Keeping backyard chickens

Chickens can be a great asset to any small landholding. They provide eggs, control insects and weeds, fertilise orchards, eat kitchen scraps and loosen soil while scratching.

But there are a few things you need to know when purchasing and keeping chickens and eating and selling the eggs they produce.

Of particular importance is ensuring high standards of biosecurity, to protect your poultry and the Western Australian poultry industry from the devastating effects of emergency diseases such as Avian influenza and Newcastle disease. Please see the Poultry biosecurity checklist for small landholders webpage for more information about biosecurity for poultry.

When first obtaining chickens, it is best to purchase vaccinated birds from a reliable commercial source. Do not get birds from a variety of sources as this can increase the risk of introducing pest and diseases.

A good starter flock to provide eggs for a household would consist of four to five 16-24 week old birds (described as point-of-lay pullets).

Avoid buying roosters if living in a suburban area, as many local government authorities (LGA) prohibit them because of their crowing.

Laws regarding keeping poultry are determined by each state or territory. In some cases, LGAs have created bylaws that amend the state laws. Contact your LGA for the most accurate and up-to-date regulations.

Housing

Before constructing any form of housing for your chickens, be sure to get approval from your LGA. The LGA may regulate the building position and the number of birds you keep.

Existing housing

Thoroughly clean old housing as it could contain mites, fleas or ticks. Wooden structures may need to be removed and the soil surrounding old housing should be tested to ensure it is free from chemicals (see the 'Organochlorines in eggs' section below).

Chicken coop

It is important to have a fox-proof coop which is still easily accessible and adequately ventilated.

The coop should be fully enclosed and the chickens locked away every night.

Locate the chicken house facing east so that the back is towards the strong westerly, rain-bearing winter winds. A belt of vegetation to the east will provide protection against the wind but ensure it still lets in the morning sun.

Cover the floor with sawdust (at least 8cm) so that it mixes with the poultry droppings to form ‘deep litter’. After nine months, the litter can be removed, composted and used in the garden. Check with your LGA as many have banned the use and storage of chicken litter unless composted, as it provides a breeding medium for stable flies.

The chicken house should contain a perch (no more than 60cm high) for roosting and nesting boxes which can be accessed from the outside. Nesting boxes provide a safe comfortable area for hens to lay their eggs and allow ease of collection.

Chicken run

The chicken run should be bordered by 1.8m high chicken mesh and enclosed to discourage foxes from killing the chickens and wild birds from eating the chicken food and possibly introducing diseases.

To deter foxes from digging under the fence, dig the netting into the soil to a depth of 50cm or continue the netting outwards at the base of the fence.

Feeding

By law, chickens must be provided with appropriate food, water and protection. The quality of food and water is also important as the wrong balance of nutrients and quantities of feed can lead to poor egg production and bird health.

Commercial layer pellets provide the best, balanced source of nutrients for chickens.

It is common practice to feed food scraps to chickens, and this seldom causes a problem. However, certain scraps have been known to causes problems in chickens, such as chocolate, onions and garlic.

Health

A healthy bird should be alert, active, eat often, have clean eyes and nostrils and its breathing should be silent and unnoticeable.

Sick birds may have drooping wings and tail, discharge from the nostrils and eyes, weakness or paralysis of one or both legs or wings, be lethargic or experience a loss of appetite. If you see unusual illness or behaviour or unexpected deaths in your poultry, call your veterinarian immediately or the Emergency Animal Disease hotline on             1800 675 888.

Observing the flock every day, and learning what is normal for your birds, can help you identify when a bird is sick. Some birds are just found dead.

Common health problems of backyard chickens

Egg-bound hens: caused when an egg matures inside the bird, but is not laid. Euthanasia is the most appropriate action.

Egg peritonitis: this is when an egg ruptures inside the bird. Affected birds become depressed, cease eating and usually die. The most common cause of egg peritonitis is perches set too high.

Lice: these are small parasites which can cause severe irritation and stress. Birds often stop laying. Treat with a registered poultry dust.

Stick fast fleas: these appear as small, shiny black dots; move very little, on the combs, wattles and around the eyes. Larvae need deep soil to complete their development so an impervious floor under the roosting area can assist control. Treat individual birds with a registered treatment. Cats and dogs can also be affected.

Mites and ticks: Blood-sucking parasites which can cause severe irritation, loss of blood and body weight. These pests also lead to a decrease in egg production and death.

Mites and ticks can spend considerable time off the host, therefore it is essential to remove and destroy rubbish in the coop so that it can be properly cleaned and sprayed with an insecticide registered for the purpose. The most common mites in Western Australian poultry are the scaly leg mite and the red mite.

Page last updated: Monday, 13 March 2017 - 11:22am