Chooks make wonderful pets and a few chooks around the house can be enormous fun. Kids can learn a bit about the handling and responsible care of animals as well as having the joy of collecting homegrown eggs!
They are great recyclers – turning your kitchen scraps into healthy free-range eggs for the whole family. They can consume pests; a few chooks in your yard is an excellent way of controlling those nasty centipedes around the house and at the same time they also produce compost for your garden.
One word of advice though- if you want to remain friends with your neighbours, don’t get a rooster…
CHOOSING YOUR CHICKENS
If you are after eggs I recommend buying a good egg layer breed. The most common commercial breed we see here in the Pacific are the Isa-Browns. They lay on average 300 eggs per year.
You can buy them either as young chicks that are 4-5 days old or at point of lay. Point of lay pullets are about 5-6 months old. When you buy a good commercial layer they will already have had their vaccinations for the most common chicken diseases such as chicken pox and Mareks disease.
Many people try to have local island chickens as their back yard chooks. These chooks often have very interesting colours and feathers and while they are still good at eating your scraps and will control insects, they are not good layers. Island chooks lay at the most 100 eggs per year but more commonly only 30-50 eggs. The other problem with these chickens is that they are not vaccinated and will frequently succumb to common diseases.
FEEDING YOUR CHICKENS
Feeding your chooks is pretty simple as they adore kitchen scraps, however you will need to supplement this with a pre-mixed grain diet by also feeding layer pellets. You will also need to provide fresh water and a little bit of shell grit. One way of providing shell grit is to simply keep the old eggs shells – place them in your oven for about 10-15 minutes then break the egg shells up into small pieces and put them in the scrap bucket.
Backyard chickens also need a good chicken pen with a covered, off the ground roosting area and layer boxes inside. These can range from a small triangular shape pen for 2-3 chooks up to a large pen for 8-10 chickens. Inside the pen, provide the covered laying boxes lined with dried grass, wood chip or hay where they will want to lay their eggs.The bedding should be changed regularly to control parasites such a lice and mites.
Chicken pens need to be surrounded with a wire mesh that keeps the chickens in and predators such as snakes and dogs out. One good idea is to lock the chickens up every night at dusk after they have walked back into where they have food and a safe sleeping area, and only let them out the next morning at about 10-11am, as most of the egg laying is done in the early morning. This encourages them to always lay in the same place and not all around your garden where the eggs are difficult to find.
COMMON DISEASES IN CHICKENS
Vaccinated chickens will need minimal vet care. The most common diseases that we see in back yard chickens are caused by parasites such as worms, lice or mites.
Worms can be indicated by diarrhea, weight loss and a drop in egg production. While uncommon, it is best prevented by worming every 3-4 months with a product such as Nilverm Pig and Poultry wormer. The medication is mixed in with the drinking water and given over 24 hours.
To treat lice and mites a drug called Ivermectin can also be added to the drinking water. It is also important to thoroughly clean the pen to remove mites. The Ivermectin can also be painted onto the chooks legs to treat scaly leg disease. Scaly leg disease is also a parasite infection – repeat the treatment once or twice at weekly intervals.
Another common parasite of chooks that we see in the tropics is eye worm.The birds are exposed to eye worms by eating cockroaches infected with the worms. Symptoms of eye worm in chickens include swollen, watery eyes, pus in the corner of the eye and eyelids that stick together. The worm causes irritation and the bird may begin to scratch at the infected eye with the tip of its wing. If left too long without proper treatment the chicken’s vision in that eye can be lost.
Treatment consists of removing the worm from under the eyelid. In early stages this can be done by flushing the eye with saline and adding 2-3 drops of ivermectin to the eye. In severe cases a veterinarian may need to surgically remove the worm. Preventing eye worms in chickens is best done by controlling the surrounding cockroach population by using pesticides approved for use in areas where chickens live. I personally don’t like using pesticides, as the main reason for having chooks is to get organic eggs, so it would be great if we could find an organic way of controlling them.
Otherwise, watch closely for signs of eye worms and seek treatment immediately to prevent blindness in the chickens. The earlier you notice, the less chance of permanent damage to the eye.
With Dr. Karin O’Connor from Port Vila Vet Clinic in conjunction with Sam’s Animal Welfare. For any further information about keeping pet chooks or other veterinary related issues please call the Vet Clinic on 25702 during opening hours. Monday to Friday from 7:30am to 5pm. Saturday Morning from 8:00am to 11:30am.