Chickens, like humans, experience the stress response, an amazing phenomena for survival. The brain encounters a threat, and the body goes into fight-or-flight mode, releasing stress hormones.
Blood pressure goes up, heart rate and breathing increase, muscles tighten, senses sharpen and digestive activity decreases.
While this is good in the short term, itâ€™s unhealthy in the long term and can cause health issues. Keeping stress at bay is a must for a long, healthy life, even for a chicken flock.
Protection from Predators
Predators are a huge stressor to chickens and for good reason. Predators mean possible death. Fortunately, there are things to do to keep them at bay.
First, make sure all fencing and housing is secure. Despite its name, chicken wire isnâ€™t the best option. It keeps chickens in but doesnâ€™t keep predators out. Opt for something stronger such as hardware cloth.
Fencing should be securely fastened with no gaps where a predator could slip through. For protection from digging predators, bury fencing underground a few inches, and for protection from climbers and aerial predators, fence the top.Â
The chicken coop should be secure with any windows lined with hardware cloth and a secure coop door. A raccoon or the like can easily open a latch, so add carabiners instead. If using a house on the ground, make sure predators canâ€™t dig under it.Â
Chickens with hatchlings will also be on high alert. Have a proper enclosure where they feel safe from predators and other nosy chickens. Â Â
Give chickens places to retreat if they see a predator. Provide things they can perch on and hiding places such as bushes or a wooden pallet propped against the fence. To lessen visual stimuli, create high, solid walls such as corrugated tin that block chickens from seeing predators.
Alternatively, hang an old curtain or tarp on part of the coop or grow a chicken-safe plant outside the coop that can grow over the side. Chickens will feel less exposed and more at ease.Â
Know Your Chickens
Simply knowing your birds is an easy way to decrease chicken stress. Lily Starling, a farmer in Northern California, has been able to spend a lot of time getting to know her 25 birdsâ€™ individual personalities.Â
â€śIt cues me much earlier as to when something is wrong, like illness or a larger predator sniffing around the perimeter of my place,â€ť she says. Each evening, she sits outside the coop and reads while her hens go to bed.Â
Getting to know your chickens helps you know when something is wrong, and it also makes them more familiar with their caregiver, thus less stressed. Plus, itâ€™s mutually beneficial: Many chicken-keepers find that watching their chickens is a relaxing pastime!
Good nutrition is a must for stress-free chickens. An improper diet can lead to malnutrition and health problems. Your flocksâ€™ main food should be a well-balanced feed, along with some grit and oyster shell available free-choice.
Additionally, they can have some healthy scraps such as fresh greens, fruits or a small handful of chicken scratch to warm them up before bed. Avoid feeding junk food, too much scratch or treats, or frequent diet changes, as this can upset their systems.
Get the freshest feed possible. Also, check labels to be sure itâ€™s appropriate for your chickensâ€™ life stages. If feeling adventurous, make fermented feed for even more nutrition.
Always have food and water available. For busy lifestyles, automatic feeders and waterers may be a good choice, as they donâ€™t need to be filled so often. Check periodically that theyâ€™re working properly.Â
Protection from the Elements
Chickens have a higher body temperature than humans and at higher weather temperatures may experience heat stress. To prevent this, have a steady supply of water available. Electrolytes can be added to the water, if needed.
If youâ€™re feeling fancy, make them frozen treats or add ice cubes to a water dish. Always have shade available, and keep the coop well-ventilated. Some chicken-keepers even provide fans or misters.Â
Chickens can also experience cold stress. In cold weather, they use up more energy and may even shiver. Make sure they have plenty of feed because they may eat more. Drinking water may need a heater to prevent freezing.Â
The coop should have protection from the elements such as rain, wind and snow. Have good ventilation in the henhouse, but there shouldnâ€™t be any drafts blowing on the chickens. Use a good bedding to increase heat and keep up with cleanliness. The deep-litter method works well if managed properly. Part of the run can also be covered to keep it dry or to block wind and snow.Â
Consider picking breeds that are more adapted to your climate. Lists of cold-hardy as well as heat-tolerant breeds are widely available. For more at-risk chickens in harsh weather, consider bringing them indoors for a time.
A spacious coop or yard is a great way to keep chickens at ease because they naturally roam in the wild. Overcrowding increases stress, and chickens may become bored, aggressive and agitated. If the coop is too small, thereâ€™s no room to escape from bullying.
Furthermore, a small crowded coop gets dirty faster.
For a permanent nonmoving coop, the run should provide a minimum of 10 square feet per bird. For inside, try for at least 3 to 4 square feet per bird. People using chicken tractors get away with less as they move the enclosure often.
If chickens can safely free-range, just be sure theyâ€™re safe. Free-ranging provides them with exercise and extra variety in their diet.
Boredom can be an issue for chickens and humans alike, so have some variety and toys available. This goes a long way to keeping chickens stress-free instead of cooped up with nothing to do.
There are so many options for entertaining chickens. Some easy ones are offering material they can scratch in, such as leaves, and offering some healthy food scraps now and again. Some people even do a compost pile in the chicken run with old vegetable scraps. Others have fenced gardens where their chickens can explore.
Other popular entertainment options include:
- mirrors to stare at themselves
- interactive treat dispensers
- hanging cabbage or other produce
- homemade flock blocks
- half a watermelon on hot days
- swings and perches at various heights
- hay bales
- branches or logs
- dust bath areas
Monitor Social Dynamics
Ideally, all chickens know their place and get along, but sometimes certain chickens donâ€™t. Multiple chickens may pick on one chicken and attack it, leading to injury or even death.
Some roosters may be overly aggressive with hens or each other.Â
Have an action plan for social issues within the flock. For serious issues, such as a chicken getting pinned down and brutally pecked by others, the flock may need to be split up. Leaving them together is dangerous and potentially fatal for the bullied bird.
Some people let their chicken become a house pet or have another coop to use as needed. Others get rid of certain birds altogether. Rehoming aggressive birds often works, as they come in at the bottom of the pecking order at their new home.
For less serious issues, simple coop adjustments may help. Have places where lower status chickens can escape such as perches or things to hide behind. Have multiple feed and water stations so chickens lower on the pecking order arenâ€™t kept from eating and/or drinking.
Give chickens enough room in the house and run, and prevent boredom. Go slow with introducing any new chickens, and donâ€™t add them to the coop right away.
For rooster issues, there are chicken saddles/aprons that can protect hensâ€™ bare backs from roosters mounting them. Donâ€™t have too many roosters for the number of hens. A commonly recommended ratio is 10 hens per rooster, but it can vary.
Easy on the Egg-Laying
Egg-laying can be a huge stressor for chickens, so make the process easier. First of all, have a safe place where hens can lay in privacy and safety such as a nesting box. Make it comfortable with soft materialâ€”straw or pine shavingsâ€”and protected from the elements.
Make sure there are enough nest boxes. One nesting box for every four hens is a common guideline.
Consider letting chickens take their natural break from laying. Many stop laying in the colder months, but some people use artificial lighting to trick their bodies into laying. Consider letting your hens take that natural break so their bodies have time to restore.
Make sure chickens have all the nutrients they need for egg-laying. Opt for a good layer feed, or for a mixed flock, a mixed-flock feed, with plenty of oyster shell or crushed eggshell available free-choice for the layers.
Water should always be available, as chickens need the hydration for proper egg production and laying.
For stress-free fowl, make sure theyâ€™re in good health. Monitor them daily, and practice good habits such as cleanliness, a healthy diet and other preventative measures.
Research common illnesses and chicken health and prevention tips. Ill chickens are best safely quarantined from the rest of the flock. Have a place they can quarantine safely.
Be sure to quarantine new flock members for a few weeks, too.
Do chicken health checkups often. Check feathers for parasites. Signs of ill health include:
- not eating or drinking
- weight loss
- abnormal droppings
- standing differently
- abnormal behaviorÂ
Along with good care and prevention, have access to a vet who is knowledgeable about poultry. This may take some searching and calling around, but itâ€™s worth it. Some vets will even visit on site, although it can be pricey.
Fecal testing of birds is an easy practice among chicken-keepers and can be done through a vet or through the mail.
Minimal Moves & Noise
One thing that sets chickens off like no other is moving large items. â€śIf you lift a sheet of corrugated roofing or try to shift a small chicken coop with chickens around, they scatter far and wide,â€ť says chicken-keeper Daniel Morris.
Afterward they take a long time to settle down. Morris recommends moving things when they arenâ€™t around.Â
Additionally, sometimes people make the mistake of running around trying to catch a chicken, which just freaks it out and increases stress. Try to catch chickens in a more confined area or when theyâ€™re easy to get, such as while theyâ€™re relaxing in their coop.
Crouch down if possible instead of hovering over them like a hawk.Â
Another thing to do is minimize moving chickens in general. Chickens do well with a familiar routine. A move to a new place changes things up and chickens donâ€™t know what to expect. Try to move chickens at least when the weather is not extreme, and give them time to adjust to their new surroundings.
Minimize additional changes like adding new flock members for a while after the move.
In addition to movement, noise can trigger the stress response in chickens. This can include things such as weed eating, lawn mowing or tree cutting. At my previous home, the city came to trim a tree by my coop and the noise and commotion really scared the chickens.
Have a plan for events like these, such as having an alternate place your chickens can go.
Although chickens will always have some stress just like everyone, keeping their stress levels low will help keep them alive and well for years to come. Hopefully, these tips resulted in some eggcellent insights on how to have more relaxed chickens!
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue ofÂ ChickensÂ magazine.