Rachel Hurd Anger
November 18, 2015

If you're going to keep chickens, you need to keep at least three for their social health. 

Rachel Hurd Anger

Chickens might seem like just another pet to some, but when we’re bringing livestock into our yards, we need to remember that their needs are not the same as the needs of the animals we might keep inside our homes. If you’re keeping a single chicken or you’re considering getting just one, know that chickens living alone can become very lonely.

Common household pets, like dogs and cats, don’t require the presence of other dogs and cats, even though they might enjoy them. Cats have a much greater independent streak than dogs do, but they still greet us when we come home from time away. My dog’s emotional needs are much greater than my cats’ needs. Dogs function with their human families as packs, like their wolf relatives, but the pack doesn’t need to be canine to meet the dog’s emotional needs. Chickens are entirely different, and must be around other chickens to feel calm, safe and secure.

Social Complexity Of The Flock

Some might recommend that keeping just two chickens is OK, but one should never keep fewer than three in order to meet the social needs of the birds. The more chickens you have, the more complex and satisfying their social structure will be. Chickens thrive on their social lives.

  • A single chicken only has a relationship with itself.
  • A flock of two chickens has four relationships, each bird with the other and with themselves.
  • Three chickens have nine relationships between them.
  • Four chickens have 16, and so on …

The larger the flock, the greater the social complexity will be within the flock. This dynamic is important to chickens like it’s important to people. We can certainly survive alone, but human relationships are important to us and critical to our mental health. Chickens feel the same. They recognize us and bond with us, but without other chickens, they will be lonely. Loneliness causes stress, which can affect egg laying and shorten lifespan.

Roles Within A Flock

A group of chickens function as a flock because its members take on roles like people in families or teams. Some chickens choose their roles, like the bold chicken that elects herself head hen, or the hen that steps up to be protector of a flock in the absence a rooster.

The head of the flock will often assign roles to the least dominant birds, like forcing a broody back to the nest, even if you (the keeper) remove her. Every so often, a less dominant bird will fight the power, trying to adopt the role she’d prefer, but the dominant chickens will stop rebellion with a dose of violence. The social structure means everything to a flock of chickens.

Affection: Snuggling, Roosting And Bathing

Chickens meet their physical emotional needs by resting and leaning together in the sunshine, roosting wing to wing, or by hiding a head underneath her neighbor’s fluff like a baby chick. With time, each chicken develops an especially close relationship with specific birds—the best friends. These two or three besties will usually be seen dust bathing together, roosting next to each other at night, and foraging side-by-side. My Golden and Silver Laced Wyandottes are inseparable. Right now, they’re birds of a feather molting together.

If you watch a flock of chickens throughout the day, you’ll notice that if any one of them spends time alone, it’s not for long. Chickens prefer privacy only when laying an egg, or when sitting on eggs.

Humans Can’t Provide Everything

The small amount of time my flock spends with me isn’t critical to their wellbeing. Shortly after I’ve provided food, they’re off again with each other doing chicken activities. They might enjoy my company because I have the food, but they don’t have affection for me like my other animals do.

Humans are often guilty of projecting our understanding of love and affection onto animals that don’t understand affection the way we do. Chickens’ emotional needs are met by relationships with other chickens, not by relationships with chicken keepers. My Buff Laced Polish has a lot of contempt for humans, especially me.

Take it from a chicken enabler: If you only have one chicken, you definitely need more chickens.

Read more of Chicken Quarters »

 



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