The colder weeks of late autumn and the frigid winter months can be particularly difficult for backyard flocks. Daylight hours are few. Frigid temperatures, cold rain, snow, ice and shiver-producing winds can mean more time spent in the limited space of the coop. Sometimes, chickens will remain indoors even when offered an opportunity to be outside, which can lead to boredom.
Boredom—not enough to do and close quarters—can cause unwanted behaviors. As late autumn winds usher in colder temperatures, chicken keepers must be observant because behaviors such as bullying, feather-pecking and egg-eating can become lasting habits. When you notice any of these behaviors, it might be time to change things up a bit, so consider experimenting with some of the following stimulating options for cooped-up winter birds.
If your hens already have access to periods of free-ranging, you can open the gates to your compost pile or dormant vegetable garden as a way to combat boredom. These are great new places for your hens to explore, scratch, scrape and dig. While they till your garden, they also engage in behaviors that come naturally.
When I give my hens an opportunity to venture inside the fenced vegetable garden area, they run to the gate. This limited access is a welcome opportunity to be in a different part of the yard. If there’s no snow on the ground and the ground isn’t too frozen, I have found this to be an excellent option.
“Many chicken owners allow their chickens full access to the garden all winter long,” says author and chicken-keeper Jessi Bloom in Free-Range Chicken Gardens (2012). “In this season, there are few delicate plants in the garden, and there are insects to eat and soil to scratch in. Because of freezing temperatures, make sure the chickens always have access to fresh water and housing to protect them from the cold.”
When raking autumn leaves, save a bag or two for winter forage as a way to help chickens fight boredom. A bag of leaves poured out in a pile in January or February offers a new activity on a cold winter day. Piles are something hens really feel compelled to kick around. Leaves encourage chickens’ curiosity while providing mental and physical stimulation.
If leaves aren’t available, putting fresh straw down can be another energizing resource for your flock. I leave the straw flecks intact and let the girls do the work of spreading them around. They can make a day of tearing the straw apart and distributing it around the run.
Large flowerpots were a favorite place for hens during the summer months. Planted with petunias and nasturtium, they were invaded and dug through. While my annuals didn’t survive, I discovered that the hens thought these large pots were really dusting stations.
Some annuals even have beneficial qualities for chickens. One is fennel, where the foliage and seeds are good for chickens to eat for general health, and another is nasturtium, which has antiseptic and antibiotic properties. You get to enjoy them all summer and early fall, while your chickens get them come winter.
Leave flowerpots filled with potting soil, and move them inside the run during the winter offering a place for birds to hop up, perch on higher ground or dust their feathers. This is a great way to combat boredom.
Obstacles, of Course
Varying the dynamics of the yard breaks up boredom in that it allows individuals to gain more space for moving about. Perch additions are one way to give your birds new territory inside the hen yard. Add perches at different heights so birds can hop up and take in the winter view of the yard. Perches can be created from branches, sticks or logs placed on end. Swinging perches are more dynamic for your girls and can be easily made with a stick and some rope.
Offering additional space in the hen yard that is sheltered will let your girls move about while staying out of the wind and weather. My coop is on concrete blocks and the hens have access to the “basement.” An old card table turned on its side can create a windbreak, while standing it on four legs can create another platform for hopping up.
Another way to bust boredom is through reflections. Create curiosity for your brood with a mirror hung at chicken-eye level. Mirrors can provide hours of entertainment and mental stimulation for you and your birds.
Your choice of additions don’t have to be costly; even leaving a rake in the run will give your girls something new to think about. Adding something new to the yard always creates a change in the space and an opportunity for intrigue.
Be aware that a muddy yard with standing water isn’t healthy for your birds. Standing water will become contaminated with feces, and the chickens will drink from it regardless of its condition. It’s easy for even the smallest flock to churn a yard into a muddy mess — so using straw also has the benefit of soaking up moisture. Remove wet straw, and replace it with fresh material or fill in wet ruts with soil to help keep the birds’ feet dry.
Take the boredom out of chow time: Winter food treats can add nutrition and play simultaneously. Your hens will find the following treats a nutritious addition to their daily portion of layer feed.
Cabbage, kale, collards or other leafy greens can be suspended with a piece of rope. Hanging this treat means it will swing when pecked — providing movement, stimulation and something green to consume when grass and yard greens aren’t available.
The large heads of sunflowers offer another activity and treat all in one. Place the dried head on the ground or attach it to the side of the coop where hens must work a little harder to pull seeds out. The whole head can be easily dried and stored at the end of the growing season only to be offered when you need something new for your busy hens to find.
Homemade or commercial suet cakes are a perfect source of extra winter nutrition. Recipes abound for making your own chicken cakes or suet mixes that can give your girls a variety of nutrients and be available in forms that allow them to engage in their own natural feeding behaviors. Hung from the sides of a pen or suspended from the ceiling, suet mixes with different grains are other options.
Offer warm snacks, such as oatmeal or rice, to hens in the late afternoon. Not only do these give the girls a treat, they can provide a boost of warmth when the weather is cold. Hens gobble up these offerings before being closed in their coop for the night.
During summer, free-ranging hens find plenty of protein in foraging the backyard for worms and insects. Protein treats are a winter bonus that can be particularly helpful to molting birds. Hens relish protein-filled surprises, such as mealworms, shredded cheese, hard-boiled eggs (smashed up so was not to inspire egg-eating) and fish. Canned cat food is a good source of inexpensive fish that gives a protein boost on bitterly cold days. Your girls will get the jump on protein offered in the form of table scraps or special supplements to their layer feed. (Read the Nutrition Matters series on page 4 on how much to feed during winter.)
DIY Flock Block Substitute
This flock block recipe and photo appear courtesy Jill Winger at The Prairie Homestead (www.theprairiehomestead.com). Try it as a winter boredom buster for your flock.
- 2 cups scratch grains or any mix of whole grains that you might have
- 1 cup rolled oats
- 1 cup cornmeal
- 3/4 cup wheat germ
- 1/2 cup raisins or cranberries
- 1/2 cup crushed eggshells or oyster shell
- 4 eggs with shells, crushed
- 3/4 cup molasses
- 1/2 cup coconut oil, tallow or lard
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- In a medium bowl, mix the dry ingredients together, including the crushed eggshells.
- In a separate bowl, mix the eggs, molasses and coconut oil.
- Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients; mix well.
- Pour your mixture into a greased pan. You can be creative here. I split mine between an 8-by-8-inch metal pan and a round 8-inch cake pan. You can also use a loaf pan or something larger and deeper. It depends on what you have on hand and how many chickens you are expecting to share the block.
- Bake for 30 minutes, or longer if you are using a deeper pan. The block is ready when the edges have become dark and the middle is firm.
- Allow to cool, and serve to your flock.
A Few More Ideas
In Backyard Chickens Beyond the Basics (2017), author and chicken-keeper Pam Freeman offers the following boredom-busting ideas:
- Hang a whole cabbage from the ceiling just high enough for the chickens to reach.
- Cut a watermelon or squash in half, and place it in the coop.
- Clean the coop, and leave the bale of straw or bag of chips intact but without strings or wrapping attached. Let the chickens spread it.
- Give the chickens a flock block to eat. Set the flock block in a shallow dish planter to keep crumbs contained.
- Add lots of branches at varying heights to the run.
- Add a chicken swing.
Open the Door
Short periods of free-ranging allow chickens to get out and stretch their legs. During the winter months, I let my girls out of the run while I’m preparing dinner and can see them from the kitchen windows. They visit all their usual yard haunts to see whether anything has happened since they were out last.
While free-ranging can be a healthy diversion, it can also be dangerous during the winter months. Winter translates to hunger for local predators. Fox, coyote and birds of prey might be cold, hungry and on the prowl. Bare trees and shrubs mean fewer places to hide. If you choose to open the gates and allow your hens periods of free-ranging, you’ll need to monitor them more closely than in warmer seasons.
Shorten free-range periods, and use food enticements to get your flock back inside their secure yard or coop. Watch for predators before and while chickens are loose. Be aware that predators might be hanging around even when your flock is safely inside its enclosure. I’ve had hawks sit on the roofline of the hen yard during cold weather hoping that I’ll come out and release the flock for free-range hunting.
You can learn more about and engage with your flock by spending a little time with them, even on cold days. Your presence is another form of stimulation. Take time to get to know each individual, observe behaviors that let you know their preferences and provide stimulation that supports healthy hens. Your efforts will be rewarded in hearty birds that lay healthy eggs.
This story originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Chickens magazine.