Regular readers of this blog know that I am a big fan of geese on the homestead, but there are plenty of other birds to consider if you’re starting a farm. They each have their own unique needs and benefits, and it’s quite possible you’ll find room for all of them or discover that only one type will really fit your lifestyle.
Many people may think chickens are the only option for farm fresh eggs, but that is not the case. Most farmyard poultry lay eggs, and bring a host of other benefits as well.
The most well known backyard farm bird, chickens are prized because they are easy keepers, versatile and useful. They’ve been part of farmyards for about 5,000 years, since first being domesticated in Asia from a wild bird known as Red Junglefowl. These spangled birds are still found on islands across the South Pacific today.
The appeal of chickens in ancient societies and our own is their incredible versatility as a domesticated animal. Chickens do it all: they lay delicious eggs, they provide meat, they eat bugs, they have spangled feathers, they can be great pets, they give you organic manure, and they are cheap and easy to keep.
An adult hen lays between 4-6 eggs a week, making only three or four chickens enough to keep a family well supplied. They don’t need a rooster to lay. Raised for meat, a chicken can feed a family for several days, providing lunch meat, salads, and soups. Chickens only require about 4 square feet per bird, and a small run. They eat approximately 1/4 pound of feed a day, and it’s quite easy to grow your own chicken feed. Many farmers will fund their chicken feed purchases directly with the sales of their farm fresh eggs.
The earliest domesticated poultry, geese can be friendly and useful additions to the farmyard. They take marginally more work than a flock of hens, but are still easy keepers and can bring you a variety of rewards.
Geese can lay 20-40 eggs a year, and a goose egg is large enough to make a full omelet on its own. They are prized for their delicious, dark meat, and when slaughtered their fluffy under feathers make the down that stuffs our pillows and comforters.
These large birds also have some unexpected uses. They are used for weeding on several broad-leafed crops, keeping the growth around plants such as strawberries under control while leaving the sweet fruits behind. They also make excellent guard animals, honking loudly at the sign of any intruders or changes. While geese have a reputation of being aggressive, hand-reared ones are usually docile and friendly, all honk and no bite.
Geese do need more space, about 10 square feet per bird. They need access to water in order to swallow their food, but they don’t need a full pond to bathe in. As long as water is deep enough for them to immerse their beaks, they should be fine, and geese kept on pasture in summer need little if any grain to supplement their grazing. Geese kept on grain eat about 1/2 a pound a day.
My personal favorite aspect of raising geese is the fact that goslings will imprint on their caretaker. They form a bond with any surrogate “parent”, which can be you if you spend plenty of time with your baby geese. After this bond is formed, they’ll follow you everywhere and be your most dedicated friend. The ability to imprint is unique to both geese and ducks.
The other imprinting poultry, ducks are becoming quite popular on the modern farm. Ducks have been farmed for thousands of years, and wild ducks were hunted and their eggs scavenged even before that.
They are far more different types of ducks in domestication than you might guess. There are upright, skinny varieties known as runners; the meaty-faced, unique Muscovies; and also plumper, swimming breeds that descend from wild Mallards. Each type has unique needs, but like geese they don’t need a pond to be happy. Muscovies and runners use water to bathe and eat – they also cannot swallow without immersing their beaks. Other breeds like domestic Mallards, Pekins, and Cayungas love to be able to swim in open water, but can be kept amused by a kiddie pool or other artificial swimming area.
Ducks need approximately 4 square feet per bird. Geese and ducks sleep on the ground, unlike chickens who prefer being able to roost at night. Adult ducks will eat about 1/4 pound of feed a day, and love special treats. Ducks, like chickens, are omnivores and enjoy tadpoles, lizards, and mice as much as lettuce, tomatoes, and bread. On that note – don’t overfeed breadcrumbs as they aren’t particularly healthy for your birds.
One thing to keep in mind with ducks, especially breeds like Mallards and Pekins, is that they are much more messy than other poultry. Waterfowl are intrinsically dirty, as part of their daily toilette includes splashing in water that will cover the area they are kept in, and if there’s mud on your farm it is guaranteed they’ll find it and play in it.
Guinea Fowl are an African bird most similar in appearance to turkeys, with bald blue heads and speckled bodies. Originally hunted and eventually domesticated, these birds are very low maintenance but most remain at least somewhat wild.
Guineas are truly unique homestead birds. Many farmers keep them without a shelter at all, as they can fly high enough into the trees for night roosting to be safe from predators. If kept in captivity, they only need 2-3 square feet per bird for a shelter. Additionally, guineas eat almost no feed during the summer months, when they are expertly foraging. They lay eggs seasonally, in the spring and summer, usually about thirty a year. Plump birds, they make good eating and are said to be more flavorful than chicken.
Apart from eggs and meat, many farmers keep guineas to protect flocks of smaller birds, such as chickens, and to reduce pests such as ticks and snakes on the farm. Guineas are active foragers and love little insects like ticks, and they are fearless hunters when confronted with snakes. They won’t shrink from mice or rats, either.
Guineas are very loud birds, and they wander far when left to free range. They’re not the ideal bird if you’re looking for a pet, but they are excellent low-maintenence fowl if you want pest control and fresh eggs.
Another bird that’s behavior usually hovers on the edge of domestication is the quail. Quail are rather similar to pheasants, another type of poultry you might find on the modern homestead. Pheasants are often larger, and usually have brighter plumage and louder calls.
Quail are a great bird to keep on a small farm, because they themselves are diminutive and only need one square foot per bird in a shelter. They don’t roost and don’t require nesting boxes, preferring to lay their eggs in private corners. Skittish by nature, they love having plenty of places to hide in their run.
Quail are productive layers, averaging over 200 eggs in a year. These eggs are tiny and speckled, and are considered a delicacy. Quail meat is also prized, however they yield very little per bird. They are very active and must be kept amused in their run or allowed to free range. This also makes them highly entertaining to watch forage and play, and adult quail eat only about 15g of feed a day. They enjoy fresh greens in addition to crumble.
Being so tiny – adults are only about 1/4 of a pound – quail are always at risk to larger predators. They must be kept away from house pets such as dogs and cats, and they need a shelter secure from even smaller predators like rats and skunks.
Turkeys make striking additions to the barnyard, the males always happy to show off their plumage and bright blue heads. First domesticated about 2000 years ago, turkeys originate from Mexico and Central America. Another low maintenance bird, turkeys are primarily raised for their meat but are becoming more popular as pets.
While you are probably familiar with turkey meat from the Thanksgiving tradition, these birds also lay two or three eggs per week that can be scrambled or fried just like chicken eggs. Turkeys are great fliers and can be kept without a run, as they will roost out of reach of predators at night. They eat about 1/2 pound of feed a day, but can consume less if they are actively foraging.
Turkey owners describe them as surprisingly affectionate, allowing themselves to be carried around and choosing to hang out with their human companions instead of shying away. Weighing around 20lbs, adult turkeys can also effectively guard a flock of smaller birds. They are notoriously curious, which may lead to their fearlessness of people.
There are plenty of other birds you can keep on your farm. Emus, the flightless birds from Australia, have become prized for their meat and large, speckled eggs. Because of their size, they require more space than the average poultry. Peacocks are kept on farms for their beautiful feathers and amusing personalities, despite their very loud calls. Swans, pheasants, partridges, and pigeons are all raised by farmers for various reasons and are well worth considering on your homestead.
While keeping poultry isn’t always a case of why not have one of everything, it’s fun to expand your flock to some of the more unique birds if you have the space and time. You may be surprised at how helpful they are on your farm.
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