Before getting chickens, ask yourself and your family:
- Why do we want to keep chickens?
- Are they going to be purely ‘livestock’, or are they going to have names and be a part of our family?
- How will we handle it, if they become sick, or injured?
- Who will look after them if we are away, or on holidays?
- What will we do with them if we decide to relocate/ travel around the world for 6 months of the year/ cannot keep them for other reasons?
- What will we do if they stop laying so many eggs as they get older?
Please research the local rules and regulations on chicken keeping, with your council, to determine if you can even have backyard chickens in your region. If you are renting, you must get permission from your landlord first.
Chickens are one of the most urban-suitable, kid-friendly and socially acceptable forms of backyard livestock. Chicken keeping can be so rewarding and fun!
Collecting fresh eggs from your backyard never gets old, especially when you know the quality of the eggs, and the care shown to the chickens, is optimal.
It is a pleasure to watch your chickens do their thing, scratching and dust bathing, bok-bawking after laying an egg. The entertainment factor is high, as they go about their day or when there are treats on offer. Having them as companions as you garden is delightful, as they happily gobble up pests, help you dig, and fertilise as they go!
If you have children, the positives that they experience from keeping chickens is so worth it. They learn how to feed, check and care for animals, as well as life cycles, ecosystems and the value of an egg. They can become more aware of the food they eat, and love giving the kitchen scraps or garden waste to the chickens.
Chickens can be an integral aspect of building an urban homestead, because they:
- provide eggs that are high quality, and ethically produced
- eat your kitchen scraps, garden weeds and pests
- provide nitrogen rich fertiliser
- they are great for education, entertainment and companionship
- can be relatively low maintenance
This is a serious commitment, at the same level of getting any pet or caring for any animal. Chickens can live for a long time, up to 8 to 10 years, or longer! There are cost, space and time requirements to consider, and other common issues.
If chickens are going to be your pets, you can form a relationship with them, similar to other pets. But they can get ill/ injured easily, and their death may have an emotional impact on you and your family. Are you prepared to pay for vet costs or time spent nursing them back to health?
If the chickens are going to function purely as livestock, are you prepared to dispatch them when they are getting older, and not laying very productively? Or have someone else do it? If you are concerned that you or your family will bond with them, making it harder to kill and eat them, perhaps consider getting a common breed (that is known for egg-laying, like Isa Brown or Australorp), and get all the same breed/ appearance. And don’t give them names!
The time challenges with keeping chickens are:
- time to care for them properly, including keeping their nesting area, chicken run and food/ water containers clean and secure, collecting eggs, checking for pests or illness, regular health and other maintenance
- if you need to, or want to travel, you may need to arrange care or ‘chook sitting’ when you are away
- time spent handling illness or injury
Other common challenges that can occur when keeping chickens include:
- pecking order and behavioural issues
- noise and odour
- garden destruction
If your main objective is to have an abundance of backyard fresh eggs, please be aware that chickens can be up to 6 months old before they start laying, and there will be a certain time period in the year (usually Winter) when they may stop laying, as there is not enough daylight hours to stimulate egg production. Some hybrid breeds do not experience this. Other reasons they may decrease or stop egg production are related to moulting, being broody, another chicken higher in the pecking order is broody (and hogging the favourite nest) or being unwell.
Initial costs may include purchasing:
- the chickens
- brooder and equipment (if getting chickens under 10 weeks old)
- chicken housing & nesting boxes
- chicken run fencing
- food and water containers
Ongoing costs may include:
- nesting materials
- healthcare/ medicine
You may be able to source affordable equipment through your local classifieds, or community noticeboards. You may be able to build or make your own chicken house and run.
Chickens come in a wide variety of breed, size, shape and purpose, including backyard chickens for egg laying, breeds for meat chickens, for dual purpose (egg laying and meat), and there are also breeds favoured as show chickens. Hybrid breeds have been bred to be egg factories, laying more eggs without the usual downtimes, but these chickens generally have a shorter life expectancy.
In terms of size, there are full sized ‘standard’ chickens, and bantam chickens, which are smaller (and their eggs are smaller). Some chickens breeds are naturally bigger chickens, and some are smaller.
Consider what your purpose is to getting and keeping chickens, then research your options:
- producing eggs – year round, for several years
- backyard pets with benefits, who tolerate urban areas and kids
- dual purpose breed
- reproducing/ breeding, and are known as good mothers
You can buy chickens from local hatcheries, or breeders. Try your local classifieds, online communities or forums for recommendations. There may be a chicken or poultry association in your area, who have their own buy and sell classifieds, or can direct you to reputable sellers.
You could also consider rescue chickens. This is a great way to help out chickens who have been cage or farm chickens, who would otherwise be killed when their egg laying slows down. There are teams or groups who can provide you with more information and possibly assist you adopt a rescue hen, read this and this. However, the chickens may come with some issues, and as first time chicken keepers, something you need to consider if you are ready to handle any poor health, transition to new surroundings, possible disease and behavioural issues.
You may also need to decide what age chickens you will get, whether you want to start with fertilised eggs, newly hatched or week old chicks, teenage chickens, those about to start laying, or retired/ rescue hens.
Not only can it be a great experience to have fluffy little chicks, but hand raising very young chicks can make them more personable to you, and easier to handle as they get older. Plus, if you want specific breeds of chicken, you may only be able to obtain these as fertilised eggs (which require an incubator and to be hatched, then kept in a brooder) or baby chicks (which require a brooder set up until they are about 8 to 10 weeks of age).
Getting young chicks who have not yet been ‘sexed’ means there is a 50% chance that your chickens will be male (cockerels) and you need to be prepared to either keep, or rehome, or dispatch them. Another challenge is the extra care and equipment that young chickens need until about 10 weeks old, when they can start to go outside, depending on the weather outside, and if they have all their feathers.
If you want to skip the baby/ brooder stage, look for pullets (a female chicken under 1 year of age) or Point of Lay (POL – when a pullet is ready to start laying, generally from around 21 weeks/ 5 months of age). They are generally more expensive, and laying may be delayed as they transition into their new home too. However, you have more assurance of their gender.
When you are buying, or being given, chickens, if they are over 2 to 3 years old, their egg laying capacity may be lowered. Though two of our chickens are over five years old (and the other two over 4 years old) and all still lay well for many months of the year. Besides, we love our chickens for more than their egg-laying skills.
How many chickens you should get depends on:
- how many eggs you require/ can eat
- how many you can afford
- how much space you have
Also remember that chickens generally prefer to be in the company of their peers, so no single ladies. It can be a challenge to integrate new chickens into your flock, so it may be better to start with a few more if you can, which allows for deaths, or if your new chicks turn out to be more boys than you planned on having.
Chickens require a clean, warm and secure place to sleep/ roost, and a nesting area to lay their eggs. During the day, they also need to have enough space to run around, dust bathe, and scratch the dirt. They need protection from predators during the day and night.
Chooks, having originated from jungle fowl, who needed to sleep up high for safety, which is why chickens prefer to roost, which means sit or perch on horizontal poles, to sleep.
They prefer to have a quiet, dark corner to lay their eggs, in nesting boxes, lined with a material such as wood shavings, shredded paper, grass clippings etc. Chickens may be spotted sitting in their nesting boxes, but they actually stand when they lay, so the nesting materials will catch the eggs.
The roosting/ sleeping area may be in the same area as the nesting/ laying boxes, but this can mean poop gets deposited below, into the nesting materials!
If your nesting/ roosting area is ‘upstairs’ make sure the chickens have a ramp, that is secured and won’t fall down.
You may consider making the chicken house yourself, from reclaimed and recycled materials, which you could source for free, or very cheaply. This will require know-how, tools and time. There are various patterns/ instructions available on the internet.
Whilst you can also buy cheap wooden housing online, or from local pet stores, we have an Australian made metal chook ‘tractors’ (which you can move them around your yard, on their wheels) from, Royal Rooster, had a double height model which allowed for up to 10 chooks, and is very durable.
It was easy to put together, is very secure, and had optional extras we wanted, like fox-proof flooring and weather shields. We have had it for over 5 years now, adding our own automated waterer, and a large feeder.
When buying or building your chicken house, consider using a predator-proof house and flooring. This is a sturdy mesh piece that means predators cannot dig, and access the chicken house from underneath. Make sure any windows or open areas are secure by wire mesh that is fine enough that a snake cannot get through. You could use bird netting over the top of your chicken run, and a sturdy fence around the perimeter. Place concrete blocks or bricks around the outside edges of the chicken run fence to reduce the likelihood of digging in from predators. You may need to consider electrified poultry netting or fencing in your area. Make sure your own fences and gates are secure, and cannot be jumped over easily by local dogs.
As a guide for housing (please check your own local requirements/ regulations):
“Chickens: Minimum floor/run area of 3 m2 for housing up to six bantams or three large birds. Additional birds will require additional space at the ratio of 2.5 birds / m2. An Increase in enclosure size of 0.4 m2 for every large bird and 0.3 m2 for every small bird is recommended.” From here.
To be healthy and happy, chickens also need to have enough space to run around, dust bathe, scratch the dirt, and find insects and bits of greenery. They need an area where they can get shade in Summer, and warmth in Winter. They may need to have some room to safely get away from any dominant hens on top of the pecking order.
If you are not able to set up a permanent (or portable) run for them, you may find supervised ‘outside time’ free ranging in your garden allows them to express their chicken-ness.
- A great article by Erica of Northwest Edible Life You Should Absolutely Not Get Backyard Chickens
- Tillys Nest is a great site with loads of resources and information
- A great guide to breeds and Top 20 Chicken Breeds for your Backyard Coop
- Jackie French’s Chook Book
- The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen
Please note this does not cover getting meat chickens, or show chickens, and it is far from being a comprehensive guide on all things chicken keeping.
You can also read The Chicken Diaries to see how we came to be chicken keepers in 2011.
If you have questions about your chickens, or need advice before getting them, join the Growing Home Community, a closed group hosted on Facebook, with people who have lots of experience with keeping chickens.