Chickens are becoming increasingly popular as pets, and will generally reward their owners with an egg a day when 'in lay' (the number of eggs produced decreases as the hen ages and there is usually a period of inactivity in winter). Providing poultry are not kept commercially, owners do not need to adhere to any special regulations, though it is worthwhile checking the government's farming website (www.defra.gov.uk
) for useful information. Chickens are social birds and are best kept in groups, with or without a cockerel, depending on whether fertile eggs are required (to increase the flock) or infertile eggs are wanted (for home consumption). They can be purchased from specialist suppliers, agricultural shows and rescue centres, and there are plenty of local vendors to be found on-line or in the farming press.
Although hens are happy living outside, they must be provided with adequate shelter that is warm, dry and draught-free; plus a secure enclosure that keeps them safe from predators, especially foxes which are so common in residential areas nowadays. There are a variety of chicken coops or ark available, but all should have plenty of space for each bird, be easy to clean, provide nesting and perching areas, and incorporate a secure roost where the hens can sleep overnight. During the day, chickens enjoy being allowed free-range in a fenced garden, but if this is not possible, as big a run as possible should be supplied, and the poultry should be moved on regularly to avoid damage to the grass and a build-up of parasites. A shady area to give protection from the sun and a dry area for “dust baths” are important.
Hens relish a variety of foods, and really enjoy vegetables plus some fruits as an addition to their main diet of commercially prepared pellets or mash. Grit is essential to aid with digestion, and it is also a good idea to scatter corn in the enclosure once a day to allow the chickens to scratch around for exercise. Fresh water should always be available.
The key to good health is to ensure a well-balanced diet and hygienic housing. It is also important for owners to familiarise themselves with the normal appearance and behaviour of their birds, so they can spot any changes which may signal illness. Some of the more common diseases are listed below.
- Chronic respiratory disease/bronchitis: This can be fatal in young birds, but older hens are more resistant. A vaccine is available to prevent the disease.
- Coccidiosis: Hens can present with many different symptoms (or no symptoms at all). Ruffled feathers, emaciation, bloody diarrhoea, going 'off-lay', excessive yawning and paralysis can all be present. Both the birds and the environment need treating if coccidia are found in the droppings.
- Common cold: This causes nasal discharge and open mouth breathing, but the eyelids are not swollen. Again, antibiotics are recommended.
- Coryza: This is a bacterial infection which causes symptoms of a severe cold, with wheezy breathing, swollen eyelids, nasal discharge and sneezing. Antibiotics are required.
- Feather pecking: Excessive pecking of other birds in the flock can be due to boredom or over-stocking. Bright light, excessive heat and, occasionally, certain types of bedding can encourage pecking. The hen which is being attacked can be sprayed with a bitter tasting product to deter further trauma.
- Fleas: Hens have their own type of flea. Signs include bald patches, because of self-plucking, and pale combs and wattles, due to anaemia caused by blood loss. Both the hens and their housing need treatment.
- Fowl pox/Avian diphtheria: Biting insects such as mosquitoes carry this virus which causes swellings on the skin of the head (pox) or in the mouth (diphtheria). A vaccine is available.
- Lice: Another common parasite, this pest causes intense irritation, and hens often scratch and peck at themselves so much that they develop bald patches. Medication in the form of a powder or spray is very effective, but must be used on several occasions to eliminate the infestation.
- Marek's disease: This is a virus which causes paralysis and is fatal. There is no treatment, but young birds can be vaccinated.
- Newcastle disease: Symptoms include paralysis, the passage of green droppings, ruffled feathers and breathing difficulties. It is a fatal viral disease, but can be prevented by vaccination.
- Red mite: This is a common parasite and can transmit other diseases, as well as causing poultry to lose condition. Treatments are available for use on the hens and the coop. Once again, hygiene is very important.
- Scaly legs: Swollen, itchy legs are usually a sign of another mite, and topical treatment is needed. The mites thrive in damp conditions, so good ventilation in the coop is essential.