How to Keep Your Hens Happy
Keep Them Healthy With Plenty of Food, Water, Entertainment and Space
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Keeping your hens happy is easy once you know what motivates their behavior. Nearly all of a chicken’s activities are motivated by three basic needs: to get enough to eat, to avoid being eaten, and to make more chickens. Confined chickens often develop a fourth need—to alleviate boredom—that may result when one or more of the three basic needs is not adequately met.
The daily cycles of activity you see in your poultry yard are similar to those you would observe among your hens’ jungle fowl ancestors. This pattern of activity ensures that the chickens get enough to eat while minimizing their exposure to predators.
During morning hours chickens are busy filling their crops. In the early afternoon they rest in a safe place to digest what they ingested during the morning. Meanwhile, any hen that feels the urge steals off into a secluded place to lay an egg. In late afternoon chickens engage in another round of foraging to fill their crops before going to roost. Then they settle into a safe place to sleep while digesting their evening meal. Because chickens in confinement neither have the same freedoms nor face the same dangers as chickens living in the jungle, they exhibit minor variations to this pattern.
Getting Enough to Eat
Chickens are omnivores—their diet consists of both plant and animal matter. As omnivores, they are opportunistic feeders—eating whatever is readily available. If you spend much time watching chickens forage, you will note that they nibble a little here and a little there, keeping busy finding a variety of tasty things to peck.
Chickens that are closely confined and fed a diet consisting solely of commercially prepared rations may enjoy a nutritionally complete diet, but it is not an entirely satisfying diet. First of all, commercial rations allow them to fill up fast, giving them little motivation to spend time pecking and scratching in the yard.
Second, commercial rations lack textural variety. They would not pass the test I learned way back in the Girl Scouts, which is that a perfect lunch includes “something munchy, something crunchy, something juicy, and something sweet.” In the case of chickens—which don’t have a full set of taste buds—you can forget about something sweet. Besides, sugar isn’t good for them (or us), anyway.
Chickens that have a properly managed yard in which to free range find all the munchy, crunchy, juicy tidbits they need to satisfy whatever cravings they might have. Confined chickens appreciate occasional treats. Even though my chickens have a large pasture in which to forage, I still furnish occasional treats in a large dog bowl, and the gang comes running whenever they see me putting something in the bowl.
Munchy sprouts, oatmeal, cooked rice, dry bread, or the chickens’ all-time favorite: left-over noodles. Crunchy seeds scooped out of a squash or pumpkin, freeze dried mealworms, scratch (mixed cracked grains). Juicy watermelon, apple peels and cores, lettuce or cabbage leaves. Things that take time to work over are especially welcome, such as a half pumpkin or watermelon that can’t be quickly gobbled down. I don’t advocate feeding such treats as the flock’s main diet, but rather as diversionary supplements to keep them busy while they satisfy their instinct to forage.
Of course fresh, clean water—and plenty of it—should always be available. Warm water in winter or cool water in the heat of summer is always a big hit. True to pattern, chickens drink the most during the morning and evening hours, which is when they most appreciate a fresh supply of clean water.
Avoiding Being Eaten
Avoiding predators is a group activity. Chickens rely on flock mates to warn each other of danger. They even have different calls to indicate the approach of an intruder, the possibility of impending danger, or the urgent need to run for immediate cover. Because of this and other social dynamics, chickens feel safer and therefore are more content living in groups. An absolute minimum number of chickens to have in a flock is three, but if they don’t all get along they won’t be happy. A flock of six, or so, allows the birds to separate into smaller groups of best buddies.
The need to keep your birds safe from predators goes without saying. In most areas chickens need to be closed up at night to keep raccoons and other night prowlers from gaining entry. During the day they need the protection of a fenced yard, and where hawks and other birds of prey are a threat they need a safe area where they can take cover. Protective netting over the entire run is ideal.
But even when predators can’t get to the flock, their mere presence can cause fear of predation, a significant source of psychological stress. Fear of predation can prevent chickens from venturing outside their coop to scratch and peck. It can discourage hens from laying eggs. At roosting time fear of predation can make chickens restless when they should be relaxing and settling in for the night. Therefore, not only must chickens be protected from predators, they also need security from harassment by perceived predators. A dog, for instance, barking at a flock from outside their fenced yard does not make for happy hens.
Not all things that prey on chickens are mammals or birds. Think lice and mites. Chickens naturally help free themselves of these external parasites by taking dust baths. The instinct to dust bathe is so strong that baby chicks will go through the motions, even in a brooder with a wire mesh floor.
Chickens with access to an outdoor run make holes in the dirt or sand to bath in. Chickens confined indoors, or kept inside during rainy weather, will dust themselves in the coop-floor litter. If your coop has a solid floor, or one that is mostly covered by droppings boards or wire mesh, provide a section of litter or loose soil large enough for several chickens to bathe at the same time. Enjoying a community dust bath not only alleviates external parasites, but is a good indication of content hens that feel safe from other kinds of predators.
Making More Chickens
No, I’m not going to say that hens have a deep psychological need to experience motherhood. That is, with the exception of Silkies and a few other persistently broody breeds. Who knows what goes on in their little bird brains that causes them to brood for endless days on…nothing whatsoever.
But all healthy hens lay eggs, whether a rooster is present or not. Our purpose for keeping chickens well may be to have fresh eggs for breakfast, but from the hens’ perspective their purpose in laying eggs is to make more chickens. They therefore have a psychological need to deposit their eggs in a dark, out-of-the-way place they deem safe. Providing nest boxes inside the coop gives them a safe place to lay, while ensuring that eggs are laid where you will find them for collection. Furnish a minimum of one nest for every four to five hens in your flock. If your flock consists of six hens, furnish at least two nests.
Ready-built plastic, wooden or metal nests are available from farm stores and many online sources. Do an internet keyword search for “chicken nests” and even if you don’t plan to buy your nests, you’ll get lots of ideas for building your own. Locate the nests in a darkened area of the coop, where light from an overhead bulb or a window will not fall directly on the nest openings. To further ensure privacy, some chicken keepers hang curtains in front of the nests.
Bored chickens are unhappy, and unhappy chickens engage in destructive behavior, like pecking each other or even themselves. If your hens can’t be outdoors pecking and scratching—for instance if you don’t have sufficient outdoor space, or the weather is simply not conducive to being outdoors—you can easily provide boredom busting diversions. One of my favorites is to hang a short roosting bar from two ropes or chains, creating a swing. Chickens love to play on a swing, and if the swing is wide enough for two or three chickens to swing at the same time they will spend endless hours trying to coordinate their efforts without losing balance.
Variable-height roosts are another great boredom buster. Some hens enjoy hopping from roost to roost, as if playing on a jungle gym. A head of cabbage hung at beak height, or a little above, offers a tetherball experience. A shiny pie tin tacked to the coop wall gives hens something shiny—and noisy—to peck at. A couple of my hens don’t need a pie tin; they enjoy noisily pecking at their coop’s aluminum siding. A bale of hay placed in the coop or run gives chickens something to jump up onto, peck on, and scratch in.
Sometimes chickens peck each other, not out of boredom, but out of lack of sufficient personal space. If you obsess about how many square feet each of your chickens need, they are probably overcrowded. A good rule of thumb is to provide hens with at least twice as much space as you believe is adequate.
Think how frustrated you become when you find yourself in an impossibly crowded situation. Like, for instance, a traffic jam. What happens? Road rage. Pecking each other is the chicken version of road rage. Frustrated hens are not happy hens. But frustration and boredom can be easily alleviated by making sure your chickens have plenty of personal space that provides lots of distractions.
So how do you know your hens are happy? They sing. Yes, they do. Singing is a sure sign of happy hens. Provide your hens with a rich environment that encourages them to keep busy exploring, foraging, dust bathing, and nesting and they will sing for you. In short, you will know your hens are happy when they act like, well, exactly like chickens.