One of the great pleasures of raising backyard chickens is watching them roam, jump, peck and dust bathe to their heart’s content.
From finding “new” items and running around with them in their beaks as the rest of the flock gives chase to laying eggs in the most unusual places, chickens can be quite curious, adventurous and just plain quirky.
Hence, it can be very rewarding and entertaining to let them express those natural behaviors in the outdoors. However, while chickens are very good at entertaining themselves—and us—there are ways you can help your chicken’s quirky side shine through by the addition of a few extra toys (aka environmental enrichments).
In the most general sense, these “boredom busters” can be thought of as environmental modifications that are designed to encourage and enhance the expression of natural behaviors, such as perching and dust bathing, to maintain or improve the health of your chickens.
From a welfare perspective, environmental enrichments provide important mental and physical stimulus. They prevent boredom, reduce fearfulness, enhance learning and improve the health of your flock.
In this column, we will focus on ways to enhance dust bathing, perching and other behaviors using hay bales and shade structures.
We’ll also provide tips on how to build upon any environmental enrichments you might already provide. You can always make your backyard more complex and enriching for your flock.
Are your birds shy and uninterested in straying too far from your coop?
Consider using portable shade structures to encourage grazing and exploration. Shade structures provide protection from the sun, as well as from aerial predators.
By adding a covered structure and creating a sense of security, your birds will be more likely to branch out and be less fearful overall. As a bonus, they may even use them as a perching station!
A good way to keep your birds from grazing the same spot is to move the shade structures every day.
Bales of Fun!
Straw bales of wheat give you the most bang for your buck. They encourage natural foraging behaviors, reduce aggression and improve leg health.
Instead of pecking themselves or their friends, birds can spend hours pecking and scratching through bales.
However, if not deployed correctly, bales can backfire and cause more pecking and aggression among your flock. This is especially true if there is a really dominant chicken that doesn’t like to share.
If you notice that your chickens are fighting too aggressively over who gets to play with the straw bale, try adding multiple straw bales and put them far away from each other. This layout makes it difficult for dominant chickens to fight off unwanted visitors. There are too many bales to protect and too much ground to cover between bales.
Eventually the dominant chicken will give up and let the others join in on the fun.
Hint: You can use the same approach with other types of environmental enrichments or toys. Straw bales can also double as platform perches and encourage birds to jump on and off. This leads to better coordination and stronger leg muscles and bones.
Straw bales can be used to create barriers between feeders and waterers to promote walking or jumping. Place hay bales in such a way that birds can either jump over the bales or walk in an S-shape to get to food and water.
However, this should be done under careful supervision to make sure no birds go without food and water. Alternatively, you could just place food and water far away from each other to increase walking distance.
Chickens are naturally good at dust bathing. This is great news because dust bathing has many benefits.
Dust bathing helps keep feathers clean by getting rid of excess feather oil, which can lead to matted feathers with poor insulating capacity.
Similarly, dust bathing can help get rid of ectoparasites. These parasites live on the outside of its host, such as chicken body louse, mites and sticktight fleas.
In general, chickens have a strong desire to dust bathe. In fact, you may observe chickens trying to dust bathe in the absence of dustlike particles. This activity is known as “sham dust bathing.”
However, some studies have shown that chickens that sham dust bathe may become frustrated. They hold that it doesn’t provide the same benefits dust bathing provides.
Moreover, there is some evidence that suggests adult chickens may develop severe pecking habits if not provided with adequate dust-bathing material as chicks.
The theory is that during the early establishment of dust-bathing behavior, pecking that would naturally occur during dust bathing becomes redirected to pecking feathers. Therefore, even if chickens can sham dust bathe, it’s still important to provide appropriate material that is dry, crumbly and fine like sand or peat as early as possible.
Ideally, chicks should have access to appropriate material the first weeks of age when the formation of dust bathing behavior is occurring. But providing the material after three weeks is still beneficial.
If your chickens have access to dirt and/or you use bedding like rice hulls or peat, you may already provide an appropriate substance that promotes dust bathing.
If you want to enhance the benefits of dust bathing for ectoparasite control, research from the University of California Riverside has shown that a 1:4 ratio of food-grade diatomaceous earth to sand is effective at managing mites and lice in chickens.
To utilize this environmental enrichment, fill a kiddie pool, plastic cat litter box or similar container with the appropriate amount of food-grade diatomaceous earth and play sand. Mix them carefully while wearing a dust mask. (Diatomaceous earth can cause irritation in humans.)
Then, as your chickens dust bathe, the diatomaceous earth gets on their skin and in direct contact with mites. Once on the mites, the diatomaceous earth can absorb or damage the outer cuticle of ectoparasites. This causes death by desiccation.
With this mechanism of action in mind, it’s important to note that the use of diatomaceous earth in combination with other materials such as hay may not be as effective. The diatomaceous earth is less likely to be carried effectively onto the skin and between feathers.
It’s also important to consider that the dust-bathing station will require maintenance to keep it clean and full. One option to help keep the station clean and full longer is to limit its availability to the middle of the day, every two days, which is the time of day and frequency that chickens tend to dust bathe.
Chickens naturally feel safer when they are resting up high and away from predators. Perches are a great way to give your chickens a sense of security and a great way to promote leg health.
Activities such as jumping and balancing on perches help strengthen muscles and bones. This reduces the chances of your birds becoming injured and possibly even helps with lameness.
In addition, by spending less time walking or lying on the ground—where it can be moist and high in ammonia—and more time perching, your chickens will have more time to dry their feet and chest.
This is good for your birds. Prolonged exposure to moisture and ammonia can lead to skin infections or an abscess to form on their feet, a condition known as bumblefoot. Therefore, even though chickens are pretty good at finding places to perch on, it is a good practice to provide safe perching stations.
While there aren’t any clear or set rules on how to build perches, some general guidelines and tips exist that might be good to consider.
For example, it’s highly recommended to measure out enough perch space to give each bird 6 to 10 inches of personal room. This ensures that all your chickens have a chance should they decide to all perch at the same time. They seem to enjoy doing this, especially at night.
In order to prevent birds from easily pecking other birds while still benefiting from perching together for warmth, place perch bars 14 inches apart. (This assumes you need more than one perch.) In terms of the perch size and shape, chickens seem to like 2-by-2-inch scare bars with rounded edges.
Although birds like to perch up high, perches shouldn’t be higher than 3 feet off the ground. This prevents leg injuries, keel bone damage or egg ruptures.
Traditional perch designs consist of A-frame structures or step structures that lean on a wall. As with dust-bathing material, perches should also be added early on (in a perfect world). Otherwise chicks won’t use them as much when they become adults.
As a general rule of thumb, perches should be added by 6 weeks of age. For chicks, perches can be simple single-bar perches. To encourage their use consider placing them near feeders and waterers. This gets them in the habit of perching in the early stages of muscle and bone development.
If you use more than one perch, the highest part of a perch is highly desirable. It is not uncommon to see chickens fight for a space at the top.
Gentle pecks here and there are generally normal. But if your birds become too aggressive, consider using a horizontal perch design where all the bars are the same height (this is optimal). This design may help reduce fighting in some cases by eliminating the desire to compete for the best spot.
Better yet, try a combination of designs to accommodate for different preferences. For example, using a combination of a step and horizontal structure has been shown to reduce aggression in chickens. This is opposed to using only one type of design.
By using a combination of these environmental enrichments to make your backyard more complex, you can:
- help your flock express a wider range of natural behaviors more often
- prevent abnormal behaviors from developing
- encourage exploration and learning
- increase exercise
- reduce fearfulness in your flock
Already using some of these environmental enrichments and think your birds are getting bored? Consider moving them around into different configurations. Perhaps make a rotational schedule where you take out enrichments and reintroduce them after a few weeks.
Hopefully after reading this column, you are inspired to try new environmental enrichments or build upon those you already use.
This article, which appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Chickens magazine, was written by Myrna Cadena (Ph.D. candidate in the Animal Biology Graduate Group at UC Davis) and Dr. Maurice Pitesky from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine-Cooperative Extension.