Raising chickens has been an increasingly popular pastime for years, be it on a small farm, a rural sprawling lawn or in a suburban backyard. Even urban chickens have become a thing. By and large chickens are easy to manage, generally predictable and fairly uncomplicated. Because of this you might say they are the gateway drug to keeping a mixed flock of poultry.
Ask anyone who has kept chickens for some time, and they’ll likely tell you that they have tried—or at the very least considered—adding at least one other type of bird to their flock: ducks, geese, guineas, turkeys, maybe even peafowl or pheasants.
Having several varieties of fowl can be entertaining and beneficial. Different species offer different benefits.
- Ducks provide eggs praised for baking, and ducks are prolific slug hunters in your garden. They’re also quirky and fun to watch.
- Guinea fowl are master tick eaters as well as effective alarm bells. They have odd little faces and are very amusing when they run.
- Geese are great protectors, excellent weeders and can be wonderful companions.
- Peafowl and other exotics are simply beautiful, elegant and fascinating to watch.
The benefits of a mixed flock are endless. But what holds many people back is a lack of space or inability to supply multiple housing situations. Each individual species does have different needs, but done right, you can successfully house a mixed flock.
One Coop? No Problem
Keeping your birds all together in a single coop and run can save space, time and money. One housing situation means less building material, fencing, electricity and work. While we do it with a rather large flock, this scenario really benefits those who prefer a more reasonable number of birds.
If you’re raising your flock in a small suburban yard, for instance, you may not want to address separate housing for each species—a duck house for just two ducks, a coop for a few chickens, a run for a lone goose.
Having a single, larger coop and one run allows you to efficiently house more birds in a smaller space while still giving them the room they need to flourish.
Whether you free-range your birds or not, a sizable, fully predator-proof run attached to the coop with 24-hour access is always a good idea. This place should allow your flock to move about outdoors while still contained.
Preferably this run would have at least a partial solid roof, especially in areas with extreme sun, excessive rain or snowy winters. Having a decent run will give your birds options, space and, most importantly, fresh air even when not free-ranging. The larger you can make this area, the better.
We like to use different levels in our run to help mitigate any potential bullying issues, as well as provide more space in a small area. By adding plenty of higher perches, low hiding nooks and multilevel platforms, you can maximize the space and give each breed a little place of their own.
A simple picnic table in the center of the run could do the trick. So could a pile of brush in a corner for someone to hide under and a branch set up for perching. Or, you could get creative.
Safe for Eggs
You’ll also want to give everyone a safe, dry space to lay eggs. Our ducks and chickens often share a single nesting box at ground level. But we provide several to give them options.
The smaller bantam chickens mostly utilize the higher boxes. The ducks, guineas (who are natural woodland layers) and the bigger chickens prefer the lower ones. Despite the fact that they’ll often all lay in the same few boxes, or in no box at all, options will cut down on skirmishes.
Our indoor coop area consists of several perches at different heights to accommodate a variety of species, while still allowing for a lower area, protected from the perchers’ falling poo with a single angled roof, for our ground sleepers.
Having open-access to the run also gives your flock more room for sleeping space. Ducks and many game fowl prefer to spend the night outdoors.
Dynamics, Behaviors & Disease
The second most important thing in keeping a mixed flock is to tune in to your birds’ behavior patterns, and understand and intervene in the instance of bullying or illness. Simply put, the larger the space the birds share, the fewer the issues.
Until the harmony of your flock is established, keep an eye on coop dynamics, especially with young birds coming into maturity. Raise everyone together from day-olds if possible, so that everyone is accustomed to one another. The more you watch your birds interact, the more aware of their needs you will be.
Small squabbles are normal and necessary. By nature, birds must establish a pecking order. This order may change over time as dominate birds age and grow weaker or as new members join the flock.
Space to Recover
Knowing when to intervene and having a space in the coop where you can isolate injured or bullied birds for short periods is essential.
In a coop/run with lots of space, this could be a separate cordoned off area. You could also use something as simple as an old dog kennel with an opaque tarp over one end.
The space should separate the bird from the flock, without stressing it, so it can still see and interact with its roommates but also retreat when it needs to. The ability to separate birds in this way also helps with acclimating new members to the flock and separating mothers with their babies from curious pecks and prods.
Different birds are more susceptible to different diseases. So read up on the specific species and breeds you intend to keep. Also arm yourself with an understanding of how particular illnesses effect different birds so that you can intervene in any issues quickly and effectively.
If you’re able to free-range the birds during the day, this is ideal. This gives them less time in close quarters where disease can spread more readily and small disputes occur more frequently.
We also keep a bird first-aid kit on hand.
Most backyard birds have similar needs when it comes to housing and their immediate environment. You’ll find some clear differences between the way waterfowl and other poultry/game fowl affect their surroundings.
Ducks and geese, for example will make an absolute mess if they have access to open containers of water. To avoid having different setups for each species, save on electricity in winter and add to the communal atmosphere of the coop, we supply large, low, water barrels that everyone can reach.
These we cover with wide-spaced fencing wire, such as deer fencing or cattle grid. This allows everyone to reach the water, but prevents anyone from getting in it. It cuts down on cleaning frequency, inside and outside of the water dish, and allows a single water heater in cold temperatures.
Water & Cleaning
In warmer months (or climates), having some deeper and some shallower water containers spread out around the run can also be a good idea to reduce competition. Remembering that waterfowl must always have access to water, they can fully submerge their heads in.
The indoor area however, must be cleared regularly. For this, wood shavings are your best friend. Easily swept away and absorbent, they also add a pleasant smell to the coop.
Using straw bedding is not recommended unless you plan to clean very frequently. While chickens love it, straw and duck poo are the perfect recipe for a very stinky situation.
Food & Health
The disadvantage of a mixed flock in relation to their feeding is that you have to be more aware of what each creature needs nutritionally and what foods or medications can be dangerous.
Medicated feed can’t be fed to a mixed flock. It’s not as simple as buying chicken pellets or waterfowl crumble.
Each type of bird needs slightly varied percentages of different nutrients. Feed labeled “multiflock” isn’t necessarily always good for everyone. High-protein foods can be detrimental to ducks, causing angle wing and increasing their weight unsafely. For game fowl, though, high protein is beneficial.
I like to use a standard layer pellet and add in black oil sunflower seeds and dried corn for the peafowl, meal worms for the ducks and other seeds and snacks that everyone can enjoy. In winter, I regularly supply green goodies such as chopped kale, baby leaf spinach and grated carrot.
Feeding time in a mixed run can get hectic. This is the time when the most disagreements occur between flock residents. Having several food dishes spread around the coop allows everyone to eat in relative peace.
The basic supplemental nutrition needs of your flock will also be subject to what your intended use for the birds is—i.e., eggs, meat or optics—as well as the breeds you raise and your surrounding environment. Full nutritional charts are easy to find online.
At first, all of this can be daunting, but despite there being quite a lot to consider when creating a mixed flock, once everything is in place, you’ll be glad you did your homework and happy to be housing communally.
There is nothing like coming out in the morning to open the coop door and witnessing all the little personalities and conversations going on. Mixed flocks are a joy to watch and raise!
Very few preventative medications can be given to all birds in equal dosages, and some debate as to whether preventatives should be used at all, which is ultimately why I chose to go the natural rout when it comes to preventative measures and treats.
By free-ranging, the birds are able to source a lot of their own nutritional needs, but when cooped up in winter or bad weather, I successfully supplement with garlic and herbs. I also provide our ducks with regular rations of nutritional yeast, high in niacin, which is important to their growth and health and can be mixed in with the flock’s drinking water or sprinkled over their feed.
Dirty Old Ducks?
Ducks are likely to be your messiest residents. So if you intend to keep some, having proper flooring in the run is also important. A cement, linoleum or stone floor will be easiest to clean in a coop, but make sure the run is lined with something softer.
Ducks especially, but other birds as well, are prone to bumblefoot if kept on hard surfaces for too long. I use wood chips over a dirt floor in my run and allow my chickens to do the heavy lifting when it comes to cleaning. Their constant scratching means that the floor base is always rotating and aerating and is largely kept clean without human intervention.
I do one big scoop-out in spring after long freeze periods, and otherwise leave them to it. Sand or pea gravel would also be effective flooring, allowing water to drain and chickens to still scratch. We prefer the wood chips though, because they eventually have a second life as garden compost.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Chickens magazine.