Keeping chickens

by Diane on 29/06/2014

Every now and then I get asked questions about my chickens. They’re usually along the lines of: how much work is it to have chickens as pets? What are their personalities like? What do they eat and drink? What should the ideal run look like?

We’re not the ultimate chicken experts. I’m just an animal lover who managed to convince her husband that adding chooks to the family is a brilliant idea. So this isn’t an ultimate guide on how to keep your chickens, it’s just an overview of what we do and how we treat our ladies.

A lot of it is common sense, some of it is learning by doing, some of it we learnt by making mistakes.

Meet the crew

We started off early 2011 with two chooks, Gerda and Petra. They were purchased by our neighbour, who got a bigger flock and was happy to give us two of his chickens. Unfortunately they are both no longer with us. You can read about Petra’s death at Good-bye Petra, hello Ingrid.

At the moment we have three chickens: Ingrid, Sonja and Eva. Sonja and Eva are rescue hens – they worked their little butts off for people who don’t care where their eggs come from (cheap trumps animal welfare). They all have different characters, but they have become close friends and they always hang out together.

Our chickens: Sonja, Ingrid and Eva (left to right).

Meet the crew: Sonja, Ingrid and Eva (left to right).

The run and around the run

Our ladies have a fenced-off area of approximately 80-100 m2. It’s on a bit of land behind our driveway which is owned by our neighbours, but this part of their lifestyle block is furthest away from their house and pretty inaccessible from their end, so they’re ok with us having our chickens there. Technically we’re renting the land for a dollar per year, if requested. So far it hasn’t been requested.

The run is placed on a little hill side, with the hen house on a flat section at the top. The door to their house is always open, so that they can move freely within their safe run. As soon as the night is over they get out and spend most of the day outside. There’s heaps of green stuff to snack on, they have small bushes and trees to hide from the weather, secure areas to build outdoor nests if they want to, and enough soil to dig up for their dirt baths. The only time they ever spend inside their house is during the night or when they lay an egg. Otherwise they’re outside, enjoying sun or rain, scratching away, spreading their wings and bathing in dirt.

The grass is always greener on the other side, so they don’t spend all of their time in the run; we often let them out to explore the section behind their run as well. Chickens are super curious, and they need lots of stimulation to keep their little minds busy and active. Just like humans or other animals they can get depressed if they don’t experience excitement or challenges. Most of the time we stay close by when they’re on an excursion, just to make sure they find their way back into the run. But sometimes we let them out and just check back regularly throughout the day to make sure they don’t wander off too far. The longer we let them out, the more likely it is that we’ll find them back inside their run when we check on them – for resting the safe sanctuary always seems the best choice.

I know that we provide a lot of space for our chickens. After all the house is officially designed to keep up to four chickens locked away with minimal access to grass on the ground and should therefore be sufficient. According to the NZ Animal Welfare (Layer Hens) Code of Welfare 2012 [PDF on Biosecurity website, 531KB] even as little as 55 cm2 should be enough space for a hen (anything less is unacceptable even for our Government). We would never squeeze our hens into such little space. They are birds after all, they enjoy running around, they’re super active all day, they simply need lots of space to be able to behave like a chicken. It might not have to be 100 mbut they definitely need enough space to do all their chicken business in a happy manner.


We started off with an A-shaped hen house our neighbour provided, but it wasn’t very easy to clean. So in the end we got this model from TradeTested for them. It’s a two storey house without flooring at the bottom, which means that they can take their dirt baths even on rainy days. Upstairs they have an area to perch and two nest boxes to share.

Chicken house - view from the outside and with the nest box lid open.

Chicken house – view from the outside and with the nest box lid open.

Food & drinks


We order pellets from Wellington Feed and Saddlery – they have an online shop and offer free delivery. Pellets contain everything a laying hen’s body needs. It can’t get any more convenient. Our chooks get their pellets provided through their Chooketeria, which is a self-serving automated system. If they get hungry they stand on the step and the lid opens. This way they don’t share the food with other birds or mice (in theory… we twice found a mouse inside the feeder, and we also had a sparrow casualty when a little cheeky bird tried to steal food when the chicken stepped off the feeder – neck broken, ooups).

Chickens Ingrid and Sonja demonstrating their feeder.

Ingrid and Sonja demonstrating the Chooketeria.


Our chickens spend most of their day outside. They scratch and peck and everything they find along the way (grass, cicadas, spiders, worms, snails – basically any kind of bug or critter) goes straight into their tummy. This is healthy, provides them with heaps of protein and makes them happy.


Because we love our girls dearly, we regularly spoil them will yummy treats. They love Soak & Sprout and parrot food. The latter we didn’t even know about, until Ingrid participated in NZ Twitter Secret Santa and received a big bag of parrot mix. We usually go for Pams Parrot & Cockatiel 10 Seed Mix, simply because it’s conveniently available at New World or Four Square.

I also grow Chicken Greens from Kings Seeds in pots, which we place in the run when the plants are fully grown.

Additionally they have unlimited access to crushed oyster shells to help them in creating strong egg shells. And obviously we share some of our scraps (fruit, veggies, salad greens) with them.


Water needs to be available all the time. A chicken must always have access to clean drinking water. When you check the water available to your chooks, always ask yourself: would I drink from this? If you wouldn’t, why should your chickens?

We provide our chickens with two choices: they can either drink fresh water from a bucket at the bottom of their run. Or they can drink from a big bowl of fresh water that always contains some apple cider vinegar. That keeps worms out of their system and helps them keep a healthy digestion.

Chickens water supply.

Top: Eva and Sonja enjoying fresh water with apple cider vinegar. Bottom: pure water in the bucket.


The work

Looking after chickens is reasonably easy. We clean out their nest boxes and perching area daily (remove poo, replace with fresh straw) and check if their Chooketeria still contains enough food and if they still have plenty of fresh water. We collect their eggs and watch them for a little while to see if they’re ok (no limping, no signs of feeling unwell). We also scan their run for foreign objects, because they sometime dig up things we don’t want them to walk on (such as bones, glass, bottles, parts of a motor bike, etc).

Every now and then we completely clean out their house. We use cardboard at the bottom of the nest boxes so their poo or any fluids don’t move into the wood, and we sprinkle Pestine in the area between wood and cardboard as well as onto the bottom of their perching areas to keep lice, mites and fleas away.


A sick chicken will show signs of feeling unwell pretty early. They don’t run around as actively, their comb gets paler, they aren’t excited to get treats or they don’t want to leave the run at all.

Monitoring their poo is a good way to keep track of their health. Chicken poo comes in many different forms, and most of them are actually a sign that the chooks are quite healthy. The Poultry Help Forum is a great source to learn more about chicken poo, including how to tell ‘good poo’ from ‘bad poo’.

As soon as we notice something out of the ordinary, we take the chickens to the vet. We don’t ever let them suffer. Even if the vet can’t find anything and doesn’t know how to help, letting an animal suffer is never the right choice. Chickens are hard to diagnose and it might not be considered worth the expenses for treatment, but the one last thing you can do for your chicken is to keep its suffering short. You owe it to them.

Their contribution: yummy eggs

On most days they lay one egg each. It’s very easy to know who laid which egg: Ingrid’s eggs are giant in size (an egg carton for ‘large’ eggs can’t be closed if her eggs are in it), but mostly they aren’t pretty. They vary in colour and sometimes the shell looks crumpled. Her eggs also sometimes contain blood spots (which we remove before eating). But still, hers are the tastiest eggs ever!

As battery chickens Sonja and Eva were drilled to produce perfect eggs. Theirs are much smaller than Ingrid’s eggs, but perfect in shell and super consistent in quality.

Yummy eggs. From happy hens, guaranteed free-range.

Yummy eggs. From happy hens, guaranteed free-range.

Giving ex-battery hens a home

If it had been easier to find a new friend for Ingrid after Gerda died, we probably wouldn’t have considered ex-battery hens. I’ve had the feeling that I could ‘do good’ by giving some of these creatures a second chance, but we were scared of the consequences. After all, these were animals that were treated as egg production machines for all of their short life to date. Would they know how to behave like a chicken? Would they be mentally damaged, show unusual behaviour, upset Ingrid? Would they be able to cope with sudden temperature changes outside, after having lived in controlled temperature since they day they hatched?

It turned out that none of our concerns were relevant, at least not in the long term.

Yes, on the first day we had to increase the fence height as Sonja tried to escape by flying on top of it and jumping down numerous times. Once she even walked down the driveway, leaving a trail of bloody foot prints, since she had injured herself in her attempt to leave her new home. On the upside: we now know how to treat cuts on chicken feet (just hold them into warm water and hope for the best).

It got even worse when we thought we’d do something good and lock them into their house for the night. To keep them safe and such. Turned out that this was the worst thing we could do to them – as soon as the door was closed, they felt like they were back in their battery cages, and they started banging their heads and wings against the mesh. Even though we only allowed this to happen for about 10 seconds until we opened the door again – it was heartbreaking to watch, and just imagining that they may have spent a whole year doing this day-in and day-out made me cry. Needless to say that we never closed the door again.

Once they had settled and started copying some real chicken behaviour from Ingrid (Look, I can scratch on the ground! Grass can be eaten! How on earth do I open this feeder?), they turned into the loveliest, friendliest, most grateful creatures. Additional bonus: their eggs are ten times more beautiful and consistent in quality than those of real free range chickens.

They’ve seen hell, but they know they’re now in paradise!

Cats and chickens

We have lots of cats living in our neighbourhood. There’s Wilco and Morris to one side of our house. And there’s a smallish female that looks a bit like Max and a big ginger (Max’s favourite enemy) to the other side of our house. Across the street we have another Max, as well as a black and white cat that rarely comes over to our garden. What they all have in common? They love watching our chickens! Throughout the day all of them will pay our chooks a visit. They’ll sit by the fence, in trees or behind the chicken house, just to get a glimpse of a chicken. The girls don’t mind. They do bok a little when they spot a cat, but they know they’re safe behind their fence. They are also confident that they could fight off any cat anyway.

They know that cats will retreat for a fact, because they spend a lot of time in the garden with Max. He has tried jumping at them, but they know that all they need to do is turn around, stare him into the eyes and bok at him – and Max will run for the hills. He has huge respect, and I can’t imagine him ever trying to do harm to the chickens – he always treats them in a very playful way.

I don’t fear they might get attacked by a cat. In the contrary – I’m more scared for the cat and the injuries it might receive from picking a fight with a beaked big bird.

Sonja the chicken and Max the cat are staring at each other.

Staring contest between Sonja and Max.

Further reading

When we prepared ourselves and the backyard for the arrival of our new family members, we read two books: ‘The Urban Hen – A practical guide to keeping poultry in a town or city’ by Paul Peacock and ‘Keeping chickens – An Australian guide’ by Penguin Books. The first one focuses on chicken keeping in the UK, the second one – quite obviously – on Australia. But they’re both good resources to check before getting chickens, even though some chapters are irrelevant for NZ (you don’t need to worry about foxes for example).

Later on I came across How to Care for your Poultry and How to Care for Your Poultry Volume 2, both published by the same people that run the NZ Lifestyle Block magazine. The first edition is out of print by now, but it’s still available at Wellington Library. I’d consider both editions a must-read for chicken owners.

I hope this gives you an idea how we keep our chickens. Let me know if you have any questions, or if you’re considering getting chickens yourself. I’d love to help!





M Freitas June 29, 2014 at 9:32 pm

Yep, chickens are fun. We had Lotty and Henrietta here, two Pekin Bantam, very cute. Smaller eggs and not so frequent. Cats were not a problem at all, some even stayed inside the run, taking care of any rats that would venture to try and steal chicken food.

We used to open the run and let them roam around our section and they would come back to the run when needed – to lay, sleep or eat. We didn’t have to worry about them…

Andrea Graves August 5, 2014 at 12:55 pm

Great overview! Thanks. It certainly is funny to watch a hen show a cat who is top dog. Listen for the clunk of beak hitting cat skull.
People interested in keeping chickens in NZ might like my facebook page, It’s a place to get local advice and fresh inspiration, and to form a community of people who think that keeping chickens is fabulous.

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