The domestic chicken is descended from a tropical forest bird, with the Malaysian Jungle Fowl probably being as close as we can get to the ancestral species. The birds got around in small flocks, scratching up the leaf-litter to obtain grubs, insects, worms, carrion, fallen fruit, herbs, grasses and seeds, as well as the small stones required for their crops. They had plenty of water and shade. At sunset, the birds would fly up to a branch to sleep, in order to avoid predators. Nests would be made on the ground, in a quiet inconspicuous place. The social structure was linear, with each bird knowing its exact place in the "pecking order".
Now if this is the animal we are dealing with, it should be obvious that a battery cage is a very bad thing -- but it should also be obvious that the old-fashioned chook run, with its hard-packed floor and absence of shade and greenery, is not much better. So what do we and chooks need to live happily ever after?
- A social group (say a flock of 2-15 birds)
- Plenty of room to walk around, with soft flooring for scratching
- A place to dust-bathe (they particularly like ashes, probably to discourage parasites)
- A mixed diet with a high protein content, because without sufficient protein they won't lay -- meat, legumes and insects should be included, not just grain
- Shell-grit -- this provides both content for the crop and the calcium required to form eggshell
- Access to "green pick", such as grass, lettuce, sorrel etc
- Free access to water
- A roost, preferably at a slight angle, as they sleep in pecking order. The dominant bird gets the highest (=safest) spot.
- Safe sleeping quarters, protected from foxes, snakes etc. They actually sleep very soundly and are easy to grab after dark.
- A secluded place to lay eggs, preferably easily accessible by humans
- No sudden changes to chook society (which is why there is an extensive online literature about introducing new birds to your flock)
- Your chooks will produce nitrogenous manure, excellent for plant growth
There are a number of ways to deal with these "inputs and outputs". Some people allow their chooks to range freely at all times, but this has its drawbacks. On a beautiful morning, you step out your back door, and immediately discover a little drawback, squishy and smelly and stuck to your bare foot. More little deposits are found all over your garden furniture. And they've hidden their eggs again. On the other hand, confining your chooks means that you have to fetch and carry all their food, water and manure, and you risk the run turning into an unhealthy dust-bowl.
Now wouldn't it be good if we could organise the chooks to eat the pests and weeds in the vegetable garden, and shovel their poo onto the garden beds for us? Enter the Chook Tractor.
A Chook Tractor is a movable run which you can put over a vegie bed to allow your chooks to do your weeding, digging, fertilising and pest-killing, thus saving you from performing arduous tasks you don't like and giving them to the chooks, who do. It's easy to make and use a Chook Tractor, as long as all your vegie beds are the same size and shape -- look online for ideas.
I use a Chook Dome, based on the plan from Linda Woodrow's excellent book, The Permaculture Home Garden. Obviously, this is suitable for the keyhole beds beloved of permies. My dome is about 2m in diameter (PVC conduit is sold in 6m lengths, and I used one length for the base). The framework is PVC pipe, drilled and wired together, covered with scavenged chook netting and reinforced with synthetic garden twine. It has lasted for four years but now requires maintenance: replacement of the rusty old mesh and tightening of the twine reinforcement. It also helps if your kids are not using it for chicken games!
Inside the dome I hang a roost. One section of the frame above the bar is not covered with mesh -- that's the door. Over this I have a piece of shadecloth, to which I've added eyelets and ties. I ensure the door faces solar north, to provide some shade. Over the top I tie a small tarpaulin (not shown), to provide shelter from rain. The nesting box is a grass-catcher from a defunct lawn-mower. Food and water containers, made from plastic milk cartons, are hung on the netting. A dome this size is suitable for 2-4 chooks. Throw in kitchen scraps, weeds, lawn clippings etc, and a fertile vegetable bed will appear like magic in a couple of weeks.
I rotate the dome from one bed to the next, ahead of the winter and summer growing seasons. When I run out of beds, the chooks are relocated to a run under our lemon tree, or another under the quince tree. Over summer, my chooks are allowed to range freely, because these runs, and the vegie patch, are on the exposed side of the back yard. This system has worked well for a number of years.