A coopside chat with Mr Chicken

Since 2001, Dave Ingham has been Australia’s Mr Chicken, renting chooks to backyard farmers in houses, flats and terraces so they can make friends with hens and enjoy eggs fresh from the bum. Now he’s gathered all his feathered wisdom in a book, Backyard Chickens, so you can cock-a-doodle-doo-it-yourself.

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Dave Ingham says that a healthy hen is a happy one

Writing a book – is it as easy as it looks?
No, no, it’s not. I thought, “I will just slot in writing it in my spare time and yippee-ki-yay I will be a published author, woo hoo!” I have a small business, Rentachook, I have a day job, I've got three young kids – nine, 10 and 11 – and I’m also renovating our house. I have no idea how I found the time to write a 64,000-word manuscript. The bonus was it was fun to write because I knew the subject well and could throw in a lot of anecdotal stories. That was the best bit, reminiscing on all the silly stuff and all the solutions we came up with off-the-cuff for Rentachook.

Did you find it hard to dumb things down for a novice audience?
No, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for 15 years. A vast proportion of my customers have been first-time chook keepers. I sent an email to my friends to promote the book and I said there’s no such thing as a stupid question when it comes to chooks. I have a stupid answer for all of them! I have sold these chickens to people as young as two and old as 80. I have seen two-year-olds and 80-year-olds hop up and down with glee when they found out they were being given chickens – and that’s pretty good on 80-year-old knees.

How did you start with chooks?
I started out keeping them at uni because we had this big house and lots of garden waiting to be demolished and turned into flats. We thought we’d keep chickens and grow a big vegie garden and because we were home-brewing and we had plenty of time being uni students – we’d sit out there with our home-brew and watch the chickens do mad chickeny stuff.

Chickens are such strange creatures. What’s the weirdest thing they do?
One of my favourites is the “ghost spook”, which is they will just be doing normal, random chickeny scratching, look up, see something that doesn't exist, run helter skelter right across the yard flapping their wings then stop as if nothing has happened, look down and start scratching again. Just the maddest thing.

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Chickens love a treat of whole grains but, if you give them too much, egg laying might decline

Also, the first time you see a chicken dust bathing. Ducks obviously duck water over their feathers to wash parasites and dead skin out of their plumage, chickens do it by fluffing dust through their plumage. They lie on their side and they have this stupid look on their face, they look up into the middle distance and they flap. You think, “Oh no! My chicken has got convulsions and it’s going to die!” No, it’s just having a bath. It’s quite a weird thing to see.

Do you encounter a lot of misconceptions about keeping chickens?
Oh they will stink, oh they will attract vermin, oh we will be swamped in snakes, it’s a lot of work. Honestly, if you’re spending more than five minutes a day and 10 minutes a month looking after them, you’re overdoing it. The art is having a coop that’s easy to get into, and easy to clean and maintain. You go down in the morning, top up their food and water. Grab the eggs, let them out, “Good morning, ladies,” off to work for the day. In the evening, some time between dinner and bedtime, brush your teeth then walk down the back, “Hi girls, bedtime.” That’s it, five minutes tops. Three in the morning, two in the evening.

Sounds pretty straightforward...
Odour, vermin, all of these things can be managed and I have put a lot of effort in the book to giving you tips and tricks. Not in the mentality that you must do it this way, or you need to have no more than three chickens per foot of perch space and if you’ve got four then... nah, it’s all bullshit really.

You know if you overcrowd them and manage them poorly, you’re inviting problems and challenges that you need to put effort into. If you manage them well, give them enough space and remove stress factors from their environment, like overcrowding, they don't tend to attract parasites, they don’t tend to suffer from ailments. They are quite robust creatures, chickens. You can see it’s a big problem in a commercial shed but there’s a hundred thousand birds in there. Two birds that are free-ranging around your garden – they have got all the chances to get rid of any problems.

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A coop within a coop. This can happen when you fall in love with chicken-keeping and expand your flock

You’re passionate about free-range versus caged hens. Do you get a lot of pushback on that?
Oh, bring it on. Buy the book, great. I get a few dollars each time and I absolutely loved writing it. Keep chooks, even better. But if you read the book and go, “I’m not doing caged eggs again, I can afford a few dollars more for a better life experience for many millions of chickens,” I reckon that’s a good thing. Look, I describe myself as a hen-vangelist. I googled that, it didn’t exist, I’ve got a new word! I’m on a mission to encourage people to keep chickens because I think even if you give them back, it’s with the realisation these are lovely sentient creatures that make excellent pets. Even if it isn’t for you, you couldn’t condemn them in the future to factory farming.

What pets do you have? Would you consider raising chickens?

(Images from Backyard Chickens by Dave Ingham (Murdoch Books RRP $35) photography by Cath Muscat.)

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