I’ve never had a house chicken. Occasionally I’ve brought a sick or injured bird inside while they were recuperating, but that’s the extent of my experience. I belong to a number of online chicken groups and folks often post about their indoor birds. Their experiences seem to vary widely from having just one bird to a whole flock; from keeping birds predominantly outside while allowing them to come in for visits to chickens who have lived their whole lives never having touched the ground.
The reasons for having house chickens seem to run the gamut as well. Some birds are low in the pecking order and get bullied; some came into the house during quarantine or illness and never returned to a flock, while others have a disability like blindness or mobility issues. Sometimes the owners themselves have physical limitations so keeping a small number of chickens indoors as pets is easier than maintaining an outdoor coop.
I reached out to members of the Facebook group Huggable House Chickens And Ducks to share some of their experiences and found I had more material than I could use for just one post. I decided that because those stories behind keeping house chickens are interesting I would post them in a series specifically on House Chickens.
The first installment comes from one of my case study collaborators, Seleta:
Like most folks I think I had an idyllic imagery in my head about what owning chickens was going to be like. It looked like something you might see in a Disney movie, I suppose: a beautiful carpet of green grass beneath my feet, a blue cloudless sky above me, a stunning variety of colours on my six allowed hens, watching them peck about at bugs and frolicking about as I gathered eggs from the nesting box to take inside and prepare for breakfast for my smiling family. Never did it come to mind that my chickens would come in the house for any reason.
However, something happened the moment we brought those first six fuzzy little chicks home. They stole our hearts and in no time at all went from being ‘just chickens’ to being beloved pets. Each of them had names, personalities, likes, and dislikes. The coop my husband and I spent all summer constructing was as predator proof as we could possibly devise. It was roofed like our own house, per HOA regulations, had 1/4” hardware cloth wrapped around it on all sides (even the bottom), and every entry point had a multi-step latch mechanism and a padlock that could only be opened with a key. Nothing was going to get in that coop, and nothing did.
The slide into house chickens was a slippery and multifaceted one. At first we would only bring them in for short periods of time in the evening to snuggle and watch TV. We had some that got longer stints inside the house if they were ill or being picked on by flock mates. We also would bring in broody hens to get them out of the sight of the nesting boxes to ‘break them‘. And then there was the weather: blisteringly hot in the summer and absolutely frigid in the winter.
The first winter we had chickens we tried to provide heat. We knew heat lamps weren’t safe, so we opted for a space heater that would automatically shut off if it got too hot or was knocked over. While the heater helped keep it tolerable inside the coop, the electricity bill for our household skyrocketed. The following winter, we decided to keep the entire flock in the basement since it was already heated.
The winter after that they moved into the living room. We realized how much we missed them when they weren’t in the house experiencing and adding to our lives. My husband still gives me crap about the amount of time and money we spent on building the coop, only to have the flock in it for roughly three months out of the year.
Another facet of how we ended up with house chickens could simply be explained by ‘chicken math‘. You see, when we first got chickens we lived in an HOA that allowed each household to have up to six hens, no roosters. While we began with the allowable six chicks, we ended up with 26 chickens by the time we moved to our five acre farm this past November. I have explained it to friends as follows: “I had 6 chicks. One was a rooster that I had to re-home which left me with five chicks. To replace the one chick you can’t just get one because it will be lonely. You can’t just get two chicks because what if one of them is a rooster; so you have to get at least three chicks to replace one chick. And that’s how six chicks became eight chicks.”
My family also discovered poultry shows. We attended our first one about a year ago with the understanding that we were not bringing any new birds home from the show. I agreed to that before I found a cage in the corner with some critically endangered Nankins. So after begging and pleading with my husband we took a breeding pair of Nankins home, which led to hatching Nankins. Then I got a pair of exceptional show quality Nankins from the east coast of the USA. Along with having several more birds than was allowed, I also had roosters. I love my boys so very much, but I had to hide them inside my house.
The final reason we ended up with house chickens, I blame entirely on the internet and my anxiety. I am a member of god knows how many Facebook groups about chickens: different breeds, house chickens, chickens in my state, groups for people who breed chickens or show chickens, and on and on and on. While I have learned so much from the different groups and seen such diversity in the people that post in them, one thing remains constant; everything loves a chicken dinner: big, small, feathered, or furry, chicken is on everyone’s menu. I read post after post of people mourning the loss of their birds to predation and I decided “Nope. Not going to be my birds.”
Aside from predation, there were posts about birds that had drowned in ponds, been caught in a fence upside down and suffocated, died from disease brought in from wild birds, death from heat stroke, lost wattles and toes to frostbite, killed by uncaring pet sitters; I just couldn’t risk it anymore. I still have four of the girls from my original flock that I started four years ago. Each and every bird has become so incredibly special to our family and is just as much a part of our lives and hearts as our dogs and cats. The pain felt when we lose one of the them doesn’t hurt any less than when we have lost other pets. Having chickens living among us allows us to know each of them so well we are able to pick up on the very subtle signs of illness they might show too. I feel honored to have the opportunity to share my home with my feathery little velociraptors.
Some of them are no longer with me now, but I would guess a good ten or so of my chickens have had to be in the house at one time or another due to injury, illness, needing to monitor their condition closely, give meds, or change bandages.
We just moved to a five acre farm last fall. While the property has a chicken coop on it, it is far from up to my standards and is nowhere near predator proof. We have plans to build a huge poultry barn with eight indoor/outdoor fully enclosed runs, feed room, nursery, treatment room, quarantine area with separate air handling, bathroom with a raised tub and a storage area. We got estimates for the construction, but the price of everything is so high right now so we have to wait a while longer before we can begin the Poultry Palace.
In the meantime, we have converted our great room into an indoor aviary (I never understood why anyone needed two living rooms anyway). The entire room is protected by a 30’ x 30’ tarp that covers the floor and goes up the walls about 4’. We used dog kennel panels to create four separate runs with roosting areas and nesting places. I have a shelving unit where three 55-60 gallon Rubbermaid containers house my bantam breeding pairs. I use fine pine flake shavings as the substrate in the pens and boxes and change out bedding once every other week in the boxes and once per month in the runs. I spot clean in between bedding changes.
Each run and box has its own water, food, oyster shell and grit; pass throughs to the rest of the house are covered in plastic sheeting to help control dust getting into the remainder of the house. I also have a HEPA air filtration system inside the aviary. The whole house air vents are changed monthly. When it warms up outside I do have the ability to open several windows and a set of sliding glass doors in the aviary to allow for fresh air to enter the room.
If the birds come into the main part of the house with us they wear diapers. There are a few birds who insist on sleeping in there; they get diapered for the night, which get removed in the morning when they go back to their runs. Sometimes poop happens though and I clean constantly. I’ve never had anyone say our house stinks, unless they just aren’t saying.
Before the threat of avian influenza, I tried to let them have as much time outside as possible. Even though I have several birds, they are broken into mini-flocks that either can’t, or won’t, get along with each other. I utilized our predator-proof enclosed run when I was able to and the birds could stay outside unmonitored for long periods of time. I was only able to put one flock out at a time in the run (they didn’t fight if closely monitored and if there was ample space). I would take everyone in the fenced in backyard and work on the garden or sit in a lawn chair while they were outside. Overhead predators are a huge threat in our area, so I didn’t dare attempt free-ranging them without close and constant monitoring.
Once the Poultry Palace is built I anticipate the situation being rather fluid. I think Blue, my heart surgery girl, would be best monitored in the house, but I’m not sure that would be best for her mental well-being. There will probably be at least one chicken in the house each evening, even if just to have a sleepover.
Bio for Seleta Nothnagel: I work nights in the Clinical Pathology Department at the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital as a Medical Laboratory Scientist. We do blood work like chemistry panels and CBCs, urinalysis, coagulation studies and blood banking for all of the animals seen at the VTH. Before that I worked in the microbiology department in human medicine at a hospital for 10 years and in veterinary medicine as a Registered Veterinary Technician for 10 years.
Many thanks to Seleta for sharing her story and photos. This is our fourth collaboration together. Three involved case studies of some of her flock’s health issues: Blue’s heart surgery; Butters penchant for eating foreign objects and Amethyst’s spay surgery.