Helen McKerralChooks

Chooks shared almost every back yard in the Adelaide suburb where I spent the first years of my life. My Dutch grandparents always had at least a dozen of them, while all the German, Italian and Greek immigrants around us raised chooks as well.

Backyard eggs really do taste better than supermarket ones

Backyard eggs really do taste better than supermarket ones. Backyard chooks eat scraps from our kitchens and weeds from our gardens, so every family’s hens produce their own – literally! – homebrand eggs! And of course, chicken manure and litter are pure gold for any gardener.

Keeping chooks isn’t rocket science. Provide a dry, sheltered hen house, an area of deep litter or a run to scratch in, food, clean water, sun and shade, and they’ll be happy and healthy. I won’t go into details about keeping chickens because, as sister blogger on GardenDrum Mary Gray wryly points out numerous websites already do that with far more expertise than me (google back yard chickens, back yard poultry eg here and here

Our 5 chickens – 3 Light Suffolks and 2 Light Suffolk x Plymouth Rock

It amazes me that so few people keep chooks. Geoff and I have always had them – or in recent times, one chook (long story, see below). When our children were young, we raised bantams, which were cute but with rather pointless (to us) eggs. Later, we had an assortment of chooks with names like KFC, Kiev, and Roast. Ironically, because we’d named the chickens, they were never dispatched for the pot.

Instead, they mostly died of old age. However, because they were pets and we had young children, we couldn’t be pragmatic about disease and, when a black chook became sick and unable to walk, she went to the vet. After months of specialist treatment – antibiotics… and steroids! – Onyx became what was probably the most expensive chicken in Australia. She lived in our house in a succession of large cardboard boxes, and our children hand-fed and watered her every day. As she recovered, they carried the box outside into a little playpen in the sun, and brought her back in again each evening. When we said goodnight to her, she’d reply with a quiet gurgle of acknowledgment. She eventually recovered and returned to the run. Annoyingly, she lived for years longer, consuming food and pellets, but never laying one more egg!

Our most recent chook (yes, singular) was Methuselah. A fat, placid, slightly demented old silver lace Wyandotte, she outlived all the others. By years. Frankly, we’d been waiting (for years!) for her to die before we got more chooks because, at fourteen years old, she was geriatric and would have been horribly pecked by newcomers. She hadn’t laid an egg in about a decade but we’d named her, so that was that. We were stuck with her. But then someone told me they’d owned a chook who lived for twenty one years – dismaying news!

Chooks are supposedly sensitive to nasty shocks, but clearly Methuselah hadn’t been told. Even when a neighbour’s huge tree fell on the henhouse and adjacent shed, half-crushing both and shaking the ground, there she was the following morning, doddering about in the run as if nothing had happened! Perhaps she’d already forgotten. We replaced the shed and henhouse… and her life, unfortunately, went on. Geoff leaned the axe against the henhouse as a hint, but it made no difference.

But with the new block, the existing coop had to be relocated. Without Methuselah, it would have been a simple matter to dismantle the existing framework, reassemble it (with minor alterations) on the new site, and add wire. But no: because Methuselah stubbornly refused to die, it all had to be done in stages over many weekends, erecting the new coop while the old one was still up, salvaging bits of framework and then, finally in a carefully coordinated single day, moving the henhouse and having everything fox-proof for Methuselah that night.

Our Taj Mahal hen coop, with black-coated wire, underground fox protection & summer shade

The Taj Mahal is bigger and better-placed than the old coop. There are always patches of shade and sun, and the henhouse is raised on a bed of rock and concrete pavers high above the soil, so it stays beautifully dry. Removable (in summer) clear plastic Alsynite sheeting covers a section of the run so it will stay drier in winter, and I spread plenty of straw to minimise mud. And, in consideration of three neighbours who can glimpse the structure through the trees, it had to look tidy – no crappy assortment of rusty corrugated iron and patchwork of wire. We used black plastic-coated Cyclone wire because, unlike plain galvanised wire, it disappears into the background. Geoff also attached an underground apron of cyclone wire around the run to prevent foxes digging in.

In a year or three when the native understorey is established in the lower garden, and the area above the coop has been planted with perennials (probably currants or berry fruits) we’ll add rustic fencing within the block so the chooks can also forage in two separate areas.

The Taj Mahal was ready for Methuselah to move in, although Geoff still had to build a separate compartment in the run for her before buying any new chickens.

That afternoon I put Methuselah in the crook of my arm and carried her to her new home. She seemed rather nonplussed but, within an hour, was sitting in a patch of sun, pecking at straw. We popped her into the henhouse at dusk, and she was fine the next morning.

The forecast was for a hot day, high thirties, and we’d arranged to go snorkelling at the beach with another family. Neither Geoff nor I said anything to each other but, when we arrived home late that afternoon, we both had the same thought. I was on my way to the coop when I met Geoff coming back. “Don’t go, she’s dead,” he said.

After years of waiting for that bloody chicken to die, she’d finally done so, precisely a month and a day after it would have been convenient. She’d survived numerous heatwaves but the additional stress of the move, the unfamiliar environment plus her advanced age had been too much. To my surprise, I felt ridiculously sad.

Geoff buried her by the macadamia tree.

And that’s the thing about chooks. I suspect that anyone who’s owned chickens and watched them busily scratching and pecking, would feel uncomfortable eating cage eggs or non free-range chicken meat, because you realise just how horrible and alien such a life would be for these bustling little animals. Back yard chickens are oddly endearing. They have personalities, albeit not necessarily interesting ones. Strangely, that doesn’t matter.

We now have five chickens, bought as point-of-lay pullets from a friend. Three are Light Suffolks, the other two are Light Suffolk crossed with Plymouth Rock. I collected the first egg last week. I haven’t named these chickens (actually, Geoff has, but I don’t want to know) and, after a few years, after happy lives, when they cease laying, they will be humanely killed (by Geoff) and put in the stockpot.

Well, that’s the plan.

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Helen McKerral

About Helen McKerral

Horticultural journalist, photographer, contributor to many garden magazines, and author of 'Gardening on a Shoestring'. Adelaide Hills, South Australia

2 thoughts on “Chooks

  1. Anne Latreille on said:

    Great story Helen! I have loved chooks since I had to feed them for my father, as a child. Once I had my own house I really wanted them but my husband preferred to build another garage rather than a chookyard. Then there were the cats and the big black dog. But all these years later I’m still hoping …. How do you make sure they are fed and cared for when you go away?

  2. helen mckerral on said:

    THanks, Anne! When we go away, neighbours have always been happy to care for them, in return for eggs. If the chickens are off the lay, we offer fruit & produce from the garden. We also have friends and family who can help, so we’re lucky!

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