The chicken perch is a vital part of a chicken coop. Learn from one chicken keeper’s experience why having the right chicken perch can make a big difference to your flock’s health and happiness.
Joseph recently reached out to me about an issue with his flock. He lives a few miles north of us, in a rural-zoned area in the next county. As such, he can keep an unlimited number of chickens on his property. He specifically chose to keep just laying hens and has about two dozen Orpingtons, Easter Eggers and Welsummers for a variety of egg colors.
He’d kept them in a small garden shed, allowing them to roost overnight wherever they pleased. But he invested in an actual coop earlier this spring.
That’s when the problem started. He noticed that his hens were acting jumpy and stressed out in the morning, as though they’d stayed up all night or had drunk a lot of strong coffee. Egg production then decreased.
Finally, injuries started cropping up on many of his girls. He spied bloodied combs, bleeding heads, missing back feathers and injured toes.
Joseph was stumped. “These look like rooster-mating injuries,” he told me. But there are no roosters in his flock.
No Obvious Reason
He inspected the entire coop to see if there was any way that a small predator had gotten in and was gnawing at, scratching up and stressing out his hens. Nothing. Everything was securely covered in fine hardware mesh and well-caulked.
He checked the fence around his yard to see if anything had dug under or broken through. It was also completely intact.
Joseph even spent an entire day working on his laptop from a vantage point where he could observe the coop and his flock and still pick up his home’s WiFi signal. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, other than the anxious, injured hens.
At a complete loss, he asked for my advice. I was just as perplexed by what he had described. I didn’t know how much I could really help him, but I figured I’d at least try.
The Chicken Coop
Joseph took me back to see his new coop. It is a real stunner that matches his colonial-style home. Lidded nest boxes were located on the south side of the structure, with a storage area on the north side and a pop door and ramp leading from the front of the coop down to his yard. The coop is elevated, allowing the girls to retreat beneath it for some cool shade on hot, sunny days.
There were even window boxes on the front windows. (Joseph hadn’t decided what to plant there yet.)
Everything looked perfect. Frankly, I was green with envy. But then I opened up the back access doors and discovered the cause of the problem.
The Chicken Perch
Inside the main section of the coop was a feeding and watering alcove large enough to allow multiple birds to drink and eat simultaneously. Both the feeder and waterer were easily accessible for quick refilling. No problem there.
The other part of the coop featured three perches, still relatively new and clean, extending from the alcove wall to the south wall, just above the entrances to the nest boxes. The perches were approximately 10 or so inches away from each other—a little close, but the chickens could still squeeze up between the roosts to perch.
The problem, from what I could tell, was the chicken perch. He didn’t have a laddered perch for his chickens. The chicken perch was all on the same level.
1. The Chicken Social Hierarchy
Chickens are extremely social animals, with a well-developed hierarchy within a flock. There is an alpha female (and male, if roosters are kept). That alpha female rules the chicken perch.
She will usually have a few trusted hen friends who serve as her lieutenants. Together, this oligarchy sets the pecking order within the flock.
The younger hens and pullets are usually amongst the lowest ranks, along with any new additions to the flock. Every bird knows her place and understands that the queen bee and her court of chickens get the prime perch, the best nesting box, the choicest dustbathing area and first dibs at the feeder.
This is the way of the chicken. A happy, well-adjusted flock tends to have a well-maintained pecking order.
Chicken Perch Position
By having the three chicken perches in his coop on the same plane, Joseph inadvertently interfered with his flock’s social hierarchy. All of his hens were now sleeping at the same level. The alpha hen and her court were now on par with every other girl in the coop.
Regardless of which roost the flock leaders chose for themselves, there would always be other birds at their level. This undoubtedly caused confusion for the flock when they first moved in and caused the birds to feel stressed.
As the hens adapted to their new home, the perch positions continued to cause trouble. Lower-rank chickens could inadvertently roost on the alpha hen’s chosen perch. Hens wishing to rise in rank or challenge the alpha could purposely position themselves on her roost.
The alpha hen and her lieutenants not only had to defend their pole position but also had to continually remind the rest of the flock about who was in charge. And with the perches being so close to each other, the leaders could easily reach other girls to deliver a peck or other physical blow.
All this occurred in the name of maintaining social hierarchy.
2. Countering Cannibalism
Aside from the pecking order issue, crowding on the chicken perches may also have caused problems for Joseph’s birds. While chickens do snuggle together at night while they sleep, they start moving about and spreading out in the pre-dawn hours. Because of this, each bird must have about six to 10 inches of perch space they can call their own.
Each of Joseph’s perches was 48 inches in length, which would accommodate eight birds per roost … if all of Joseph’s girls were small birds. With large-sized Orpingtons, however—and his flock leaders were indeed Buff Orpingtons—more room per bird was needed.
While eight Easter Eggers could fit on one perch comfortably, only four Orpington chickens could do the same. Joseph’s two dozen girls were overcrowded. Overcrowding is one of the main causes of cannibalism in chickens.
The stress and injuries his flock suffered not only matched a pecking-order issue but were also signs of chicken cannibalism.
3. Helping the Elder Hens
While Joseph’s flock was only a couple of years old and not yet at this point, eventually his chickens will reach an age where jumping up to a high perch will no longer be possible. This will also be true should he decide to add breeds that become very large, such as Jersey Giants and Brahmas.
A lower perch will allow larger girls and older chickens to still roost off the ground without the risk of injuring themselves hopping up or down from a higher chicken perch.
Joseph seemed surprised by my conclusions. He’d watched videos online of coops that had a similar arrangement for their roosts. Still, he was willing to try anything to bring some peace to his flock.
He removed the front two perches and reinstalled them with new wall supports at one and two feet down from the third perch … and at 16 inches apart. When he checked on his girls that very first night, he was once again surprised.
His alpha hen and her buddies were on the high perch, all by themselves. The rest of the flock cozied up on the bottom two rungs, his younger hens on the bottom.
The next morning, he reported back that his chickens emerged from his coop looking content and well-rested for the first time since they moved in. I’m sure that, should I drive up to visit, I’d find a happy group of girls, injuries healed, and one relieved flock owner.
This article about chicken perches was written for Chickens magazine online. Click here to subscribe.