Chicken harmony is a beautiful thing: no bullying, no manic behavior, just happy hens coexisting with one another. And it’s not only doable, but it’s not especially difficult to achieve. Here are some ways to make it so.
Provide Lots of Room
Crowding is at the root of most henhouse misbehavior.
Most experts say a chicken needs 2 to 3 square feet of floor space in the coop and 8 to 10 feet in an outside run or 7 1⁄2 square feet per bird kept in full confinement.
But these are bare minimums. The more personal space chickens have to stretch, stroll about and avoid dominant birds, the better life is. This is especially true if they live in confinement full time.
Most sources recommend 8 inches of roosting space per chicken, but this isn’t nearly enough. Chickens need room to spread their wings to fly up to their roosts and down again, to sort out who gets the prime sleeping spots and who sleeps next to whom.
Coop & Run Design
Provide hidey-holes or dark, quiet corners in the coop where chickens low in the flock’s social order can hide from potential bullies and promote chicken harmony.
A simple fix is to lean a pallet against the wall so timid hens can shelter beneath it. You can also cut an entry hole in a plastic laundry basket and upend it in a corner. This provides ventilation and privacy, too.
Hang feeders and waterers in open areas instead of in corners, so there’s plenty of room for hens to maneuver. If you have more than eight chickens, provide extra dining and watering facilities so that lower ranking hens can readily eat and drink.
Provide climbing structures in the outdoor run. This adds space and gives chickens exercise as well as something to do. A log leaned low against the fence or erected in the center with its limbs cut back to about 18 inches in length costs nothing and works well, as do tree stumps dotted around the run.
Provide dust-bathing areas outdoors and in the coop. Chickens love to dust bathe. It calms them while helping control external parasites. A small child’s wading pool filled with sand fills the bill.
Choose Breeds Wisely
Some breeds are more docile and adaptable to confinement than others. Choose a laid-back breed and avoid breeds known for aggressive behavior to promote chicken harmony.
If your flock includes more than one breed, be aware that some breeds are easily bullied.
For example, heavily crested breeds such as Polish and Silkies sometimes can’t see well and accordingly end up at the bottom of the pecking order. Carefully clipping crest feathers on an ongoing basis sometimes helps.
In some breeds—Rhode Island Reds and New Hampshires, for example—hens are docile and easily handled, but roosters are sometimes aggressive. Be aware of this when choosing breeds.
Avoid the Boys
If you don’t need a rooster, don’t keep one. This is especially true in full-time confinement situations.
If a rooster is present, he’s usually top chicken, and it’s not uncommon for roosters to bully flock mates near the bottom of the social hierarchy. Remember those basic space requirements we mentioned before? At least double them if roosters are present.
If you need roosters, don’t keep too many. A rule of thumb is to keep one rooster per 10 hens.
Multiple roosters nearly always scrap with one another, and if the ratio of roosters-to-hens is tipped too favorably toward roosters, they’ll chase and breed the hens until the girls’ backs are defeathered and bloody.
Once chickens spy a spot of blood, they pick on the injured chicken until she’s raw. That’s how cannibalism begins.
Make Introductions with Care
Avoid combining birds from different groups. This is stressful and increases pecking order aggression.
Likewise, try not to introduce new chickens, especially younger chickens, to an established flock.
If you must, gradually introduce them by penning them separately in the coop for a few days before letting the two groups mingle. Even then, watch for bullying behavior and remove bleeding chickens before they’re killed.
Be Vigilant During Bad Weather
Wintertime is the usual time for boredom aggression. Even if it’s cold and there’s snow on the ground, try to get them outside for a few hours if you can. Shovel paths and an open area in the run. Most chickens appreciate an outdoor interlude.
Once you’ve cleared a small area outdoors, consider throwing down hay, straw, leaves or even pine needles for your hens to scratch through. Toss a handful of feed or seeds on it for added incentive.
Chicken Enrichment Ops
Enrichment as it applies to animals and poultry is defined as “any modification in the environment of captive animals that seeks to enhance its physical and psychological well-being by providing stimuli meeting the animals’ species-specific needs.”
Enriching your hens’ lives makes them happier and healthier. You’ll get chicken harmony, too. The main things that capture chickens’ attention are food and shiny objects—especially food.
There are countless ways to enrich chickens’ lives with food.
- Hang dried sunflower heads, seeds and all, in the coop or run. Suspend cabbages, squash, kohlrabi, mangels, lettuce, broccoli, kale, zucchini and the like where chickens have to hop a bit to reach them.
- Stuff a suet cage with suet, a seed block or table scraps, and let them have at it. Make your own suet using cooking grease, scratch grain, birdseed and peanut butter.
- Give your chickens surplus winter squash, pumpkins or melons. Break them open, and set them down.
- Toss them yummy scratch grain for a treat. Spread it out so everyone gets some. Fling it on a layer of hay, straw, leaves or mulch to make finding it a lot more fun.
- Place semi-rotten logs in the coop or run so they can pry off the bark and check for bugs and grubs. Or smear logs with cooked cornmeal, grits, oatmeal or rice.
- Turn crickets loose in the coop on a cold, snowy day when your girls can’t go outdoors. Buy them in bulk at pet stores. Cricket tubes—toys designed to release a single cricket at a time—are a hit any time of the year.
- Buy or make a treat dispenser you can fill with scratch feed, mealworms, frozen peas or corn, bits of dried pasta or peanuts, unpopped popcorn, raw brown rice or other grains, sunflower seeds in the hull or commercially-dried grubs. Make one by drilling 1⁄4-inch holes in a plastic soda bottle or food jar (clean, empty peanut butter jars work well) or try a dog toy designed to dispense treats. Stuff bigger items such as peanuts in the hull or larger frozen veggies in a dog’s toy; that works, too.
- Freeze larger goodies such as chunks of watermelon or favorite raw veggies in a block of ice for the perfect summertime treat.
- Roll peas or peanuts across a hard surface so your chickens have to chase to eat them. Nonfood toys work, too.
A Few More
And for some non-food enrichment ideas:
- Suspend old CD discs where chickens can peck them. They’ll be enthralled!
- Invest in parrot toys. Chickens love them, too.
- Place a child’s toy xylophone where your girls can peck it. They’ll make music while they play.
- Create swings in the coop and run. Drill holes in a thick dowel rod and suspend it with rope or make the swing out of a sturdy branch.
- Add extra perches in the coop and outdoors, so chickens can hop up and amuse themselves. Lean an old wooden ladder against the wall for instant perches.
- Hang a mirror where your chickens can admire themselves and peck at their reflections. Don’t do this if you have a rooster in the coop. He might challenge the “intruder” and get hurt.
Manage your chickens wisely and they’ll return your efforts by getting along with each other in an amicable, peaceful manner. You’ll experience chicken harmony, and all will be happier for that.
Sidebar: Choosing Chickens
If you want to promote chicken harmony in the henhouse, choose a docile, nonflighty breed that adapts to confinement as well as free-range situations. These breeds apply:
- Ameraucanas (said by the chicken owners we polled to be the calmest breed of all)
- Jersey Giants
- Naked Necks
- New Hampshires (roosters can be aggressive)
- Plymouth Rocks
- Rhode Island Reds (roosters can be aggressive)
- Rhode Island Whites
Flighty breeds—this includes most in the Mediterranean class—tend not to do well in confinement, and their higher energy level may lead to bullying.
Aggressive breeds such as Aseels, Cubalayas, Malay, Modern Game and Old English Game shouldn’t be mixed with more docile breeds, as even hens can be bullies. Because they tend to fight among themselves, they don’t do well in confinement.
Most bantams are flightier and more pugnacious than their standard-size kin. Bantam roosters are often aggressive.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Chickens magazine.