums. We hang ours about 8 inches off the floor. This helps to keep the straw or shavings from being scratched or kicked into the supply but you will need to clean this out often regardless.
Chickens will eat most grains and seeds. A container that they can’t scratch the grain out of, off the floor about 8” is a good idea to reduce waste. You can put loose feed out on the floor for them to scratch in and keep busy. They will eat what is available to them. As keepers, it is up to us to aim for a mix that provides sufficient protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and fibre for a healthy diet. Peas, wheat and barley will give more than sufficient protein and carbohydrates. Flax seed is full of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Alfalfa is another good source of protein as well as essential fibres. Commercial feed suppliers will prey on keepers by offering a slightly higher percentage of one component or another for “Growers” or “Layers”. In truth, the chickens will derive as much nutrition as they require from a quality feed by consuming either a bit more or a bit less as their instinct directs them. There is no need for hobbyists to obsess over a percent or two. Commercial growers that are rationing feeds by weight will be interested in this but that is outside the scope of our experience.
Chickens love meat. They are omnivores and will happily spend their days scratching up bugs and worms given the chance. They will gobble up raw hamburger like a bunch of looters! But they don’t necessarily need it if the grain mix is a good one.
Chickens use lots of calcium making egg-shell. Oyster shell is an excellent source of calcium for chickens. We give our hens a constant supply separately from their feed in a dish that they can’t scratch from. Otherwise they will scratch it all over the place and waste much of it. How much do they need? Just keep some in the dish and available to them. They will take exactly as much as they need.