Professionals agree chickens need enrichment. Keeping your flock healthy, either for egg or meat production or companionship, is most likely your primary goal. Maintaining healthy chickens is a process that includes many facets, including environmental, social and physical aspects. Keeping your coop clean, your birds in groups, and allowing them ample exercise are the first steps toward promoting a healthy lifestyle in your backyard flock, but there is more that you can do. Have you considered the emotional or intellectual facets of your birds’ lives? Do they have feelings? Are they intellectual? If so, do they need enrichment to keep them inquisitive and healthy?
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When I consult pet owners and poultry caregivers, they are often concerned about abnormal behaviors. Enrichment, adding something novel, can often help alleviate many of these problems. Enrichment is often thought of as only toys or treats. Similar to physical health, there are many components to consider for mental health. In addition to providing treats and toys for chickens, backyard poultry caregivers can consider other categories including foraging, training, self-maintenance and environmental enrichment.
With these categories in mind, you can improve your bird’s mental health for little to no cost. If an activity or item promotes natural behaviors, your enrichment is working. According to Pat Miller, the owner of Peaceable Paws, “All domesticated animals can benefit from enrichment. If poultry are confined, she recommends providing chickens with multiple levels upon which they can perch and roost.” She even suggests that owners “collect insects for them to chase and consume.”
My chickens are kept in a sizeable coop when no one is home. To add to their coop’s environmental complexity, I add free mulch to the bottom of the structure to promote the natural behavior of scratching. I also have several large branches of oak and bamboo that the chickens use to peck at and perch on. By adding natural items, my chickens are kept entertained and it doesn’t cost me anything.
In one corner of their pen, I have a large area that I keep clean of mulch and instead fill it with play sand. Birds will often only preen or bathe when they are comfortable with their surroundings. When taking a dust bath, I can feel confident that they are relaxed with their surroundings. In addition to emotional health, dust baths for chickens also can reduce the occurrence of ectoparasites.
Another free item that I found that poultry use often is a mirror, which are great toys for chickens. Whether it is a goose, duck or chicken, if there is a mirror on or near the ground, they are looking into it. I have several mirrors throughout my gardens that my poultry visit on a daily basis. Friends have given me old mirrors and I have found them on social media sites for free. Mirrors may help small flocks feel more comfortable. Whatever the reason, my birds look at themselves often.
Helen Dishaw, the Curator of Bird Training and Education Programs at the Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City, Utah, agrees that chickens in coops need enrichment.
“All animals need enrichment, including humans; pet chickens are no exception,” she says. “Chickens confined to a coop and not provided with mental and physical stimulation in the form of enrichment will likely start to exhibit problem behaviors, such as feather picking, bullying, and other destructive behaviors — to themselves, their coop mates, even eggs.”
Due to the fact that roaming and foraging is enriching, there is less of a necessity to provide extra stimulation in the form of enrichment to free range birds.
“For confined chickens, compensating for the lack of stimulation with enrichment is an essential part of their care,” Dishaw adds.
Although there is less of a necessity for enrichment for free-range birds, Dishaw and I suggest that you still try to enhance your birds’ lives. Providing enrichment is a best practice when it comes to poultry husbandry.
“An easy, cheap item to encourage activity is to hang a head of lettuce, or other leafy greens, from the roof of the coop for the chickens to peck at,” Dishaw suggests.
I have done this many times with great success. Feeding backyard chickens whole food items, like whole melons or pumpkins, is also enriching for the birds. They must use natural behaviors to get at the delicious treat.
Hanging an empty plastic bottle with holes poked in it is another free idea. Filled with food, these toys for chickens will encourage them to scratch and peck to get the food to come out. Boxes of shredded paper or leaves with poultry food hidden inside will encourage foraging as well. An old log with mealworms or bugs hidden in it is great for those with limited space.
If you think hiding a bird’s food or making them work for their food is teasing or cruel, you should try an experiment. Have a puzzle with food in it next to a bowl of food and see where your birds migrate to.
Many years ago, scientists conducted this exact experiment and found that, in addition to poultry, rats, grizzly bears, goats, humans, Siamese fighting fish and a slew of other animals choose to work for their food, even when food is readily available. The term for this is contrafreeloading.
There are several theories explaining why contrafreeloading might occur. It may be that many animals are born with a need to forage or hunt. Being able to choose how to manipulate the environment, like accessing food from a toy, might provide them with the mental stimulation needed to prevent boredom. Pets may be using these information-seeking behaviors to work out how to predict the location of the best food sources. It could be that they see the free food and know it is going to be there in the future. Therefore, they stock up on the food that is a little more time consuming because they don’t know how long that opportunity will be available.
A third theory on why contrafreeloading works could be the additional rewards that are part of the feeding device. Our backyard poultry could be enjoying the feeding device itself. The way it rolls haphazardly, like an insect, keeps our birds on their toes. They appreciate the chase.
There are a lot of options when choosing a feeder toy for your poultry. Pet store items usually start $10 and up. There are also a lot of feeder toys you can make at home. Take a 2- to 3-inch wide PVC pipe and put caps on the ends. The length of the tube could be a foot long or larger. Drill a handful of holes on the side of the tube and it becomes a food dispenser when the birds roll and peck at it. Another option is it to place a pet’s food in whiffle balls. As the balls roll, treats fall out. Filling them with a different type of seeds or grains will get those bird brains invested in the task.
If you think your birds will react negatively toward toys for chickens, there are a few ways to calmly and safely introduce them.
“Play with the enrichment with them, show them what it does — if it’s a treat dispenser (like the plastic bottle idea), literally demonstrate for them,” Dishaw recommends. “Any enrichment item that has visible food is a good way to start introducing them to the concept of playing with these foreign objects.”
Dishaw also recommends owners to “put new, and potentially scary, objects off to one side of their space, so they can choose to interact or avoid if they want to.”
Empowering your birds to be able to make choices will keep their stress levels down and possibly help hens lay eggs.
Training your poultry is another free form of enrichment. From training them to step up on your hand voluntarily to coming when called, these behaviors are not only important but fun for you and your birds.
“Mental stimulation in the form of learning is one of the best forms of enrichment,” Dishaw says. (Check out “2 Lessons to Teach your Birds” in the June-July edition of Backyard Poultry for more ideas on how to train your flock.)
Remembering that enrichment doesn’t have to be pretty or cost money will allow you to engage, empower and enrich your flock with new exciting ideas. Only your imagination will hold you back. If what you are doing increases natural behaviors, then you are improving your poultry’s mental health.
Do you provide toys for chickens and other poultry?
Originally published in the February/March 2015 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.