To best care for your backyard chickens, you need to know which of their behaviors are normal and which are not. Chickens are creatures of habit, as you might have already learned through simple observations of them around your home. Watch for these five daily activities that make up your chickens’ world.
1. Chickens Move
When given the opportunity, chickens move around a great deal during the day. Scientists have put pedometers on hens to discover that they can walk and run close to 1½ miles a day, though just within the small area of their home turf. Although they are not great flight birds, chickens like to roost in high places and will fly onto a barn rafter or tree branch to sleep or rest.
2. Chickens Groom
Happy chickens have a number of “comfort” or grooming behaviors. They preen, stretch, flap their wings and take dust baths. Dust baths are critical to keep chicken feathers in good condition and to reduce the impact of insects that are natural chicken pests. When you see a chicken taking a dust bath, it looks like it is swimming in the dirt with wings and legs stretching, flapping and throwing dirt in the air. It clucks contently as it “bathes.”
3. Chickens Nap
On sunny days, you may find your chickens taking an afternoon nap in the sun. Like sunbathers on the beach, they will line up to catch some rays. Because chickens can’t sweat, they’ll stretch out in a shady spot, extend their wings away from their bodies and pant with their beaks open to release heat when it is very hot.
Also during hot weather, they’ll dip their beaks into cold water to help cool the blood in the carotid artery, located in the neck between the windpipe and jaw. Chickens tolerate cold slightly better than heat, but when it is very cold and windy, they’ll opt to stay in their coop and huddle down much of the time, often resting their beaks under a wing.
4. Chickens Talk
Chickens are talkative, at least during daylight hours.
“They have at least 30 different vocalizations, and maybe more—we haven’t characterized all of them,” says Dr. Joy Mench, director of the Center for Animal Welfare at the University of California at Davis. “If you can listen long enough, you’ll be able to detect a lot of variation in their sound—it isn’t just a ‘cluck.’ You can also use them as a really good indicator of what kinds of things are going on within the flock.”
Chickens vocalize one way to alert the flock to flying predators and another way to signal ground threats.
“There are all sorts of unique contact calls used between one adult and another, or between adults and chicks,” explains Dr. Mench.
Anyone who keeps roosters knows the day starts with a “cock-a-doodle-doo,” but even here, the vocalization is unique.
“Every rooster has a different crow call,” she says. “They are completely distinctive; they use these in the wild to advertise their territory and communicate with their hens.”
5. Chickens Forage
Chickens are natural foragers and have good eyesight at short distances, which allows them to differentiate food clearly. They have a wide angle of vision and acute color perception. They prefer to peck at objects that are round rather than angular. Chickens spend as much as half the day scratching and pecking in search of tasty morsels. Even when chicken food is readily available in a bowl, they prefer to scratch around in dirt or litter for at least some of their food.
As omnivores, given the opportunity, chickens will dine on a variety of grains, seeds, grasses, insects and even rodents. (Pity the poor mouse that finds itself surrounded by chickens.) Typically, chickens are fed mash, finely ground feed and scratch—grains that have been coarsely chopped. You can also supplement their feed with all kinds of kitchen scraps, garden gleanings and other goodies. We give our hens milk every afternoon (a great source of both protein and calcium), and they know it’s coming from a mile away. They give us the “Oh, boy, it’s milk time” vocalization as soon as we step out the back door.
About the Author: Carol Ekarius is author of How to Build Animal Housing (Storey Publishing, 2004) and resides on a ranch in Colorado.