Chickens need as much space as possible, enough room for their friends, nest boxes to lay their eggs in, and room for the feeder and drinker in the house. The latter helps prevent contamination from wild birds and vermin and helps to keep the food dry. The house should be damp free with good ventilation and their perches should be out of drafts and not above their feeder or drinker. Chickens produce the most faeces when they are perched up at night so this will prevent soiling of their food and drink. It goes without saying that their house (and where possible) their run should be vermin and predator proof. Foxes are more than able to break through chicken wire or dig under the runs. As owners it is our duty to keep them safe so this must be adequately addressed. Environmental enrichment needs to be considered especially if they are not let out to roam, scratch and peck their way around your garden.
Chickens are flock animals and shouldn’t live on their own. But avoid the temptation to fill your chicken coop with lots of chickens. Overcrowding can lead to bullying, such as feather pecking, and disease. Avoid mixing age groups and only house birds of a similar size together.
Food and water
When buying drinkers and feeders, choose ones that are easy to clean and have no surface the birds can perch on. Raised drinkers and feeders help reduce contamination from the floor, propping up on a few bricks will do the job! If you have chicks, a diet of chick crumbs which is high in nutrients for the rapidly growing birds, should be given. After that growers pellets until 6 months of age, which are larger in size but continue the nutrient requirements. Adult birds can then be fed a diet or layers pellets or mash. They should also have access to grit e.g. oyster shell grit. This will help with their digestive system.
Avoid buying birds from markets. Stick to breeders or reputable poultry centres. This way the environment the chickens are in and the general condition of the birds can be seen before you take a bird(s) home. Buying birds from a market runs the risk of introducing disease into your flock or purchasing a bird that becomes ill shortly after you get home. You may prefer to rescue ex-battery hens and this can be very rewarding. Be aware that their life expectancy isn’t as long as pet chickens, which typically live between 5 – 10 years of age. The battery hens have been breed to grow rapidly and produce an unnatural number of eggs throughout their planned life before they are prematurely euthanaised. Contact the British Hen Welfare Trust to find your nearest rescuer visit http://www.bhwt.org.uk.
Health and Disease
There are several common diseases which affect chickens. But if you regularly examine your bird you will be able to spot signs of illness.
- Their eyes should be bright and alert. Any sign of discharge would be a concern and may indicate a mycoplasma bacterial infection.
- Their sinus area should not be swollen and their nostrils clear of any discharge.
- The birds comb is a good indicator of health – this should be red in most breeds. A purple comb can be a sign of respiratory disease, you will need to seek veterinary advice promptly. It may indicate conditions such as infectious bronchitis.
- As for their beak, this should close normally, i.e. no twisting or misalignment. If deformed this can have an affect on your birds eating habits, which is closely related to their digestive health.
- When opening their mouth it should be free of discharge and pink.
- The birds crop should be emptying naturally over the course of the day and is usually near enough empty first thing in the morning. If it isn’t emptying (impacted crop) this too can be a sign of illness which needs veterinary attention.
- Chickens can pick up disease from wild birds, such as intestinal worms. Ill thrift, diarrhoea and weight loss can be an indication of this, but worms are easily treated with correctly prescribed worming medication.
- Chickens can also be affected by mites and lice, again treatable, but a heavy burden can seriously affect the health of the birds so needs prompt treatment.
- You can also check your birds legs and feet. The scales should be smooth and close together, but if raised can be an indication of the scaley leg mite. Again treatable.
- Routine vaccination in chickens is not always necessary, but some breeds are susceptible to viruses. Vaccinations are available against Mareks Disease for example.
The following may seem a bit over the top but chicken diseases can be air borne or be transmitted by faeces. The onset of disease in chickens can be quick so these precautions are important to stop the spread of disease to other chickens.
- Isolate your sick bird(s) from the rest of the flock
- Feed and water this bird last after tending the rest of the flock
- Wash hands and change clothes after dealing with the sick bird
- Monitor all other birds for signs of disease
- If any others develop the disease seek immediate veterinary attention
- Do not visit the premises or handle the birds of other poultry keepers or let them visit you
- Do not allow birds to leave the premises unless for veterinary attention
- Do not sell birds or buy any new birds, until the disease has completely cleared up, check with vet before selling
- Do not allow wild birds any contact with sick birds
- Strict isolation is required to prevent disease spreading