How to Keep Chickens and Other Barnyard Birds


This is week 18 of our yearlong #freepermaculture course

inputs and outputs of keeping chickens and birds

Parable of the Chicken

by Bill Mollison, reprinted from his magazine, Permaculture, May 1983. 

PERMACULTURE IS NOT GARDENING, it is design. It does not espouse a particular technique whether organic, inorganic or biodynamic etc. I personally espouse the organic or natural gardening approach. I talk and write about it, not about pesticides and herbicides.

Permaculture is not confined to gardening or plant growing. It is a design system involving the placement of all the elements of the landscape, of the living system, in the right relationship to each other.

Let me explain. Consider a chicken. We can know some things about the chicken, its particular characteristics. A fancier will note its color, its qualities of breeding, susceptibility to hawk attack etc. These are its innate characteristics. It has needs like most of us. Food, a night resting place, elevated perch, modest climatic needs. It had yields: feathers, feather dust, eggs, chicken manure, carbon dioxide from breathing, and like most animals about 13 percent of its inputs are turned into methane. If killed, the chicken has other yields too.

There are thus innate characteristics, inputs and outputs. The inputs are supplied from various sources or other outputs, the outputs go to various destinations, or provide other inputs. The relations between all these elements are studied for our design purposes.

Making connections

Permaculture does not work with chickens or glasshouses or houses or gardens. It works on making the connections between these elements. A good design would be a complete natural cycle with energy outputs only.

So permaculture is not gardening, and has nothing to do with technique, in the sense that you know technique such as how you make compost or kill cabbage moths or why your lemon trees turn yellow. It has a lot to do with exactly where your lemon tree is placed and its needs as supplied by something else.

Permaculture is a skill that says where something goes so that it functions in relation to other things. Every time you don't do that, you are in trouble. Every input that is not automatically supplied, you must supply. Every output that is not passed to the thing that needs it must be got rid of.

Therefore, all undesigned outputs are pollutants and all pollution is an undesigned output. All unfulfilled needs are work and all work is the satisfaction of unfulfilled needs.

None of these is necessary if you have correctly placed every element in relation to its needs and outputs.

Lazy-man technology

Permaculture is the ultimate lazy-man technology. If it is successful nothing needs to be done and you simply step in the way of the yields, because you need eggs occasionally and occasionally a chicken.

How much a chicken does will amaze you. It can be used, as a model, to completely heat and fuel your home. You can keep total control over a large variety of pests. You can double production in your fish pond. You can increase production in your glasshouse, reduce servicing needs of glasshouses, etc.

A chicken has a great number of uses. If you neglect these you must do the things yourself. Every time you don't satisfy a need automatically you must do it yourself.The question is, is the chicken or the human being the smarter animal in all measurable environmental terms? We will examine that question.

In all broadscale agriculture, which, sadly, is the most destructive influence on the whole face of the earth, the chicken becomes a parable, which, as a representative of a class of animals kept by man, consumes 70 percent of the product of the labor of man in agriculture.

Man thus works for the chicken. The chicken then provides for the man less than one percent of the necessary food of man. The chicken is enormously smarter than man, by thousands of times. Man works extremely hard for the chicken. The chicken works very little for man.

Of all these crops, then, of every acre of every field of wheat, 70 percent goes — with the chicken as parable — to the chicken, and 30 percent to the uses of mankind, not just food uses.

So most of agriculture is devoted to the chicken. Therefore, most tractors, most roads, most rural networks are built to service the chicken. In the total society 35 percent of all energy goes towards food, so the chicken is a very large consumer of energy in the total society.

The chicken and energy

As another parable, if we were not servants of the chicken we would not need atomic power. For instance, those of you who use electric clothes driers consume 13.5 percent of the total domestic energy of society. That is exactly supplied by the total output of atomic power in the world. Those of you who use domestic clothes driers are the people responsible for atomic power stations. Those of you who still hang your clothes on the line are very responsible citizens. It is called solar drying.Those of you who prevent the chicken operating are again responsible for most coal and power station use and the soon-to-come extinction of the northern hemisphere by acid rain because most of the coal and energy poured into society serves the chicken or something very like the chicken.

We are about to lose all the forests of Germany. We have effectively lost all the forests of Canada and Scandinavia. We don't know about Russia but we expect that we are about to lose all of those. This is because we burn so much coal and drive so many cars that the air has filled with nitric and sulphuric particles. These fall to earth and, at first, become a fertilizer and for some years everything grows much better under sulphur and nitrogen. But later there is too much fertilizer, and too much of a good thing can be painful. As this acid accumulates in the soil it dissolves into something which all soils have, aluminum. Aluminum dissolved in sulphuric acid is a deadly plant poison, also a deadly person poison.

Therefore, as the coal and motor vehicle exhausts fall to earth they start to turn, after a little while, into solutes of selenium, lead, cadmium and aluminum, all of which are fatal to man and fatal to plants.

The plants then stop rejoicing in the fall of acid rain and start to suffer. Then they are attacked by gipsy moth, tent moth, pine tip dieback and so on. All these animals sense the death of forests. They are the undertakers of the forest. If you hit a tree once with an axe and wait, by night, above it there will be a swarm of parasitic wasps. Tapping around your axe cuts will come the longhorn beetles. They know that the tree has been injured, they come to ensure that it is decently buried. And they are there within hours. Experiment by all means. You will never hit a tree again. Unknowingly.

So they wait on the death of the forest and they come, the decomposers, to conduct the burial service, to return the dying tree to the soil for life regeneration. We then say the gipsy moth is killing the beeches, we say the dutch elm disease is killing the dutch elms, we say fire blight is killing our forests, we say pine rust is killing our pines, we say poplar rust is killing our poplars. We don't say we are doing all of it by driving cars and using energy, and we are blaming the gipsy moth, we are blaming the tent caterpillar, we are blaming the phasmid.

We are in a joint conspiracy not to identify the real criminal. We look at him every morning in the mirror. And we'll all agree to blame the gipsy moth. Now we're free to attack the gipsy moth. We've found the culprit. Now we can go to the forest and spray it with DDT and we can add insult to insult to the forest and the gipsy moth and ensure that the gipsy moth did indeed kill the forest. And we help it enormously and very quickly to its death. We've just done that to the whole of the northern hemisphere.

So rain filled with acid now enters the streams, with selenium, mercury, lead, cadmium and aluminum. And its pH? Clean pure snow in Vermont USA has a pH of 1.9 — acid. Very close to concentrated sulphuric acid. The pH of rain over Berlin averages 2.3, also highly acid. More sour than vinegar. There are now available to you pH maps of North America. Large areas, including deep well water, are more acid than pH4.

What plants grow happily at pH4? No plants can tolerate pH4 and heavy metals. No fish can survive. We then have blanket extinction of all life in the lakes of Nova Scotia and Quebec, Montreal, all inland fish of Newfoundland, all the fish in Adirondacks lakes, some of which have never seen man. There are no fish on the eastern slopes of Norway, in Sweden no crayfish have survived. The Crayfish festival requires that crayfish now be brought in from southern Turkey, where the pollution is slightly lower. In fish the acid causes gill mucous and they smother, and their eggs will not hatch at pH less than 5.5.

6000 Swedish lakes have no fish. 14,000 lakes dip below pH4 at times, 8000 lakes have a sharper dip. If people drink water of less than pH4.5 with metals in it, cadmium builds up in the kidneys, aluminum combines with protein more strongly in cooking, the aluminum causing general body deterioration. Lead and cadmium effects lungs and the central nervous system.

So it seems that we should quickly join the chicken up to everything and stop wasting all the fossil fuel into the atmosphere. We have no choice. Cars are almost unviable, also coal burning, also nuclear power. A little longer and we have universal death.

Wars and atomic bombs will not kill us, we are killing ourselves. Australia is worse in fallout than any part of Europe. In Brazil pH2 rain falls constantly on the Sierra Dei Mar. They industrialised. So did we. We signed our own death warrant when we started to dig up the things in the ground. The Pitjitjindjara at Ernabella said that sickness would follow digging up of the green stones by white men. I think this may follow from some past event. We are sick on energy.

The whole of our design efforts must be directed towards a reduction of our use of fossil energy. Permaculture can't cure anything. It can tell you the way to cure it. To cure it really lies with yourselves.​**


chicks and chickens in grass with setting sun

Pros and Cons of Barnyard Birds

Barnyard birds add character and entertainment to the homestead, eat weeds and slugs, and sift and manure our leaf-mulch for us before we add it to the garden beds. Interacting with these and the other animals on our farm brings us closer to nature and brings our farm closer to a closed-loop fertility cycle. 


However, if we try to add birds to a site, with big fantasies about all the abundance they bring, but without integrating serious considerations for the time, money, and other inputs those birds require, disaster and disappointment could easily ensue.


Adding domestic birds to a garden, whether urban or rural, brings in life, fertility, and beauty. These benefits can help bring an average garden closer to paradise, but they are sometimes offset by the (often unforeseen) difficulties with these birds. Birds are smelly and dusty, and even a small flock will ruin a nice garden within a few minutes, given the opportunity. Here’s a quick-reference chart of the pros and cons of barnyard birds to help you decide. 

​Chickens 


Pros

Comfortable in a small coop or “chicken tractor.” Steady flow of eggs. They will weed an established perennial garden or spread mulch. They are tameable, trainable, and quite smart. 


Cons

Very noisy! And not just the roosters! Even the hens, from dawn to dusk, all day, every day. They scratch up baby plants if let loose in a young garden. Easily killed by natural predators.

baby chicken in a hand

Ducks 


Pros

They eat slugs and snails. Eggs are big and delicious. Ducks are funny to watch and quite sociable, and they come in at least as many varieties as chickens.​

Cons

Ducks are fairly stupid, so it can be difficult to get them to go where you want. They love to eat salad and will trash your garden badly. It also bears mentioning that male ducks are prone to gang-raping females. So, there's that.

kitten playing with ducks

Geese 

Pros

Beautiful, graceful birds, geese are my favorite. The young goslings are very easy to tame. Goose eggs are edible and very rich, and the hard shells last forever when painted. 


Cons

They poop a LOT, so if they’re free-range, it can get nasty real fast. They can also be aggressive if not handled when young and they will bite you—hard!

goose sitting on a chair

​Turkeys 

Pros

Delicious and nutritious, and you get a lot of meat from each bird. You also get tons of gorgeous feathers, even if your turkeys are just for pets and insect control.


Cons

Turkeys are huge and make a lot of poop in barnyard setting. They can be aggressive, can fly, and will go feral if you let them. They will chase children and demolish the garden. Not recommended for small holdings. 

colourful turkey on grass

Guinea Fowl 


Pros

Great meat birds because, at four months old, they can weigh several pounds. Baby chicks are sweet and adorable and make cute noises, but... 


Cons

. . . grown guinea fowl make a hellish screeching sound similar to that of a busted fan belt on a car, and they will sustain it for hours.

helmeted-guineafowl

Pheasants 


Pros

Stunningly beautiful, very wild, relatively low-impact when left loose in the garden because they prefer bugs to plants. 


Cons

They often run away, and male pheasants can be very violent (read: rape-y) towards chickens and other birds.

ghost pheasant with turquoise around eye

Quail 


Pros

Said to be delicious, though I can’t see how such a small morsel could be worth the trouble. Their call is sweet and super cute. 


Cons

Impossible to tame and so tiny that they usually run away or get eaten by predators. Build quail habitat in your zone 4, but don’t bother trying to cage them.

gambels-quail-on a fence

Chukars 


Pros

Similar to quail but larger and more beautiful, with a wonderful call. Chukars are lovely in a garden setting and can live well with chickens. 


Cons

Like quail and pheasants, chukars will not put eggs on your table. Unless you plan to eat them, they are just for looks and insect control.

chukar bird with stripes on chest

Pigeons 


Pros

Great poop; very compatible with a small garden setting. Beautiful and interesting to listen to. 


Cons

They can breed like rabbits and will often move into an area where you don’t want them. 

nicobar- turquoise and green pigeon

Peacocks 


Pros

Fabulous in so many ways—who doesn’t love the idea of peacocks drifting about the yard? The feathers are valuable for many uses, and they will breed readily, given enough room. 


Cons

Again, very difficult to tame—our peacocks went feral and live high in the conifers on the outskirts of our farm. We hear their calls in the sunset... 

male peacock in flowery garden

Emu 


Pros

Even more fabulous, and highly prized for their feathers, meat, and oil. Easily adapted to temperate climates and very tameable. 


Cons

Untamed emus can be vicious and, since they have claws like a velociraptor, they could easily kill a dog or human. Get them young and treat them right to make sure they aren’t dangerous. 

emu

The Chicken Tractor

This section by Marit Parker

Free range chickens are a joy to behold - until they turn your seed bed into a dust bowl, hide the eggs in a thorny thicket and get eaten by a fox. However, shutting them in a permanent run means your chickens will be scratching the same bare earth every day. Meanwhile, your veg bed has pests they could be eating. 

One solution is the chicken tractor - a moveable chicken coop and run. If you make one yourself you can design it to:

  • Suit the number of chickens you have  
  • Fit over your veg beds 
  • Move easily around other parts of the garden​

For happy chickens, you need to think about what chickens need. Their wild ancestors, the red jungle fowl, roost in trees, which is why chickens like having perches to roost on in the coop and enough space in the run to stretch their wings. Hens like having nesting boxes where they can hide away to lay eggs.

For happy humans, you need to think about how the chicken tractor will be moved, and have easy access for cleaning the coop, feeding the chickens and collecting the eggs.

This design, made from off-cuts of wood, is quite heavy so it has wheels at one end. The mesh floor of the coop is a clever idea, but in some climates a wooden floor is needed to protect the chickens from cold winds and driving rain. 

Here are a couple of examples:

A-frame chicken tractor from portland oregon
backyard-chicken-coop-with-green-roof_1

Alternatively, it is possible to make a lightweight version using plastic pipe. However, be aware that this is not as sturdy and may leave your chickens exposed to attack by dogs or predators. 

This video includes several hints and tips for clever designs.

Hands-On


  • Add a layer to your permaculture maps, all about the birds onsite, whether wild or domesticated.
  • Brainstorm a list of birds that you think would do well on your site. Consider the pros and cons of each.
  • Make a list of birds that live on your site already, and learn what you can about their habitat. What do you think it is about your site that they love? You can use this information to help decide which types of domesticated birds to integrate.
  • Add a layer to your permaculture maps, all about the birds onsite, whether wild or domesticated.
  • To help figure out if and where to bring birds (or any other element) into your system, use an Input-Output Analysis (IOA) like the one below:

Relevant Links and Resources​


Ah, the fabled chicken greenhouse!

Here's a fun article on the topic.

permaculture chicken greenhouse

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