The chicken (scientific name Gallus gallus domesticus) is a domesticated fowl which is a subspecies of the Red Jungle Fowl that originated from Asia. They are the most common and widespread domestic animals, and there are more chickens in the world than any other species of bird, with about four times as many chickens in the world as humans!
Chickens are traditionally farm animals and humans keep chickens primarily as a source of food, consuming both their meat and their eggs. A pet chicken however can be used for its fresh organic eggs, so the larger breeds or hybrids are best for this. They can lay up to one egg a day, though like most hens, this will slow during the winter.
Pet chickens have many benefits — they are quirky, can be a natural fertiliser for your garden and give you tasty fresh eggs! Each chicken will have its own personality so they make really sweet pets.
Cockerels are male chickens, and have a slightly different appearance and characteristics to a female hen. Hens usually have shorter, stiffer tail feathers, whereas cocks have long tail feathers that can arch into a big plumage. Cockerels have a large comb (the fleshy growth on top of their head), and a larger wattle hanging below the beak. You'll notice that hens have a smaller comb, and sometimes none at all! The feathers on the neck of the cockerel are long, and will puff out if he's provoked, whereas hen's neck feathers are much shorter and closer to the neck in a smooth line.
Cockerels can also be a lot noisier, crowing loudly both at dawn and dusk, however hens are quieter and tend to 'cluck'. The most obvious difference between hens and cocks is that hens lay eggs!
There are many different breeds of chicken, and they come in all shapes and sizes! Some are more suited to warmer climates and some thrive in cooler climates, so you might want to do your research into which breed is going to be the best for you. Below is some information on a few of the popular pet breeds, so have a read and this may help you decide which breed you would like as your pet.
The Silkie chicken is a smaller breed (bantam) that originated in China. Their feathers have a distinctive texture similar to fur, and have a generous puff of feathers on their head which can sometimes cover the rest of the face.
Their feet are also rather unique in that they have not just four, but five toes on each foot! Silkie hens can make wonderful brooders and mothers, and lay tinted or cream coloured eggs. They are also very docile and are great pets for families with young children.
The Cochin also originated in China and are a heavier breed with cockerels weighing up to 5kg, and hens almost 4kg, but there is also a smaller bantam version.They come in black, white, buff or partridge colours and have feathered feet.
Hens lay medium sized brown eggs for a short amount of time. They are known for their sweet personalities and when the chance arises they make excellent mothers. They've even been known to foster chicks from other breeds. They can live well in more confined conditions.
The Plymouth Rock chicken is thought to have originated from the United States, but they have become one of the most popular breeds on small farms in the UK. They are large in size and are excellent egg layers, often producing large brown eggs. Hens can weigh up to 3.4kg and cockerels weigh about 4.3kg. Again, with this breed also there is also a smaller bantam version.
Some Plymouth Rock chickens can be aggressive, but they are generally a docile, friendly breed — so they make a good starter bird. They can withstand cold weather and confined conditions, although do best with some free range outside. The most popular variety from this breed has a black and white pattern on its feathers.
The Sussex chicken is believed to have been first bred in Britain, and they are a good sized bird with speckled feathers. They're described as charming and tame, and supply a constant source of fresh eggs all year round. They don't tend to wander too far, so if they have access to the outdoors you won't have to worry about putting up any expensive high fences. They'll happily forage for food near their home and are comfortable around humans. Their docile nature means they're ideal as pets.
Orpingtons are another breed that have originated in England. They are large in size with cockerels reaching 4.5kg and hens 3.6kg — with smaller bantams also available. They are generally black, blue, white or buff, and have very heavy feathering which makes this breed more suitable for the cold winter weather. They are a good source for eggs — producing brown eggs often. They're a calm, gentle breed so they may well be suited to families with young children.
Bantams are a mini version of any breed of chicken. They are usually a quarter to half the size (at most) of the average bird, which makes them ideal pet chickens. They carry all the same characteristics but in a smaller and cuter version! They don't need as much space to live, so are best suited to those who have smaller gardens.
Bantams are good at laying eggs, however the eggs will be smaller than the average. Bantam hens can be very protective mothers and will attack if anything tries to get near her chicks. They have a shorter life expectancy than their larger versions and are more prone to being attacked by cats, foxes and other small predators — so keep them safe!
Chickens are known for being messy, so they are best to be housed in an outdoor coop with a generous sized run. Chickens defecate a lot, even during their sleep, so their home can become quite smelly — will need to be cleaned each day, so making sure you have time to do this is a must.
Sickness spreads like wildfire in chickens, so if you notice that one of your chickens is becoming unwell, the chances are the rest will follow suit. So always keep an eye on your chickens and check that they are still performing as normal. Any changes in their behaviour and appearance could mean they are unwell.
Your chicken will need to have a good sized coop to live in so they have plenty of space to move around and stretch their wings. Chickens also need access to an outdoor run so they can roam on the grass eating the worms and bugs that come to the surface — which they love! You'll need to make sure you have enough room for your chickens. You should allow at least one square metre per chicken. Although the more space each chicken can have, the better!
If you currently have any pretty flower beds or a vegetable plot, you may want to seal these off and make sure your chickens cannot get near them. They love to peck and will enjoy the taste of your vegetables! So if you were going to let your chickens have free run of your garden, you may want to think again. Either give them a large outdoor run, or protect your plants.
If you start off with chicks, you will see that there's a lot more responsibility involved in looking after them than a fully grown adult chicken. Chicks require a lot more supervision and care in their early days — they'll need constant heat, food and water. If you let your hen hatch her chicks, then let her continue to raise them, preferably in her own separate area. However, you must keep an eye on the chicks and make sure she is looking after them properly. If you see any possibility that they are in danger, separate the chicks and take care of them until they can be left to take care of themselves.