There are many different types of domesticated poultry, and each offers its own unique qualities to a homestead. Before addressing the individual species that we have and know, we’ll deal with some of the things they have in common.
Over the years, we have had a lot of problems with predators. We’ve lost track of the amount of birds that have disappeared, leaving only a pile of feathers. Neighborhood dogs and cats can be a problem in some areas, but for us, coyotes are our biggest threat. Not to mention fox, skunks, hawks, owls, wild cats, raccoons and anything else that eats meat! Most poultry are easy prey because they sleep soundly, and are just sitting there for the taking during the night. Furthermore, many poultry don’t fly too well, or run very fast for that matter. They have poor night vision which makes them even easier to catch at night.
We have had to revise our free-ranging methods. We do let our birds out in the day, but only between about 10 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon. The enclosures we then shut them into have tall fences, with electric fence all the way around the base on the outside.
Other guard-animals are also a great idea. Dogs help, but so do ones that sleep near the birds, like pigs, donkeys, and even goats. These larger animals are more formidable to predators and are usually far more alert, even when sleeping.
Motion sensor lights are also great. They can scare off a predator and wake up some of the animals. All you need if for one of them to call out, and that can bring the dogs or humans.
We have also worked on our perimeter fence, making it electric all the way around. We want to eventually have spiny, thick plants around the whole thing as an extra barrier to cross. This will take years to accomplish, but we have made a start and will continue to increase it every year.
Since implementing these added security measures, we have not suffered any losses. That’s not to say it won’t happen again, but we have learned how to avoid or minimize the threats.
The vast majority of poultry need a roost to sleep on. They evolved to sleep in trees or off the ground, for added protection, and they retain those impulses in domestication. If you do not provide a roost, they will likely seek one out, sometimes in a place that you would rather they not be (like on the roof).
A roost can be very simple to build. Just a few posts tied together to make a ladder-like contraption will work. You can either have it leaning up against a wall, or in an A-frame. You can also use a tree if one is convenient.
Adding a little shelter to the roost is not a bad idea. It will help offer protection from the wind and rain, and keep your birds more comfortable.
Shade is compulsory for poultry. We have seen little effect of the cold on our birds, but the heat can bother them. Without somewhere cool to go, your birds will often pluck out their feathers in an attempt to cool down, and then their skin will become raw.
It doesn’t take much to make an adequate shade. Just some shade cloth stretched out between posts, or a roof of some kind. If you have trees, include them in your pens. If not, think about planting some fast growing ones.
Most domesticated poultry do not use water to wash. Instead, they take dust baths. This is an important thing to include in your pens. Not only will it keep them clean and encourage preening, it will also help with many of the bugs that can bother them.
We have sand pits for the poultry, but we also dump out the ash from our Rocket Mass Heater into their area. Ash is particularly good in removing pests from their skin.
Diatomaceous Earth is another great additive to your dust baths. It is completely harmless to larger animals, and can even be consumed by pregnant animals as a de-wormer. However, to small creatures, it is like walking over broken glass.
You should include an area where the poultry can lay eggs.
We made a movable coop. It is basically a covered hoop house on wheels, with roosting area near the ladder entrance and lay boxes at the back that can be accessed from the outside. The chickens that live in the pen where it is always lay in there, which makes it easy to collect their eggs.
Best to keep your chickens penned up for a while when you get them, so that they learn that their coop is home. With free-rangers, they will start laying all over the place, and getting attached to their coop will help avoid or delay this.
Guineas and quail are far harder to train. They tend to make their nests where the vegetation will hide them. The best way to collect their eggs is to watch where they go and then look for their nests. Once you find the eggs, leave one or to in there, so that they continue to lay in their “safe” place.
Poultry are omnivores. This means that they would naturally eat a mixture of plants and meat. Although each type of poultry requires a different amount of protein in their diet, they do all need basically the same things.
Most people give their birds scratch (grains) and then lay pellets for the required protein. However, it is best not to ignore the fact that they relish blood. Most poultry are viscous hunters, basically little dinosaurs. They will even peck at a fellow bird if it has an open wound, so be sure to remove any bleeding animal from the group until it is FULLY healed.
We give our birds some scratch, but also worms, BSF, kitchen scraps and even some viscera from other animals (like rabbits). We find it best to feed their carnivorous tendencies where possible. This also greatly reduces your feed bill and increases egg production.
Poultry also need grit in order to be able to grind up their food. So long as they have access to dirt or sand, they will sort that out for themselves.
For any bird laying eggs, calcium is an important supplement. There are many plants that contain high levels of calcium (like prickly pear), so find out what you have locally.
Poultry love running water. When it rains here and little streams appear, our birds will not touch their waterers. However, except during rain season, running water for the pleasure of our birds is not practical in our area.
If you provide pools or basins of water for drinking, the birds will usually soil them, especially ducks.
We have found that the best way to provide clean water is through poultry nipples. The bird pecks at the dangling part and water comes out. This is the method we use for our chickens, guineas, ducks and quail, and they all adapted effortlessly.
Chickens are probably the first animals that people will get going on their homestead, mostly for their eggs. They also produce meat and help with pest control. Their specialty is scratching, which makes them excellent for controlling maggots and anything else that moves in the soil. They integrate well into the manure cycles of other animals, making sure that the manure remains bug free.
We use our chickens in conjunction with compost piles. They keep the piles bug-free and then spread the compost out in an area whose soil you wish to be enriched. Be warned that chickens are not a good fit for your garden. Not only will they scratch around in the beds, uprooting plants, but they will also eat your produce.
Chickens require between 14 and 20% protein in their diet. The higher end of the scale is for growing chicks. Roosters also need high protein if they are servicing a lot of hens. Laying hens come in about the middle, with grown chicks (before they start to lay) taking up the lower end of the scale.
Chickens will incubate their eggs for 20 or 21 days. 10 or 12 eggs is a good number for a large hen, but reduce that number slightly for a chicken like a Banty. Banties are great for setting nests, but they are smaller than a normal chicken.
If you see a chicken setting a nest, you can add eggs under her. There’s a nice little trick if you want to know what sex the chicks will be. It’s not 100% effective, but pretty close. Look at the egg. If it end comes to a point, it’s likely a rooster. If the egg is rounded, it’s probably a hen.
We first added chickens to our family when we were living in Texas. A lady in town called us one day and said that she was moving out of the area in a few days and hadn’t found a home for her chickens, did we want them? We’d talked about getting chickens one day, so without hesitating we said yes, we’d be there in a day or so to pick them up.
At the time, we didn’t have much of a scrap materials pile, nor did we have any inclination to drive 60 miles to the hardware store. So we improvised. We went to a local dumping ground. We found an old, metal cistern, which, once we’d cut out a door and vent, became the coop. Scrap lumber, tin and chicken wire formed the walls of the pen, and for the roof we used sheep wire and sotol sticks. With a couple of days and no money, we had a fully functional chicken set-up.
We have since moved, and though we had a whole new homestead to build, chickens was one of the first things we set up. To go back to eating store bought eggs was just not an option.
Guineas are about as low maintenance as poultry gets. They fly well, roost high and roam far. They are wilder in nature than chickens, and are not such easy targets for predators. They will even turn and attack a predator. One time, a road runner got into our garden (we had the gate open so that the guineas could clean out any bugs before we started spring planting). The guineas saw him, and moved in to attack. They encircled him, each one attacking and then moving back to let another go in. I had to chase them off and then took the road runner to safety – he was so traumatized, he let me pick him up and hold him, which was wonderful for me.
Even though guineas need a fairly high percent protein (24-26% for the babies, as low as 16% for adults), they do not need you to provide it for them. We give ours a little scratch, especially in winter, but it’s to keep them tame, not out of necessity. The fact is that they are excellent hunters. They do not scratch for bugs, but rather catch them as they move. Their specialty is things like grasshoppers.
We use our guineas primarily as perimeter bug patrol. They wander all over the property and make sure that hardly any bugs even reach the garden. We have previously had plagues of insects wipe out our gardens, but not since we got guineas.
They don’t produce as many eggs as chickens, for they will only lay once it gets warm. The eggs are slightly smaller than chicken eggs, but the taste is almost exactly the same. They say that guineas aren’t very good mothers, and it’s certainly true that they can’t compare to ducks or chickens. They tend to demonstrate a “tough love” attitude, taking their chicks all over and not worrying too much if they’re not keeping up. However, we have had one hen produce four batches of chicks in a year, not bad considering the incubation period is 27-28 days. We had a great survival rate, mainly because we put the mama and chicks into a closed pen, where she had to look after them. Be warned though, while we can pick up our chickens’ babies without the hens ever worrying about us, our guinea hens have flown at us with claw and beak ready if we even look sideways at her babies!
When you get prolific mothers, you will find yourself suddenly overrun with guineas. There is an easy fix to this: eat them. They are very tasty, not as mild as chicken, but guineafowl recipes are a treat. Guinea meat is often marketed as “game hen”.
There are two main disadvantages to guineas. One is that they are harder to keep enclosed. Because they can fly so well, not many fences will keep them in. In most circumstances, you want them to free-range, so that they can feed themselves. However, you don’t want mothers setting nests out of a protected area, as they become very easy targets. If you want to keep a nesting female safe, you will have to clip her wings.
The other main drawback is that they are noisy. The first time we got guineas, we ended up with all females. Without a male, they seemed to consider us one of them and would run up to greet us whenever we went outside. They then followed us everywhere, screeching as we walked. They’re not as bad now that we have males, but they’re still noisier than our other poultry.
Once guineas are older you can tell the males form the females, as they have larger dangly wattles below their beaks. However, in a young bird, the only way to tell is through their call. Only the females have a two syllable call; the males’ call is just one syllable
Quail are a delight to have around the place. They are small, delicate, quiet and beautiful.
They can fly very well, so most people keep them in cages. They like to have something that they can hide in, like vegetation, as they are a lot shyer than most poultry.
To produce eggs each day, they need high protein, from 25-30%. Regular lay pellets will not work, so you’ll need to give them either non-medicated chick starter or game bird feed. However, best of all are small bugs like mealworms or young earthworms.
Given the right feed and light (they need 14 hours of light or more), they will lay prolifically. The incubation period for quail is between 16 and 18 days. However, the ability to nest and raise their own young has been almost completely bred out of them.
When we first got quail, we kept them in a cage beneath the rabbits, thinking they would be able to pick out any maggots that appeared in the manure. As it turns out, they are not very good at scratching through the dirt. They would scratch only the surface, not getting into the deeper parts where fly eggs were laid. This ineffectual scratching gave us the idea that they might be good in the garden. We moved them into the garden fence to try out our theory. Two wonderful things happened, one planned, one unforeseen.
First of all, they did not destroy the garden beds. They would take shallow dust baths in the beds, but not enough to harm anything. And the only plants they ate were seedlings, which we countered by shutting off beds that had small plants in them until they got a little bigger.
The second benefit of their new location was that they started to hatch eggs. Maybe because they were relatively free and could hide their nests, or perhaps the added protein of garden bugs, or even just the presence of dirt in their habitat. Whatever the reason, they got back in touch with their instincts. We know of no one else that has produced baby quail naturally, and it was a great source of pride, not to mention affirmation that we were doing something right.
Muscovy ducks are not like other domesticated ducks. They are native to Mexico and Central America, and have several qualities that make them superior. They are larger, quieter, do not require water like most other ducks do, and are not as placid in the face of predators. Many permaculturists seek out these birds to be part of their homesteads.
It is also said that their meat tastes like sirloin steak. As we write this, we have not yet tried the meat. It took us a long time to find Muscovies in our area, and even longer to find a male. Now that we have a drake and three females, we are hoping that they will soon start producing ducklings, as it gets warmer.
Muscovies require about 15-20% protein. They do not seem to scratch in the dirt much, but are pretty good at catching things like flies out of the air. They will also keep any water you have free of mosquito larva.* They are said to be excellent mothers, and can raise several batches of babies in a year. Incubation period is 35 days, longer than most other poultry.
One disadvantage with all ducks is that they’re messy. Just like most birds, their manure is mixed with the urine, which makes it wet. However it seems to be a lot wetter and splatters more than other birds.
If you’re interested in our Muscovy experimentation, stay tuned to the blog, where we will give updates of the ducklings we hope to have.