Ever heard of a Chicken Sitter? Anyone with Backyard chickens will understand the importance of having someone reliable to take care of your pets when you're not around. Janine Zschech shares what led her to this unusual job and a few tips for those that have (or are thinking about having) backyard chickens.
What is a chicken sitter, and did you always dream of becoming one?
I grew up on a farm outside of Kapunda, and the only chore my parents would not let me get out of looking after the 400 chickens! I swore that once I had left home I would never work with chickens ever again. I did everything from simple jobs like collecting eggs and seeing to their water, all the way through to vaccinations, poultry sales, egg grading, overseeing the introduction of chicks brought in from the hatchery and dispatch.
What I thought would never help me in life ended up being my greatest life skill that I can pass on to future generations.
Becoming a Chicken Pet Sitter in the city accidentally sprung out of a need for someone to take care of our local school’s new chickens. Creating the school garden was my dream and I worked on it for almost 5 years. It was then that I was asked by parents at the school if I would be willing to look after their backyard chickens also whenever they needed to go away.
There was a gap in the market in pet sitting and I stumbled on it by accident.
What made me perfect for poultry pet sitting was my huge bank of knowledge and no fear of feathers, flapping or spiders. Besides food and water top ups and egg collecting, I can identify pests, injury and illnesses in a flock that may have gone unnoticed by the owners. The feedback I receive is so immensely encouraging, knowing that I have helped so many people become responsible chooky owners.
Who would you say misses the other more while you are checking in on the chickens.....chickens or the owners?
There is nothing like the familiarity of their owner’s routine. They know exactly when they normally receive their treats in the day. Food is the hand of friendship with all pets, so they warm up to a small change in their routine until their family return.
What do you do usually with the eggs while the owners are away?
I always give my clients the option of collecting their eggs for storage or I can take them with me. At the height of summer, most of my families request that I take the eggs home so that they do not get heat affected. Occasionally, some clients have fridges on their back veranda or carport that I can store their eggs safely in. My fridge is often too full for another carton and I beg friends to buy a new cartons from me.
What are some of the more unusual requests you've encountered in this job?
I have a whole treasure trove of interesting stories.
Many people hope that I am also a chicken rescue service and frequently try to either give me or sell me their unwanted hens. The most bizarre request was to pet sit a rooster for two years! As the conversation went on, I could see what he was up to. I am not a sanctuary. Biosecurity is paramount to me, so the movement of poultry in and out of my yard is taken very seriously, so no poultry from my clients in my yard…EVER.
I am also occasionally asked for an emergency incubator for those who are hatching chicks, when their incubator has either broken down or mother hen has decided not be broody anymore and has left the nest. Unfortunately, I don’t even trust my own incubators. So if you are looking for a gap in the market, there is an opportunity for a very enterprising person. Incubator hire service in Adelaide. It’s needed.
Are you known for making eggcellent chicken & egg related sayings, jokes or puns?
When I first started on Facebook, all of my friends sent me endless chicken memes. I had to ask them to stop……well, simply because I had already seen them ALL and had posted them on Pinterest months before they did.
When I conducted my chicken workshops around Adelaide, it was endless puns for 4 hours!
How many chickens do you have at home? Some people secretly have a favourite child, do you have a favourite chicken? Can you ever have too many?
I have around 25 chickens in my backyard. The maximum I have ever had were 35. The vet bills become quite expensive with that many, as do the feed bills. My council has no official limit on poultry only on rooster ownership. Not so in every council!
The more I have, the more I rely on my children to tell me who is who in the yard. Whenever I hatch my chicks I pick a theme for names to make it a little easier. The vet usually requests a name for each chicken they see, for their records. So names are necessary.
I still have a couple of hens that have gone on and on for years. My Australorp, Bianca needs to me put her to bed every night. She won’t roost until I put her up. My other very special girl is an Orpington, Buffy, who I call my Nurse hen. She is the most remarkable chicken I have ever come across. She can figure out which hen is next to be sick and she sticks by the chicken until I discover that the sick hen needs to be isolated. She now permanently lives in the quarantine yard as she is frequently sick from being with the sick chickens. She is so happy to be in there. So she holds a very special place in my heart. All the hens love her, too.
Australorp and other Poultry featured on Australian Stamps
(Image from Australia Post)
A close friend of mine refuses to name her chickens, do you think this is unhealthy or is this pretty common?
It can be quite common for people not to name their chickens because they know that naming can make an owner more attached. The life expectancy of a hybrid hen such as an ISA Brown or Hy-Line can be as short as 2-3 years. Some people need to have that space between them and their ‘pets’ who perform a food production function. BUT every hen responds to being called Chook-Chook! They always come running when they hear that sound.
What's the best thing about chickens (besides the eggs)?
The different breeds of chicken has me in captivated.
On the farm we only had one breed at a time that was highly productive with a short life span, but moving to the city I discovered breeds that I had never known existed before. Cities and towns are preservers of all the different chicken breeds. The city is as valuable as the country for the maintaining chickens and the different strains for diverse genetics. You don’t know how important you all are!
For me, collecting chicken breeds for my backyard is a little like hoarding fabric bundles. They are all so beautiful with different egg laying and foraging abilities. I always like to justify my number of breeds that I own by saying that its more research for my clients.
Is there anything you hate about chickens? What are some of the more challenging aspects of taking care of them?
Roosters that attack, mites and my vet bills.
There are so many varieties of chickens, do you have a top 3?
1. Australorp (large pure breed)
3. ISA Brown (aka New Hampshire x)
Australorps and Orpingtons are so closely related genetically. These three have exceptional friendliness and are quieter than the other breeds I own. I will always have a place for a few ISAs as they are consistently great egg layers and are the best foragers.
Orpington Chicken (Image from Wikipedia)
I absolutely love it when u get a double yolker egg....do you see these often? And how can I find more of them?
Double yolkers are the most common when a hen’s layer career has just started. It’s not so common after a year. If it occurs later in a hen’s life it can signal the potential to develop Egg Yolk Peritonitis (fatal condition).
Then there is the wind/fart egg – tiny eggs with no yolk. They can be laid at any age. The funniest ones are laid by Pekin Bantams. Their eggs are already so small, image how tiny they can be as a ‘fart’ egg.
What are some of the important things people should consider before having backyard chickens?
1. Have more than one shed – one should be always ready as a quarantine base for sick, broody, injured chickens or for the introduction of any new chickens to the flock (3-4 weeks).
2. Put a solid floor under the coop (e.g. pavers) to deter rodents, foxes, snakes, lice and mites and to make cleaning so much easier.
3. Enough room for them to roam and have a place in the sun.
4. Worm and pest dust them every three months to break the cycle.
5. Do a little cleaning every day so that it does not become a chore.
6. Obey your council restrictions. (Roosters are often forbidden)
7. Use treadle feeders rather than open ones. Saves on feed costs, reduces rodents and pigeons from bringing disease and pests into the yard.
8. Clean water source.
9. Have a summer time hot weather action plan to keep the hens cool and alive.
10. Clean out the coop thoroughly to reduce pests, once a season.
Do you collect chicken/egg items for your home? Or do people gift them to you?
I buy for me. I particularly love Etsy for my chicken t-shirts and art. I actually ask stores to get more chooky things in. Allington’s Outfitters rose to the challenge and got me a great chicken apron for Christmas this year.
What are the most commonly encountered problems with chickens? I've heard of mites and the pecking order, are these big issues?
2. Lice and mites
3. No quarantine when new chickens were introduced to the existing flock = pecking order disaster and health problems (diseases and pests introduced)
4. Mice, rats and pigeons
5. Reluctance to take their chickens to a vet
Worming and pest control would have to be the most important things I deal with owners almost every week. The lack of knowledge of which products to use and how to administer them are the main challenges. But also the frequency is important because pests all have a life-cycle that when broken can stop them in their tracks.
Those are the most searched for topics on my blog.
Mites are the most feared by backyard chicken owners. Not only can they harm your poultry and infest their coop, but they can also make their way onto you and into your home furnishings. Just thinking about mites makes most people itch.
Finding a good chicken vet can be little tricky, but they do exist.
The most notable Adelaide Avian Veterinarian is:
Dr Anne Fowler at Adelaide Bird & Exotics Vet Centre, 129 Richmond Rd, Richmond (83443 4838).
Anne knows all the vets throughout the city who see poultry. She can help you find one near you.
Most assume it will be a costly visit, but taking your chickens to the vet is far cheaper than for a dog or cat.
What aspects of your business do you find most rewarding and why?
I am so glad that I can help families be able to get away when the need arises. Poultry cannot be kennelled like dogs and cats, and often friend, family and neighbours have a fear of dealing with any pets that flap. The best feeling in the world is when someone calls me back to say how much of difference I made with helpful advice or great service. I never ask for it. It is the best feeling to know I was of help where no else could have been. I have even advised some vets. I have the best chats!
I had great plans of doing a lot of school holiday craft with the kids, and had been hoping to have some chickens of my own to love, but neither has happened yet...in the meantime I'm hoarding waay too many egg cartons, any advice on what to do with them? or how to find someone that could use them for their own eggs?
I dread to ask any of my friends for a few cartons when I get low because they give me big bags full of egg cartons, and then they sneak them onto my door step in the early hours of the morning, as well.
The Leaning Towers of Egg Cartons currently resides on top of my refrigerator.
As an ex-sound engineer, I always see egg cartons as DIY sound proofing.
Egg cartons will also compost down. So if have a few too many, strip them down, ensure that they are well watered into the compost to break down for added carbon. Add small pieces to the worm farm too.
If you are giving away any cartons to friends, ask if they have standard sized chickens or bantams. Give the smaller cartons to those with bantams to help prevent the eggs from rolling inside in something too large.
One of the reasons we wanted to have chickens was to eat up our veggie scraps. What are chicken's favourite scraps to eat? and is it true that the more leafy greens they eat, the more richer the yolk is?
Make sure they have access to grass and leafy greens if you want your hens to have beautiful golden egg yolks. Tomatoes, melons, corn, capsicum, carrot peelings and the leaves and cut open stems of cauliflower and broccoli are firm favourites, and provide a range of vitamins to keep the hens healthy. Vitamin A is key to great yolks.
Don’t get trapped into thinking that you need to make up a special bowl for them every day. Treats should be only a few times throughout the week and should never replace their pellets and grains. Their grains should be the majority of their diet.
Cut out porridge from their diet unless it is to administer medication or probiotics within, as oats are not ideal for poultry. Hens will often forgo their feeder in favour of filling up on treats whenever they have a chance. Check your feeding habits regularly to keep your girls healthy.
Chickens are omnivores, they need bugs in their diet and more protein during their moulting season to regrow their feather. I’m personally not a fan of feeding their eggs back to them as a protein source as I have witnessed too many turn into egg eaters.
Good protein sources include:
Meat on a chop bone, fritz, canned tuna (in spring water), plain Greek yogurt, meal worms, non-medicated pullet grower or Red Hen 17 are ideal.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I follow the sun. Very early morning starts and sun set drives, with lunch time visits, too. The seasons heavily dictate my time. Chickens like to make a lot of noise when they can see it is getting light outside, so I need to get to each property to let them out as early as I can. That often means letting my own chickens out very early or my teenage son sees to our hens if I have a full schedule. Some clients like a once a day visit, others need a twice a day visit to have their hens locked up again for the night.
Mid-morning is taken up with complimentary visits to clients before they depart; to do the paperwork, walk around the yard, meet the chickens and collect the keys and payment. All my other visits for wing clipping and set up advice are usually mid-morning or early afternoon, usually on a Saturday.
Work is not always constant. There are peak seasons: late spring to summer. Winter is my quietest time of the year. During Christmas and New Years I have no break at all, working right throughout each day on multiple visits.
I have quite a collection of gum boots – one worn only for one property each – each needing to be cleaned in accordance to biosecurity at the end of each visiting period.
I also go through a few pairs of clothes throughout the day. I only wear my official uniform when visiting a client in person. I change back to functional street clothes when I am on a job so that I do not advertise that the clients are away. Their home security is just as important as their care for their pets.
During summer I add a little more to visits by providing ice in the chickens’ water and give them a cool melon treat, at no extra cost.
As frantic as it all sounds, not every day is busy. This would have to be the perfect job for any at-home mums who would like to do something for a little bit of pocket money. It pays for the petrol, website, purchasing of medication and pest control, vet bills and keeps my chickens fed. That also means that I work by myself; sole business owner/operator, with only my husband as emergency back-up. But good thing he knows chickens as well as I do.
My chicken addiction makes sure I keep working as does my love for passing on poultry skills to everyone far and wide. I’m on a mission to teach Adelaide how to be awesome chicken owners.
A huge thank you to Janine for letting me pester her with my questions!
You can find out more about chickens, backyard chooks and her services by visiting her website Adelaide Chicken Sitting Service , which has a wealth of information for chook owners (or dreamers). You can also find her on Facebook , Twitter and Pinterest.