Over the years I have had many prospective customers request that I provide a pre-chicken suitability inspection of their property and for a while I was willing to perform this service. However, it soon became apparent that with very few exceptions, every single urban and suburban property I visited or delivered chickens to was suitable, or could be made so with minor accommodations. Here are a few examples:
An inner-city terraced house
Think: close in to the city centre, a row of very small houses, joined together, with pocket-sized gardens which, because they are so small, often tend to be fully landscaped.
This house had a narrow passage (maybe 1.5 metres/5 feet wide) running between the boundary fence and back of the house. The area was unused and overgrown. By fencing the end of the passage, the chickens had 8 square metres (85 square feet) of space without encroaching on the landscaped part of the garden. This space was only suitable for two hens, but they thrived.
An inner-city apartment block
Close to the city centre on a small block of land, this place was an old walk-up block of four apartments in one building with a bit of grass that was unloved and mostly in shadow. One couple started it off by convincing their neighbours into a six-week trial of two hens and a small coop. Despite initial reservations by some, by the end of six weeks the coop had been upgraded to a bigger one and two more hens added (another family bought in). Within a year, there were eight hens, two for each household, and a real communal approach to managing the chickens. The mangy grass had been replaced by a hen run that was covered in mulch and looked great, and the hens were as happy as clams.
A suburban house with a very steep, overgrown and rocky garden
This is one of my fondest memories of supplying chickens. I had to spend more time than I ever had before overcoming the reservations of the lady who came to me – she was both very reluctant and very keen at the same time. I finally convinced her to give it a go and trial a couple of hens. She became besotted with the chickens and 18 months later had a flock of 12 birds, got a carpenter in and built a true palais de poulet.
If you are still sitting on the fence, please bear in mind that the set-up costs are not huge and that, unlike a cat or a dog, chickens need not be for life. You can sell them or give them away without suffering paroxysms of guilt.
What is it likely to cost?
The costs associated with keeping chickens are probably easiest to understand if broken up into:
Your major set-up cost is the coop. Whether you call it a henhouse, coop, chicken-tractor, chook Hilton, roost, or palais de poulet, the chickens are going to need shelter and protection from predators at night, especially the altogether too talented Mr Fox. There is a lot more detail about coop options in Chapter 5, but, assuming you are not a handyperson (and let’s be frank, who is these days?) you will be buying one.
In Australia, where I’m writing, prices for coops range from a couple of hundred dollars for an imported flat-pack timber job from an online marketplace, to A$400–800 for a quality, locally made, portable coop or ‘chook-tractor’. An alternative to this is a galvanised pressed-metal aviary, ranging from A$250 to A$600 for a fair-sized one to get you started. So, we’re not talking megabucks. Prices in the US and UK are comparable.
The next expense is the hens themselves. Understandably, hens are cheaper if you buy them in the country rather than from a city pet shop or stockfeed supplier. For a common crossbreed laying hen, at point of lay, you can expect to pay A$30–35 in the city and as little as A$15 in the country. Of course, you can pay silly money for show-quality, purebred hens but it is my recommendation for first-timers to start with a crossbred hen.
Other set-up costs can include feeders, waterers and storage bins for feed and straw. However, these cost in the few tens of dollars and the Parsimonious Poultry Person could make these themself by reusing plastic milk bottles and the like. If you want a hen run, a simple one can be made very cheaply at home from chicken wire and tomato stakes.
So, add it all up and you can easily have two hens and all their mandatory accoutrements for less than A$400, or the same thing but with a good-quality coop for under A$600. Let’s split the difference and say, set up for A$500.
Feed is your regular ongoing cost for chickens; expect to spend in the order of A$10 a month on it for two hens. Really, that’s chicken feed! (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.) Depending on where you live, that’s about the cost of two to three large takeaway coffees. Add another A$5 a month for straw and quarterly worming... Assuming you keep an ongoing flock of around four hens, and rounding it up a bit, let’s say A$30 per month upkeep.
The reason you are reading this book is so that you can pick up some canny tricks and techniques to solve problems inexpensively. In truth, with good management, chicken problems that require other than negligible expenditure are rare. Hens don’t require regular vet check-ups and by-and-large vet visits, when required, are not prohibitively expensive.
That being said, I had a regular customer many years ago who told me about her extraordinary veterinary experience. Diamond and Pearl (not their real names) had gone off the lay and were not their usual selves. She took them to a particular vet (who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty). Tests were performed to diagnose their ailment. Suffice to say, they received excellent care and were returned in fine health, but not before a bill of nearly A$3000 had been accrued! ‘Three grand? Are you kidding me?’
I had to sit down when I was told this story.
Bear in mind that this was for two ISA Brown hens that were identical in almost every way to the hens I could have sold her (to replace Diamond and Pearl) for A$30 each. The moral of this story is: keep some perspective, people.
This is an edited extract from Backyard Chickens by Dave Ingham (Murdoch Books RRP $35) with photography by Cath Muscat.