Whether free-ranging or confined, today’s backyard chickens exercise less and are given far too many treats in addition to their nutritionally-complete layer feed. As a result, research and poultry veterinarians tell us that most of today’s pet chickens are dying prematurely from obesity-related health complications.
Fortunately, we can turn that around. Nutritional awareness can help optimize the health and lifespans of our backyard flocks (more on that in a bit).
As for your poultry’s exercise regimens, nothing gets those fluffy butts moving like a chicken playground. Here’s how you can make your backyard better for chicken health.
Inadequate living space puts chickens at greater risk for obesity and behavioral problems such as feather picking and egg-eating. So maximizing yard space is critical to health and wellness.
The bare minimum outdoor space allocation is 10 square feet per bird, but more is always better. Just as with children, bored chickens can get into mischief.
Providing enrichment activities within a spacious outdoor area keeps chicken minds busy with no time for unapproved extra-curricular activities. Build an outdoor recreation area that provides ample opportunities to exercise their bodies and their minds!
A collateral benefit to all this activity just happens to be endless hours of entertainment for human caretakers!
Chicken Playground Planning
Keep things interesting in the chicken yard by mixing in different activities and features periodically.
Chickens aren’t especially fond of change, so don’t pull all these tricks out of your proverbial hat simultaneously. When thinking about the kind of activities you’d like to incorporate into a play space, consider features offering varied vertical heights such as ladders, roosts and stairs the chickens can jump on or fly up onto.
Add variety with different textures, colors and hiding places. Chickens enjoy natural features such as fallen branches, stumps, shrubs and trees, too.
Many of the following playground features can be added to the inside of a spacious chicken run.
But if you’d like to set up a chicken playground space outside the confines of the run and your flock doesn’t customarily free-range, consider portable electric poultry fencing. The fencing will keep the flock confined to the area while preventing access by four-legged predators.
Hawk netting or deer netting secured over the top of the play space will exclude aerial predators. In the absence of netting, provide chickens with areas to duck underneath for cover such as barrels. You can also use rudimentary benches constructed from an old door resting on top of two cinder blocks, an old end table, or a homemade branch teepee.
A play yard should offer protection from the sun in hot weather.
Shade cloth, beach umbrellas and tarps provide relief from the sun’s beating rays. You can also locate the play yard near naturally shady areas underneath, trees, bushes and ornamental grasses.
Chickens should not have to travel far to stay hydrated in hot weather. Keep clean, fresh drinking water in several locations throughout the play space to encourage hydration.
With core body temperatures in the 104- to 107-degree Fahrenheit range, and without the benefit of sweat glands, chickens wearing built-in down jackets have difficulty staying comfortable in high environmental temperatures.
A mister in a shady spot in the play yard will be a welcome relief as it cools the air surrounding it and the chickens. In temperatures over 90 degrees, watch for signs of heat stroke.
In addition to shade and plenty of cool drinking water nearby, keep a bucket or tub full of cool (not cold) water close to the flock. If any flock member begins to look overheated, panting with wings away from its sides in addition to appearing lethargic or pale in the wattles and comb, immediately submerge them in the cool water up to their neck for several minutes. This cooling measure will bring its body temperature down safely and quickly.
Even if chickens are not in danger of heat stroke, a cool dip in the water can be a welcome relief to chickens not inclined to wade into water independently.
Some chickens do enjoy wading in shallow pools of water on hot days. For these birds, a small toddler pool or shallow container filled with cold water for wading will be appreciated.
We have learned a tremendous amount about the dietary requirements of laying hens in the past 100 years of poultry nutrition study. Today’s backyard chickens have a significant advantage grandma’s didn’t have.
Commercial layer rations are formulated to ensure a precise, nutritionally complete balance of approximately 38 different nutrients required by hens to maintain health and equip them with the resources necessary to produce high quality eggs.
When I use the term “treats,” I mean anything they eat that is not their chicken feed, including:
- Table scraps
- Dietary supplements
When chickens consume treats, they no longer receive the correct percentage of essential nutrients from their complete feed. Even healthy treats dilute the complete nutrition in a chicken’s diet, reducing their ability to be optimally healthy and productive, and to live long lives.
Consider the problems we would create for a human infant if we were to add water to its breast milk regularly. The formerly perfect diet for that baby would be diluted, preventing the baby from growing and developing properly.
The same thing occurs when we over-treat our pet chickens. Treats in moderation are fine occasionally. Limit edible treats to no more than 2 tablespoons per day per chicken. And don’t offer edible treats every day or even every week.
Bowling for Crumbles
Who says a nutritionally complete layer feed can’t be fun while encouraging fitness?
Drill six to eight small holes in an empty, dry plastic water bottle with a 1⁄2-inch drill bit, then fill it half way with layer crumbles.
The chickens will peck at the bottle as it rolls around the yard. As pieces of feed fall out of the bottles, they race each other for the nutritious bits!
Provide several bottles to the flock simultaneously to avoid conflict & the accumulation of fowl penalties.
Christmas Tree Jungle Gym
Whenever chickens are confined to spaces smaller than they ordinarily enjoy due to inclement weather, boredom and behavioral problems such as feather picking, and egg-eating can result. Keep chickens busy, entertained and happy in winter by thinking outside the box; provide novel objects for chickens to explore and climb on such as a Christmas tree laid on its side after the holidays, a wooden sled, old chairs covered with evergreens and birch logs stacked in an old crate.
Chickens have a natural instinct to roost up off the ground. Encourage jumping up and flying down by providing your flock with a variety of objects to roost on in varying heights.
You can use common and uncommon roosting materials. Here are a few ideas:
- Wide tree branches
- An old tool box
- Stumps arranged in varying heights
- Milk crates
- An old park bench
If you’re feeling particularly ambitious … try your hand at making a chicken gazebo! My chickens love the one Mr. Chicken Chick made for them out of items found right in our backyard.
Create a chicken playground that looks different from your flock’s everyday environment, add different elements from time to time and vary it with season-appropriate activities.
The variety will stimulate their minds, keep them out of each other’s hair (or feathers, if you like!) and encourage much-needed exercise. The options for activities are only limited by your imagination, so get out there and enjoy discovering which activities are most appreciated by your pet chickens!
Sidebar: Dust Bath 4-Square
Animals living in the great outdoors will be exposed to insects living in the environment, transported into the yard by wildlife. That’s natural and expected.
Chickens are able to rid themselves of most pests most of the time by dust bathing. During this activity, they dig shallow ditches in the ground, roll around in the loose dirt to distribute it throughout their feathers and skin, and subsequently shake it out along with hitch-hiking pests.
Dust bathing not only helps chickens maintain skin condition and plumage, it’s good exercise (think: chicken yoga). It’s also a strategy for staying cool in hot weather and an opportunity to socialize with flock-mates.
So in your chicken playground, why not provide birds with a choice of safe materials to encourage dust bathing in locations of your choosing?
Offer a variety of containers filled with loose soil, peat moss or sand. Flower pots, buckets and tubs are all great dust bath vessels.
In this photo, my chickens enjoyed their choice of peat moss, sand, cedar mulch and plain old dirt from the yard. We made a rudimentary frame to section off the materials, but chickens would be just as happy to dust bathe in any or all of the materials at once.
This story originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Chickens magazine.