Boredom and chickens are not a good combination. When hens have nothing to do, they create their own fun. And their idea of fun means picking on other hens, pulling out their own feathers and eating eggs before you have a chance to harvest them.
Free-ranging chickens rarely get bored because they have lots of opportunities to explore their surroundings. Cooped chickens are another story. With nothing but their coop walls and each other to keep them amused, confined chickens get into trouble.
If the situation dictates that you keep your chickens cooped instead of allowing them to free-range, you can still do a lot to help keep them from going stir crazy. Providing an enriching environment along with some changes in their routine can turn your bored flock into a bunch of happy hens.
One of your first considerations for creating a more stimulating existence for your cooped chickens is making some changes in their lifestyle. This means changing the way they live on a daily basis.
Here are some suggestions.
Add a Rooster
If you have a flock of hens without a rooster, you have no idea the fun you—and your hens—are missing.
Adding a rooster to your coop will change the dynamics of the group in a big way. The rooster will make your hens’ lives more interesting by adding mating to their daily activities. And his presence will also create a more natural environment for your girls.
In the world of chickens, boys and girls are meant to live together.
Some of the other benefits of having a rooster in the coop include watching him court the hens with something known as the shuffle dance. You’ll also see him carry the best morsels of food over to his favorite hen and drop them in front of her.
He will break up fights between hens, as well as help protect new chicks in the flock.
Handle Your Birds
If your chickens are young, or if they are mature but were handled a lot when young, you can help make their lives more interesting by regularly holding them.
Spend some time sitting in the coop with a hen in your lap, stroking her feathers. It’s therapeutic for you (it can lower blood pressure and reduce stress), and your birds will enjoy it.
If you have older birds that have not been handled a lot, you’ll need to spend some time getting them used to human touch.
Keep handling sessions calm and short, and give the bird time to relax and settle down before you end the session. Over time, your hens will discover that time spent being petting and talked to is actually something rather pleasant.
Provide More Room
One reason free-ranging chickens are relatively free from boredom is because they have plenty of room to roam. Having a large space to explore keeps chickens occupied.
Being cooped up is certainly safer for domestic chickens. But the lack of freedom can prove frustrating for busy birds.
You can help remedy this in one of several ways. First, consider supervised free-ranging. If you are concerned about predators attacking your hens if they are outside their coop, give them an hour a day to free-range on your property as you sit outside with them to keep watch.
Make sure you can successfully herd them back into the coop when you can no longer babysit. Or you can wait until the end of the day, about an hour before dusk, to let them roam. They will naturally go back to the coop when the sun starts to go down.
Another way to provide your birds with more room is to extend their outdoor enclosure. Take a look at your coop and see if there is a way you can add on to it to allow more outdoor space.
You can build an extension onto your current pen or provide a separate outdoor enclosure where your chickens can lounge during the day. Be sure to provide them with shade and roosts in this enclosure.
Portable enclosures designed to allow cooped chickens to graze on grass are another option for giving your birds more room. These small enclosures have an open bottom, and when placed on a lawn, the birds are directly on the grass.
Chickens love to snack on the green blades and will root around for bugs, too, while they peck away at the grass.
After 15 minutes in one spot, you can easily move the pen just a few feet to provide the chickens with a new patch of grass. (If you choose this option, make sure your lawn is free of herbicides and pesticides for your chickens’ safety.)
You can also do a lot to liven up your birds’ environment by adding accouterments to their coop. Creating a space that is rich with stimulating toys, perches, roosts and other items can help give your hens something to do.
Start by adding some permanent fixtures to your coop. Chickens love to get up off the ground, and anything you can add to their enclosure that will enable them to perch or roost will be appreciated.
Here are some ideas:
Construct perches where your cooped chickens can hang out above ground. You can use dried tree branches, commercially made free-standing perches or even an old wooden chair.
A small, dead tree with sturdy branches can even work. Just make sure the base of the tree is secured in a pot with heavy rocks or cement so the tree won’t tip over when your birds are perched in it.
Some chickens love to perch on swings. You can buy swings made specifically for chickens that can be hung from the coop ceiling. Or if you are handy, you can make one yourself.
Some chicken swings are decorated with colorful beads or bells to help entertain swinging chickens.
It’s no secret that chickens like to climb up on things, and what better way to provide that option than with a ladder?
Flexible ladders made for chickens can stretch across the coop horizontally like a swing, while firm, vertical ladders can lead up to a roost or just lean against a coop wall.
Cooped chickens will enjoy climbing on them and roosting on the rungs.
Chickens enjoy sitting on tree stumps, so adding a few cut stumps to your coop will go a long way toward making your birds happy.
You can use a few stumps of graduating size or bases that are all the same height. Place them next to each other in the coop so the birds can jump from one to another. Or place them around away from each other to allow individual roosting.
You can even hollow out one of the stumps, turn it on its side, and use it as a chicken tunnel and hideout.
If your chicken coop is big enough, add a bale of fresh straw to the floor plan, still held together with baling twine. Your girls will enjoy jumping up on it and scratching around.
They may also peck through it looking for bugs. If you toss scratch on it, they will root around between the strands of straw searching out the grain.
If you have a tree that regularly drops its foliage, you can add an armful of dried leaves you’ve raked up to a corner of your coop.
Your chickens will love rustling through the pile looking for bugs and scattering the leaves around.
Chickens love nothing better than taking a bath in the dirt. If your coop floor isn’t already made of the kind of dirt the birds can bathe in (soft and fine), you can add a spare tire minus the rim or a large, shallow pan filled with fine sand or dirt.
You can also add some fine food-grade diatomaceous earth to help kill any mites or fleas that might be living on your chickens.
Place the dust bath inside your coop and watch your birds have fun fluttering around in it.
Dogs and cats are known for liking toys, but chickens appreciate them, too! Mirrors are popular toys for chickens, as they enjoy pecking at their own image.
Toys that dispense treats when rolled around are another chicken favorite. You can use toys made for small dogs or specifically for chickens.
Plastic balls containing bells are also popular with some birds, who enjoy pecking at, picking up and dropping them.
Fun with Food
In their natural habitat, chickens are grazers and are always looking for something to eat. You can help make your birds’ lives more interesting by giving them a challenge when it comes to getting their food.
One method of livening things up for your hens is to provide them with plenty of variety in their diet.
While lay pellets or all-flock crumble are great staples to make sure your chickens are getting all the nutrients they need, giving them other goodies will make life more interesting.
Chickens enjoy catching their food, and while an occasional bug may wander into your coop, your birds don’t likely have much opportunity to chase down insects for dinner.
This is where you come in.
You can buy live insects for your chickens to eat from your local pet-supply store or online. Some favorites include waxworms, mealworms and crickets. Toss a few of these critters into your coop and watch your chickens scramble!
Regularly offering your chickens fresh food will help keep them from getting bored. It’s a rare hen that will turn down a juicy piece of fruit. Strawberries, blueberries, watermelon and apple slices are popular with many birds.
Chickens love greens, too, so tossing them some spinach, arugula, kale, lettuce and chard will make them happy.
Remember that whatever treats you feed, give them in moderation. You don’t want to upset your birds’ digestive tracts. Also be sure to wash all fruits and vegetables before you feed them.
Keeping cooped chickens entertained takes a little effort, but you’ll find that it’s worth the trouble. Not only will your hens be less destructive and maybe even more productive, they will certainly be happier.
You might even find that you enjoy them more, too.
While feeding a variety of foods can make life more interesting for your chickens, the way you present it can even provide more fun.
Hanging food so birds have to work to get it is a good way to relieve boredom. String up a head of lettuce or cabbage, or half a cucumber, and let it hang from a spot in the coop so the birds have to leap up to reach it.
You can use rope to hang it, or buy a hanging food holder made especially for chickens.
Seed sprays are another popular item for hens. Although they are designed for smaller birds such as finches and parakeets, chickens enjoy them, too. Seeds sprays can be hung from the side of the coop, and your chickens will have fun pecking at them to get at the yummy seeds.
Chicken suet is another great way to keep confined hens busy. A solid block packed with grain and other treats, chicken suet provides hours of nutritious fun.
Place the block in a suet holder, attach it to your coop wall and watch your chickens go to town.
You can buy these blocks already made at a feed-supply store or online, or make your own using a variety of grains, seeds, dried fruit or anything else your cooped chickens might like, along with molasses to hold it all together.
This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of Chickens magazine.