Exploring Backyard Chicken Behavior
By Pam Freeman
Learn all about raising backyard chickens from small beginnings with chicks and eggs to identifying problems within backyard flocks and how to fix them in Pam Freeman’s Backyard Chickens Beyond the Basics (Voyageur Press, 2017). Freeman’s practical advice makes chicken keeping easier with these guidelines. The following excerpt is from Chapter 2, “Flock Behavior.”
You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: Backyard Chickens Beyond the Basics.
Until I started raising my own backyard flock of chickens, I never thought much about chicken behavior. Yet after I got my birds, I found myself entranced. It started with the chicks in my brooder. They were fascinating! I spent hours watching them scratching, pecking for food, grooming, and even learning to perch. Once they were grown, I loved going outside and interacting with them.
My Barred Plymouth Rocks were the best foragers. Any time I dug holes for planting or turned over a rock or log, they were there to get the best goodies. My White Leghorns, contrary to their breed profile, were so docile I could hold them in my hand and pump them up and down like I was weight lifting.
Hoppy, our Partridge Cochin, formed a special bond with us. She loved to talk to us and come over for pets. One day our dog, Sophie, got out of our fenced-in yard. We needed to get her back safely so we split up places to find her. I went to the bottom of our driveway to make sure Sophie didn’t get out onto the road. My husband stayed in the backyard area calling for her and monitoring the front of the house too. I had been gone a while so I came up the hill to report my lack of progress. There I found my husband calling for Sophie and right next to his feet was Hoppy. Every time he would call, she’d call out too. (I definitely think Hoppy helped since Sophie returned to the backyard on her own!)
Now, years later and with much more experience, I confess I’m still fascinated by chicken behavior. I’ve found chickens are definitely smarter than people think. They are capable of learning basic routines and adjusting to meet their needs. Our New Hampshire named Big Red knows that we have food inside the house. She’s well aware of where the door closest to the kitchen is located and will make her way there as much as possible. Once there, she’ll call loudly until someone hears her and either shushes her away or lets her pop into the mud room to grab a treat. She learned this because each time she came to the door we gave her a treat. We thought the whole thing was fun, and we unknowingly established a routine. Red can also figure out where voices are inside the house and knows if she creates a ruckus then we’ll come outside and check on her, usually resulting in a treat being given. I first noticed this when my husband was in our bedroom on the phone. Big Red was smart enough to walk around until she heard his voice and then stand below that window and call loudly. After he got off the phone, he went out-side to see if she was OK and, sure enough, she got a treat. Smart girl!
Perhaps one of the best things about owning chickens is the countless hours of entertainment and fascination they can hold for the whole family. Let’s explore the world of flock behavior!
The Pecking Order
Chickens are flock animals that enjoy social interactions. As with any group, they have a way of organizing so that order is maintained. This is called the pecking order and it influences the daily activities of the flock, from eating and drinking to perching and dust bathing. It has been theorized that the pecking order started with Red Jungle Fowl in Thailand. When food was found, it was important that the flock stayed quiet and orderly so they did not attract the attention of predators. The highest-ranking birds eat first and then lower-ranking birds eat. That way the strongest birds remain fit and able to reproduce, passing on their strong genes. In a flock of chickens, the dominant bird is at the top and no other bird is allowed to peck that bird. However, the chicken at the top and no other bird is allowed to peck that bird. However, the chicken at the top can peck all the others to tell them what to do. The pecking order descends like this from highest to lowest in tank, with the lowest bird not being able to peck any of the other birds while all the other birds are able to peck him or her.
The pecking order in a flock is established early. In fact, studies have shown that chicks can start to show competitive behavior at three days old. After they are 16 days old, the begin to establish the order of dominance. With an all-hen group, the pecking order will be set by the time the chickens are 10 weeks old. It can be even earlier for the small groups of birds-possibly as early as eight weeks.
Note: Pecking is not always bad or violent. It is a normal and important form of communication. In fact, pecking is usually gentle and not even all that noticeable by humans. You’ll find feathers are rarely disturbed as chickens “check out” each other and establish a hierarchy for functioning as a group.
Besides pecking, there are other ways chickens work out their order and show dominance. One chicken might challenge another by puffing up her chest, standing tall, and flapping her wings. The challenged bird can then either choose to show its dominance or back down. Both roosters and hens will also show their dominance by flaring their hackle feathers, which are located on their necks. Sometimes a bird will drop a wing and dance around in a circle to show the others who’s dominant. This can all look funny to watch and a little violent, but humans should not interfere unless a bird is hurt. Usually this process looks worse than it actually is, and none of your birds will be injured.
The pecking order is ever changing, with lower-ranked birds challenging higher-ranked birds for a chance to move up. Within the order, it’s not unusual to see friendships form. You’ll often see hens broken off into friend groups that hang out together throughout the day. If a friend is lost or gets hurt and has to be removed from the flock to heal, her other friends can sometimes be seen standing in the spot they last saw her and looking for her. Once the bird returns, the friend-ship resumes.
Preening, Dust Bathing, and Sun Bathing
Preening is something that chickens do at least twice a day, and this behavior is easily spotted. You’ll see a chicken standing still and rubbing her head along her tail and then along her feathers. What she’s doing is gathering some preening oil from her uropygial gland, which is often called the preen gland, and distributing that oil through her feathers. In ducks, this oil keeps them water-proof as they swim. In chickens, this oil makes the feathers more water resistant and keeps them healthy, which means they last longer and are less likely to break.
Dust bathing is an essential chicken behavior and an opportune time to observe a flock’s pecking order in action. If you’ve never seen a dust bath before, it can initially look like your chickens are dying. They are usually laying spread out in the dirt at ominous angles and sometimes they even look unconscious. On further inspection, the birds aren’t dead or in the throes of dying. They are just so deep in enjoyment and relaxation that they are hard-pressed to respond.
Note: It’s important to understand exactly why chickens dust bathe. By bathing, chickens are able to remove mites and other parasites as well as old skin and excess oil. This keeps them clean and healthy.
No matter where your dust bath is located, you’ll notice that the dominant birds will bathe first. They will locate the best spot for the bath. Then they’ll start to dig and move their bodies to clear out an impression big enough for them to fit. The impression will get bigger over time as the birds work further into the hole, scraping and throwing dirt over their bodies and working it into their feathers. If others in the flock notice the dust bath, you can frequently see them marching around and around trying to join the bathers. If the bathers are the dominant birds, you’ll find they won’t leave the bath until they are good and ready. Conversely, if the bathers are less dominant birds, they’ll have to leave since others outrank them. Sometimes less dominant birds will try to fit themselves into the hole. This gets easier as the hole gets bigger and there’s more room. But until that point, the dominant birds will not move over and make room.
Sun bathing sometimes takes place while chickens are dust bathing, but other times you can walk into a chicken yard and see your chickens seemingly unconscious with their wings spread out as they lie in the hot sun. It can be an enormously hot day and when you see this behavior you start to wonder why? Why would chickens knowingly expose themselves to such hot temperatures?
Sun-bathing chickens are actually purpose-fully exposing certain parts of their skin to sunlight. Their sun-bathing postures give away what parts they are trying to expose.
• They may stand with their back to the sun and puff their head and back feathers.
• They may lie down and spread their wing feathers and tail feathers.
• They may lie down and turn over to expose areas underneath their wings and their breast.
Chickens are not the only birds that exhibit this behavior. You can see wild birds sun bathing too. In cold weather, sun bathing makes total sense. The birds are warming themselves without using a lot of valuable energy. If birds are wet, sun bathing is the perfect way to dry off. Sun bathing is also a valuable health tool. External parasites such as lice and mites can wreak havoc on a chicken’s health, and these pests are not fond of overly hot and exposed conditions. So by purposefully sun bathing, chickens can encourage parasites to move to cooler locations that are easier for the chickens to reach and then pick off the parasites. Sun bathing also helps to warm a chicken’s preening oil, making it easier to spread and distribute evenly through their feathers. This is why you often see chickens preening immediately following sun bathing. And the ultraviolet rays from the sun convert the chemical compounds in their preening oil into vitamin D which helps to maintain a chicken’s good health.
People that don’t have chickens tend to think the only sound they make is that of a rooster crowing. Nothing could be further from the truth! Chickens have a language all their own, which they use quite often. What’s more, their vocalizations start early.
While still in the egg, a mother hen will talk with her chicks through clucking sounds. She will offer comfort and encouragement. Once they’re outside the egg, the chicks can recognize their mother hen and each other and start building their relationships.
Chicks will communicate among themselves and with their moms or their human caretakers. A brooder full of chicks is not a quiet place. If the chicks are content, they will happily scratch and peck and chirp to each other as they go about their business. If they get lost from their group, they will chirp loudly and with obvious distress. If they get cold, that chirping is just as loud and just as upset.
Mother hens talk with their babies quite a bit. When the chicks are in their eggs, mother hens will purr to their chicks. This helps the chicks recognize her when they hatch and tells them what’s happening. A mother hen will cluck to her chicks when she’s pointing out something good to eat. If there’s something that’s not good to eat, she’ll vocally point that out too. Broody hens and mother hens also growl when their nests or chicks are disturbed.
Flock members will do the same thing as chicks: They will chirp back and forth to each other as they’re grazing and going about their days. A hen will also sing an egg song after she finishes laying an egg. The level of singing can vary from breed to breed, but it will often provoke others to sing too. Some days an egg song can turn into an egg cacophony! No one is sure why hens sing an egg song. Some speculate they’re proud of their laying accomplishment, others say they want the rest of the flock to know where they are, and some say it’s a way of distracting predators from the nest as the hen is moving away from an egg she just laid.
If a rooster is in a flock, he will sound different alarm calls for different types of danger. The same is true of the lead hen of a flock with no rooster. Often the alarm call for an aerial predator is much more high and shrill than the alarm call for a predator on the ground.
Chickens also make growling types of sounds when they’re frustrated, such as if they need more food or they just can’t wait for a hen to leave the nest box they want. They will also make high-pitched sounds of encouragement, like when you bring treats to them and don’t give them out soon enough.
Listening to your flock’s different vocalizations is fun, and it’s a great way to get to know them and bond with them. Soon you’ll under-stand some of their language and be able to “talk” right along with them.
Roosting is another chicken activity that shows the pecking order in action. Roosting is an essential survival tool for birds that are ultimately prey animals. After all, the higher you can get and the more you’re buffered on both sides, the better your chances for surviving the night.
Many chicken coops have roosting bars at multiple heights while others have just one long bar that runs the length of the coop. Either way, there are preferred spots, and friends like to be next to each other. Usually around 30 minutes or so before the sun sets you’ll see your chickens filing into the coop for the night. This is when the action takes place. The dominant bird takes the best place on the roosting bar, and she will defend her spot. As others file in, she will peck and squawk to move birds around to her satisfaction. If by chance a lesser bird has gone to the coop a little earlier to land the most coveted spot, that bird will be unceremoniously moved.
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Reprinted with permission from Backyard Chickens Beyond the Basics by Pam Freeman and published by Voyageur Press, 2017.
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