When I got started with backyard chickens, I was excited by the idea of fresh eggs every day and I had this romantic idea of chickens pecking around contently in my garden. But the reality was very different. They trashed more veggie gardens than I would like to remember, turned the chicken run into a stinky mud pit, attracted rats and snakes and regularly went on egg laying strike.
I was lurching from crisis to crisis. And the most frustrating thing was, I was doing everything "by the book." I was following all the advice passed down on popular chicken forums, blogs and books. I had scrolled through thousands of forum posts and read every popular chicken keeping book out there – and I still didn’t find the solutions I was looking for.
I began to think that chickens simply weren’t worth the hassle. But I stuck with it and I was sure there had to be an easier way.
I started to look at alternative approaches and came across permaculture design. Permaculture is a sustainable and self-sufficient approach to agriculture which mimics the patterns and relationships found in nature. This made me realise that chickens are way easier and more productive, if you understand and work with their natural behaviours, rather than against them.
One of the key approaches in permaculture design is to observe and understand natural ecosystems so that you can replicate them in your backyard. In a natural ecosystem, each element serves multiple purposes and compliment each other (they are team players), so that the system as a whole is a lot more productive than its individual parts. As a very simple example, here’s how trees and animals support each other:
Observing the natural environment of chickens sounds simple enough. But here’s the thing - have you ever heard of wild chickens? Well that’s because Modern domesticated chickens don’t exist in the wild. Because of this, I had to delve back further to Junglefowl, which is the chickens’ immediate ancestor. But I quickly realised that it’s not that simple. You can’t simply study Junglefowl and assume that everything applies to chickens which were domesticated more than 8,000 years ago. To get a more complete picture, that accounts for the differences between modern chickens and Junglefowl, I extended my research to cover the evolution of chickens and their journey from the Asian jungle to modern factory farming.
- Trees provides shade.
- Animals (such as chickens) take shade in trees
- The animals provide manure as fertilizer, that the tree needs to grow.
I've distilled all this research into 6 principles for happy, healthy backyard chickens.
Here’s what I cover in this post:
*Download this post as an e-book*
- The evolution of chickens, from T-Rex to chicken nugget
- 6 key principles for backyard chicken keeping.
This is a long post (over 5000 words). If you don’t have time to read the whole post now, I’ve got you covered. You can download an e-book (PDF) version of this post, along with a summary of the practical takeaways for backyard chickens. www.patchtotable.com/primal-chickens-lessons
1. The evolution of chickens, from T-Rex to chicken nugget
Before I jump into the 6 lessons for backyard chickens, I’ll start by setting the scene with a brief history and evolution of the humble chicken. The humble chicken that has spread from the south east asian jungle to conquer the world - with a population today of almost 19 billion chickens (or three chickens per person).
Junglefowl - The chicken’s immediate ancestor
Jason Thompson - Flickr: Red Junglefowl
You can go round and round in circles with the chicken and egg argument (clearly the chicken came first) but the science has uncovered some pretty amazing facts about the origins of the chicken. Domestic chickens can be traced back to Red Junglefowl, from South East Asia and India. But if we go back even further, it turns out that chickens are the closest living relative of the T-Rex.
Researchers have even studied how chickens move to learn more about how the T-Rex moved and stood - by strapping a fake dinosaur tail to the chickens.
To me this makes a lot of sense. If you've ever seen chickens hunting down insects or going nuts for scraps of meat - they do look a lot like little meat eating dinosaurs.
Junglefowl only lay about 10-20 eggs per year.
Junglefowl have small and lean bodies. This is what makes them good flyers compared to domestic chickens and better able to escape predators.
Domestication and family farming (1900s to 1950)
Junglefowl were domesticated more than 10,000 years ago. However, during most of this time, chickens were domesticated for cock fighting and religious purposes.
In 2004, a map of the chicken genome was completed, which has enabled a better understanding of the genetic differences between Junglefowl and domesticated chickens. Despite significant physical differences between domesticated chicken and red Junglefowl, its interesting that studies show that the genetic variation is actually pretty small. However two important mutations have been identified:
Research has found that these genetic mutations began to emerge about 1000 AD in the European Middle Ages, which coincided with increased urbanisation and more efficient farming practices.
- Broilers (breeds raised for meat): Mutations in the gene TBC1D1 which regulates glucose metabolism. In humans, mutations in this gene cause obesity. In chickens, this mutation has been used as a positive trait for faster growing and more meaty chickens.
- Layers (breeds raised to produce a lot of eggs): Mutations in the TSHR gene (thyroid-stimulating hormone receptor). This gene restricts breeding to specific seasons based on the length of days. Mutations in this gene enable chickens to breed (and lay eggs) all year long.
Despite this, an appreciation for the efficiency of feed utilisation only began to emerge in the early 1900's. At this time the US population depended on home gardens for a large amount of their food. This came to more than 18 million gardens. And many of these gardens included backyard chickens, which made up the majority of egg production at the time. Self sufficiency and home gardens were especially encouraged during WW2 to prevent food shortages.
In small scale family farms and home gardens, chickens were kept mainly for eggs. Because of poor nutrition (due to a lack of knowledge) and less specialised breeds, chickens laid about 100 to 150 eggs a year.
Chicken meat was a delicacy that was only eaten on special occasions. Chickens were butchered only when their egg laying years were done. These chickens were not as big as the modern day chickens that are bred specifically for meat (broilers).
With the Industrial revolution in the 1950’s, there was a massive shift away from home gardens and family run farms, to industrial factory farming. This included the poultry industry, which transformed chickens into a protein producing commodity
Recent Industry stats according to the United States Dietary Association (USDA):
- Egg laying Industry: the average number of egg laying chickens in 2016 was 365 million, with 102 billion eggs laid at a value of roughly $6.5 billion.
- Chicken meat (broiler) industry: 8.9 billion chickens slaughtered in 2016, with a total live weight of 54.9 billion pounds and a value of $25.9 billion dollars. This amounts to about 90 pounds of chicken per person on average in 2016 (National Chicken Council), compared to 28 pounds per person in 1960 (roughly 1/3 of the current consumption).
Herbruck's Poultry Ranch which houses 6 million laying hens: Sourced from Google maps
Factory farms have developed a specialised breed for egg production. These egg laying chickens produce around 300 eggs per year. This is:
- 15 times more than the Junglefowl (20 per year)
- 2 x more than small scale farms in the 1950s (150 a year)
Modern farming has developed a specialised breed which focuses on meat production (broilers). The turning point for meat chickens came in 1948, when a contest was held by a supermarket chain for the “Chicken of Tomorrow.” Two of the winning breeds were crossed to become the meat chicken breed that now dominates the genetic stock of chickens worldwide.
The modern day broiler is more than twice as “efficient” (food intake compared to weight gain) and grows around 4 times faster than the Junglefowl.
Its seems like mother nature has a cruel sense of humour, with the mighty T-Rex evolving into tasty chicken nuggets.
With factory farming, deceptive advertising has kept the perception that eggs from the supermarket come from chickens raised in good conditions, on family owned farms.
But recently, more and more people are becoming aware of the realities of factory farming. And they are taking action, which is causing a resurgence in backyard chickens.
Chickens make great pets and you have complete control over how they are raised and what goes into them. Eggs from backyard chickens are way more nutritious, taste better, are free from chemicals and contaminants and have a positive impact on the environment rather than a negative one. And chickens will turbo charge your vegetable patch, providing free manure and organic bug control.
Egg laying rates from backyard chickens vary a lot depending on the breed of chicken kept. Use of ‘complete’ grain based feed and more specialised egg laying breeds mean that egg laying rates are much higher than they were in the early 1900s. Typically backyard chickens will lay 200 to 250 eggs per year. But egg laying drops a lot after the first 2 years, which is when commercial egg layers are ‘replaced’ to maintain high rates of productivity. However, backyard chickens are usually kept for pets as much as the eggs, which means they are not replaced after 2 years and egg laying drops off significantly.
It’s a lot less common for backyard chickens to be kept for meat, because it’s more difficult and more confronting to have to kill and pluck a chicken yourself.
Heritage breeds and the use of ‘complete’ grain based feed allow for good growth rates, without the health problems that come with factory farmed broilers.
6 Lessons for Backyard Chickens
From observing the evolution of chickens and how their needs and behaviours have changed, I’ve learnt 6 important lessons that you can apply to backyard chicken keeping:
Lesson 1. Habitat: Instead of grass lawns - provide trees, plants and mulch
Lesson 2. Flock Size: A small flock of 2 to 5 chickens is ideal
Lesson 3. Behaviour: Keep your chickens physically and mentally active
Lesson 4. Diet: Supplement grain with as much foraged food as possible (leaves, vegetables, fruit and insects / animal protein).
Lesson 5. Threat from predators: Choose alert breeds, provide secure coops, use fencing and include plenty of trees and shrubs for natural protection.
Lesson 6. Health: Worming, dust bathing and a stress free environment
As the name suggests, Junglefowl live in the jungles of south east Asia and India. They prefer relatively open spaces that allow them to walk among the plants and deep leaf litter, with an understory of tall plants and shrubs that provide concealment and protection.
They also tend to be found in areas close to water and food sources, such as bamboo, fruit trees, termite mounds and elephant droppings (dung insects).
These areas are often in “secondary forest” with clearings that have been impacted for centuries by slash and burn agriculture.
Family Farms (1900s to 1950s)
Domesticated chickens were kept in backyards and on small farms.
The factory farming approach has dominated because of lower costs and increased productivity. Driven by demands for more and cheaper chicken and eggs, the industry merged into larger and more densely packed commercial farms.
Laying hens are packed so tightly into wire cages that they can’t spread their wings. Meanwhile, meat chickens (broilers) are packed tightly together and grow so quickly that they can hardly move. So rather than wondering outside in the sun, pecking grass and insects, they are stressed out in crammed conditions, in windowless buildings without natural sunlight and breathing in air filled with manure dust.
Photo courtesy of Animals Australia
Instead of grass lawns - provide trees, plants and mulch
When I think of the ideal environment for chickens, I used to think of open fields of grass. Hens foraging over a nice green lawn is a pretty sight and I think this is the image that everyone associates with free range chickens. If you do an image search on google for “free range chickens” or even just “chickens”, the images that come up are all of chickens on green grass paddocks.
Don’t get me wrong, grass is a big step up from metal cages or a muddy chicken run. And sure, chickens do eat grass and get some nutritional benefit.
But the reality is that chickens prefer a habitat similar to the Junglefowl, which has taller and more diverse vegetation. While its not possible or practical to replicate a jungle in our backyard, we can certainly use this as an inspiration and a guide.
Based on this, the ideal environment for chickens should include:
- Trees and shrubs, that provide protection from predators and shade from the elements.
- Lots of leaf litter or mulch, which encourages bugs and insects and which the chickens love to scratch around in. Leaf litter or mulch also helps to absorb and inoculate chicken poop, by turning it into compost.
Junglefowl flocks tend to be small, with one to two males and one to several hens.
Source: A Field Study of Red Junglefowl in North-Central India
Family Farms (1900s to 1950s)
Family farms had small to moderate sized flocks, ranging from a few backyard chickens up to 1000 hens.
Commercial broiler and egg laying facilities can have anywhere from 10,000 to a million chickens under a single roof.
The US egg industry is dominated by roughly 63 companies that each have 1 million-plus hens, controlling more than 85% of production. 15 of these companies have more than 5 million hens.
The largest 3 companies in the broiler industry control almost 50% of production and the top 20 companies account for 96% of production. The largest company is Tyson Foods, which produced 1.74 billion broilers in 2015 (33.41 million broilers per week).
A flock of 2 to 5 chickens is ideal
When I was planning my flock, I was told that chickens are social animals and do best in larger groups of 6 or more chickens. While it's true that chickens are social animals, Junglefowl flocks tend to be small, with one to two males and one to several hens. This means the ideal flock size is smaller than most people think. A flock of 2 to 5 is probably ideal. A small number of chickens also means less stress on your garden from digging, scratching and foraging. And too much manure on a small space can also cause problems.
Junglefowl are most active in mornings and afternoons and spend most of their time foraging for food and water. And they typically have a lot of space to range over, with one study showing that an average flock of 5 chickens had about 12.5 acres (5 hectares). During the middle and hottest part of the day, Junglefowl sleep in the forest, roosting in a tree or a clump of bamboo.
Here’s an example of a typical day’s activity from a study that monitored their movements. You will see that the Junglefowl was active for almost 7 hours of the day. And Junglefowl spend around 90% of the active part of their day in activities associated with foraging for food, especially pecking and scratching at the ground
Source: A Field Study of Red Junglefowl in North-Central India
Family Farms (1900s to 1950s)
Similar to the Junglefowl, free range domesticated chickens are most active in mornings and late afternoons.
Because these chickens live in such crammed conditions, they can’t even stand up straight or flap their wings, let alone forage for food. These conditions cause high amounts of stress, aggression, feather pecking and cannibalism.
Keep your chickens physically and mentally active
Junglefowl are busy foraging for food and water for a large part of the day. But compared to Junglefowl, chickens don’t have to forage to survive. Chickens are provided with grain feed which gives them everything they need. So if they’re not kept physically and mentally stimulated, it’s more likely they’ll get into mischief and cause problems. This can especially be a problem in winter, when chickens spend more time in their coop (that’s where the expression ‘being cooped up’ comes from).
Some of the common issues are feather pecking and bullying of other hens. Chickens are also known for being destructive when left to free range a backyard - digging holes for dust bathing, scratching up lawn, digging up garden beds and pooping on your favourite outdoor furniture.
Egg laying hens in factory farms are an extreme example of this. They’re kept in a cage so small and are so crammed that they can’t move. All they can do all day is eat pellets and lay eggs. Aggression, feather pecking and cannibalism is such a big problem that hens are routinely de-beaked.
There are 3 things that affect the level of activity and behaviour of your chickens.
1. Amount of space provided to the chickens
The more space the better, considering that Junglefowl have 12.5 acres (5 hectares) to range over. More space, will keep your chickens more active. And the impact of their scratching and pecking will be spread over a larger area, which means that plants and grass have time to recover. On the other hand, grass in a small chicken run has no chance of surviving, because all the chicken’s energy will be focused and directed on that one patch of grass and it won’t have any time to recover.
2. The number of chickens kept in the space available
The less chickens in an area, the less problems you'll have. Your chickens won’t treat a crowded coop like a party. Instead they get more agitated and aggressive towards each other.
3. How fun and interesting the environment is for the chickens
To keep your chickens active and out of mischief, the space you provide them needs to be stimulating. An empty dirt chicken run or even an empty grassed area won’t do the job without some extra stimulation. There are lots of ways to keep your chickens entertained – here are a few ideas:
Any interaction with people or change in the environment is stimulating for chickens.
Pellet food is pretty boring and is the equivalent of eating dry biscuits for breakfast lunch and dinner. Chickens instinctively seek out more variety in their food, so can be kept active by giving them lots of different sources of food. They will forage on plants and insects in your backyard and will gobble down any tasty treats or kitchen scraps you give them. Some variety can be added through:
- Use leaf litter and mulch in your backyard to encourage bugs and insects for chickens to forage on
- Give them access to a range of different leafy plants and grasses
- Use your chickens to turn over your compost piles and let them feast on tasty bugs and worms
- Give them a stump or branch full of bugs and insects. Or you can simply turn an old stump or broken branch so the chickens can get access to the bugs underneath
- Healthy kitchen scraps (avoid any processed foods)
- Hanging vegetables – Hanging up vegetables on a string (such as cabbage) or put vegetables between wire mesh (such as lettuce leaves).
- Treat dispensers –You can buy treat dispensers or make your own.
- Water bottles with holes drilled in it and filled with scratch mix
- Dog treat dispensers repurposed for chickens
- There are also some purpose built treat dispensers you can buy for chickens
- Frozen food blocks also work great, especially on hot days to keep them cool and well hydrated.
Toys are another easy way to keep your chickens entertained. You just need to make sure the toys are hardy and not toxic if they try and peck at them. Here are some ideas:
- Fake mice
- Mirrors (mirrors that can’t break are best)
- A CD on a string (who uses CD’s these days anyway)
- Chicken swings (you can buy these or they are also easy to make)
Junglefowl (like chickens) are omnivores which mean they eat a range of both plant and animal based food. What’s really interesting is that unlike modern day chickens, Junglefowl don’t eat grain. They live in tropical bamboo forests and not grasslands where grains would be available.
The Junglefowl’s diet includes a wide variety of plant and animal based food, which adjusts based on what's available during different seasons. This includes insects, fruits, leaves and some seeds. Some of their favourite food is termites, ants, fruit and bamboo leaves. They also eat bamboo seeds, however these are not regularly available because bamboo plants only flower every 60 years or so. Insects from deep leaf litter and the manure of large grazing animals (e.g. elephants and buffalo) are also an important food source. Succulent fruit provides carbohydrates and supplies part of their water needs in the dry season.
Food from plant sources
Food from animal sources
- Fruit (e.g. papaya, rambutan, palm fruit), which provide carbohydrates for energy and also provide part of their water needs during the dry season
- Leaves and petals
- Immature seeds (especially bamboo seeds when available and croton seeds)
- Roots, tubers and nuts (e.g. tapioca root, palm nut)
Here is an example of the results of one study on the diet of Junglefowl in Thailand and Malaya
- Termites (in one study, over 1000 termites were found in the crop (stomach) of a male Junglefowl)
- Beetles and their grubs
- Small crabs
- Snails - source of calcium
- Lizards and snakes (In one study, a 26cm long snake was found in the crop (stomach) of a male Junglefowl.
Source: Ecology of the red jungle fowl in thailand and malaya with reference to the origin of domestication
As an omnivore, Junglefowl are opportunistic feeders. Junglefowl can adapt their diet and digestive system based on the food available.
Their choice of food is influenced by:
- Seasonal availability of food – They adapt to different foods available at different times of the year.
- Environment – They eat different food based on what’s available in the area. A study of Junglefowl living near agricultural areas found a large amount of rubber nuts and oil palm in their diet (ref)
- Gender - Females eat more protein than male cocks. In one study, more than 30% of the female diet was animal based compared to 11% for males. This is because males need more energy to establish and protect its territory and females require more protein and calcium for egg production.
- Age - Young Junglefowl eat much more protein. Insects (mainly termites) make up more than 50% of their diet.
Source: Food and feeding habits of Red Junglefowl
Family Farms (1900s to 1950s)
In the early 1900’s, there wasn’t good knowledge around on the nutritional needs of chickens and they didn't have the pellet feed we have today. Because of this, the chickens often relied heavily on whatever they could scavenge and forage, usually with some extra handouts of grains and food scraps.
Factory farmed chickens can hardly move let alone forage. Chickens are fed “balanced and complete” grain based pellets. Chicken feed makes up about 60-70% of production costs, and because of this there is a huge focus on least cost rations which means getting the lowest feed cost per egg or gram of meat.
Corn, which is a subsidised commodity in the U.S. is usually the main ingredient alongside soy, wheat, high protein soybean meals (the cheapest source of protein), oil and a vitamin and mineral additive to compensate for the lack of variety and whole foods. As an example, some of the vitamins and minerals added include:
With a focus on high output at a low cost, there is no concern about how healthy or nutritious the eggs and meat are, as long as they look the part on supermarket shelves. This results in eggs and chicken meat that are less nutritious and that have a poor fatty acid profile (a high omega 6 / 3 ratio). The lack of variety in their diet also results in pale coloured egg yolks, which is why manufactured food dyes are added to the feed to ensure the egg yolks are yellow.
- Vitamin D: In a natural environment, sunlight provides chickens with Vitamin D, which is needed to absorb calcium and phosphorous. However in a factory farm environment, Vitamin D is added as a supplement to animal feed which allows chickens to be kept indoors year round.
- Methionine: Because grain and soy is low in Methionine compared to animal based protein, commercial chicken feed uses synthetic Methionine. This makes it possible to feed chickens cheaper vegetable proteins such as soybean meal, while still meeting their daily methionine requirement.
Supplement grain feed with as much foraged food as possible (leaves, vegetables, fruit, insects and animal protein).
A grain based diet is the standard approach to feeding backyard chickens. It comes in a packet from the local pet store and is a "complete" food which means it contains everything a chicken needs to stay healthy. One thing's for sure, it’s definitely convenient and you don’t need to know anything about the nutritional needs of chickens.
This approach to feeding chickens is so ingrained (pardon the pun) and is heavily promoted by pet food companies. The grain based diet is also defended using fear tactics. The message from pet food companies is that chicken feed is scientifically formulated to meet chickens needs with a precise ratio of vitamins, minerals and protein per kilogram of feed. If you feed them yourself using scraps or your own feed formula, your chickens will get sick and die!
Sure, your chickens will get sick if you only feed them white bread and lollies. But is chicken feed really such an exact science? Why is it that people don’t have to eat scientifically formulated feed? The equivalent for people would be a scientifically formulated bread that contains vitamin and mineral additives and being told that “if you eat anything else you will get sick and die.” This might sound ridiculous and far fetched, but the way things are heading I think it’s quite possible we will all be eating vitamin bread in the future.
But the reality is that commercial feed was developed for chickens in a factory farm environment. And it was then adopted for small scale farms and backyard chickens because it's convenient. But the problem is, backyard chickens are clearly different to factory farmed chickens - with different goals and with chickens kept in a completely different environment.
Does a chicken that eats grass and crickets out in the sun have the same needs as a chicken locked indoors without access to sunlight? They certainly don’t need vitamin D if they are outdoors all day. While commercial chicken feed has demonstrated to be very effective at maximising output, it doesn’t provide the diverse range of whole food necessary to maximise the nutritional value of eggs or support a long and healthy life.
It seems to me that the environment that the Junglefowl lives in has more in common with backyard chickens, which also means it’s a better indicator of their ideal diet. And because chickens are omnivores - their diet doesn't have to be replicated precisely. Chickens have adaptable digestive systems, which means food that would from the jungle can be replaced with food more easily available in modern homes (such as kitchen scraps), as long as they meet their nutritional needs.
However, it's also important to keep in mind that:
Based on this, I think it's likely to be difficult to meet the chickens’ nutrient needs through foraging and kitchen scraps alone. For this reason, using a complete grain based food in their diet is an easy and convenient way to ensure your chickens key nutritional needs are met.
- Modern domesticated breeds lay 15-20 times more eggs and grow at 4 times the rate of the Junglefowl. This means that their nutrient needs are a lot higher.
- It's a big ask to replicate the diversity of food available in the jungle.
A more practical goal is to supplement grain feed with as much foraged food as possible. This will improve the diversity and amount of whole food in your chickens’ diet through foraging, food scraps and supplements such as shell grit.
So specifically, what do I recommend?
The benefits of this approach are:
- Provide your chickens with a grain based complete food as a core part of their diet, to ensure key nutrients are being provided.
- Grain feed can then be supplemented as much as possible by a diverse range of food, using the diet of the Junglefowl as a guide. This can include:
- Forage - fruit trees, plants and deep leaf litter / mulch which will encourage more insects and bugs over time.
- Food scraps - fruit, leafy greens and meat scraps are useful additions to a chicken’s diet
- Bugs and insects - Extra sources of animal protein as a substitute for the termites and ants eaten by Junglefowl. This can include mealworms, garden worms, solider flies, maggots. Some of these can be purchased from pet stores such as dried mealworms and frozen crickets. With a little bit of effort, they can also be farmed at home.
- Supplements - Because calcium is so important for egg laying, it helps to provide an extra source of calcium in their diet. Snails are one of the main sources of calcium in the jungle - which can be substituted with shell grit or something similar.
Threats from predators
- Less reliance on expensive grain based feed
- Eggs which are way more nutritious
- Healthy, happy chickens that are less likely to get sick
Some of the predators that are a threat to Junglefowl include cats, jackals, hawks, eagles, owls, monitor lizards and snakes. Junglefowl protect themselves through:
Family Farms (1900s to 1950s)
- Being alert: When Junglefowl are in their natural environment, they are extremely alert and wary of threats from predators. Calls are used to alert of potential threats. Alarms from other birds and animals are also used to detect threats from predators.
- Coloration: Their coloration matches their environment, which makes them more difficult for predators to detect.
- Cover: Foliage and trees provide cover for Junglefowl to hide in.
- Flying: Junglefowl are strong fliers. They have been seen more than 60 feet up in trees to avoid predators.
Domesticated chickens are generally more protected from predators than Junglefowl, within barns and fences. However, there are still threats from local predators such as foxes and hawks.
There is no threat from predators in a factory farm, as they are usually locked indoors in big cages or large barns. And because selective breeding has focused on maximising growth rates and egg production in an environment where there is no threat from predators, these breeds are docile and poor flyers. When it comes to broilers (meat chickens) they are so big and fat that they can barely stand up at 8 weeks of age let alone fly.
Choose alert breeds, provide secure coops, use fencing and include plenty of trees and shrubs for natural protection
Selective breeding and domestication of chickens means they are a lot less alert and wary than Junglefowl. They also can’t fly as well to get away from predators. To compensate for this, domestic chickens must be kept secure and safe from predators.
Some actions you can take where predators are a problem:
- Choose heritage breeds which are known for being more alert and good flyers.
- Consider the colour of the chickens you get and how well they will blend into their environment. White colours are likely to be a lot more visible to predators.
- Provide secure coops that are locked at night.
- Use fencing, mobile tractors and built shelters for free range areas and open spaces such as grass paddocks
- Add natural cover and protection by planting trees and shrubs. This aims to recreate the cover and protection provided by the Asian jungle. You can also use fallen braches to create extra cover and perches.
Junglefowl are sometimes infested with internal and external parasites such as round worms, ticks, mites and lice.
They take regularly dust baths to remove parasites and keep their feathers healthy.
Family Farms (1900s to 1950s)
A lack of understanding of nutrition and good sanitation meant that chickens in the 1900s were a lot more prone to internal and external parasites, disease and death.
Chickens in factory farms are stressed from crammed conditions and suffer pain from de-beaking. As a result they have a compromised immune system and require regular antibiotics to prevent and treat disease.
Meat chickens (broilers) grow so fast that by 8 weeks of age they can hardly stand up and commonly suffer from heart conditions.
Worming, dust bathing and stress free
Internal and external parasites are a problem in Junglefowl as well as domestic chickens. While a healthy diet, clean environment and natural supplements might help, treatments such as worming medication and insect powder are the most effective way of dealing with this problem.
Provide an area for dust bathing which helps chickens dislodge external parasites and keep their feathers healthy. It can simply be a dusty corner of your backyard. Or you can fill an old tyre, bucket or bin with dirt for them to dust bathe freely. Providing an area for dust bathing will help discourage your chickens from creating their own holes in your lawn for dust bathing.
Chickens raised in a stress-free environment are much less likely to get sick and will lay eggs more consistently. That’s why it’s important to avoid or eliminate anything that could be causing your chickens stress. Some key things to consider:
- Space / density: Keep right number of chickens for the space available to avoid stress and hygiene issues. Low density means there is less stress and less likelihood of spreading disease.
- Protection from the elements: Provide protection from the sun, wind and cold and avoiding a damp or muddy environment.
- Other pets: Constant harassment from other pets (especially dogs) can be an ongoing cause of stress, which can impact their health and egg laying.
The origins and evolution of chickens offers a unique insight into their ideal diet, lifestyle and environment. While its not possible to re-create a jungle in your backyard, its the perfect inspiration and guide for better managing your chickens. In this post I've shared my 6 key takeaways for backyard chickens. If you want to get started with primal chickens, get the primal chickens checklist + the e-book version of this post: www.patchtotable.com/primal-chickens-lessons
Primal Chickens – 6 chicken keeping secrets from the evolution of chickens
Recent User Reviews
- 5/5, 5 out of 5, reviewed Oct 17, 2018
A well presented article that encompasses much of my own philosophy on keeping chickens. This article should have a much higher rating. Unfortunately, like many of the good but not medical articles here it isn’t what many backyard chicken keepers want to hear.
Small flocks and single breed chicken keepers are in the minority.
Not many true back yard chicken keepers have the space to allow ‘natural’ behaviour from their chickens. However, to point out that most of the problems they have with chicken health and behaviour is because of the way the chickens are kept goes against the site’s interests in promoting chickens as fun and pets.
"Great info, well laid out and easy to take it."
- 5/5, 5 out of 5, reviewed Apr 28, 2018
Excellent info, especially regarding diet and adaptability. So much info out there (especially in the UK, where it's illegal to feed animal produce) is basically USE ONLY SHOP BOUGHT FEEDS! DO NOT DEVIATE! DO NOT PASS GO!! But this article has taken out some of the fear of trying to supplement to save money, and make life a bit more fun for the chucks.
"Thanks from another permaculturist"
- 5/5, 5 out of 5, reviewed Apr 27, 2018
Thanks for the article. I had already known and followed a lot of this info, but it is always good to read to see if you can come up with additional info/ideas. And I'm happy to say that you've triggered one very good idea to improve my setup. I have 3 girls and one of the problems I've had to deal with is where they've been doing most of their dust-bathing: In the soft soil around a new fruit tree, exposing and damaging some of the roots.
I'm going to put in a small fence to protect that tree, but that doesn't eliminate the need/desire for an open dust-bath area. Instead, I'm going to put a tire under an established tree for dust-bathing. That should keep them from destroying another area and also provide good cover.
FYI- I agree that fewer birds are a positive when it makes sense. My three are in a chicken tractor that I move every two days for 9 months and park for 3 months. For most of the year, they can forage while in the tractor, pooping and partly eating the plants. I found that moving them every two days means that they don't kill the plants and the area grows back and is at least as healthy as the surrounding area after 2-3 weeks (depending mostly on precipitation). In the winter, they get to compost my leaves. This helps me, but also gives them something more interesting to play around in during the cold/dreary days than bare dirt.