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Keeping chickens: what to expect from your new arrivals

Do you like cuddling hens? We do.   

Do you love seeing them stretching out a wing to catch the elusive rays of sunshine and digging a hen shaped hole to dust bath? So do we.   

Are you a first-time owner and a little unsure about what to expect? Good, then read on to find out what to expect when you bring your lucky ladies home.  

First things first, we take hens from all commercial systems and the condition of the birds may vary depending on which system you have booked but wherever they come from your hens should be healthy, albeit look a little scruffy and not quite at the fluffy bottom stage that we all love.   

Take lots of pictures because they will change within a matter of weeks and be strutting their catwalk stuff within a couple of months.  

Newly rehomed caged hens will not have had any experience of the great big outside world. Looking up and instead of a cage ceiling there is nothing but sky so it could be a little perplexing and your new girls may be a little shy and reserved at the start.  

Those everyday noises we take for granted will all be first time experiences but very quickly they will be normal and not so scary.  

You may ask why they have such large, flaccid pale floppy combs rather like Edwardian bonnets. Combs function as heat dissipators in the cage systems. Large numbers of hens give off a lot of heat when living in close quarters; using their combs and shedding feathers is the best way for them to remain comfortable. Fast forward a few weeks and those combs will shrink down to the bright red crowning glory that marks them out as free rangers.  

Daily routine for your caged hens will have involved food appearing on a food belt at certain times as if by magic, water via a nipple drinker and relatively low perches. The lights are controlled by farm staff and the hens do not need to think about when it is bedtime. It is really tempting to open the pet carrier and give your girls access to a massive outdoor space, but they will be confused by this. Start them off in a small secure area that they can explore but be prepared to pick them up and put them in their hen house at dusk for the first few days and don’t worry if they don’t want to perch. Similarly, they haven’t been able to lay their eggs and sit on them as the nature of the cages mean the eggs roll away. You might find eggs laid in odd places, but your hens will soon learn the joys of a cosy nest box.  

You may find your hens have quite long toenails. Cages have scratch mats but not all hens are as successful as others in keeping their nails short and the nature of the cage floor means they have little chance to wear them down just by moving about. It is also not uncommon for hens to develop a limp a few days after they arrive and this can be due to exceptionally long toenails, but your rehoming team should have trimmed any overlong nails before you receive the girls and from then on, your hens will keep them in good shape by scratching in the garden. Imagine they have gone from a very tiny bungalow to a large house and there is a lot more walking in their lives. Also bruising can occur during the catching, transporting and boxing phase of rehoming no matter how gently the hens are handled but in general a few days rest should resolve any issues.  

Lack of feathering around the tail and vent can make some hens appear to have very red or enlarged bottoms. Nine times out of ten this perfectly normal anatomy is usually covered by a lovely set of fluffy bloomers.  

Most of the above does not apply to free-range hens but barn hens, although having access to solid ground, will have similar issues about bedtime routines and new experiences.  

Our Hen Helpline staff are happy to advise on any behavioural or physical concerns and please don’t worry, no question is too trivial and someone else has probably asked it in the past. You can find the contact details for our friendly Hen Helpline staff here.

Finally, enjoy your new family members and welcome to the wonderful world of rehoming hens.  

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