What You Need To Know When House Sitting With Chickens
Have you noticed how many people are keeping chickens these days? A house sit almost anywhere in the world could have 3 or 4 laying chickens that fall under your care.
Since we’ve been back in the UK this year we’ve looked after more than 20 hens, and during our time in Australia we cared for even more. We have a bit of a soft spot for these entertaining birds, having kept our own hens and cockerels, while living on our small island home in Bocas del Toro, Panama.
A couple of times we helped prolific mum “Gina” raise her chicks (see above). It is so rewarding to see them grow, eventually to become fine roosters, or productive egg-laying hens. Ian was affectionately known as “Chicken Man”, because of his fondness for naming them – something unheard of among the local indigenous Indian community!
So we are always pleased when we discover that there are chickens to look after at our house sits.
Are You a Prepared Chicken Sitter?
Caring for hens and cockerels is second nature to us, but for many, it’s an aspect of “pet” care not fully understood. But with a bit of knowledge, and plenty of information from your home owners, you’ll be able to cope with ease.
And the eggs you’ll collect will likely be the best you’ve ever tasted!
To help get your started, here’s what we will be talking about in this article:
- Securing Chickens at Night
- Letting Out in the Morning
- Feeding Your House Sit Chickens (Layer Feeds & Green Food)
- The Importance of Water
- Keeping Things Clean (The Chicken House & Run)
- Collecting the Eggs
- Enjoying Your Chickens
Securing Chickens at Night
Keeping the chicken coop safe from night-time predators is a concern for all chicken owners. Animals like foxes can be a threat whether you live in an urban, suburban or rural area.
In Australia where chickens (aka “chooks”) are often present at house sits, other predators such as snakes or possums also pose a threat to the coop. So the safest course of action is to shut the chickens away at night, when they return home to roost.
Chickens will usually put themselves to bed at dusk, or even just before. So the best time to close up the coop is just after darkness falls. Make sure you’ve got a good torch for checking that all the birds are in the hen house, and there are no strays hidden around the garden! A quick head count usually confirms that all are present and correct.
As a chicken sitter, make sure you are shown the chicken coop, where the birds sleep, where they lay their eggs, and all of the different ways of securing the coop and hen house. Ask for clarification about anything you don’t fully understand.
Letting Out in the Morning
Your chickens will need to be let out in the morning, often at first light. Some hen houses have secure internal runs and even doors that open automatically, allowing you a bit of a lie in!
However, if you have a cockerel, a lie in is unlikely, as you’ll probably find yourself woken early in the morning by their loud piercing calls!
An automatic door opener and closer is a bonus, but chickens should still be checked at least once a day to make sure that all is well. They can get sick very quickly and a sick hen is likely to be attacked by the others, so regular inspections are essential.
You’ll also need to make sure your chickens have fresh food and plenty of water.
Feeding Your House Sit Chickens
Make sure your home owners leave good instructions about what to feed, how often and where they usually scatter the feed in the coop or garden. You may find that food is placed in hopper feeders, or just thrown around the coop.
We used to feed scraps, but this is generally discouraged now because they can attract rats or other pests. In the UK use of kitchen scraps has now been banned by DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs).
a) Layer Feed & Protein
We’ve found, especially in the UK, that many owners use a mix of layer feed pellets along with wheat or corn. Layer feeds are designed to provide optimum nutrition for birds laying eggs (“layers”) for consumption, contain about 16% protein and have increased levels of calcium, to aid proper shell development. They are usually used starting around 18 weeks of age, or when the first egg is laid, whichever comes first. Before this time “grower feed” is usually given.
Chickens require protein for growth, and to produce their feathers and eggs. Chickens stop laying eggs when they moult, as the protein levels are diverted from egg production to feather production, so this is a time when you might have to adjust the protein levels. Eggs are made of around 80% protein so if there’s a shortage of protein in the diet, egg laying will be the first thing that your girls cut back on.
In winter months in colder climates some less commercial breeds of chicken stop laying as well.
b) Green Food
Chickens need a good amount of green food – this might come in the form of grass and weeds. But you might find yourself feeding off-cuts from cabbages, cauliflowers and other green vegetables.
We’ve been to sits where we’ve also had to feed chopped up lettuce or other greens on a daily basis too. Although you’ll often see lettuce supplied, it does have very little nutritional value for hens. It is also worth noting that avocados are poisonous to hens.
It really can vary, so just add the topic of chicken feeding routines to your list of questions for the owner at the handover.
The Importance of Water
Many homeowners don’t include information about water in their welcome guides – because it seems obvious and you’ll maybe see a number of water containers around the coop. But water is key to the well-being of chickens, so here are a few things you should know.
Water needs to be fresh: if you leave it in a container for a few days before replacing, it will start to go stagnant and turn green. Then it becomes full of bacteria and can be harmful. This water is different to drinking fresh rain water out of a muddy pool.
Changing water daily or every-other day is easy enough and if you rinse the container out, you can use a small washing up brush to remove any nasty build-up.
If you are in a hot country you’ll need to keep water in the shade during the day, and possibly top it up more often if there’s any evaporation. Chickens can’t handle heat well as they don’t sweat, so they use drinking water to cool themselves down.
If you experience an unexpected heat wave in an otherwise cooler country, and there isn’t any natural shade, try to find something that will provide some protection from the sun and add extra water containers with cool water (you can check this periodically).
Likewise in extreme cold periods make sure their water isn’t frozen in the mornings. Break any ice so that they can get to their much needed water source.
Water containers come in many shapes, sizes and designs. Some are galvanised, others plastic.
Keeping Things Clean
Depending on the length of your house sit, you may need to perform some cleaning – both the chicken house and the run will need regular maintenance.
1) Cleaning the chicken house
This is usually a weekly job but once again, ask your home owners, as it might be less or more often. Follow your nose, and if the coop starts to smell of ammonia, a clean-out is well overdue!
Ammonia is produced by stale droppings, and will affect your chickens’ delicate respiratory systems. They do most of their droppings at night, so cleaning-out is a job that shouldn’t be neglected. If you keep on top of things and are well organised, it needn’t take very long.
You’ll need a bucket, shovel, scraper, a brush and some heavy duty rubber gloves. If this is something you’ll need to do, ask the homeowners where this is all kept. You can also get advice from them about how often they clean as it will depend on the climate, environment, and season.
The weekly clean will involve removing and replacing all the bedding, including in the nest-boxes. Any unsoiled nest box material can be re-used on the hen-house floor. Scrape off any dried on droppings from the house including the droppings boards and perches.
Sometimes a poultry disinfectant powder is used on damp patches, but in fine weather you can leave all the doors open for a couple of hours for airing.
Piles of grey dust (like cigarette ash) are a sign of red mites – and this will need treating. It’s good to ask if there have been any problems in the past if you are on a long sit, so you can prepare yourself.
Once cleaning is complete, you can lay fresh nesting material and a layer of bedding. Put the perches and droppings boards back and apply any mite treatment (if applicable). A lot of people swear by “Diatomaceous Earth” for the prevention of red mite.
2) Cleaning the chicken run
If the chickens are in a static run that isn’t moved around it can easily become a haven for disease, especially in the droppings, so it’s important to regularly clear the chicken poop.
This is best done in dry weather when you can rake the droppings more easily. Sometimes the ground below needs to be sanitized – your home owner should inform you about this.
I don’t like the dust produced, especially in hot seasons in Australia, so a mask could be a good addition to your cleaning regime, if you have any sensitivity.
For more information about red mites and lice, this website has a lot of information:
This might be a once a day or twice a day task. Check with the home owner to see how they store their eggs to keep the oldest eggs as used first.
You’ll find in the UK and Australia that eggs aren’t always refrigerated (depending on season), so don’t be shocked to see a bucket full of eggs on the kitchen counter!
Enjoy your chickens while house sitting
In terms of house sitting, there probably isn’t much else you would need to know when looking after just a few chickens. It’s more about asking the homeowners what needs doing, especially for sits of more than two weeks, and who you can contact in the event of any problems.
If you get a glut of eggs, it’s also worth asking if there are neighbours that normally take or buy the extras – something easily forgotten at handover.
Having fresh daily eggs is such a nice luxury – the taste is so different to shop bought commercially produced eggs – so don’t be nervous of house sitting with chickens… make sure you check the daily routines and just enjoy the experience!
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