By Jodi Helmer – Robert Litt makes sure the six hens foraging, roosting, and scratching in the backyard coop and run of his Portland, Oregon home are never bored. In urban chicken farming, boredom leads to undesirable behavior: Hens might pluck their feathers or peck at each other, causing injuries.
“If kept exclusively in a small coop and run setup, urban flocks tend to rapidly exhaust the entertainment possibilities in their environment,” explains Litt, founder of Urban Farm Store and co-author of A Chicken in Every Yard.
To keep urban hens happy, it’s essential to provide opportunities for enrichment, including novel materials, entertaining experiences, and puzzles to solve. Try these eight boredom busters for happier hens.
1. Switch Chicken Feed
Swapping out bulkier layer pellets for crumble is a simple trick for keeping hens entertained in their coop.
Make a “puzzle feeder” out of a water bottle: Drill several half-inch holes in a plastic bottle, fill it with crumble and screw on the lid. Chickens must push the bottle around the coop for the crumble to fall out. Working for their meals will keep urban flocks entertained.
Chickens and rats don’t mix so be sure to remove puzzle feeders overnight and keep the coop secure so pests can’t access the chicken feed.
2. Hang Perches
Chickens love to roost. To take advantage of that desire, add multiple perches to their run, turning a ho-hum home into an urban amusement park.
Perches don’t have to be elaborate. In urban chicken farming coops, hens will happily hop on wide tree branches, tree stumps, and chairs. Wooden ladders also make ideal perches, giving hens multiple levels for roosting. Building up, giving chickens multiple vertical spaces to explore rather than limiting them to the ground, will also make a run feel larger.
3. Create a Dust Bath
Getting dirty keeps chickens healthy and happy by providing exercise and alleviating boredom. Dust baths are an innate chicken behavior: Chickens dig a shallow hole, loosen up the dirt and roll around in it, using the grit to prevent parasites like mites.
In urban chicken farming, you may have to build a dust bath. Fill a shallow bucket or old pots with sand, peat moss and potting soil (without perlite or vermiculite) and watch your chickens treat themselves to a spa day.
4. Extend the Run
David Blackley lets his chickens free range in the backyard of his Charlotte, North Carolina, home but understands that some chicken keepers need to keep their chickens contained. When customers who come into his store, Renfrow Hardware, to purchase chicks, he encourages chicken keepers to provide the largest run possible, explaining, “The more space the chickens have, the happier they’ll be.”
Check the law on keeping backyard chickens in your community, get information on minimum (and maximum) allowable coop sizes, and look for a free chicken coop plan online to design a setup ideal for urban chicken farming.
5. Add Toys
Your chickens might never fetch a ball or chase their tail feathers but they are still playful inquisitive creatures. Some chicken keepers hang xylophones (and the number of YouTube videos of flocks pecking out tunes, shows that urban chicken farming can include a coop concert); some chickens also like looking at their reflection in mirrors. Before mounting a mirror in the coop, make sure it’s an unbreakable model designed for babies or birds.
Litt swapped traditional plastic waterers for models with metal tips, explaining, “Tapping the shiny metal tips with their beaks both dispenses water and provides a healthy outlet for their instinct to peck.”
Dumping a pile of fresh straw in the run can also provide hours of entertainment.
“It’s a cause for celebration in our flock,” Litt says. “They’ll spend several days methodically scratching through the stuff hunting for tiny bugs and seeds, clearly satisfied by the task.”
6. Offer Treats
When the flock of chicks waiting for homes at Urban Farm Store starts getting rough with each other, Litt knows boredom is to blame—and food challenges can help curb their undesirable chicken behavior.
Dangle a cabbage or the head of a sunflower from a string or hang store-bought treat balls filled with mealworms. You’ll hear contented chicken sounds as your flock enjoys these healthy ways to stay entertained.
“They love it and seem to enjoy a bit of competition as they jockey for position to peck it as it swings,” Litt says. “There are many other ways to use food for simulation, but the essential concept is to make food more difficult to obtain and therefore more challenging.”
7. Allow Supervised Ranging
It might not be possible to let chickens free range all the time (and in urban chicken farming it might not be legal) but chickens will appreciate opportunities to explore beyond their runs where they can scratch up fresh patches of grass in search of grubs.
Before opening the coop doors, make sure the bylaws in your area allow chickens to free range (even for short periods). Choose times when you’re available to watch and protect your flock. Be on the lookout for predators such as dogs, foxes, and hawks to keep the chickens safe while they explore.
8. Show Them Some Love
Spending time with your flock allows them to experience the novel sights, sounds and smells associated with your presence and the friendliest members of the flock will appreciate the interaction.
“Chickens do respond well to attention,” Blackley says.
In urban chicken farming, the more efforts you make to keep boredom at bay, the happier your urban chickens will be.
What boredom busters have you used in your coop to encourage good chicken behavior?