Backyard Chicken Guide
This article is written by Pet Circle veterinarian, with input from Dr. Emilee Lay BVSc
Keeping backyard chickens can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Not only do these quirky little creatures have unique and entertaining personalities, but chickens are one of the only financially 'positively geared' pets you can find. With their egg-laying ability negating the need to purchase from the grocery store, it is often cheaper to keep chickens than to buy eggs!
To help get you started, we've set out a complete guide for beginner chicken owners. We discuss lifespan, nutrition, housing requirements, parasite prevention, and common illnesses. And if you have any further questions, feel free to Ask a Pet Circle Vet - it's completely free!
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Not sure whether chickens are for you? See our list of benefits below.
The benefits of backyard chickens...
- 1. The eggs. - This goes without saying! Home grown eggs will be the best you've ever tasted, and you will save on buying free range organic eggs from the store.
- 2. Chickens recycle food waste. - Yay to zero waste pets! Chickens are basically just walking, flapping, compost disposal units. As omnivores, they can be fed anything from leftover veggies, fruits and cereals. In Australia it is illegal to feed swill (meat containing products) to poultry.
- 3. Positively geared pets. - One of the only pets that contribute to the household financially and 'pay their way', it costs more to buy eggs than to keep chickens!
- 4. Insect Pest Management. Chickens eat all ground dwelling bugs, including funnel web spiders and ticks. Your yard will be tick-free if you let your chickens roam free range!
- 5. Great for Kids. - Keeping backyard chickens can teach your kids about caring for pets, farming, building coops, and the importance of recycling food waste. If you rescue an ex-layer, your kids will also learn valuable lessons about the impact of the meat and egg industry.
- 6. Quirky personalities. - Chickens are charming, engaging, and surprisingly intelligent creatures with individual personalities. They make excellent pets and can really form strong human-animal bonds.
- 7. Compost and Veggie Patch Maintenance. - Chook claws are perfect for turning over compost heaps. You can also set your chooks loose on a veggie patch at the end of a harvest, to help turn over the soil and clear the patch.
- 8. Rescue an animal in need. - Most people are aware of the horrendous living conditions that caged chickens are subjected to in the egg industry. If you are able to rescue a chicken from this industry, you will be giving a new life to a truly mistreated animal.
Like many birds, chickens are highly social and require company. In the wild, they form flocks and can become lonely or stressed if housed by themselves. Therefore, it is recommended you adopt your chickens in pairs or groups.
2 - Lifespan and Egg Laying Years
Photo: @the_noisy_cluckers via Instagram.
Before buying a new feathered friend, it's important to know that chickens are a long term commitment. You should of course only adopt a bird if you are prepared to keep it for life.
What is the lifespan of a chicken? Pet chickens can live a relatively long time. While most chickens live 4-7 years, it's common for a hen in a backyard setting with good care to live 8-10 years. However, some hens may live even longer than this! High egg producing breeds such as Isa Browns and Hybrid lines often have a shorter lifespan of between 3-5 years.
How many years do chickens lay eggs for? And when do chickens stop laying eggs? Most hens start laying eggs when they are about 18 to 20 weeks old. Healthy chickens will reliably and consistently lay eggs throughout their first 2 to 3 years of life. After that, egg production will start to taper off.
Chickens usually don't simply "stop" laying eggs, but they will lay fewer as they age. All up, most breeds will produce eggs to some extend for 5-7 years.
Interestingly, older hens may produce fewer eggs, but may actually lay larger ones.
Do chickens stop laying eggs in winter? Egg laying does depend on daylight hours, and most hens will reduce production or even stop laying when they receive fewer than 12 hours of daylight. In Australia, we are lucky that our winters tend to be mild and our days aren't shortened to the same extent as other parts of the world. Some areas (particularly in the northern parts of the country closest to the equator) may notice only a minor drop in egg production during winter. And sometimes cross-breeds are a little more resilient, with hybrids being more likely to continue laying throughout winter.
Before purchasing your chickens, make sure to check your local council requirements. There are often specific regulations including specifications on the number of chickens, the size of the enclosures, and the distance in which enclosures need to be from neighboring properties.
Chickens require a comfortable, safe, and secure house to live in which protects them from both weather and predators. Predators of particular concern in Australia include snakes, foxes, predatory birds, and dingoes and even your own dog or cat. Remember that snakes can fit into very small holes, and that predators can dig under, fly into, or gnaw their way into a hen house with surprising skill. Housing for your chickens should be sturdy, easy to disinfect, and fortified with galvanised wire mesh.
If you are able to, the best way to house chickens is as a free range situation. Let your chooks range freely during the day and keep them safely confined in their house overnight. This involves locking them in at dusk, which they will actually appreciate due to their instinct to hide from predators at night - often they will be there waiting for you!
What Do You Need in a Chicken Coop?
Many commercially made chicken coops are available, usually made from wood or metal A-frames. You can also make your own, which can be a great DIY project! Don’t forget to check your council requirements prior to building your own enclosure. Agriculture departments (for example - in New South Wales) tend to have lots of useful information about backyard chicken care and housing.
Coop Size: In terms of total coop size, you should allow at least 117cm x 117cm of floor space per chicken, and a minimum height of 60cm. This allows your chickens to fully extend their legs and wings.
Nest Boxes: In addition to adequate shelter from the elements, your coop should contain nest boxes. Nest boxes are where your hens will lay their eggs, and generally the rule of thumb is one nest per three to four birds. Nest boxes should be made of sturdy materials, which can be easily cleaned if need be. Mount the boxes on the shady side of the coop, around 50-60cm off the ground. Most people like to build an exterior opening for the nest boxes so they can retrieve eggs without disturbing their hens. Make sure to line the nest boxes with thick bedding material, to keep the eggs clean, dry and free of cracking when laid!
Perches: Hens love to roost on perches, and the ideal perch size is 75mm x 50mm in diameter, with at least 20cm of perch length per chook. Many people like to use small tree branches for this. Ensure the perches are not above food or water, as it can lead to faecal contamination.
All food and water should be contained in appropriate containers. You can buy food and water dispensers, or you can make your own from recycled items like empty milk cartons. Chickens require quite a lot of water to help with egg production, provide fresh water daily, and keep the water off the ground to reduce contamination. Make sure to wipe the inside of the water containers to remove the biofilm that can accumulate there. Consider using special poultry feeders, that minimise waste, and reduce rodents and other pests from consuming them.
Flooring: Excessive moisture and ammonia build up can result in disease. If your coop is on the grass, make sure to move the coop around regularly if it is mobile (free fertiliser!) OR if it isn’t, ensure you turn over the soil and remove waste material. If you have concrete flooring in your coop it is important that the bottom of your chicken's coop is lined with a thick layer of soft material such as hay, rice hulls, or wood shavings, which can be changed regularly. Chickens are prone to developing issues with their feet if housed on inappropriate flooring. Not only do chickens love to scratch around in the litter, but it helps absorb manure and waste. (TIP: soiled litter makes for great garden compost!)
Cleaning a chicken coop:
Hen houses require regular cleaning and this should be considered when you are constructing it. Make sure the door is big enough for you to get in to check and clean the house. A floor sloping towards the door can help significantly with cleaning and drainage.
Be aware of the heat
Chickens are not native to Australia and aren't very good at dealing with our Aussie heat! Hens tend to prefer cooler temperatures and can experience heat stress if temperatures are too hot. If you choose to use metal in your enclosure, always be aware that it gives no protection from the heat. You may wish to provide water baths or ice in their water on especially hot days. It's also a good idea to situate your chicken coop in a shady area.
4 - Nutrition
Photo: @the_noisy_cluckers via Instagram.
What Do Chickens Eat?
Nutrition is vital in order to keep your chickens healthy and producing lots of lovely eggs! Chickens are omnivores who do well on a mixture of a wide variety of foods.
Of course, it should go without saying that fresh water should be supplied at all times. Ensure all water bottles and dispensers are cleaned regularly, and free of faeces, food, and mould. If you live in a very cold area, always make sure the water is replaced daily during winter to avoid freezing.
1. Formulated Diets
As a base, a balanced good quality formulated feed should be provided as the bulk of their diet. Often chicken food will come in a pellet, mash or crumble formulation. There are many pros and cons of each. Remember to always introduce new foods gradually. Always ensure that the food is kept dry so as to prevent mould and spoilage. Our top recommendations for pellet is the Barastoc Champion Layer Pellets. This balanced diet is reviewed as highly palatable ('chickens go crazy for it!'), and producing well-muscled, energetic and healthy chickens.
Chickens at different life stages will require different types of feed:
- Chicks (Day 1 - 6 weeks): Chick Starter
- Growers (6 weeks to 18 weeks): Grower Pellets/Crumbles
- Layers (18 weeks): Layer Pellets/Mash/Mixes
In addition to pellets, extra grains including oats, wheat and corn can be provided. Scratch Mixes can be supplemented in the diet to encourage natural foraging behaviour. They should not be fed as a complete diet.
3. Fresh fruit and vegetables
Fruit and veggies should be fed daily. Vegetables that are safe for chickens include carrots, spinach, cabbage, green beans, bok choy, peas, zucchini, squash, pumpkin, silverbeet, broccoli, lettuce, and cauliflower. Fruits you can give your chickens include banana, pear, apples, peaches, plum, melon, cherries, and berries. Avoid onions, garlic and avocado.
4. Table scraps
'Table scraps' that you can give to your chicken include oats, cooked pasta, beans, bread, legumes and cooked rice. Make sure scraps don't include ingredients which are excessively high in fat or salt, and don't feed any rancid or spoiled items. Check out our range of delicious Energy Blocks or Porridge for Chickens.
5. Shell grit and calcium
Ensure a constant supply of shell grit is supplied, and if your birds are laying a lot of eggs, a calcium supplement is a good idea. Calcium deficiency is very common and one of the first signs is laying eggs with thin or weak shells. If you notice consistently thin egg shells despite a balanced diet, seek assistance from a veterinarian.
6. Bugs and weeds
Hakuna matata! Chickens love to eat all types of grubs, bugs, and insects. Always allow access to weeds (aside from poisonous plants), earthworms and burrowing insects in leaf litter and compost. Your chooks will love scratching and searching for tasty little weeds and insect critters!
What should you NEVER feed your chickens?
Do not feed rhubarb, avocado, chocolate, onion, garlic, citrus fruits, and lawn mower clippings (as these can grown mould rapidly). We have also outlined a list of toxic plants below.
What Is The Ideal Chicken Diet?
To summarise, the ideal chicken diet consists of:
- A base of balanced chicken pellets.
- Grains including oats, wheat and corn
- Fresh fruit and vegetables
- Insects - anything from mealworms to grasshoppers
- Table scraps, including starchy carbohydrates
- Shell grit, and consider calcium supplements for laying birds
Best Chicken Food
5. What plants are toxic to chickens?
Lily of the Valley
We've mentioned which human food can be toxic to chickens, but what about garden plants? Unfortunately there are many garden plants in Australia that can be toxic to chickens. Most of them don't taste appealing, and your chickens will therefore generally avoid. However it's good to keep them out of your yard, just incase.
Plants that are toxic to chickens include:
- Bull Nettle
- Castor Bean
- Curly Dock
- Ground Ivy
- Horse Chestnut
- Horse Radish
- Laburnum (seed)
- Lily of the Valley
- Nightshade (/Deadly Nightshade)
- St. Johns Wort
- Water Hemlock
6 - Parasite Prevention
In Australia, both external and internal parasites can pose a risk to chickens. For this reason, it's best to treat your chickens for worms, fleas, lice and mites.
As a general rule, it's worth treating your chickens for mites and lice once every 6-8 weeks, and worming them every 3 months.
When introducing any new chickens to your flock, always quarantine them from your other birds for at least two days.
Parasites of concern in Australia include
- Fleas - can be irritating and spread to your other pets
- Lice - can cause itchiness, feather picking, and weight loss.
- Mites - Red Mites can cause blood loss and Scaley Leg Mites can cause a scaley, flakey appearance to the legs. Both may be spread from wild birds.
- Worms including roundworms (Ascarids) - can lead to anaemia and death
- Protozoa including Coccidia, Trichomonas and Giardia - can cause severe gastrointestinal disease and death
How to Worm Chickens
There are two vital steps to keeping your chickens parasite free. Firstly, ensure your chicken's coop is cleaned out regularly. More specifically, clean all dark, damp places where worms can survive. This includes bedding and hay which has been soiled either from faeces or food and water.
Secondly, de-worm your flock every 3 months. There are many internal parasites that can affect chickens, including roundworms (nematodes), tapeworms (cestodes), flukes, and protozoa including coccidia, cryptosporidia and giardia.
Depending on your area, you may be able to worm 'as needed' - this generally requires testing your chicken's faeces for worm eggs every few months, and treating accordingly if eggs are found. There are a number of wormers available, which can usually be added to the water source. Make sure you follow the label instructions, including withholding periods, carefully . Some products are not suitable for chickens intended for human consumption (either eggs or meat).
Mites and lice are the two most common external parasites that affect chickens. Chickens may become infected from wildlife that passes near your house. . Both bird mites and lice are not transferable to or from humans.
Mites are microscopic creatures that cannot be seen with the naked eye. The two most common mites are the Red Mite and the Scaley Leg Mite.
Lice, unlike mites, are often visible to the naked eye. They tend to cause itchiness and can lead to feather picking, skin conditions and weight loss.
If you suspect your bird might have mites or lice, always consult with your veterinarian to determine an appropriate and effective treatment.
In terms of prevention, it's important to treat your chicken for external parasites with a mite and lice powder when you bring them home, and quarantine them from your other birds for two days before introduction.
Always make sure you check with your vet with regards to dose and frequency, so as not to overdose your bird.
Top Chicken Parasite Treatments
6. Common Chicken Illnesses
As a chicken owner, it's important to be aware of common poultry illnesses, and know the warning signs. We've outlined the most common chicken illnesses below.
Nutritional deficiencies are surprisingly common in backyard chickens. This may be in part due to many well-meaning chicken owners only feeding table scraps. While convenient, a diet of table scraps does not meet the nutritional demands of growing birds or layers.
Common nutritional deficiencies in chickens include:
- Calcium deficiency - leads to bone development disorders, weak shelled eggs, and general illness
- Energy insufficiency - leads to poor growth, weight loss, and decreased egg production
- Vitamin A deficiency - leads to poor quality skin and feathers.
Fortunately, nutritional deficiencies are very easy to avoid by simply feeding a balanced pellet diet, in addition to table scraps. Complete and balanced pellets are available for all stages of a hen's life, including starter, grower, and layer.
See our Nutrition section above for more information on the ideal chicken diet.
Reproductive problems are common in backyard chickens. Typically, commercial enterprises keep chickens in lay for only 1-2 seasons. When they are rehomed to families for extended laying after this period, egg-laying (reproductive) problems may ensue.
Common reproductive / egg laying problems in backyard chickens include:
- Egg binding - where the egg is unable to be laid and becomes stuck
- Metritis - inflammation of the oviduct and shell gland
- Yolk peritonitis - occurs when free yolk spills into the abdominal cavity and results in infection.
All reproductive problems cause the hen to stop laying and become depressed and inappetent. Signs include a distended abdomen, lethargy, reluctance to walk, and sometimes breathing difficulties. The hen will usually die if the condition is left untreated. As you can probably imagine, these conditions are extremely painful and it can become a welfare issue if you do not seek veterinary attention. Depending on the problem in question, surgery by a veterinarian may be required. However, as surgery generally results in the bird being unable to lay eggs, it is generally only done for pet birds.
Respiratory disease is a general term used to describe any illness in the respiratory system, as there are many pathogens that may cause respiratory disease in poultry. Symptoms may include coughing, sneezing and discharge from the eyes and nostrils. Death may occur in the case of certain pathogens.
Common causes of respiratory disease in chickens include parasites (including the gapeworm, Syngamus trachea), bacterial or viral infection (including Infectious Laryngotracheitis Virus (ILT), Newcastle disease and Avian Influenza), or irritation from dust or high ammonia levels. It's vital to note that some of the respiratory viruses, particularly ILT, Newcastle disease and Avian Influenza, are notifiable diseases. If a notifiable disease is suspected, your veterinarian must report it to a Government Veterinarian or Animal Health Officer.
If respiratory signs are observed in your chickens, a poultry experienced veterinarian always needs to diagnose the causal agent before an appropriate treatment can be implemented. Treatment may include parasite medication, antibiotics, or supportive care, but is strictly dependent on the cause. If you observe respiratory signs in your birds, always seek veterinary attention.
You can reduce your chicken's risk of becoming infected with diseases by preventing their exposure to wild birds. It's also important to limit exposure from overseas (human) visitors who may be inadvertently carrying viruses on their shoes, clothing or equipment, as well as refusing to accept birds or eggs that may have been imported internationally. If you at any time suspect exotic or notifiable disease in your birds, call a local Animal Health Officer, or District Veterinary Officer, or the Disease Watch Hotline on 1800 675 888.
Chlamydia or Psittacosis is a potentially dangerous zoonotic bacterial disease that can cause respiratory signs in birds. Although commonly associated with parrots, pigeons, turkeys, ducks and even chickens can carry and spread this disease. It can be transferred to humans through inhalation of infected dust.
Common clinical signs include discharge from the eyes and nares, with abnormal dark green droppings, weight loss, lethargy and swelling of the eyes. As these clinical signs can be associated with other respiratory diseases, swabs or blood tests need to be taken to diagnose this condition.
Marek's disease is caused by a poultry virus. It can be transmitted from bird to bird in both feather dander and dust, and it can live in the environment for long periods. The virus can also spread on people's clothes, shoes, and shared equipment. Birds are usually infected at a young age, but may not show symptoms until some months later.
Marek's disease attacks the chicken's white blood cells and results in the formation of tumours. The legs are usually affected, but the cancers may also affect nerves in the wings and neck, which leads to paralysis. Tumours inside the body cavity will grow and lead to weight loss, diarrhoea, and breathing difficulties.
Thankfully there is a vaccine available against Marek's disease, which can be given to birds on day one after hatching. While this vaccine isn't as effective as it once was due to virus mutation, most large hatcheries still vaccinate their chicks. Birds purchased from large scale chicken facilities should already be immunised, and the vaccine is available for birds hatched privately.
Avian leucosis is another viral disease that causes the growth of tumours. Leucosis tumours usually occur in birds older than 6 months old. Symptoms of Leucosis include lethargy, loss of weight and death.
Like Marek's disease, the virus attacks white blood cells. Cancerous growths start to grow in internal organs, including the liver and spleen. Leucosis virus is transmitted through the egg, and unfortunately there is very little you can do to eliminate the virus once contracted.
Fowl pox is a viral infection in chickens which is spread by biting insects, and sometimes from chicken to chicken by fighting. The virus enters the body through broken skin, and leads to the formation of raised scabs in the area; these are often focused on the comb and wattles. Pox lesions can also occur in the mouth and throat.
Usually, fowl pox will improve without treatment. However, some birds may become ill from secondary infection, particularly if they are immunosuppressed. Thankfully there is a vaccine available for unexposed birds, however this may need to be boosted every few years to ensure adequate protection. Just like 'chicken pox' in humans (don't be confused by the name!), birds who recover will be immune for life.