Keeping chickens is a whole lot of fun, but if you’ve ever kept farm animals, you know it can be hard to travel and leave them behind—not because you’d miss them (though we all do!), but because they have unique needs that not everyone understands. Urban farm and homestead commitments, like any other farm, require knowledgeable, daily attention.
But when it comes to keeping backyard chickens, I’m a firm believer that you can have your eggs and eat them, too. Our choices to be closer to our food system don’t have to keep us tethered to that food system year-round. Chicken keepers should have the flexibility to travel for work, to go on vacation and visit family, even if that pulls you away from the coop.
Why Do I Need A Chicken Sitter?
Depending on your flock’s housing, feeding and watering system, you may be able to load them up on the essentials and know they will be OK for a night or two. However, I caution chicken owners if they choose this option: Even if your travel plans call for a very short stint away from home, it’s still best to enlist a neighbor or nearby friend to check on your flock once or twice per day, to collect eggs, and to lock the coop door at dusk. (If your coop and run are predator-proof and secure, and locking the coop isn’t a daily chore, even better!). For some short-term chicken sitters, the gift of the eggs they collect while you are away may be compensation enough for their troubles.
Longer travel plans will call for more comprehensive chicken-sitting services. In this case, you will want to find an experienced chicken-sitter or give some hands-on training to a chicken-loving friend, relative or neighbor.
What Should I Look For In A Chicken Sitter?
The ideal chicken sitter is one who knows poultry well. Many people are familiar with typical pets, such as cats and dogs, and can easily read the needs of a furry companion. Even feeding a hamster, gerbil, ferret, indoor or caged pet birds can be fairly straightforward for a seasoned pet sitter who knows and loves animals. Although we may consider our beloved hens our pets, they fit firmly into the category of livestock when it comes to their care.
The primary difference between a flock of chickens and their furry, housebound counterparts is their portability—or lack thereof. Dogs and cats are often moved and boarded easily for a length of time at an established kennel or in someone’s home; equally simply, pet sitters may transport small rodent or birdcages easily. Chickens, on the other hand, must remain in their home coop and enclosure while you’re away.
To understand what is needed in a pet sitter, let’s look at the daily care of a flock of chickens: On a daily basis, a flock requires fresh food and water, as well as daily egg-collecting, and to have their coop door opened in the morning and closed at night. Daily checks for security breeches by predators is also a must and, in most cases, takes someone rather knowledgeable in your area’s local predators to see, such as digging marks, scratches and bent wires, all of which may be quite small, subtle or easily missed. Finally, a quick visual inspection of each bird should be conducted to assess health or injury. Remember, chickens hide illness or injury very well. A sick or maimed bird may not show symptoms of an ailment one day and appear to suddenly suffer overnight. With experience under your belt, you may do this visual check without thinking much about it, but a novice chicken sitter won’t know what to look for other than the obvious.
Can I Train a Chicken Sitter?
Of course! Just remember your learning curve when you were first keeping chickens. What were the most important things you needed to know to care for your flock in the first days, weeks and months? What do you wish you had known when you were first getting started? When you train a chicken sitter, don’t bog them down with unnecessary details: Keep it short, simple and straightforward, and emphasize the most important aspects of chicken keeping that apply to your flock, such as whether they need to be locked up or if you experience run-ins with certain predators.
Given the choice, a pet sitter who has experience with poultry should be given preference over one who does not. Furthermore, a novice chicken sitter with absolutely no experience with chickens but a penchant for birds, would be preferable over someone who has a fear of chickens or is squeamish around birds. It may sound obvious, but someone who has affection for your flock, rather than someone who is afraid or wary of these animals, will provide them with better care.
If you choose to train a friend, neighbor or relative to care for your flock while you are away, insist on having them over to show them the ropes before you leave. Give them a tour of the coop and food/supplement storage area. Show them where fresh water can be accessed and how to open and close the coop door. Leave a short, detailed list for them to reference while you’re away, including important phone numbers and emergency contacts.
Where Do I Find A Chicken Sitter?
In an ideal world, you’d hire a sitter who’s familiar with chickens, lives nearby and comes with good references and recommendations. The advantages to hiring a person of this caliber are many: You don’t have to worry about inconveniencing neighbors, friends or relatives with your chicken-watching request, and you can rest easy knowing that a reputable sitter is doing a great job. You may or may not choose to give a chicken sitter access to your home—because flocks live outdoors, many sitters can simply bypass the house and go straight to the backyard. Plus, some sitters will still collect mail, check on the house and water plants if you ask them to.
Of course, if you’re friendly with your immediate neighbors and they have an affinity for your birds, you may choose to offer them compensation for their help watching your flock. If you are a member of a local chicken-keeping club, start by asking the club’s members for recommendations. You may find a chicken keeper in your area that is happy to watch your flock for you, or you may learn that keepers have used certain sitters in the past and can give you references. If neither of those are options to you, check with local veterinarians for sitter recommendations: They may have several names of reputable pet sitters who have familiarity with chickens.
Ask many questions of any potential chicken-sitter, including names and numbers of their references, their breadth of experience and comfort level, and other services they provide. Don’t be afraid to interview sitters at your home and see how they are around your birds, and don’t feel obligated to hire someone you feel less than completely comfortable with.
With some important leg-work done ahead of your travels, you can find a reliable chicken sitter to call on whenever out-of-town opportunities arise.
About the Author: Freelance writer Kristina Mercedes Urquhart tends to her flock in the mountains of Candler, N.C., where she lives with her husband, dogs, chickens and bees. Follow her adventures in chicken-keeping, homesteading and more on her Tumblr page, The Rocking Horse.