I might be unusual, but I don’t have any expectations of going on vacation. My last one was a two-week road trip hauling a Boler trailer through the Rocky Mountains 20 years ago. Since then, a number of factors have impeded me going away: work, pets (dogs and cats), finances and chickens. If I couldn’t take my dog with me I’m sure I’d spend time concerned about her well-being. And for sure I couldn’t take my chickens so I’d definitely worry that something might go wrong in my absence. Bottom-line, I live on an island that was made for postcards and that other folks pay good money to flock to. Staycations have become my way of life.
My coop is set up with an automatic door and the flock is contained in a 30’x40’ pen so it would be relatively easy to go away for a few days and have someone check in to make sure things are going smoothly. Any longer than that I’d be looking at hiring someone with experience. Having to pay for a chicken sitter adds to the cost of a holiday, but if you hire someone you also have higher expectations of their services.
I belong to a number of Facebook chicken groups and routinely come across frantic posts from folks looking for assistance due to a negligent chicken sitter or venting about their experiences with their help. Their stories include sitters who forgot to lock gates or close the coop at night leading to predator attacks; not letting birds out of the coop; not noticing signs of illness or injury; and forgetting to collect the eggs. The latest one involved a sitter who didn’t feed or water the flock for four days and the owner came home to find dead and dying birds. They didn’t share the backstory as to what happened, but I can’t imagine how the sitter would justify such negligence.
Three years ago my friends, Tracy and Keith went away for ten days. They had a small penned flock and a broody hen sitting on eggs in her own enclosed coop. I asked them to pass on my contact info to the neighbours who were in charge of letting them out and closing them up each day. Sounds simple right? As it turns out the broody hen died on her nest just as the chicks were hatching and the sitters had lost my name and phone number. I found out about the situation from a Facebook post and made a beeline over there. The neighbours were nowhere to be seen. I had to lift the dead hen off her two chicks and remaining unhatched eggs and got them into an incubator. There was a happy ending, but it might not have been so if I hadn’t seen their post.
After reading about these issues I was sparked to offer some suggestions that might increase your chances of having a good experience with a chicken sitter. I might not go on holidays, but I’m a total list maker and have made some observations on how to avoid the mistakes of others.
Sometimes your absence might be due to an emergency and you’re rushed for time. It’s a good idea to have some written notes and some potential chicken sitters lined up in advance, just in case.
- Choose someone who is reliable and competent. They don’t necessarily require experience with chickens, but do need to follow directions and figure out what to do if things go wrong. Beware: if it’s a neighbour or family member and things go sideways it can lead to tension between you later.
- How are you compensating them? Make a clear arrangement: cash, trade and/or eggs.
- Is taking care of your birds part of housesitting or caring for other animals? Most folks are knowledgeable about dogs and cats, but have no experience with chickens. They are not zero maintenance pets and Murphy’s Law, things often go sideways when you least expect, or want, them to.
- Go over your daily routine and where all your supplies are kept prior to your trip.
- Leave clear written instructions with an emergency contact number, and perhaps the link to an online chicken group or website where they can go for help.
- Do you have a vet that deals with chickens? If so, leave contact info.
- If relevant, treat your birds for internal (worms) and external parasites (mites and lice) two weeks before you go away so they’re not an issue while you’re gone.
- Leave the coop clean and the feeders and waterers full as an example on day one.
- Ensure they aren’t scared of your rooster or concerned about hens pecking them when they collect eggs. If they are, work through those issues in advance.
- Emphasize that chickens are vulnerable to changes in the weather, particularly heat stress and frostbite, and offer suggestions for reducing issues.
- Have enough feed to last your entire time away.
- If they have a dog is it trustworthy around birds? If you have a dog does it need to be monitored around your birds? Sadly, dogs are among the worst predators as folks haven’t trained them or don’t expect they will harm chickens.
- Do you have a coop cam that either you or your sitter can use to monitor your flock?
- Food should be available all day and fresh water put out daily. If you expect them to clean the coop explain how you want it done and where all the tools are.
- Are your birds allowed food other than manufactured feed? If so, give a list of what food chickens can and can’t eat.
- Chickens need to be let out first thing in the morning and secured by dusk. I’ve read accounts of sitters who didn’t let them out until later in the day (with no access to water) or decided if the birds were roosting outside they didn’t need to be locked up at night.
- Stress the importance of securing gates and coop doors every time they’re opened.
- If you want your birds to remain penned to avoid predator attacks make it clear that they shouldn’t be free-ranged in your absence.
- If they’re collecting eggs ensure they do so daily. Instruct them on how you want them stored (i.e. washed and put in the fridge or left on the countertop).
- Even with an automatic door chickens should be checked on once a day to ensure they have access to food, fresh water and there are no health issues.
- How should they deal with a predator in the vicinity or, worse, in the coop?
- What should they do if a hen goes broody or chicks hatch?
- What is your directive in case of a health issue? Are you leaving a first aid kit? Would you want them to treat a bird or take it to the vet?
- If a bird needs to be euthanized who will perform that service?
I wish you all stress-free vacations. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and planning ahead for the care of your flock means they’ll be in good hands in your absence.
All photos by Bitchin’ Chickens and that’s my chicken pal Tracy in the featured photo.