Below are some important considerations for anyone keeping pet chickens. Always contact a vet or poultry expert if you are concerned about their welfare.
Chickens need constant access to clean water in their house. Drinkers should be cleaned regularly and stale or dirty water replaced. Chickens must still be able to access water in icy weather (ice should not be removed using chemicals).
Drinkers should prevent young chicks climbing in and drowning. If chickens are moved or their drinkers changed, they should be provided with some types of drinkers that they are familiar with.
Chickens like to scratch the ground for seeds, roots and insects. Additional feed, suitable for their age and breed, should also be provided within their house to give them a balanced diet. Food dispensers should be cleaned regularly. Chickens need insoluble grit to help digestion.
The house needs to be warm, dry and well ventilated. The floor should be covered with dry material (e.g. wood shavings or straw), which must be topped-up or replaced when needed. This allows chickens to forage, dust-bathe and preen their feathers inside whenever they can’t use dry soil outside.
There should be plenty of space in the house for chickens to move around, exercise, stretch their wings and carry out other normal behaviours. As a guide, roughly 12 square metres should be enough for up to 30 birds. More or less space may be needed depending on the size and numbers of chickens and layout of facilities.
Chickens need perches to rest on during the day and roost on at night. These should be lengths of wooden batten, around 3 to 5 centimetres wide with rounded edges. There should be enough perching space for all the chickens to comfortably roost at the same time (around 15 centimetres per chicken), and enough space between perches to let them get up and down without injury. Perch height should suit the size of the birds.
The entrance to the house should allow chickens to pass through without difficulty and without having to crouch down. Providing more than one entrance can help to avoid bullying and encourage all chickens to go in and out.
The house and everything in it should be cleaned frequently and disinfected to remove any parasites.
The outdoor area needs to be large enough so that it can be divided up if necessary, to allow chickens to roam on good pasture every day while other parts recover, helping maintain the quality of the range and minimise the risk of disease.
There should be overhead cover, such as small trees or purpose-built shelter, to provide protection from sun, bad weather and predators, and encourage the chickens to explore. Chickens also like dry soil areas where they can dust-bathe.
If feed or water is also provided outside, this should be sheltered to keep it clean and dry, and care taken not to attract rodents and wild birds. Grass should not be allowed to become too long, as long strands can become trapped in the chickens’ digestive system.
Fences should be well-maintained and provide protection against predators. The design should ensure that the birds cannot escape or become trapped or injured.
Introducing new chickens to the flock
Mixing of chickens that are unfamiliar with each other should be done carefully. Mixing birds with very different body sizes should be avoided, as this can result in bullying.
Healthy birds are ‘bright-eyed’, alert and interested. Signs of poor health include:
- hunched posture
- erect feathers
- head tucked under the wing
- reluctance to move
- hiding in corners.
Chickens can become infected by lice and red mites. Lice are 2 to 3 millimetres in size and can be found all over the body with eggs around the shafts of the feathers. Red mites are smaller and can be found under the wings, or in crevices within the house.
Chickens need regular worming, particularly if kept on the same ground for more than one month.
Additional requirements for egg-laying hens
Hens need quiet, enclosed nest boxes where they can perform laying behaviours and feel safe. The boxes should be draught-free and lined with clean, dry, comfortable nesting material, such as straw or wood shavings.