Updated: Jan 14
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 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 about “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 are very important. If you are new to this and wish to keep a chicken flock in your garden, I’d recommend finding introductory books, joining poultry social media pages, do your research. I don’t consider myself an expert at all, but since I became a backyard poultry enthusiast, I just keep learning constantly. Every new bird I introduced into the flock has thought me a lesson. Fortunately, things always improve and get easier to manage with time. Our chooks are pretty spoiled in our backyard environment. They are fun to watch and surely make us laugh. On top of that, they fertilise the garden with their poop and do some good pest control by 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 to Australia to join my hubbie in a rural environment, I also got 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. 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, to 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 difficult to "train" and approach, but at least you don't end up (or should not) with surprises. Chicks a few weeks old are fun but can be very flighty and will need to be separated from the flock a little longer than the two-week quarantine (recommended time) before introduction. Hatching fertile eggs under a broody hen and getting very young chicks are the best as they are so cute and will be raised your way. But 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 in a flock, but that is not impossible (I guess that can depend if having a rooster and its size). 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 small, easy to manage and so cute with their beardy cheeks and feathered "booted" legs.
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 refers to French “millefleurs”, meaning thousands of flowers. This is due to the feather pattern that multiplies at every moult, plus 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 to 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 a 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... Minnie was a little sunflower in the darkest times while we were evacuees and our hosts were in love with her. She was staying inside with us as the air was extremely hot and thick with smoke. When we came back, we found Minnie some D'Uccle siblings. She's a happy chook!
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). As I only let a hatch happen once a year, I have to "break" their broodiness as while they sit on eggs, they don’t eat or drink enough. I had a Silkie-D'Uccle cross called Rockie, extremely devoted to being a mum. I found fertile eggs and had my first experience of hatching chicks with her. 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. Rockie had a thick layer of very soft feathers which makes it very cozy and warm for little chicks to snuggle in. Bantam can raise larger breeds without any problem until they get bigger than the mum... At that stage, the mum usually wants to go back with the flock. Chicks are spoiled being raised in my veggie garden... and my backyard is fenced and netted so I can protect them, and my veggie crops.
Broodiness • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2020-21
Last year, I made the mistake of buying fertile D'Uccle eggs way too early in the season while my Squeaky, a brown Millefleur with a funny high pitch voice, was broody. We were in lockdown again so that was to be another fun 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 rejecting all of them, even her little "miracle". So 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 two Brahmas (which I then learned are one of the largest chickens)! The problem got solved when I was offered two baby D'Uccles and found a good home for the gentle giant chicks. The weather kept being too cold and wet so I had to keep them inside longer... 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 take long after that to confirm that I had gone through all this for 3 little boys...
Chickness • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2021
Roosters are sadly the unwanted sex for the noise (forbidden in most suburbs by councils), not producing eggs and for behavioural reasons. You cannot have too many of them in a small space with a small number of hens as they would be fighting... It is a shame as they are so beautiful. We made the decision to keep one rooster and found new homes for the two others. We found some new D'Uccle and Silkie girls to complete the new "newbie" troop...
Newbies • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2021
Weeks later, mmmmh.... another lesson learnt. A year later, my chook's photos are published in ABC Organic Gardener Magazine (issue early summer 2022). Follow @bottlandbrushstudio to know more and to be notified of the continuing story from this journey (coming soon!)!