How to know if your chickens are bored and what to do about it if they are
With winter fast approaching, chickens in the Northern states will soon be spending much more of their time in the chicken coop. Just like people, chickens get bored if they are cooped up with nothing to do. And like people, bored chickens are much more likely to act up. Problem behaviours like feather pecking and bullying are much more common when chickens are confined to the coop, and bored!
Chickens evolved in the jungles of South-East Asia, where they spend their time foraging, year-round. Cooped up in a pen, with their food provided, it's no wonder backyard chickens get bored!
Happy hens are healthy hens. So here are some tips to keep your chickens happy by busting winter boredom!
How do you know if your chickens are bored?
Some of the problem chicken behaviours caused by boredom include:
- Feather pecking
- Vent pecking
- Dominant hens guarding the feeder or drinker from others
- Pecking at and destroying parts of the coop
- Egg eating
- Escaping the coop or run
In free-range flocks, boredom is rarely a problem. But if your flock is confined to a run, even if it is a large run, boredom can become an issue.
Winter is peak boredom time in cold climates. But even where chickens can go out all year round, rainy weather and disease outbreaks that require birds to be confined can cause boredom.
For free-range flocks that are used to spending their days outdoors, something like an Avian Influenza outbreak is particularly problematic. Not only are the chickens unused to confinement, their coops are often smaller because they haven’t been designed for much more than roosting.
So here are some boredom busters to help keep your chickens happy this winter!
Top 5 Chicken Boredom Busters
So how can you keep your chickens amused if they are bored? Here are our 5 favourite ways to keep chickens from getting bored! And don't worry, you don't need to buy them any kids toys!
Chickens love dust bathing; it reduces parasites and keeps their feathers healthy. If your chickens are confined to the coop, ensure they have a clean, dry dust bathing area.
We usually provide a few dust baths, so all of the chickens have an opportunity to use them. Our chickens prefer to dust bathe in a sunny spot.
A child's pool filled with sand makes a great dust bath in the coop. Just ensure you keep it clean of droppings and litter!
Chickens love to forage, so providing any sort of litter for them to forage through is a great amusement.
Fresh litter in the coop, piles of mulch or leaves, hay bales etc. all provide a new, exciting scratching opportunity!
If you want to raise the stakes, hide food and treats in the litter. However, we recommend only doing this in a container or tub, as any uneaten food needs to be removed at the end of the day to prevent rodents, spoilage and the spread of disease.
A change of scenery
Anything new in the coop provides amusement, as does a trip away.
Use hay bales, yard furniture, timber pallets or even sticks, to build climbing structures and jungle-gyms in the coop. You can even buy chicken swings and climbing frames online, if you don’t want to DIY!
Because the novelty of new things quickly wears off, being able to change the arrangement and structures in your coop is ideal!
A change of scenery can also be great for chickens. Let your chickens out on mild winter days, or consider a chicken tractor that can provide shelter and allow chickens to go on a day trip in the garden if the weather is ok! This is also a great way to provide foraging opportunities in small backyards and to clean up weedy veggie garden beds with minimal work!
There are all sorts of chicken toys available. Some are simple to make, too!
Some of our favourites include:
- Mirrors – Down at chicken level, of course
- Xylophones – These are available online and some chickens seem to love them!
- Mobiles – We like old CDs on strings, but almost anything works. Just make sure your chickens can’t accidentally become caught in the strings!
- Balls – Some chickens will play a version of soccer with a plastic ball. Just make sure it’s nothing they can pop!
Food and treats
Food toys, treats and foraging opportunities can amuse chickens for hours on end and are some of the easiest boredom busters to DIY.
A note on using food and treats to stop chickens being bored
On the one hand, using food as amusement for your chickens mimics their natural behaviours, as they would usually spend most of the day foraging.
But it is important not to rely too heavily on food and treats to amuse your chickens, especially in the long term. 90% of a laying hen's diet should be a complete layer feed, in pellet form. And hens should be given unlimited access to their feed from dawn until dusk. Even using your chicken's normal feed in a toy limits access, which is particularly problematic for lower-ranked hens who may miss out.
If you do use food and treats as boredom busters, here are some tips:
- Stick to healthy treats like forage, fruit and vegetables
- Use your chickens' normal ration where possible
- Continue to provide free access to feed, at least for the first and last few hours of daylight
- Clean up any uneaten food and treats each day to prevent rodents, spoilage and the spread of disease
Food boredom busters:
- Grow a salad bar inside and bring it out to the coop to allow your chickens to pick off the greenery. If you put wire mesh about 20 cm above the soil surface, most plants will resprout after they have been foraged.
- Throw piles of weeds or veggie plants into the coop for chickens to forage through.
- Pick a bunch of tall grass or weeds and tie it into a bundle. Hang the bundle in the coop for chickens to peck at. You could even stock up on grasses with good seed heads in the summer, dry the bundles and put them in the coop throughout the winter!
- Give your chickens sunflower heads to eat the seeds.
- Tie a cabbage or iceberg lettuce to a string and hang it in the coop as a chicken pinata.
- A pumpkin or melon will amuse chickens for hours, and they will eventually eat the whole thing! Just keep the 10 % rule in mind and remove the vegetables after your chickens have had enough for the day. In our coop, a pumpkin will last almost a week this way!
DIY TOYS FOR CHICKENS:
- Put a few holes in a plastic bottle and fill it with feed. As the bottle rolls around, feed will come out, much to the flock's excitement!
- Stuff bones, hollow logs or lengths of pipe with a mixture of newspaper or shredded paper and treats (Kong-style dog toys will also work!)
- Almost any food-based cat or dog toy, including puzzles and ones where you have to press a button to release food, can be fun for chickens!
If you have access to them, and it isn't cold enough to kill them immediately, setting live insects free in the coop can be very fun for chickens, albeit a little brutal for the bugs! But be careful what you pick, as a few will always escape!
A note on light
Daylight is essential for egg production and many chicken keepers in the Northern states light their coop in winter.
However, there are benefits to the dark winters. If it is dark, your hens are asleep or roosting, and therefore not bored and not getting in trouble. So if you are extending the daylight hours in your coop during winter, you will need to provide more amusement for your birds as well!
Do you have any other great chicken boredom busters? We'd love to hear about them. Get in touch!
Happy chicken keeping!
Rachael at Dine a Chook