Updated: Jan 30
Here are my feathered pals, and what they've taught me, since I joined the poultry world.
Keeping backyard poultry is a great hobby that is essential in a permaculture-style garden. Looking after chickens can be a beneficial and a rewarding experience but… (there is always a but) can sometimes be overwhelming when things like extreme weather, sickness, bad behaviour or predator attacks occur. There is so much to know with “chooks” (nickname for chickens in Australia). You really have to understand their nature, which helps to provide them with a suitable environment. They are prone to various diseases and parasites so constant observation, care and coop hygiene is very important. If you are new to this and wish to keep a chicken flock in your garden, I’d recommend to find introductory books, join poultry social media pages, do your research. I don’t consider myself as an expert at all, but since I became a backyard poultry enthusiast, I just keep learning constantly. Introducing every new bird has thought me a lesson. Good and bad experiences... Fortunately, things always improve and get easier to manage with time. Our chooks are pretty spoiled in our backyard. They make us laugh, they are fun to watch, they are good for the soul. On the top of that, they fertilise the garden with their poop and do good pest control eating bugs. In return for all the feed and treats, we get some free range eggs with delicious and deep yellow yolks!
Our first Tumba backyard ladies • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2018-19
Years ago, when I was still in Montréal, my bestie Val was starting to raise chickens in her suburban backyard. She was one of the pioneers of the backyard gardeners of my generation of friends falling for poultry keeping and breeds. Later, when I moved in Australia to join my hubbie in a rural environment, I also started to get into gardening and chickens. We first started with any breed we could easily get, like Isa browns. I was more interested in charismatic and diverse varieties like Val was, but it was not easy to find colourful fluffs at first. I was suggested by locals to go check out a poultry auction. The first time we went we did not bid on any chooks, we were not so ready for this. The second time, we bid and won a pair of Australian Langshans and blue Silkie pullets. We still have Sheila, one of the Langshans (my hubbie’s favourite), she’s now our oldest hen and she still lays eggs from time to time. But the Silkies were returned as they were having health issues that I did not want to spread in my flock. I wish I had done a better job of inspection on site... The last time we went to check an auction, I was more experienced and aware of poultry diseases, and could notice just by the look a fair amount of birds with infectious conditions... that shocked me. My advice now is, find a good breeder, visit the farm, ask to inspect the birds and discuss some “return policy”. You will save time and money on the birds, and with the vet.
In good company • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2020
When I joined local poultry groups on social media, and met breeders to buy my chickens directly, things got more exciting but also brought me more new challenges. Introducing point-of-lay hens, young chicks or hatching fertile eggs are all very different adventures with pros and cons, and different costs. Sexed pullets can be more wild and difficult to "train"and approach, but at least you know what you will get. Chicks a few weeks old are fun but can be very flighty and will need to be separate from the flock a little longer than the two week quarantine (recommended time) before introducing. Hatching fertile eggs under a broody hen and getting very young chicks are the best as they are soooo cute and will be raised your way. But they are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. Sometimes I ended up with different breeds than what I was sold… or with a few roosters. Some people would not recommend mixing breed sizes but that is not totally impossible (I guess that can depend if having a large size rooster). With supervision at first and by slowly letting them get used to each other, they will establish their hierarchy, become pals and size won't matter much then. I have bantam chooks that took pecking order on top of my giant ones straight away. My favourite breed is the Belgian Barbu D’Uccle. They are friendly and so pretty with their beardy cheeks and feathered "booted" legs. They are adorable pets!
Various breeds, colours and sizes • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2019-21
Minnie, a buff Millefleur was our first D'Uccle and she's our very special one. The name of that variety refer to French “mille fleurs”, meaning thousands of flowers. This is due to the feather pattern that multiply at every moult. And they are like living flower bouquets in the garden. She has a "scissor beak" unaligned malformation but that has never been too much of a problem. We had her as a special exchange from the breeder and she bonded with me very quickly as she was single and too little to introduce with other pullets. She was hanging out in my veggie garden, jumping on my shoulders at sunset, snuggling under my hair and then I was putting her back in a pet box for the night. That was only a few weeks before the bushfires so she and our cat (who's chook friendly) came with us when we evacuated. Sadly we could not bring all the other ones, it was an awful thing to leave them but they were big enough to look after themselves for few days with plenty of food, water and access to the whole garden. We were grateful and thankful to some neighbours who stayed in town and looked after them while we were away as the fire threats lasted longer than a few days... They all survived except one that disappeared... Minnie was a little sunflower in darkest times while we were evacuees and our hosts were also in love with her. She was staying inside with us as the air was extremely hot and thick of smoke. When we came back, we found Minnie some D'Uccle siblings and we mixed them up with the big ladies.
Minnie • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2019-20
Both D’Uccles and Silkies are "wanna be mamas". After a dozen eggs, they go clucky. That can be a little annoying to manage as my chickens don't like queuing for egg laying (even though there are many nests available they all want the same one for some reason). While my eggs are not fertile, I have to "break" their broodiness as while they sit to hatch, they don’t eat or drink enough. I have a Silkie-D'Uccle cross called Rockie, extremely devoted to be a mum. I found fertile eggs and made the experience of hatching chicks a few times now. It is so beautiful to watch the natural instinct and how a broody hen feeds and teaches the chicks everything. Working from home is an advantage when raising chicks as you still have to check on them quite often, even with a reliable mama hen. Rockie has a thick layer of very soft feathers which makes it very cozy and warm for little chicks to snuggle in. She's a bantam size and has raised larger breeds without any problem ... until they got bigger than her, then I had to seperate them and take over. They get spoiled being allowed to pick their own lettuce in my veggie garden... they make a bit of mess of course, but not as destructively as the big ladies would. My backyard is fenced and netted to protect my crops, and letting my chooks to free range in specific areas is the best way to go. It's a micro hobby farm!
Broodiness • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2020-21
This year, I made the mistake to buy fertile D'Uccle eggs way too early in the hatching season while my Squeaky, a brown Millefleur with a funny voice, was broody. We were in lockdown again so that was to be another home project. But of the dozen eggs, only one hatched. The temperature was so cold and Squeaky was not very sure what to do with that little one stealing her food. We tried to trick her by bringing baby chicks as siblings for our single survivor. She was pecking all of them so I had to make a difficult decision to seperate the mum as she was not adopting any of them, even her little "miracle". I took her back with the flock and I made a chick house box with a brooder heat plate, near the heater in my studio. I could hear happy little beep beeps and straight away they were connecting. A problem was all I could get quickly were big varieties including 2 brahmas (which I then learned are one of the largest chickens)! The problem got solved when I was offered 2 baby D'Uccles and found a good home for the gentle giant feathered legged Brahma chicks. The weather kept being too cold and wet so I had to keep them inside longer than I would have hoped... I had to upgrade the box with a bigger pet cage and there was chook bedding to clean-up constantly to keep it healthy (for them and for us). Then one morning we heard some funny cracky calls from the studio... I realised it was crowing. At only 5 weeks, ho-ooo! It did not took long after that to confirm that I had gone through all this for 3 little boys... And as you must know, I can't keep them all.
Chickness • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2021
Roosters are sadly the unwanted sex for the noise (forbidden in most suburbs by councils), no eggs and also you cannot have too many of them in a small space with a small quantity of hens as they would be fighting... It is a shame as they are so beautiful. We decided to keep one rooster, and find new homes for the two others. We still have two that are like "bros" and bought crowing collars in case the noise becomes a problem... but so far my little cockerels sound just too cute. We found some new D'Uccle and Silkie girls (well there might be a boy in there just not 100% sure yet) to join the new troop ...and that is where we're up to: the rest of this story is to develop!
Newbies • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2021
RAISING AND KEEPING TIPS
The most important things you need for chooks are a safe enclosed hen house (heated or not, depending on climate and breeds), some nests, perches, feeders, drinkers, bedding and a run with greens, shade and sand for bathing. Our chickens resist well to Australian's winter temperatures so they don't need an indoor heated coop. They snuggle on a flat perch to keep their feet warm in their outdoor coop covered from wind and rain. It is highly fenced for guard against potential predators like foxes, cats and dogs. Prey birds and snakes are another worry but would be more risky on a farm than it is in town. Backyard chickens are like tenants and sometimes you look after them temporarily and sometimes for a longer stay. Some can live up to 10 years if properly cared. You get attached to them, which can be heartbreaking sometimes. With time you can toughen up a little more and improve your "home vet" skills. I still cannot kill or eat one of my birds. I really love chicken meat but I'm not interested in the ones that have a name. I prefer buying free range, and when possible some pasture raised chickens. Fresh eggs picked in the backyard hen house is a fair trade of food for food with the ladies. I have mixed breed chooks so my eggs are also various colours and sizes. Bantam eggs are so cute and blue eggs from my Araucanas are so cool! More about pastured and backyard raised eggs on this blog post: Cracking Good eggs.
Backyard eggs • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2020-21
On a final note (I have to stop there as could write a novel about my chickens), as an expat wife we can sometimes feel a bit isolated, and pals like chickens and cats allow you to speak your own language (yep I speak with them in French-glish) and they give you comfort when no one can really understand what you are feeling and saying, which is nice. Thank you my little "pou-poules, and Puss you are also a funny chook!
Broody cat in the nest, ejected • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2020