‘They need company’: 12 rules for keeping backyard chooks

Why have backyard chooks? Fresh eggs to keep you through an apocalypse? Manure for prize-winning roses?

I suspect it’s the chook song that wins the hearts of most backyard chook owners. There is something deeply comforting in the murmured cluck cluck cluck outside the kitchen door. No matter what is happening in the world, if your chooks are singing, all is well.

The Queen Mother at 100: I got the most gloriously long chatty letter, the kind one chook fanatic writes to another.Credit:Russell Boyce/Reuters

The love of chooks transcends social boundaries. Thirty years ago, I received a most expensive envelope in the mail. It was from the Queen Mother. I had written to her office, asking if it was true that she had brought back the Buff Orpington breed from near extinction.

In return, I got the most gloriously long chatty letter, the kind one chook fanatic writes to another. Yes, she’d fallen in love with Buff Orpingtons as a girl when she felloff her bicycle in the middle of a mob of them. Her Mum was concerned about wounded knees and a bent bicycle wheel, but her daughter was only worried in case she’d squashed a chook. Her granddaughter’s passion was for Auracanas, she said, the small South American breed who lay blue-green eggs. Actually, my husband loves Auracanas too. One favoured chook sits on his workbench and he hand-feeds it pieces of corn.

The Queen Mother’s favourite: a Buff OrpingtonCredit:Quentin Jones

I’ve had chooks almost all my life. Most people did, in the Brisbane of my childhood. If you didn’t have backyard chooks you didn’t have roast chicken for Christmas or birthdays, unless you bought from ‘a bloke at the pub’. Roast chicken as a luxury, deeply flavoursome meat that you won’t find in any shop-bought chook today, even one whose wrapping boasts it is free-range.

Chicken is perhaps the cheapest meat around now, and eggs are plentiful − but not good eggs. They are ‘OK eggs’. The secret of my lemon poppy seed cake is that it’s made with eggs that are no more than two days old. My stuffed eggs are from fortnight-old eggs – very fresh hard-boiled eggs are impossible to peel. And you need duck eggs for the world’s most exquisite sponge, though day-old hen eggs are almost as good.

There are rules for backyard chook-keeping. Follow them and you will have eggs, fertiliser, pest control, a dependable food scrap eradicator, and the sense of indefinable well-being of hens clucking in the background.

Rule 1 Do not invest in backyard hens to save money. You may indeed end up with a lifetime of free eggs, with your hens hatching their own chickens, foraging their tucker in your garden, and laying abundantly. You may also get none of these. Keep chooks only if you love them.

Rule 2 You need only two to four chooks in a backyard. Chooks need company, but if you have too many the combination of chook scratching and manuring will leave you with a chook desert.

You need only two to four chooks in a backyard.Credit:James Brickwood

Rule 3 Chook pens must be dog- and fox-proof or you will end with chicken tragedy, not chook delight. Dogs and foxes can bite through plywood, and most wood becomes brittle with age. Foxes can dig 30 centimetres under netting − and will − and sometimes climb it too. If you have a mobile hen run, make sure it has a secure netting floor as well as sides. Otherwise, dig in chook yard netting at least 60 centimetres deep and place large rocks around the edges for good measure. Net the top of the run too.

A fox can dig 30 cm under netting – and will – and sometimes climb it too.Credit:Parks Victoria

Rule 4 Treat your chooks like elite athletes. The better they are treated, the more eggs and years of companionship you’ll get. Insulate the chook house to ensure it is not freezing cold in winter or blazing hot in summer. Grow deciduous vines over the hen run, like roses, or grapes, for summer shade and winter sunlight.

Rule 5 Eggs taste of what the chook had been fed on. Feed them too much leftover fish or gone-to-seed cabbages and your eggs will taste … interesting. After you’ve had chooks for a few years, you may find that you slowly begin to taste the boredom and despair in the poached battery eggs of your favourite cafe. One of the world’s greatest foods is a lightly boiled egg with buttered fingers of toast dipped into it, but the egg must be a genuine backyard egg, where the hen has feasted on table scraps and grass and gone-to-seed veg, and the bread must be excellent as well.

Rule 6 Don’t feed chook the scraps you wouldn’t eat yourself, like six-day-old takeaway pizza. Make sure their food dish is clean every morning, and don’t feed too many scraps at once, either. Leftovers need to be eaten within an hour each morning, or they may go bad in the heat or attract rodents or flies. Chooks need a balanced diet. We have a rodent-proof chook feeder with commercial food on demand, as well as shell grit. The chooks don’t eat much commercial food – they prefer offerings from the garden. But it’s there if they need it.

Don’t feed chook the scraps you wouldn’t eat yourself, like six-day-old takeaway pizza.

Rule 7 Your chooks will eat flies. Their droppings will also attract them. Invest in a fly trap, and install it on a post above your chook pen. No more flies … and some very happy birds that have found their own ‘takeaway’ sitting next to your fly trap.

Rule 8 Buy the breed of chook you fall in love with. Exotic Frizzles with their split feathers, sturdy Aussie Australorps, terrifying Transylvanian Naked Necks, lacy Wyandottes … we have a collection of many breeds of chook, most of whom are second cousins twice removed with a complex ancestry. But they are all very good indeed at thriving in our backyard.

Treat your chooks as a backyard entertainment centre. Meet Queenie.Credit:Cathryn Tremain

Rule 9 Chooks are originally jungle birds. Your backyard chook is secretly fantasising it is Tarzan. Give hens dappled shade, like a jungle, with trees or climbers growing above their chook run. Give them dark, hay-lined nesting boxes where they feel secure. Give them dirt to scratch in, cool water – our hens’ water bowl is attached to a dripper so it’s always fresh and the surplus drains onto the camellias. Hens should have grass to peck at for at least two hours a day, at least two square metres of roaming space at other times per chook, and at least four heights of perch, so the top chook can sit resplendent on the top looking down at the others. This is called ‘the pecking order’ and it rules chooks’ lives.

Isa Brown hens. Buy the breed of chook you fall in love with.Credit:Rick Stevens

Rule 10 Chooks like to free range. Your neighbours may not appreciate this. You may also lose your flower beds as they become chook dust baths. Try letting your hens out only when you come home each night or mid-afternoon at weekends, so they have just enough time to eat your lawns you don’t need to mow and imitate Nureyev as they leap up to grab unwary grasshoppers. (A backyard grasshopper plague is really just a chook shortage).

Rule 11 Treat your chooks as a backyard entertainment centre. Admire the innate machismo of a rooster that will call the hens to eat the corn you have just scattered, strutting around them instead of eating himself, protecting his harem from hawks or small children who want to hug hens a bit too hard. Laugh at the arguments each night about which chook is entitled to perch No. 2. Envy the rooster lotharios that will mate an amazing number of times each afternoon, though as President Roosevelt remarked ‘not with the same hen’. Let kids hand-feed chooks. Chooks teach kids to be calm and gentle and to treasure every egg, held in their hand, still warm, to be taken indoors for breakfast, while the hens it came from sings its gentle song outside.

Rule 12 Chooks are the foundation of many peasant economies, eating what would otherwise be rubbish, removing pests and fertilising vegetable gardens. But chook-keeping is far more than mere economy. When you value a dozen freshly laid eggs more than a dozen long-stemmed roses, you know you are ready to share your life with chooks.

Jackie French is a former Senior Australian of the Year and Children’s Laureate and the author of more than 200 books.

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