8 Boredom Busters for Urban Chicken Farming

Use These Simple Tricks to Raise Happy Backyard Chickens

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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.

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1. Switch Chicken Feed

Swapping out bulkier layer pellets for crumble is a simple trick for keeping hens entertained in their coop.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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Comments
  • I have 8 chickens and all winter I have been getting 7 to 8 eggs a day!
    On a really cold day my girls get warm oatmeal with raisins, crushed nuts. I hang a cabbage for entertainment but also hang head of broccoli or I peel a squash to hang. On a rainy day I’ve made them plain popcorn! My husband said I should put on a movie for them!
    My girls have done very well this long winter but I’m hoping spring comes soon!

    Reply
  • Wendy J.

    I have 5 hens. I get 4 or 5 eggs a day in winter. We have harsh winters in Northern Ontario, Canada but my hens seem to not mind the bad weather. I’ve only left them in the coop on 2 occasions this winter. The first one it was -49 degrees and the second one was a blizzard day. Other than that they are in the run. I have hung cabbages and heads of broccoli in the run or I hang a homemade seed and feed square on the pen wire. They also love to spread around new straw. These things keep them entertained for hours or days. I alway bring in what they don’t consume in the evening when I put them in the coop. 2-3 of them like to stay out until it is entirely dark so I have to go out and put them in at dusk. I’ll love to see spring arrive as I intend to convert our old travel trailer into a coop with a larger run. I don’t allow my girls to free-range ( although I’d love to), because we have a lot of hawks around and weasels and ferrets. We also are surrounded in dense brush. They have a good sized run now but I would like to be able to move the trailer around for fresher grassy areas through the summer so I’ll build a larger run, that I can attach wheels to, and move it around with the trailer. I’m sure they will be happier in the trailer when it’s completed.

    Reply
    • Marcia D.

      Wendy- I am encouraged by how active your chickens are out of doors in the winter. Wondering if you have any tips you have learned along the way for keeping the gals comfortable on cold days. I live in Anchorage Alaska and our winter days are probably not as cold as yours (typically +5 to +25 F but sometimes a streak of -15 F to 0 F) . We don’t get much wind in the winter and if we do, it is warmer like in the +30s F. Do you remove the snow in the run area or just flatten it down? Do you add straw or shavings or leaves on top of the snow or frozen icy surfaces to give their toes non-icy places to stand? How do the winter shorter day light hours affect their willingness or desire to go outdoors in the morning or go back into the coop at night? I assume you provide some artificial lighting inside the coop to extend the daylight hours to 12-14 hours of light to keep the laying going? Sorry so many questions but I am a just getting my coop and run set up in time for my first batch of chicks arriving in May. And it is difficult to translate alot of the advise I see into something that makes sense when you live in the far northern latitudes.

      Reply
  • Cherie H.

    We have six Leghorns in a 10×20 area. I put a long, thin branch inside their coop and move it around from time to time; they like to sit on it and seem interested when it’s in a new place. 🙂 We also built a dusting box from a 6-inch deep plastic bin (drilled holes so it would drain) and filled it with cooled ashes and sand. They love it!

    Reply
  • We have three hens. We let them have supervised range time a few times a week, and move pots so they can get at whatever is under them. They also scratch through the mulch, and take dust baths in the planter beds. In their coop– they have a mirror, and a dust “bathtub” made of a tire, filled with dirt. Shavings are under the roosting area, and the “run” section is mostly leaves that they have reduced to powder (they get new ones when available) plus what shavings and dirt they kick in there.

    Reply

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