Confessions of a Chicken Keeper
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Confessions of a Chicken Keeper: 165 Owners Get Real About Their Backyard Flocks

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At Talking Hens, we're passionate about supporting and learning from our amazing community of backyard chicken enthusiasts. To gain deeper insights into their experiences and needs, we ran a survey in June 2023 titled "Tell Us About Your Backyard Chicken Journey."

The response was incredible - we received 165 detailed submissions packed with tips, stories and brutally honest feedback. A heartfelt thank you to everyone who participated! This wealth of first-hand knowledge is invaluable to both experienced keepers and those wanting to learn exactly what keeping backyard chickens is all about.

Let's dive into what the survey revealed about the chicken-keeping journeys of respondents so far...

Flock Stats: Sizing Up the Responses

The survey highlighted that backyard flocks come in all shapes and sizes. The most common flock size among respondents was 2-3 chickens at 44%, perfect for providing enough eggs for a small family while keeping the commitment level reasonable.

However, a sizeable 28% go big with flocks of 6 or more chickens. Not far behind were owners of between 4 to 5 hens with 25%. As one respondent wisely advised: "The biggest coop you can afford is the best."

When it comes to breeds, hybrids like the Hy-Line, Lohmann and ISA Browns topped the popularity charts at 57% of respondents. These medium-sized breed crosses are prized for being friendly, low-maintenance egg layers. Although we didn’t specifically ask, respondents probably owned Hy-Line Browns as that is the breed Talking Hens has been selling for the past 12 years.

That said, 25% reported keeping a mix of breeds, while 18% opted for the distinctive looks and personalities of purebred chickens like the Sussex, Australorp and Marans etc. This is very much aligned with where Talking Hens is moving to in the future to provide customers with regular layers throughout the year and a sprinkling of different sizes, shapes and colours of hens.


Experience Levels Across the Board

While raising backyard chickens has boomed in popularity over the last decade, our respondents displayed a fairly wide range of experience levels.


A majority (72%), have been keeping backyard chickens for over 2 years, so were relatively experienced. An impressive 18% were still in their first or second year at the time of the survey.

As one member commented, "I grew up with chickens but never encountered the friendliness that our Hy-Lines showed towards us." It's clear that keeping backyard chickens is addictive!

No matter if you're a new or veteran chicken owner, there's always more to learn. The key is tapping into reliable information sources which we'll cover later in this post.


Urban, Suburban and Rural Flocks

The survey results showed a fairly even split for where our customers were located:

  1. Urban areas (36%)
  2. Suburban / City Outskirts (33%)
  3. Rural environments (30%)

 

This shows that chickens can thrive in all types of environments and settings when provided proper food and housing, security from predators and attentive care from their owners.

City-dwellers did note some challenges like "needing to supervise to prevent garden destruction" and dealing with "brazen daytime fox attacks" when free-ranging their flocks.

But in general, with the right chicken coop and run setup, chickens can just as easily enrich the lives of urban and suburban dwellers as their rural counterparts. The bonus of incredibly fresh, delicious and nutritious eggs is a perk that all owners can enjoy!


The Great Coop Discussion: Built or Bought? 

Coops are arguably the most critical piece of equipment for a healthy, safe flock. So it's no surprise this was an area of intense discussion in the survey responses.


When it comes to sourcing coops, 37% of respondents opted for a DIY creation, building their own using purchased, recycled or upcycled materials. Some altered existing structures such as garden sheds, dog kennels or redundant cubby houses. We just hope that many had read our blog post Backyard Chicken Coops - Myths and Misconceptions so that they were able to create a coop that chickens actually wanted to live in!

On the flip side, 21% purchased brand new coops from brands including Talking Hens, Bunnings and Omlet. While pricier, some of these coops offer enhanced predator-proof construction, larger sizes and integrated nest boxes and runs.

Only 5% of survey respondents purchased a secondhand coop, likely an option best suited for more experienced owners who can inspect for integrity, parasites and repair any issues.

No matter which coop route you take, the responses made it very clear that going bigger from the start is better than having to deal with space limitations down the road. Common regrets were:

"Too small to introduce more chooks" 

"Need a bigger run"

"Not enough nesting boxes for my flock size"


When in doubt, oversize! Your chickens will thank you.


Nesting Boxes


Nesting box real estate was another hot topic, with 33% of coops having 2 boxes, 24% with 3 boxes and 11% with 4 or more boxes. Our general recommendation is 1 nesting box for 5-7 hens to prevent any congestion during the 8am to 11am peak laying window.


Bedding for nesting boxes and coop runs was also interesting with several different materials used. In the nesting boxes, 38% use hemp bedding which respondents raved about for being easy to clean and compostable:

"Hemp is so easy to clean out"

"Glad we went with hemp from the start"

Wood shavings took second place at 31%, being widely available and affordable,13% used straw and 9% used hay. These materials did need to be changed out frequently if hens were sleeping in the nest boxes which is my big no-no!


In the run area, 44% used wood shavings as litter, while 31% used more the more traditional materials including straw, hay, mulch, grass clippings and even leaves. As one owner shared:

"Chooks love dusting in the wood shavings, and it all composts down nicely."

Clearly, there are multiple options for bedding/litter materials - the key is using a material that quickly absorbs the moisture in chook droppings so that they rapidly compost. For the less absorbent, traditional materials, respondents found that they needed to refresh and replace them regularly in order to avoid smells and mess!


Feeders and Drinkers

When it comes to feeding systems, tread-on feeders were clear favourites among respondents. These closed-top feeders minimise feed waste and contamination while keeping it protected from pests and rain.

The more traditional, less expensive, bell-shaped feeders were also popular with many respondents mentioning the need to hang them well above the ground using a hook and chain for best performance. Some said they had to remove the feeder at night to stop rodents from accessing the feed which was a common concern. 

For drinkers, bell drinkers and twin-cup drinkers were mentioned most often as providing an efficient and clean source of water for chickens. Bowls/buckets used for other pets were also mentioned as common choices. We can only imagine how frequently some customers must be refilling these containers or cleaning them of contaminants.


Dust Bathing

One important aspect of chicken keeping that surprisingly many are missing - the dust bath! While 63% do provide a dust bathing area for their flock, over a third (37%) responded that they do not have a dedicated dust bath setup.

Dust bathing is a crucial natural behaviour for chickens to maintain feather health, dislodge external parasites like mites/lice and self-groom, quite apart from just the joy of playing in dirt. If you don't have a dedicated, dry dust bath area yet, set one up ASAP! Consider using:

  • A shallow child's pool or plastic pan
  • A hardwood or other frame with 160 to 220mm sides
  • Add a mixture of wood ash (from a fire), dirt, wood shavings and Bugs Away or food grade Diatomaceous Earth (DE)
  • Locate it in a sunny, dry area since chickens love to dust bathe in the warmth

 

US chicken expert Gail Damerow says "Depriving a flock of a dust bathing area is a common and serious management error." Don't let your flock suffer by not having a healthy and enjoyable dust bath!


Free Ranging

When asked how many hours each day respondents let their flock play outside of the chicken coop, 61% said all day, 19% 3+ hours and 11% 1 to 2 hours. This means that a majority, (over 90%), of backyard chickens enjoy outdoor foraging and only a small minority of 4% don’t allow their flocks out at all.

Some of the reasons given for keeping flocks in the safety of their coop and run included the risk of predators, having a large run and wanting to avoid garden damage.  


Dealing with Rodents, Wild Birds and Insects

While rewarding, owning backyard chickens isn't all sunshine and roses. Respondents had to deal with several different pests including rodents, wild birds and insects.

In the pest category, a massive 78% of surveyed owners had issues with rodents getting into their chicken coops and chicken feed supplies. Effective rodent control is a must through measures like:

  • Sealing any gaps or holes in coops - rats and in particular, mice can squeeze through incredibly small spaces
  • Keeping coop areas clean with no spilled feed lying around
  • Setting chicken-proof rodent traps and bait stations around the coop
  • Storing feed supplies in rodent-proof metal bins/containers

 

Wild birds were the next biggest nuisance, cited by 56% of respondents. Birds invite themselves into chicken coops whenever possible to access any exposed chicken feed. Both rodent and wild bird activity in the coop resulted in respondents finding that their feed supply could be reduced quite rapidly.

Flies seemed to be a minor annoyance with only 24% having problems and only in hotter conditions. However, allowing flies to get out of control can lead to an increased risk of disease to chickens.


Parasites

Some insects are worse than others and fall into the category of parasites which can be internal and external. Common external parasites include red mites and poultry lice while internal parasites can include roundworms, threadworms and tapeworms among other species.


A significant, 46% have encountered red mites, 41% (worms), and 40% lice which are the "big 3". Red mites have been particularly prevalent in Victoria in 2023/24 and I have probably spoken with over 100 customers with mite issues recently.

The less common scaly leg mite (21% of respondents), is a parasite that is not often seen on hybrid hens like our Hy-Line Browns. However, it can sometimes affect some purebred breeds that have a more open scale structure on their legs. 


Predators

When it comes to predators, the responses highlighted a very real need for taking security seriously. While a lucky 44% said they hadn't encountered any predators, the remaining percentages were:


  • 45% encountered foxes
  • 11% dogs
  • 9% feral cats
  • 9% hawks and eagles

Maintaining Backyard Chickens

All animals need diligent owners to take care of them and their environment in order to thrive. Chickens are no different so we asked how many hours each week do owners spend on maintaining their happy flocks.


Forty-one per cent of owners spent between 1 and 2 hours on weekly maintenance tasks, 32% spent 2 plus hours and 27% less than one hour. Time was spent on collecting eggs, adding feed and water, cleaning out bedding and nesting materials and closing and opening doors.

I would surmise that owners spending less than 1 hour each week would have particularly good setups with large feeders and drinkers, automatic doors and use dry, deep litter systems that we always recommend for chicken coops.


Information Sources

Things don’t always go to plan with animals (or anything for that matter), so when a problem arises, most respondents took to the Internet (76%). Many got lost trawling through websites but some found answers much faster.


When out on the Internet, 70% head for the Talking Hens website while 37% delve into the weekly, Talking Hens emails which we have now been sending out every week for the past 7 years. Twenty-three per cent ask a friend with chickens and 16% ask in the Taking Hens shop if they are visiting us.

Finally, the question that drew the love, appreciation and joy that our backyard chicken owners felt for their chooks. We’ll leave you with the Word Cloud and a selection of the 164, often detailed responses when we asked them to “finish the sentence: Having backyard chickens…”



".... are a big part of my family!"

"Is enjoyable, I love them my dog loves them chooks are happy and garden is healthy"

"is the best thing you can do to relieve stress by sitting back and enjoying their company from these friendly chooks who give you beautifully delicious eggs."

"Is a special part of our life!"

"Is entertaining, fulfilling and addictive!"

"Fun, joyful and peaceful"

"Is rewarding, fun, healthy, environmentally great. They have such a personality & puts a smile on your face ( unless they have made their way into the veggie patch & destroyed your bed 🤬)"

"Is very relaxing, enjoyable and interesting to see their different personalities."

"is one of the most rewarding things a family can have in their backyard - fresh healthy eggs, reasonably low care and they provide many hours of fun for everyone watching their antics and getting to know their individual characters."

"Is easier than having a cat or dog. And they are very interesting. They are not always nice to each other, there is always a distinct pecking order."

"Lights up my daughters lives."

"Is a daily delight. So worth the effort. They are interesting inquisitive creatures"

"literally helped our family's mental health through the last year of covid. They gave us a great reason to get out into the garden, a reason to get up in the morning, and so much pleasure. Just to sit in the sun and have them cluck and peck around our feet was the best. The eggs were a bonus!"

"Life changing. It has helped my anxiety caring for them and I get a lot of joy watching them. I look forward to seeing them everyday. They are also hilarious"

"Is absolutely the healthiest, cheapest and best for our family"

"Means = Happiness, keeps you going even when you dont really want to. I dont know what it is but they seem to take me away from any troubles when Im outside with them. Little life savers."

"Is delightful, I love the way the girls rush to greet me when go into the garden , wings out by their sides and of course the beautiful eggs"

"Is fun especially for our little grand daughter."

"Is extremely rewarding and given they each have a unique personality they are simply a wonderful extension of our family"

"Is so much fun and connects me to nature and brings joy. Let alone all my beautiful eggs that I also share with my brekky group if I have too many."

"Makes my house a home"

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