‘Think like a chicken’ and other top tips from a poultry expert

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Keiron Forbes has earned the name ‘Chickenologist’ from travelling around the world helping people to start chicken projects, solving problems with their birds and giving advice on how to understand how chickens behave. He believes that the key to better poultry keeping is understanding how God made chickens and working with their natural instincts and behaviours to get the best out of them. 

The key to better poultry keeping is understanding how God made chickens and working with their natural instincts. Photo: George Cuffley/Tearfund
The key to better poultry keeping is understanding how God made chickens and working with their natural instincts. Photo: George Cuffley/Tearfund

Breeding 

Breeding birds is very complicated and it is best to leave it to specialists. When breeding chickens, you need to consider the characteristics of a whole family of birds, over their whole life cycle, not just choose on the basis of an individual bird. For example, if one bird has good strong eyes and you choose him to breed with your hens, the chicks produced may still have poor eyesight. Breeders will examine whole families of chickens and might know that this bird’s sister actually has poor eyesight. Our star chicken may be a carrier of bad characteristics even though he doesn’t display them himself. 

You may pick a hen who is very productive at laying eggs and assume she will be a good candidate for a breeding programme. Later in her life she may produce eggs with poor shells but you may not have waited long enough to find that out! 

Looking for the cockerel with the nicest plumage is not always the best plan. They may spend lots of their time making sure that their feathers are smooth but very little time mating with the hens. It is better to look for good mating behaviour instead and that cockerel may not have the cleanest feathers. 

Pulling eggs 

For traditional breeds who roam around and do not live in hen houses, you can expect about 150 eggs during a hen’s lifetime. For housed hens, that goes up to 250–300 eggs. This is because by collecting eggs, you trick the chicken into thinking it hasn’t already laid an egg so it lays another one. This technique is called ‘pulling eggs’. If you do not remove the eggs, the hen will simply begin to sit on them, expecting them to hatch. This will make your egg production go down. 

The best looking chickens may not always lay the best eggs or provide the best meat. Photo: Will Boase/Tearfund
The best looking chickens may not always lay the best eggs or provide the best meat. Photo: Will Boase/Tearfund

Editor’s note: click on the link for more details on how to build a hen house and provide nests for your chickens

Chicks becoming ‘layers’ 

Hens that are not native to the tropics naturally begin to lay eggs in the springtime because they know that then there will be food for their chicks. But people like to eat eggs all year round. To make the hens start laying eggs at other times of year, professional rearers play a trick on the chicks. By blocking out the light or using extra lighting (depending on the season) the rearers make it seem like winter by giving the chicks ten hours of light a day. Then after 16 weeks, they add three extra hours of light and the hens think it is spring. Twenty-one days later they will begin to lay eggs. 

Chickens as gifts 

If somebody comes to visit, they often bring a chicken as a gift. But this kind act hides many risks. Often people do not give away their best healthy chicken but instead pick one who is old or ill. Travelling with sick chickens puts the giver and the receiver at risk of becoming ill too. If you receive a chicken as a gift and you are confident it comes from a healthy flock then the best thing to do is to eat it immediately and share it with your guests. If you plan to keep it, do not keep it with your other birds or animals. Instead put it in a pen by itself for three weeks to see if it is healthy. Then you can let it have contact with other birds. 

This article appears in issue 95 of Footsteps magazine, published in September 2014, which is on the topic of poultry keeping. You can read Footsteps online, sign up to receive Footsteps regularly or contact us to order printed copies. 

Keiron Forbes
Keiron Forbes is a poultry nutritionist based in Northern Ireland with 35 years’ experience with poultry worldwide.