Keeping a small flock happy is pretty easy. Though they can be fussy eaters, chickens are a pretty tough lot. They do some weird things though, like cramming everyone, on top of each other in a single nesting box on a +40°C day.
On this page, we will cover the essentials of keeping chooks happy. We will make another page about troubles and illness in a flock and how to treat them with stuff that you can grow yourself.
Chooks are foragers, they’re social animals, active and curious and are always scratching around for food. They can be creatures of habit and like to be fed at around the same time every day. They will soon learn to associate you or at least the container you use with food.
A chicken’s natural home is in the jungle where there is dappled sunlight and plenty of cool spots. If things are too hot (and I remember to protect the seedlings) we let the girls out to roam the garden and find the best spots.
Being jungle creatures originally, chickens like to get up off of the ground from time to time. This is why they like to perch at night, up out of the range of predators. If you see one in a tree during the day, don’t panic, they’re just doing what their genes are telling them to do.
Cool water is essential Chooks won’t drink warm water even on the hottest day and they’ll stand next to a container of warm water and not touch it. Standing with their mouths open is a sure sign that they’re overheated. The Chooks are pretty careless when scratching around and will soon kick debris into their water. I tried several ways to keep the water clean and ended up using the self filling drink cups that you can see in the above pic. They still get dirty but nowhere near as much.
We add bottle of frozen water to the water container on hot days so that it chills the drinking water. These are changed up to three times a day if the temperature is over 42°C (which looks like it’s going happen more often).
We love our girls and have installed a couple of misters for use in the Summer and a fan to blow cool air into the run. Deleter, in particular, loves this and will stand in the breeze with her mouth open and feathers ruffling. She looks daggers at me when I switch it off.
Every so often, I add a cupful of Apple Cider Vinegar to their water container. This gives them all of the benefits of ACV. They also love to eat the Mother of Vinegar or Kombucha scoby that I give them, cut into small pieces, whenever we have spare.
Chooks are foragers by nature and the ability to scratch and dig is good for their mental health. They can scratch around in straw for hours, pecking oup and eating the smallest treats.
They’re very fond of grain but can develop a taste for their favourites and only eat those out of a grain mix. They will ignore the rest and wait for more of their favourites until they get really hungry. This can be messy and can also attract rodents to the remaining, and usually spilled grain. We got one of those automatic feeders that only open when a hungry bird stands on a platform that then opens a flap so that they can access the grain. Demeter learned and then taught the others that the flap stays open as long as you’re standing on the lever and you can pick out the best bits at your leisure. She also learned that the tray continuously fills while as they remove grain so developed a technique tom scoop it out so that it refills faster – this leads to spilled grain under the platform. The other three aren’t as bad as Demeter for this but they’re happy to go along whenever she’s there. I learned that, once that pile was there, to slide a paver under the platform so it won’t open the flap. The girls then have to eat the non-preferred grain before I remove the paver.
Sprouted and fermented grain are something that they love. I keep a bucket of it continuously fermenting by the door to the chook house. I scoop some of that in every morning, It provides probiotics and nutrients to them that are good for their gut health.
One thing that we grow that has many benefits in the garden is Azolla. It is especially food for the girls as it is high in protein and contains a goodly amount of phosphorus. We give it to them by the scoopful in Summer because it is cool and full of moisture.
Give your girls every bit of vegetable scraps that you can. They love to eat them. You don’t even have to cut then finely, the girls will do the work. We freeze them in Summer so that they help keep the girls cool. Our girls absolutely love the occasional scoopful of Bokashi vegetable scraps. The fermented vegetables give them a hit of probiotic goodness for their gut.
Check out our Deep Litter page to see some of the other benefits of giving your chooks veggie scraps.
Some folks don’t recommend feeding chickens meat or (sorry girls!) chicken. We feed it to ours and they love it. We don’t have a lot of meat in our diet and very little of that is wasted so they don’t get too much. One favourite game of theirs begins when we throw them some bacon rind. They will grab it, and run around and around trilling and clucking. Those without it will chase those that do and try and steal it. It’s fun for them and fun for us and we always make sure that everybody gets some.
Chooks are renowned as relentless hunters of bugs. They love to find insects during their foraging and we collect them up as we garden and feed them to the girls. It took ages for our girls to get the taste for slugs. Demeter was the first and after she started eating them, the others joined in and now they squabble over them! On the subject of bugs, you may want to try your hand at Mealworm breeding. These delicious little bundles of protein have our girls squabbling until the last one has been gulped down!
You may want to investigate growing your own green fodder for your chickens. It’s not difficult and can add variety and nutrients to their diet. Here’s the link to a whole page that details our fodder system.
One thing chooks love to do is have a good scratch. They do this by digging down in the dirt and writhing around. This is called a dust bath and is absolute ecstasy for chickens. it’s how they clean mites and parasites from their skin and get their feathers clean. On really hot days I let the girls free range in the garden. The loss of a few green leaves is a small price to pay for seeing the girls digging down in their favourite spots and just loving life. They have a favourite place in the garden where they will all roll around together in the dirt, especially in Summer when its another way to cool off.
Chickens need lots of Calcium. They need it for their digestion, for their eggs, of course, but also for their bones, just like we do. Giving them a Calcium boost in the form of shell grit will give it to them as well as provide a way for them to grind up the food in their gizzard. They don’t have teeth, hence the term ‘as rare as hen’s teeth’ and the grit in their gizzard does the job of breaking up the food. We have a small tray that is off of the ground that we keep full of clean, dry shell grit. We also throw it around in the run so that they can be kept occupied finding bits.
The recommended space for chooks in confinement is square metre each. In our converted aviary, ours have a few centimetres shy of 1.5 square metres. A little more if you count the space up in the branches of the Apple tree, on top of the coop and on the feeder or the bin. We also let them out to roam (read ‘destroy’) the garden once a week for most of the year and daily if the weather’s too hot. Chickens being chickens, though, they will often forgo that space to nestle on top of each other, even in the extreme heat!
The coop is where the girls sleep (called ‘roosting’) and nest. Chickens like to get up off of the ground and a perch is essential to night time well being. Our coop is a converted dog kennel. We were given it for Athena but she didn’t like it, preferring tom sleep inside with us. I gave it a flip top lid so we could have access, lifted it on stilts so the girls had another space to play underneath and a ramp to help them climb in. I added a perch and two nesting boxes of which, of course, they only use one.
On the floor of the coop and in the nesting boxes, I place straw or sawdust if any is available. If using straw, I prefer to use sugarcane mulch because it doesn’t have the hollows that wheat straw has. Those places are great hiding places for mites.
We use a lot of aromatic herb in the coop. Wormwood is the key herb for detering parasites, it deters a lot of harmful bugs. I rub a handful of fresh leaves over the perch and on the walls, especially near where they roost and on their perches. They also get the occasional Wormwood tea mixed in with their water to help with internal problems. Along with Wormwood, this I throw handfuls of fresh Lavender, Rosemary and Sage into the straw of their nesting box and under their roost to deter practically everything bad.
In the same vein, I dust the inside of the coop with diatomaceous earth to discourage mites and other parasites. I’ll also grab the girls a couple of times a year, flip them onto their backs and rub diatomaceous earth into their feathers under their wings, by their bums and right into their neck feathers, making sure it gets down to the skin. Diatomaceous earth suffocate parasites and kills them off.
We dust the coop and beneath it with wood ash from time to time, especially in Winter. It helps keep the place dry as well as discourages parasites. I add a handful to the dust bath in the run and to the dust bathing areas in the garden too.
Chooks are inquisitive birds. They are always on the lookout for a bite to eat or somewhere to scratch and life in a closed run can get a little boring. We try to keep our little flock entertained in various ways.
I feed them most of their daily food in the morning but mix it up a bit with snacks during the day, especially if I prune a plant, pull weeds or find a slug or two.
We have a few objects in the run that we move from time to time to break up the monotony and allow the girls to access the litter beneath them to forage for bugs. In the heat of Summer they get to free range in the garden to find their own cools spots and some bonus feed.
One of their favourite things though is when I hang a whole Lettuce or Cabbage from the Apple tree that is in the run so that it is about at their head level. They peck at it all day and set it rocking like a punching bag. Usually I hang it base up but sometimes I’ll put the hook through it the other way and sprinkle grain in amongst the leaves as an extra bonus treat.
Entertainment is good for the mental health of the birds and a little observation of your flock’s behaviour will get your creative juices flowing as you find new things to keep them busy.
to meet the girls individually, jump to this page for the links –