The first snow of the season arrived this weekend, much to the chagrin of our snow-hating sons. As much as my kids dislike that cold, fluffy stuff, the chickens hate it more. They huddle inside their coops, sometimes peeking out their pop door before retreating inside for the rest of the day.
Even though I know that, more than likely, the birds will stay inside, I always offer them the option of going outside.
There’s more to rearing poultry during the winter months than just opening their doors and leaving them to their own devices, however. Without yards to explore and runs to scratch and dustbathe in, chickens grow bored very quickly.
And chickens suffering from winter boredom are indeed dangerous chickens. Not to us, mind you, but to its fellow flockmates.
Winter Boredom Bothers for Chickens
Pecking-order wars, feather picking and—in the worst of cases—cannibalism can occur when chickens get stir crazy. This is why, in addition to nurturer, housekeeper, egg collector and matchmaker, we poultry-keepers need to don an additional hat during the colder season: social director.
We might not schedule round-the-clock entertainment. But we can do a few simple things to keep our birds busy in a constructive and healthful way. Here are four of the boredom busters that my family uses to keep our chickens active during the winter.
1. The Trail of Mystery
An adventure awaits those chickens courageous enough to venture out of their coops on a snowy day. One of us—usually my husband Jae or I—will have shoveled or snowblown a path that winds around the yard.
The chickens have never been able to resist setting off on this trail of mystery, wondering where it might lead. We change it every time, but it does eventually circle right back to their coops.
Our birds get some fresh air and exercise. We get a few hours of amusement watching the hens stroll around as if enjoying a sunny Sunday in the park.
2. O Joy
We found out quite by accident that our hens adore original-style Cheerios, much in the same way that we discovered never to carry a sandwich or a slice of pizza in your hand as you walk in our yard.
One of our roosters will stalk you, snatch it and dash off with it before you even know what happened.
In the case of the Cheerios, it was a paper cupful. Or, rather, it used to be until Davey Orpington knocked it out of my son Bryce’s hand and proceeded to call every hen in existence to come share his newfound treat. Now, every couple of weeks when it’s winter, the boys and I will string Cheerios onto strands of 14- to 20-gauge jewelry wire, then wrap the end of each strand around a specially placed nail inside the coops.
The birds have a blast jumping up for the Cheerios and gobbling them down. It’s like reverse bobbing for apples. And winter boredom is a faint memory for chickens while they play.
If you choose to do this, make sure you do not use string. Those omnivorous chooks will try to chow down on that, too. Wire of a thinner gauge won’t hold up to a horde of jumping chickens and can become a hazard, so select a thick gauge.
You can use any type of circular cereal. But do your best to avoid the sweetened and colored types with artificial additives.
3. Ice Cream Corn
Another fact we learned yet again from firsthand experience is that chickens can quickly demolish an ice cream cake cone. Those darned things are wafer thin and crush far more easily than the thicker sugar cones.
Utilizing the same nail we use to hold our Cheerios strands, we hang up circular loops made of 14- to 20-gauge wire. Each loop is just the right size to hold a cake-style ice-cream cone.
We fill each cone about 2/3 full of scratch grains (too much scratch causes the cone to fall). Then we let the birds have their fun. They get twice as much exercise with this treat: jumping up to peck at the cones, then scratching in the coop litter to find the tasty grains.
They always seem so surprised when the scratch grains come tumbling out.
4. Chicken Cakes
These special delights resulted from my attempt to keep my children from going stir crazy several years ago, when we were snowed in for almost a week. We’d played endless games, read several books, watched plenty of television and videos, and had even cleaned the house (I might have been the only one excited about that).
The boys were now bored and grumpy. And like chickens experiencing winter boredom, this, too, can get dangerous!
One afternoon, I got out our individual mini-loaf pans and the following heap of healthy snack items from our pantry:
- sunflower kernels
- peanut butter
- pumpkin seeds
- dried cranberries
- dried cherries
- chopped nuts
My instructions to the boys were to mix whatever they wanted together, using peanut butter as the mortar to hold the ingredients together. They happily made a huge mess. Then we placed our overflowing pans in the fridge to chill and harden.
Well, that didn’t work. (Don’t tell the boys it was almost impossible to get those messy loaves out of the pans intact.)
I’m a firm believer of “if at first you don’t succeed,” however. When the roads were finally clear, I bought some beef suet at the market and rendered it. I then told the boys to make more miniloaves because the “chickens devoured the first ones.”
I explained to the kids that the fat in the suet is a high-energy food that helps our roosters and hens keep warm in the winter, and that we’d keep the peanut butter for another time. My little chefs had even more fun making their “chicken cakes” with the suet and, this time, the cakes turned out quite beautifully.
And the chickens did indeed devour them.
Special Notes (Kid Considerations)
Heed these special notes if you choose to make chicken cakes with your kids:
- First off, wear disposable gloves if possible. It does get pretty messy!
- Secondly, make sure you use seeds, nuts and fruits that have no added salt, sugar, sweeteners or preservatives.
- Next, carefully wrap the cakes in cling-style plastic and store them in your refrigerator. They’ll soften if left out on the counter.
- Finally, don’t serve all the cakes at once. Slice up one cake and offer a few slices placed strategically around the coop. These are meant as winter boredom busters for our chickens, not replacements for their nutritionally balanced poultry feed.