April 17, 2013

Urban chookery crowds out Barrett House

More loveable than a dog, less aloof than a cat and incredible useful too... they're the urban animal supreme, the productive pet, the fascinating companion... and they eat our kitchen scraps.

They're also the most numerous bird in the world and you find them both on farm and in urban backyards. They are, of course, the common chook. What's interesting is that people will give up their day off to learn about them.

It was those people, those urban chookateers, who descended on Barrett House, the 3-Council Ecofootprint Project's community learning and sustainability centre in Randwick, in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs. It was they who filled it for November's urban chicken keeping workshop. And it was so full that people had to watch from the neighbouring room.

Led by landscape architect and permaculture educator, Steve Batley, and sustainability educator, Fiona Campbell, the workshop provided basic information about keeping chooks in the urban east.

The fate of the wandering chook

It was a fateful first encounter.

Steve was living in Sydney's southern suburbs when the wayward chook dropped by. "Where did it come from? I had no idea", he said. So he fed it, gave it water.. and it settled in. For awhile. "Then, one day, it disappeared", he said. "I think a neighbourhood dog got it".

Lesson number one: dogs and chooks don't mix all that well.

"Now, I have a flock of five birds in a pen in the backyard... bantam Rhode Island Reds. They're quiet and they're productive and give eggs about half the size of the traditional Rhode Island chook... rich, yokey eggs".

As he told the story, Steve reached into a cane basket—the sort that people put their dirty washing in—and extracted two of the Reds. Fascination and a desire to hold the birds was the reaction as they were passed from person to person. People found that they were... how do I say this without sounding fluffy and wimpy... that they were... cuddly.

Where the pass-the-chook around the room stopped, these very tolerant and patient animals were only too happy to sit to be patted. "They're so soft", said one woman as she took hold of a bird. Clearly, there was some kind of human-chook bond in formation.

For the rest of the workshop they sat or strolled around the floor, pecking at a bowl of laying mash and occasionally leaving a deposit on the floor. Seizing the opportunity, Steve went over to examine one of the deposits.

"You can learn much from chook poo", he said, leaning over and looking closely at it. Rather than divine the future from it as if an oracle interpreting the fall of bones, Steve went on: "They should be solid nuggets. If they're not, they could indicate that the chook is unwell".

Lesson number two: Chook poo is nothing to be afraid of. It is an indicator of health.

 

NEEDS, FUNCTIONS, YIELDS

In planning to keep chooks it's useful to take a systems thinking approach and consider what they need, their behaviour and what they produce. We call these things needs, functions and yields—that's the permaculture terminology—or, in the more technical language of systems thinking—inputs, processes and outputs.

NEEDS

The needs of urban chooks include:

  • food
  • water
  • shade
  • sunlight
  • shelter
  • nesting box (a sheltered location where they lay their eggs)
  • a perch
  • protection from foxes (there's plenty of these in the city—a good reason to revive the wearing of fox fur clothing, only this time as a status symbol to do with making utilitarian use of a feral animal?), from dogs and from the large, cunning, voracious and predatory feral cat.

"Chooks cook easily in too much sun", warned Steve in explaining the need for shade in the pen. One way to do this is to plant trees in the chook yard. That's what the crew at Glovers Community Garden in Rozelle have done. They've planted citrus and other fruit trees in the yard. One day, these will have grown so that they cast pools of cooling summer shade to shelter the birds. In the meantime there's always shadecloth.

As well as a protective chicken house and a yard to forage in, you will need to provide feed and water for your birds. Although some chook keepers throw kitchen scraps, seed and laying mash into the pen, uneaten food can attract rats, which are quite expert at finding a free meal. The galvanised iron or plastic feed and water dispensers that are suspended and hang above rat-reach are the best, though there are reports that the galvanised iron could contribute to heavy metal poisoning of the chooks, though whether the feeders do this is unclear. The metal feeders may be more expensive but are generally more durable than plastic and last longer. The feeders contain several day's food and water supply. Check to see your birds have fresh, clean water daily.

I've said that protection from foxes is important. They are mainly night predators are are known for ripping heads off chooks but not eating the birds. Randwick Community Organic Garden learned this when their flock of Isa-Browns was devastated by a fox, as did home gardener, Doug Bailey when his flock in suburban Marrickville met a similar fate. Foxes live in unused urban land and in urban bushland. It's for good reason that foxes are regarded as slinky, sneaky beasts, especially when they get the scent of chooks wafting on the night breeze.

Fox proofing a chook run can mean digging the fence wire into the soil at least 20cm—foxes are digging animals—you need to make the fence a couple metres high. Some keepers take the buried part of the fence wire out a metre from the run so as to fool foxes. But... foxes also jump. What better way to counter their incursion than by attaching a wide strip of loose wire fencing at the top of the pen. You can imagine the creature's volpine surprise quickly turning to alarm as it makes its running jump then experiences than sinking feeling as the wire it has grabbed starts to fold back... and the wily fox is deposited firmly on the ground where it started its misadventure. The Randwick Community Organic Garden chook team has attached flexible polypipe with poultry wire attached to the top of their fence to present a bendable barrier to the fox.

Steve has never heard of domestic cats taking chooks although they could predate young chicks. Feral cats, however, grow to a larger size than their domestic brethren and could pose a danger, specially to smaller breeds, young chickens and quail, which some people keep for their small eggs.

Chook keepers on the Australian mainland can think of themselves as more fortunate than their Tasmanian counterparts because mainlanders do not have to protect their chooks and eggs from the quoll that come by to help themselves after dark. Tasmanians might consider themselves just as fortunate that they don't have to deal with python slithering into the pens for a free feed, or with foxes.

Wild birds can introduce disease to domestic chooks and are best excluded from chicken pens by a roof of poultry wire. Where pens are open, wild birds will quickly join their domestic counterparts at feeding time.

As digging animals, chooks require a yard where they can scratch in their search for the sustenance brought by insects and plants. Each bird needs at least a square metre of space. Their housing is located in the yard which has shaded as well as sunny areas. Sunny areas are needed because chooks need to scratch in the dry soil and to dust bathe, a means of discouraging mites, lice and other pests. Muddy conditions can breed health disorders.

"Chooks like sunbathing", Steve told the workshop where the two birds he brought with him sat contentedly on people's laps, enjoying the sensation of being stroked. "They sit in the soil and spread their wings and preen themselves... they toss soil over themselves".

Kitchen scraps as a food source offers an alternative to home or community garden composting and makes use of your chooks as resource recovery units. Avoid giving them avocado, coffee and chocolate as these could be toxic to them (source: Dr Alex Rosenwax, www.birdvet.com.au —see his Care For Your Chicken factsheet which has dietary and health advice).

Full-grown chooks will eat mice by swallowing them whole. Filling... a big meal in one gulp.

Steve said that he did a little research before acquiring his bantam (a smaller breed of a larger bird) Rhode Island Reds, which he classes as quiet birds. If you are late feeding chooks that you usually feed at a regular time, they might start squawking for their food. You can reduce the incidence of this behaviour by feeding them at irregular times.

The strategic question to ask when considering the needs of chooks is this: How do we provide for their needs?

FUNCTIONS

'Functions' describes the natural behaviours of chooks:

  • scratching the soil, eating plants and insects, pooping, squawking
  • fighting (chooks establish hierarchies known as pecking orders)
  • dust bathing.

Chooks poo is a concentrated fertiliser for our gardens. It is recovered when we periodically rake out the chook yard and put it in the compost or on the garden.

The critical question we ask when considering chook functions or behaviour is this: How do we make best use of their functions?

YIELDS

The yield of chickens is what they produce that is of value to people:

  • eggs
  • meat
  • feathers
  • poo.

It's likely that the habit of naming chooks is responsible for saving the lives of a great many. Who could kill, behead, de-leg, gut, cook and eat something they have named and loved? This makes eggs the primary yield of urban chooks.

The number of eggs you get depends on the number of birds you have, how well you feed and water them and the season. Isa-Browns, a hybrid animal (bred by combining the gene sets of two different species through cross breeding) will give you five to six eggs a week but they are perhaps more susceptible to disease than hardier birds. If you have several birds that adds up to a lot of eggs a week, so you have to get creative with cooking omelettes or find some friendly neighbours to trade with.

Feathers are an additional yield, though a product restricted to omnivore households. Smaller, finer feathers might be useful for stuffing pillows, perhaps, though a ready use eludes me.

Poo we have already looked at when we considered functions, and for home and community gardeners it's a valuable yield used to fertilise their gardens. It is collected when the chook run is raked out, which is a hygiene-management process you do every so often, and is added to the compost or spread over the garden bed in preparation for planting.

The important question we ask when considering keeping chooks: How can we use the yields of our chickens?

If you can answer each of those critical questions about needs, functions and yields, then you have been very systematic and have taken the first step to becoming an urban poultry farmer.

A HOME FOR OUR CHOOKS

Like people, chooks need somewhere to live that shelters them from cold, windy or hot weather, that keeps them warm in winter, keeps out the rain and protects them from predators.

You can buy or make your own chook house which is scaled according to the number of birds you have.

Chooks are roosting animals. Leave them outside near a shrub or tree and you will find them perching on the branches next morning. We cater for this natural behaviour in our chook house by installing perches where the birds roost at night. These should be of wood of rectangular or round cross section so that the the birds can grip them firmly by wrapping their feet around them.

The number of nesting boxes where they lay their eggs depends on how many chooks you have—and as chooks are social, flocking creatures you never keep just a single animal. Birds will share a nesting box, thought usually only one at a time, andare neither exclusive or possessive about them.

For four to five animals, a good-size family flock, provide around three nesting boxes. These need to be in a sheltered, more or less concealed location so that the chooks feel protected and secure while laying. The grass catchers that attach to motor mowers are sometimes used as nesting boxes. Place straw inside the box so that your chook is comfortable.

At times, the birds will go broody and sit on their eggs as if waiting for them to hatch. Without a rooster—roosters are usually disallowed by councils on account of their crowing at odd times in the early morning—the eggs are, of course, infertile, which makes broodiness a waste of chicken time. You should move them off the eggs, says Steve.

HYGIENIC BIRDS

Every few months, brush the inside of the chook house with eucalyptus or tea tree oil mixed with water. This discourages lice and mites and helps to keep your birds happy and healthy.

Rake out the run every few months or more frequently if needed, and as you do so think about how the waste materials will be turned into tomato and potato when spread on your garden as fertiliser.

Clean up spilled food or food tossed into the pen so as to discourage rats. Rats are part of the ecology of urban areas and they are about although you might not see them all that often. If neighbours see rats in your chook run, though, they might blame your chooks for attracting them even though they were probably already present. Cleaning up and mucking out your run also reduceds odour.

A BALANCED DIET

Chooks are like people. They need a nutritionally balanced diet.

Steve recommends buying layer mash—a blended food designed to for a balanced diet—in large bags as it is cheaper to do it this way. Larger bird varieties will eat greater amounts than smaller breeds, however the cost of this needs to be seen in relation to the cost of regularly buying eggs.

The scratching up and pursuit of passing insects makes up supplementary feeding. Chickens will eat all manner of creature... skinks, spiders, frogs, insects, mice.

Feeding needs include:

  • greens... feed them lots of grass, weeds, vegetable scraps 
  • protein foods and 
  • calcium for their egg shells, such as shell grit, which is crushed shells and may be in the layer mash you provide; you can finely crush their own egg shells and mix them with their feed, however the shells should not be recognisable as eggs because they might then attempt to eat their freshly-laid eggs.

Avoid food that has gone off, says Steve. "If you won't eat it yourself you shouldn't give it to your chooks", he advises. "Chickens can get food poisoning".

He says that a diversity of food is important for your chooks as much as it is for you. "They will self-select the food they eat and eat meat cooked or raw... they love that protein hit and will even eat chicken meat. If you keep your compost bin in the chook run and it suffers an insect infestation, take the lid off and let the chooks feast on the bugs".

Chooks can be unpredictable in what they eat. I've seen some that devour the common asthma weed and that will reduce the large leaf or taro to almost nothing in a few minutes. Others will touch neither of these foods.

Even though they can get a range of diseases and infestations of lice and mites, chooks are hardy creatures, says Steve.

CHOOKS AS GARDENERS

It's their scratching behaviour that makes chooks good gardeners, and you can make good use of this behaviour by enclosing a small number in an area where you plan to make a vegetable garden or to prepare one for replanting. There, they will eat much of the crop residue or other vegetation, eat the insects they find while scratching the soil, loosen the soil in readiness for a seed bed and fertilise it with their droppings.

This behaviour, one of the functions of our chooks, is known as 'tractoring' as it simulates the agricultural practice of ploughing and fertilising, only unlike the farmer—we don't need to invest in a tractor, fossil fuel or synthetic fertiliser. Our fathered gardeners do all those things.

Some gardeners make or buy a small, mobile pen, put a few chooks in it and move it around the garden to prepare the soil for planting.

"I don't do this anymore", explained Steve. "I just get some poultry wire and a few star pickets and temporarily fence off a small area, moving the fence and the chickens when they have cultivated and fertilised the soil".

More design-centric gardeners have been known to make a dome-shaped mobile pen of agricultural polypipe covered in netting, with a tarpaulin attached to cover part of it to provide shade. They then make their garden beds, which have to be circular of course—usually a couple metres or more in diameter—so that the chicken tractor dome fits neatly over them and the chickens left to clear the previous crop residue, loosen the soil and fertilise it. The dome and chooks are them moved to the next garden bed and the process repeated, the first being planted to seedlings and mulched.

The same type of chicken tractor can be made with a rectangular mobile pen and moved progressively along a rectangular garden bed scaled for an exact fit. You can only grow perennial vegetables in these tractored beds, of course, not perennials as the chooks will dig them up.

While chooks are useful for garden bed preparation and for managing populations of pest insects, which are just more food to them, they are not so good if let loose for too long in the vegetable garden. Give them enough time and they will devastate it. Then you will have to get the nutritional value of the vegetables they have eaten by eating what has consumed them—your chooks. It's a round-about way to get vegetable nutrients.

Chickens and orchards go together well. "Chickens love foraging around under fruit trees", Steve says. "They're rainforest birds". Here, they help in clearing up fallen fruit, foraging for insects in it. "They like the softer rather than the harder fruits".

FINDING YOUR CHOOKS

There's a number of sources from which you can buy your chooks.

"You usually buty them at point-of-lay", Steve explains. "That's just when they are preparing to start laying eggs, at around 20 weeks of age.

"Check out their characteristics and behaviours—do your research first... find out whether they're quiet or noisy birds, their egg productivity, their size—whether full size or bantam.

"Children like the smaller and cuter silkies and seabright varieties. You can mix breeds but introducing birds after the flock is established can lead to their squabbling".

If you are uncertain whether you really want to keep chooks and would like a try-out, Rentachook will provide birds plus a small house for them. If you like the experience, as most people do, you can then buy the birds and house, or return them if you don't. I think you buy them first then can return them after 6 months if you change your mind??

CHOOK-LED SUSTAINABLE URBANISM

How can the keeping of chickens possibly make our cities more sustainable places?

We have first of all to acknowledge that they produce fresh, healthy food. Add to this the contribution of urban poultry keepers with rare breeds who maintain the biodiversity of one of our most important food animals. Then there's the learning that comes with caring for another lifeform, and learning is always a good thing especially where children are involved. Add to that the sharing of eggs with friends and neighbours. And add, too, the social learning that comes when community gardeners form a chook team and care for a flock of chickens.

All of these things are characteristics of urban sustainability and of the resilient city.

EVIDENT ENTHUSIASM

Just why a workshop on urban chookery should attract so many people is a mystery. Is it that people yearn for contact with a pet that is productive and multipurpose? Is it that they want something more interactive than a cat?

Whatever the reason, this was a workshop full of enthusiastic people. Urban poultry producers in the making, there were people perhaps tired of being classified as mere consumers by the economists and marketers and who prefer to become urban producers. And that, we know, is a positive point of difference. 

Chook dietary, health and care advice: 

Try-out chooks before buying: 

 Waverley Council information:

See Randwick Council info sheet below.

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Story by Russ Grayson, photos by Steve Batley

If you have a sustainable story to tell, email it in along with a couple of photos toinfo@reduceyourfootprint.com.au - receive an eco switch for every story published.

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