Chickens Get Bored

Chickens are charming because they are innately curious, busy-body birds. They’re in constant motion, investigating new things (is this shiny droplet food?), socializing, scratching, pecking, dozing, and chasing (each other and anything small that moves that might be edible.) Unless they are outside in a large and complex environment, they get bored. Boredom, as with all animals, leads to trouble. With chickens, that trouble leads to bad behaviors, like pecking each other, and pulling out feathers (their own and others). Chickens that would otherwise be high-status hens become bullies. Chickens that would otherwise be wallflowers are cornered and pounded on. When that happens, you end up with a flock that has more in common with its dinosaur ancestors than with the delightful farm animals that you’d imagined.

In many backyard situations, chickens are housed in a too-small confines, with a dirt yard and nothing to do. They’re fed treats, like cracked corn, that they fill up on quickly. This is bad for their systems, and they get fat, which leads to egg-laying issues and disease. Add boredom to the mix, and it can be a lethal situation. But, proper housing and management can alleviate all of these issues!

Assuming that you have enough space for your flock, (I’ve written about minimum coop and pen sizes here) what follows are ways to keep your hens from being bored.

Uppermost in a chicken’s mind is eating. A hen is hard-wired to search for food by looking and scratching. It’s not enough to provide pellets out of a feeder, as that need to hunt and peck will end up being focused on something else (like a hen at the bottom of the flock’s status or eating feathers.) Provide places to scratch and things to peck that will last hours, if not all day.

Watermelon, pumpkins, and other large, hard-shelled foods can be put out for your hens and will keep them busy for hours. These foods are also a healthy addition to their diet (unlike the sweet high calorie feed blocks that I don’t recommend.)

watermelon

 

Provide a decomposing log for them to peck at. Move it around once a week or so to expose the soft ground and bugs underneath.

bug log

 

What keeps my hens the busiest is the compost pile inside of the chicken run. This photo shows a mess of green weeds that I’ve just put in there. The girls will pick out bugs, eat the greens and shred the rest. They’ll dig down and turn over the compost. It is an endlessly fascinating place for them. They’ll get good things to eat and stay busy, and I’ll get rich, loose dark dirt in a month.

compost

 

Provide something new for them to investigate. Simply putting in a pine branch will make their day.

new branch

 

Although chickens don’t fly (at least not well, it’s more like the dancing hippos in Fantasia) they do like to get up off the ground, and they like height options. Provide outside roosts. (Not every chicken gets to have conversations with goats, but they do like interacting with other species.)

outside roost

 

They also like stumps.

stump

 

Dust baths are essential both for health and for the social life of the flock. The run should have a loose pile of dirt to get into.

dirt bath

 

You have to give your flock things to do during inclement weather. Just like children can drive a parent crazy on a rainy day, so too, your chickens will need distractions when stuck indoors. A kitty litter box half-filled with sand and some food-grade DE will give them something to do.

inside dustbath

 

Greens tucked into a [amazon text=suet feeder&asin=B000795Y64] will also keep the chickens out of trouble.

suet feeder

 

And, of course, you can always set up a rousing game of cabbage tetherball.

cabbage tetherball

 

It doesn’t take much to engage your chickens in activities that will keep everyone happy – including you, because, really, being a spectator to the antics is part of the fun.

Comments:

  1. Hi Terry,

    Great information. Thank you! I want to recommend another idea I use. I live on the Oregon Coast, so there’s lots of crabbing. I was buying a crab bait bag when I realized… It’s the perfect chicken entertainment. Load it up with greens, a head of cabbage, weeds from the yard, even dirt or compost and the ladies go crazy over it. In the winter I stuff it with alfalfa. Here’s and example of the bag…. Cool thing is it has a hook on it so you can hook it anywhere…. When I am trying to clan the coop and want the ladies out of my way I fill it with swiss chard and hang it away somewhere… http://www.westmarine.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/Product_11151_10001_1052747_-1?ci_src=14110944&ci_sku=1052747&cid=sc_googlepla&device=c&network=g&matchtype=&gclid=CKb8uJyLh7gCFa9cQgodz0EA4Q#.Uc2ufeu0_AI

  2. Great post. Thank you for sharing all the wonderful info.

  3. Years ago I planted bamboo in the middle of my run (fenced it off until it got established and still fenced) and I have a endless supply of bamboo limbs with yummy leaves. I simply cut and throw on the ground.
    A word of caution bamboo is extremely aggressive and will take over your entire yard. It spreads via runners hence why I planted it in the middle of the chicken yard, new sprouts get eaten.

    • Brilliant way to control and invasive species. Just like horseradish spreads – but not if I let the goats get it!

  4. Great ideas! Thanks! I especially like the picture of Twiggy on her soapbox.

  5. Terry, do you think my pullets would go for cabbage if it is hung up? I gave them half a head a week ago and I had to throw it out. Thanks for the post; I got right up and went out side for fresh grass for them!!

    • Not all hens like the same things. Also, your young ones might prefer something easier and juicier. Have you tried cucumbers? Put on in the run, cut in half. After they figure it out, you can simply put a whole one out there.

  6. Love all this info and the great pics!
    Off topic: why are the roosts now separated so far apart in the Big Barn? Have the girls been tussling over position?

  7. What a great post, thanks for sharing :) x

    I love your little white hen, she’s gorgeous!

  8. I’m sure you have the best-cared-for and most- loved -chickens in your whole area. They must thrive on all the care and attention you give them–goatie boys too!!

  9. When they are bored a peck at each other do they snap off the feather, leaving a stub so to speak?

    • Feathers are very sturdy. They might be able to peck off the end of a feather. Or, they pull out the whole thing (remember Jasper’s tail?) but they rarely break.

  10. Hi! Would you please explain how you built your compost box inside the hens run. Is tHe foundation directly on dirt? Also, how long do you let the hens inside? I found your website last fall, and since then i am a hens mom. I bought 10 females to finally end up with a roster, Felix. 2 months later i bought 3 more. How do you integrate new ones with the group? They are 2 months old apart. Thanks and keep doing this great work. DNG

  11. Just noticed Phoebe under the nesting boxes. Looks like she has moved in with the girls! Hutches, who needs them anyway?

  12. Phoebe seems quite happy reclining on the cool concrete beneath the nesting boxes (she’s even cleared off some of the shavings) while the pullets explore the hutch! A case of the grass is always greener? Terry, you’ll have to check the hutch once the pullets start laying!

  13. Thanks for all of these fabulous reminders and new ideas for keeping the flock happy. I have a question about freezing fruits before giving it to the hens especially in this hot weather we’re having. For example, if I freeze a half a melon and then put it out, would that help keep the girls cool? Is there any harm in doing that? (I know not to freeze leafy greens which just turn to mush upon thawing.) Thanks for any thoughts you might have!

    • My chickens don’t mind mushy greens :) I’ve frozen watermelon chunks, thinking to use it later for smoothies, and instead fed it to the chickens. They were happy with it. I don’t think there’s harm in putting anything frozen out. BUT do make sure that whatever they don’t eat by the end of the day is raked up and tossed into the compost. Rotten, moldy food can make hens sick. Or, put the compost in the chicken run, like I do. I put all sorts of stuff in there that they don’t like, but they shred it and it becomes excellent dirt.