“Idle hands are the devil’s plaything” is a saying that most people think only applies to humans. On the contrary, it can apply to all species of animals, especially poultry. Many chicken boredom behaviors can appear if your birds aren’t enriched, and some aren’t the greatest to see.
If your flock is bored, it’s not going to be living the best life. Particularly in winter, you might see these behaviors more often. Keeping your flock cooped up can increase the chances of these chicken boredom behaviors establishing.
Always on the move, chickens are extremely curious little creatures. With warmer weather, many flock owners free-range, and with the multitude of activities that they participate in throughout the day, chickens can get bored very easily when weather turns cold.
Many things happen throughout a bird’s day. Pecking, scratching, chasing after bugs, flying up in trees, playing in weeds, socializing, dustbathing, sunbathing and investigating anything foreign are just a few daily experiences. In a large environment, chickens have many activities to behave in and can keep themselves entertained all day long with no issues.
Once you coop your birds, you can take a lot of these behaviors away without meaning to.
Always, always, always ensure that you have more than enough space for your flock. You can never go wrong with a large run. This will ensure that even if you have bully birds, your bottom bird will have enough space to get away.
We’re going to dive into these behaviors one at a time before we get into chicken boredom busters.
Feather picking and feather loss are going to be a leading sign. Over time, you’ll learn your flock member’s individual traits.
Most flocks have a “bottom bird” that is the bird at the very bottom of the pecking order. This bird will get picked on, and you’ll see this sign first thing on it. When chickens are bored (sometimes feather picking could indicate another issue), you’ll start to notice broken and/or missing feathers. What is happening is that another bird is bored, and they’re picking at the other bird and not at the ground or something else.
If this goes on too long, you risk birds in your flock getting injuries and illness. If a bird is picked on too much, their skin will start to suffer and you’ll have an increased risk of them being cold or getting an infection.
Bored birds can also start eating their eggs. They might do this with a vitamin deficiency, as well, but if they’re cooped up and bored, this behavior will rear its ugly head.
During winter, some breeds lay, while others don’t. You’ll have to rely on how well you know your flock to see when this behavior will make an appearance. If you normally get one to two eggs daily during winter and then you begin to get zeros across the board, suspect that your flock may just be tired of having nothing to do.
Another issue you can run into is destruction. When chicken boredom sets in, you flock will start messing with things they normally don’t touch. If you have netting within their reach, they may start flying into it or pecking at it.
Destruction doesn’t only apply to their coop but to each other. Remember: They’re genetically related to dinosaurs! They’ll stir up arguments amongst themselves just to give themselves something to do. This again can lead to injuries and illness.
If you have roosters mixed in, they may repeatedly challenge each other or overbreed your hens if they get bored.
Boredom busters are here to help curb the above chicken behaviors. You want boredom busters that are easy and provide entertainment for long spans of time when you can’t be in the chicken coop with them. You want to bring a complex environment in as much as you can and provide them with some type of stimulation.
This one is easy enough! If you grow a garden or visit a grocery store, pick up a watermelon, pumpkin or any large fruit or vegetable. This buster can be healthy, as well as add preventative superfoods to your birds’ diet.
Take a watermelon or pumpkin, and cut it in half. I like to put oregano on top of the cut part because oregano boosts birds’ immune systems. However, you can use any topping you know your flock enjoys — blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, herbs, mealworms, etc.
Set it in your coop, and you’re done! This will keep your bird’s attention for most if not all day.
During summer, if I have to put my flock inside the coop for predator reasons, I use watermelon, cucumber, squash, zucchini and balls of lettuce or cabbage. During fall and winter, I’ll use pumpkin, broccoli, cauliflower and different types of squash available then.
Just a Swinging
Give them a chicken swing and boredom begone! You can buy a swing from many retailers, but they’re so easy to make. I start with finding a 2- to 3-inch-thick branch or piece of wood. I’ve also used tobacco sticks when I’ve had them available.
I get one that’s at least 3 feet in length, so birds aren’t knocking each other off to have a turn and everyone gets a turn. Plus, they have the extra stimulation of keeping their balance when another bird tries to jump on.
Next, you’ll need to find some baling twine or rope. Tie a piece of rope on each end, and tie the other ends on a rafter that you have somewhere in the coop. If you don’t have a rafter or sturdy point to tie the other ends of rope, you may need to make a stand. You can do this easily with two 4x4s set into the ground and cut to the desired height.
Lay another 4×4 across the top of those two, and screw or nail together. You can easily attach your rope ends to that.
Time for Toys
Give them toys! Chickens have been found to be very intelligent and emotional animals. Chickens can function on the mental level the same as about a human toddler.
If you are a parent, don’t throw those toys away just yet! Some toddler toys can keep your flock entertained for hours!
Throw in a mirror or two for added fun. Some favorites that I have seen are toy xylophones, toddler pianos, stacking toys and rattles. Always remember to keep the coop clear of toys that have parts that could potentially be pecked off.
You don’t want your flock ingesting decorative pieces.
You can do this buster many different ways. You can buy large, round produce and run a rope through it, or you can grab a hay bag at your nearest feed-supply store and load it up! I originally carved a hole through the middle of a pumpkin, head of cabbage or lettuce, or a small watermelon before hanging them.
I accidentally discovered the hay-bag method when I discovered my free-rangers were in the goat pen and found the hay bag as a source of entertainment. They were jumping up to pick hay out of the bag, and the idea struck to start one in my breeding pens.
I find the hay bag much easier than the rope method, and you can add a variety of treats to it. Get a small netted hay bag and not the solid kind. When I use hay bags, I put apples, leafy greens, bananas, chard, carrots and things that I could find that wouldn’t fall out of the netting.
Give them something to jump on! This chicken boredom buster can be free if you have logs around your property. It also doubles as a treat!
Place a few stumps and logs in the coop. The different heights will keep them busy, and they’ll get treats if any bugs run out from under the bark on the logs. If you have an old wooden ladder, this can give your flock an activity also.
When I first began seriously breeding and had to pen my flocks up, I would rotate saw horses in and out of their pens when I noticed they needed more stimulation. A pallet can also work to hold their attention.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
If you have old water bottles laying around, don’t throw them away. Repurpose them!
Punch or burn holes around the outside, and throw some mealworms or grubblies in it! Make more than one, and place them in the coop! Your flock will stay productive and busy pecking and rolling the bottle around to get out the treats.
Pile It On
A big pile of just about anything can hold their attention for a bit. Hay, herbs or even leaves give your flock joy by giving them something new to peck and scratch through.
With chickens being as curious as they are, a new texture of just about anything they can spread around can keep them entertained for hours. Every year I would trim back my lavender and have a big bundle to let them peck and scratch at. Helped with the coop smell as well.
Build a Bath
To ensure happy and healthy birds, make sure there is a dust bath somewhere in their run or in their pen area. This helps keep a flock busy for some time and keep parasites off of your birds.
Fine sand and dry dirt are the building blocks of a good dust bath. You can go the extra mile and throw in some herbs to keep your birds smelling fresh. Many chicken-keepers make dust baths in different ways. Some will let their birds make their own holes, others will put their ingredients in a tire set on the ground, and many will use a kiddie pool.
Soil Their Pen
My friend’s family has an in-run compost pile! Any compost they have, they put in an area surrounded by chicken wire with one side opened up.
My friend’s flock gets entertainment for hours, and she gets really enriched soil to plant her tomatoes in! She never has to turn it either because the chickens do it for her and even fertilize it as they scratch away.
Just spending time with your flock offers them companionship and a change of pace. It’s beneficial as a boredom buster, and it can also be a positive impact on you as the chicken flock owner.
Chickens are social creatures by nature, so they can establish relationships with their caretaker. This also helps you with mental and physical well-being! Chickens can recognize up to 100 faces so they can remember who is who.
While chicken boredom busters keep birds busy, they also help with the overall health and happiness of you and your flock, alleviate negative behaviors and keep a flock busy for a long time to come.
If you grow a garden and have extra leftovers, freeze some as a cool treat during summer and to dethaw and give during winter! Don’t forget berries and leafy greens!
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Chickens magazine.