Egg shortages are currently a thing globally. In New Zealand, we’ve had a couple of law and policy changes that have led to a reduction in the total number of chickens laying for our market.

But in other parts of the world, pre-emptive and responsive culls to bird flu have also caused shortages.

This has led to both empty shelves at supermarkets, and considerably higher prices for the humble egg. Which might lead you to wonder, should you get a few chooks for your own household?

I’ve written quite a bit about our chooks and our seemingly-eternal struggle to have the right number of them. Buying a chicken coop and getting in some young pullets was the very first thing I did when I moved onto a farm (a rental) in 2017.

We’ve been keeping chooks for a while now. We’ve tried a few things, and we’ve learned quite a lot.

Let’s start with the good stuff.

The pros

Chickens are great at cleaning up garden beds, recycling your food waste, and being pretty great pets. I think it’s quite important you actually like chickens if you’re planning to get some.

They have personalities and they can be quite funny. I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of watching chickens chase each other for a good morsel of food.

Throw a chunk of something good in there and the Benny Hill themesong will begin playing in your head as you watch them run around trying to get it away from each other.

Chooks can be very useful for getting rid of stale crusts, vegetable peelings, apple cores and the like.

And of course each chicken will lay an egg roughly once every one or two days from September to May.

The expense

You’re not going to save any money on eggs, especially if you can’t produce your own chicken food. You will have a pretty safe supply of eggs, but don’t count on them being cheaper. A 20kg bag of food will set you back $30 each time. At best, your chooks will be cost-neutral.

While home-made coops can be done cheaply, if you’re not handy and are looking to buy one a house for your chooks will cost between $300 and $2500, depending on what you choose. That’s a steep start-up cost.

Plus, like all good hobbies, there’s the accessories you’ll find yourself buying. I spent $25 this week on protective vests for a chicken the rooster likes to get overly-amorous with.

And after all that you might still need to buy your eggs in the height of summer and depths of winter when your chooks can stop laying.

The other cons

Chooks aren’t cheap or particularly reliable. They’re also not quiet, or clean.

You might think chickens are quiet as long as you don’t have a rooster. And it’s true that does make a difference, but in the absence of a rooster, one chicken will take up the role of ‘lookout’ and sound an alarm if a potential threat appears.

They also like to sing a song and let you know when an egg is laid. Sometimes they lay a big one and go on quite a bit about it!

We’ve also found free-ranging to be impractical. For one thing, predators (including your pet dog) will take full advantage, and for another – no garden is safe. They will be picked apart without one single regret.

You’ll stand on poop all the time and the chickens will find your cat’s biscuits and take every opportunity to run inside and eat them. Some form of fencing (either to keep chooks in or out of things) will probably be required.

But the biggest con comes when you have to say goodbye. Sometimes you have to be prepared to make a hard choice. Whether you’ve accidentally ended up with roosters you can’t keep, or you have a very sick hen; sometimes you’ve got to put them down.

Whether you do this yourself or enlist a vet is up to you, but being prepared to put down any animal for any reason is always difficult.

The learning curve

Chickens are pretty simple creatures to keep, but there is a learning curve.

At the very least, I’d recommend every new chicken owner has copies of How To Care For Your Poultry Volume One and Volume Two in their bookshelf. Bonus points if they’ve read both prior to taking on a flock of chickens.

Chooks will eat a lot of your food waste, but not all of it. You’ll need to learn the difference and work out another waste-stream for the stuff they won’t or shouldn’t eat.

Chickens are living creatures that come with some interesting issues. You’re probably going to need to learn about mites, worms, prolapses, and being egg-bound. Eggs in the supermarket have been sorted – imperfect eggs have been removed. So the weird eggs will stump and delight you.

A range of eggs collected on the same day.

There’s work involved with chicken ownership too. Their water needs to be clean, and so does their coop. You can achieve that in a lot of different ways. You’re gonna need to learn the best way to maintain all it all for your situation.

You might have to clip their wings or pick out poo from their bum feathers.

It’s just a lot if all you really want is eggs.

The mitigating factors

There’s an exception to every rule. For every person who spent four figures on a chicken coop, someone else built theirs for $20. We’ve been really lucky with animal health, but predators have broken our hearts a number of times.

I love our chooks. They are daft and wonderful. First and foremost, they’re pets. At best, they are cost-neutral pets with a bonus food recycling system.

We were in no way motivated by shortages or panic to take them on. When I was much younger my parents had backyard chickens and I loved them.

A young Kat (aged 2-3ish) looks through the fence at two white chickens.

Me, aged maybe 2 or 3 hanging out with our backyard chickens. Circa 1984-5. Thanks Dad for digging this up.

I don’t eat chicken to this day because of that flock of backyard chooks. In some ways, chickens are a formative and defining part of my character. 

As soon as I had the security of tenancy and the means, we got chickens. I am not really concerned with how much they cost, or what they produce in return (though I am aware of and apreciate it). I just like chickens.

Kat and Richard inside the completed coop

Richard and I inside our newly-built chicken coop. BC – Before Chickens. June 2017.

If you like chickens, and have the space and the means – well, go for it. But if you’re just looking to keep up your supply of poached eggs, it remains cheaper and simpler to buy eggs – even in this economy.

You’re better off spending your energy looking at alternate suppliers – a neighbour with chooks and an excess supply; a fruit and vege store; farmer’s markets; or direct from a local egg producer.

To be totally honest, cutting out the supermarkets (if you have that ability) is probably the best way to improve supply.

Supporting the producers as directly as possible makes the whole endeavour more worthwhile to the people who look after the chickens who lay your eggs. While the ones left on the supermarket shelves will be there for those who can’t access them other ways.

We’ve actually got it good here. The market will balance out within a year or two. We’ll just need to keep our fingers and toes crossed the Avian Flu doesn’t make it to our shores in the meantime.