Chicken toys and environmental enrichment are key as poultry are highly motivated to explore and perform their natural behaviors. For this reason, when not given this opportunity, they’ll get bored. Encouraging the expression of natural behaviors can improve poultry’s health, welfare and performance of more diverse and complex behaviors. As flock owners, it’s imperative to create a stimulating environment for our birds. One way we can do that is through enrichment such as chicken toys.
Environmental enrichment is defined as modification of an animal’s environment to improve their biology by increasing natural behaviors, enhancing emotional states and improving physical development. Enrichment must be stimulating, evoke interest, and improve their physical, behavioral and mental welfare. Barren environments—environments without enrichment—can lead to poor welfare states, fearfulness, depression, behaviors such as feather pecking, cognitive impairment and poor performance.
The earlier the enrichment is introduced, the better. Early introduction can help our birds become more adaptable and less fearful. The 2001 study “Reducing feather pecking when raising laying hen chicks in aviary systems” showed that exposing chicks to litter and sand at hatch led to less feather pecking than those placed at 2 weeks of age. Ensuring the brooding environment has similar features to the coop environment, such as a perch, can also help lessen some of the negative behaviors.
Providing a flock with chicken toys and environmental enrichment doesn’t have to be complicated. Ensuring your flock can express natural behaviors like dustbathing, foraging and perching is key. This can be as simple as providing adequate space in the coop, giving access to vegetation outside or placing a new object within the coop. Here are some great ways to provide enrichment.
In order to perform natural behaviors, birds need a certain amount of space. The Global Animal Partnership considered the gold standard for animal welfare guidelines, recommends having at least 1 1⁄2 square feet per hen within the coop and one nest box per six hens.
Combined with the recommended amount of space, outdoor access can also offer enrichment. Many natural behaviors such as foraging and dustbathing can be performed in vegetative areas outside the coop. However, some of these behaviors can be limited during winter months, and other enrichments may be required.
Chicken Toys: Perches & Roosts
Birds are highly motivated to perch. Jungle fowl, the wild ancestor of the chicken, often roost to protect themselves against predators. If chicks are provided a perch, they’ll perch as early as 10 days of age and use perches for night-time roosting.
Providing a perch as enrichment supports physical development of your flock. Studies such as the “Farm Environmental Enrichments Improve the Welfare of Layer Chicks and Pullets: A Comprehensive Review“ have shown that pullets provided with perches improved muscle deposition and bone strength, leading to reduced incidence of feather and vent pecking and floor eggs.
Birds are highly motivated to dustbathe—so much so that hens will dustbathe when they’re housed in cages without material to dustbathe in. Using finer bedding material such as sand, ground wood shavings and peat moss can stimulate this behavior.
Hens particularly love dustbathing in a finer material to penetrate their feathers, so adding a litter additive is a great way to encourage this behavior. When poultry dustbathe, it has been shown to support feather quality, control parasites and be a healthy social behavior.
Providing foraging material encourages foraging behavior. The purpose of foraging is for hens to understand their environment and find potential food sources. Providing foraging material can help reduce the occurrence of feather pecking.
Chickens forage by scratching and pecking at things within their environment including grasses, wood shavings, hay bales, feed and scattered treats. Foraging material can be food or nonfood objects that stimulate pecking for your birds, but not all foraging material is created equal.
Treats, such as mealworms, increase foraging behavior more than whole wheat or non-nutritional material like wood shavings. Scattering treats is a great way to encourage this behavior and reduce feather pecking.
Chicken Toys: Novel Objects
Placing new objects, such as chicken toys, within the coop is also considered enrichment. How your poultry react to novel objects may be an indicator of their fearfulness and how well they cope with stress. An example is found in “The effects of environmental enrichment devices on feather picking in commercially housed Pekin ducks,” a 2014 study in Poultry Science. Researchers found that providing ducks different colored whiffle balls with zip ties attached led to less feather pecking and cleaner, better feather quality when compared to the ducks that weren’t provided any enrichment.
Turkeys are similar, too. Providing simple things such as straw, an object hung from a string/perch or forage thrown on the ground reduced feather pecking.
When selecting chicken toys, remember they have better vision than humans, so it could be fun to offer different colored objects. In the 2000 study “Pecking preferences and predispositions in domestic chicks: implications for the development of environmental enrichment devices,” scientists found the laying hens pecked more at yellow and white string than red, blue and green string.
They also discovered that chickens prefer simple objects to complex objects. A novel object could include string, thimbles, buttons and colored drawings on the walls, brightly colored plastic bottles, balls and rattles. However, to remain interesting and novel, these objects need to be switched or replaced often. Take care not to provide objects that your flock could destroy and ingest.
Providing chickens with environmental enrichment is an effective way to encourage the expression of natural behaviors and improve the health of our flocks. Enriching a flock’s environment can be as easy as scattering treats for them to forage. The type of environmental enrichment can vary based on things like the time of year, the size of your coop and giving chickens access to the outdoors. Select the type of enrichment that works best for your flock!
Mikayla Baxter, Ph.D., is the Digestive Health Products Manager at Perdue Animal Nutrition. This article about chicken toys and environmental enrichment originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2023 issue of Chickens magazine. Click here to subscribe.