Xanadu for hens

Stickybeak and Noodle are our two 20 month old Isa Brown chooks. They’ve been living with us for 6 weeks now and have produced a total of 61 eggs between them. That’s incredible and we couldn’t be happier. Noodle is the most reliable layer, she’s curious and confident and seems to have sharper eyesight but Stickybeak is definitely the boss chook. She tends to be a little more sensitive and has gone off the lay on the odd day here and there, especially when the weather’s been hot.

One of our concerns was how our dogs Digger and Shadow would behave within close quarters of the chooks. Much to the relief of everybody, including the chooks, they’ve been very well behaved and all seem comfortable within each other’s company.

Digger the Dog on Chook patrol

Being a working dog, Digger is always alert when around them, waiting like a coiled spring ready to jump at the first command. Shadow is much more relaxed and happily walks around in their pen, helping with the chores, seemingly oblivious to their existence.

When we started to realise how much chooks actually eat, I knew we’d never be able to keep up with their insatiable appetites and we didn’t want to rely totally on pellets, so we decided to approach our local green grocer for scrap greens and anything else suitable they were throwing out. It seems that I’m not the only one taking advantage of the enormous volume of fruit and vegetable waste that gets dumped each day as they keep prepared boxes out in the back cool room so I just swap the box over each time. On the days I’ve missed out,  they’re more than happy for me to go through the bins stored under the shelves in the shop. It’s where the offcuts are thrown as the shelves are packed and presented for sale and there’s lots of goodies in there.

Free chook goodies, slugs and all

As you probably already know, we don’t have a lawn at our place so our chooks aren’t able to freely range in our backyard, not unless they’re under direct supervision. And that has it’s problems because they can’t be trusted! Not that they’ll take off but because they’ll peck wildly at lettuce, beans and anything tempting along the way and before you know it, they’ve shredded the plants to death.

For some time I’d been thinking about creating a temporary release area for them and finally came up with the simple idea to use cheap hessian and star pickets. We already had a stack of stakes and the hessian was about $35 for 10 metres, 2.8m wide.

After belting the stakes into the ground and cutting the hessian into 2 strips 1.4m wide, it was easy to temporarily attached the material to the stakes with some string. We propped a folding wire gate that Chris found in the October Council cleanup against two of the stakes as a door and within about 10 minutes, we created a pretty neat, simple but effective day release area. We call it the ‘Summer Palace’.

The Summer Palace

It’s a gorgeous shady area with a spectacular view and we’ve put their mower catcher in there and of course there’s always fresh water.  The chooks go in there most days after work and I can see them from the kitchen window. It provides a change of scenery and a safe area where they can stretch their legs and scratch through the layer of leaf mulch and humus and they love it.

That is of course until Noodle Houdini discovered she could go under the hessian where it was loose and before I knew it the two of them were making a B-line for chook Xanadu, our herb garden!

Heads down tails up

It was their excited chortling that gave them away, I watched as the two cheeky chooks disappeared behind the lemon balm, thyme and basil with fluffy bottoms high in the sky. I imagined this is where the saying ‘head down, tail up’ came from.

One of my colleagues, Dani is a brilliant animal behaviourist and ran a city farm in Sydney for many years. At one stage she was required to breed chickens for demonstration purposes and after a while became quite an expert on chook behaviour.  When I told her we were getting a couple of chooks the first thing she told me was that I’d have to train them to follow me so that I’d always be sure they’d come when I called them, especially given we don’t have fences. Well I’ve learnt that chooks don’t just take off like a dog on a scent, unless of course there’s a dog on their scent, but they can get easily distracted in their hunt for food and before you know it they can be a few garden beds away, buried up to their ears in worms. So Dani’s simple instruction was to get a small shaker, like an empty drink bottle, fill it with a special seed mix, and whenever you need to get their attention, shake the bottle and call ‘chook, chook, chookie’ or something like that.

Following the shake and call

But like a dog, you must reward them every time so that they always associate the sound of the shake and call with food. It took me no more than 2 short sessions to train them and I can now lead them from their ‘Chook Nook’ along a garden path, up a series of steps and into the Summer Palace which is about 30 metres away. And who said chooks were dumb!

The actual egg count should be at least 63 eggs in 6 weeks as we’ve discovered 2 remnant egg shells: one in the Summer Palace and one on a ledge in the Chook Nook. We must have missed the one in the Palais which I found sitting under the little compost tumbler. It seemed to have collapsed with all the rain we’ve had this week.  But I’m particularly suspicious of the one I found yesterday in the Chook Nook as it had sneaky rat fink written all over it. I suspect it’s a little native rattus fuscipes or bush rat because he’s managed to carry the egg about a metre from the nesting boxes. He’d better watch out because if I catch that little scoundrel he’ll soon become a flattus rattus fuscipes!

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