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What Do Chickens Want? A guide to keeping backyard chickens happy and healthy

What Do Chickens Want? A guide to keeping backyard chickens happy and healthy

What Do Chickens Want?

Joel Salatin, the American farmer and food advocate, believes that happy animals are the key to good food. And happy animals means animals that are allowed to express their natural instincts.

Chickens kept in unnatural circumstances, where they are alone or don't forage, are rarely happy. And they display psychopathic and violent behaviours like feather plucking – where birds remove all their own feathers – or feather pecking – where birds pluck feathers from others, causing injury and potentially culminating in a cannibalistic frenzy. These behaviours can occur in natural circumstances too, but they are much less common.

So if unnatural circumstances lead to unhappy hens and bad behaviour, what makes happy hens?

To paraphrase Salatin, happy chickens get to express their natural chicken-ness, their chicken natures, and their inner jungle bird. How do we facilitate this in our backyard chicken-keeping? To begin, we need to look at natural chicken behaviour.

What is natural chicken behaviour?

Chickens are descended from jungle fowl, which still live in the jungles of Asia.

Jungle fowl spend their time in groups of 4-40, generally with one dominant male and many females. The flock may contain subordinate males or the dominant male may drive his competition from the group.

In the wild, the range of a flock averages 2 acres per bird and they often visit the same spots each day to rest, dust-bathe and forage. The diet of the jungle fowl consists of insects, fruits and leaves, and small stones to assist gizzard function.

Jungle fowl forage by scratching through the leaf litter on the jungle floor and use their beak to peck and eat. Beaks have a range of sensitive nerve receptors and impaired beak function, for example due to debeaking, leads to decreased interest in natural pecking and foraging behaviours.

Wild jungle fowl roost in the same spot each night, high in the trees on wide branches where their feet can rest fairly flat. Birds usually have a preference for roosting all in a row, with dominant birds in the centre.

What chickens want

So what can backyard chicken keepers learn from jungle-fowl? Chickens aren’t asking so much. There is a lot we can do to help our backyard flock express their natural chicken behaviours.

The short answer:

Provide friends, but not too many. Add room to roam, things to do, the opportunity to forage, peck, dust-bathe and scratch, places to hide and natural perches.

The long answer:

  1. Always have at least 4 chooks.
  2. Never have more than 30 birds in the one flock.
  3. Keep a rooster if you can, but only one. And choose a nice, gentlemanly one! 
  4. Provide plenty of space and allow birds to free-range if possible. If you have a run/backyard, ensure it is large enough for the number of birds, really as large as possible.
  5. Create an interesting environment to explore. A plain grass run is fine, and chickens love to graze. But they also appreciate interesting additions like (yummy) plants, hidey-holes and things to climb over, under and through. These things provide amusement as well as more insects, protection from hawks or the flock bully, and places to hide (eggs!). Low-hanging bushes, clumps of tall grasses and the leaves dropped by trees are fascinating to a chicken, as are toys and amusements.
  6. Plant fruit trees or berries, give your chickens piles of weeds or mulch, or toss some chicken scratch or dried insects on short, dry grass in the run to encourage foraging behaviours.
  7. Encourage scratching and pecking with toys and with foods that are “hard” to eat, like melons and pumpkins, cobs of corn, sunflower heads, whole lettuce and cabbages.
  8. Add a dust bath in a sunny spot. Dirt is good but The Chicken Chick says sand is even better. A plastic paddling pool is perfect.
  9. In addition to a good layer feed, provide access to short grass, leafy greens like weeds, seeds like millet, chicken scratch, insects, and other interesting food. We’re not talking carb- and fat-heavy kitchen scraps, we’re talking natural and nutritious additions to the diet! These additions should always be less than 10 % of the diet - that's one place where modern chickens differ from jungle-fowl!
  10. Stick to a routine as much as you can. It’s less of an issue with domestic flocks, but commercial chickens that are already stressed can react severely to any change in routine.
  11. Give free-access to a good quality grit, ideally a mixture of shell grit and hard grit, even if birds free-range.
  12. Provide a comfortable roost, preferably long enough for the whole flock, wide enough for feed to rest flat, high up for protection but not so high birds will damage their feet getting down. If you can't fit a roost wide enough for the flock, try to have several roosts at the same height.

What about broody hens?

There is one other thing that chickens want, an instinct that they are quite desperate to express: having chicks. 

While letting broody chickens breed is allowing them to express their natures, sometimes it is for the chicken's own good to prevent this expression of chicken-ness. 

It depends on your own circumstances, whether letting broody hens hatch chicks is a good choice for your flock. Keep in mind:

  • You need fertilised eggs (i.e. a rooster) to hatch chicks
  • Not all chickens make good mothers. Due to breeding for production, some modern breeds have lost their instinct for mothering. Some chickens will abandon the nest, others will even harm or kill their chicks. Choose a suitable breed and if a chicken fails the “motherhood” test, it is kinder NOT to allow her to breed.
  • Although it is nice for hens to be allowed to breed, there are broader concerns. Even if you want more hens, you will also have 50% roosters to deal with. 
  • You are better off keeping a smaller flock than letting chickens breed unrestrained, as too many birds will make your chickens less happy.
  • Most hens won’t satisfy their instinct with one hatch. Normally, a hen that goes broody once will do so once a year at least.

If you do want to let broody hens express their mothering instinct, and the hens have proven to be good mothers, allowing each hen to hatch only a very small clutch does spread the love around. But it also impacts on egg production and means more separate cages are required!

Raising happy, healthy hens

Providing for your chickens’ chicken-ness is better for you too. Foraging leads to better nutrition and more nutritious eggs. And happy hens lay better and are less likely to cause issues by picking on each other or feather pecking. Because there is a little bit of that jungle bird in even the most pampered pet chicken! 

Happy chicken keeping!

Rachael at Dine a Chook