Maisie Wake

Poultry purchasing during the pandemic has brought attention to the need for animal behaviour consultants to have a basic level of understanding of chicken behaviour. Many new chicken owners would benefit from reputable behavioural expertise and resources during this time — we can help with this!

This year, as covid-19 began to strike, some interesting elements of human behaviour began to unfold. One of these has been the perceived need to stockpile and/or look towards more self-sufficient lifestyles. With this has come a huge surge of back garden chicken-keeping. While this can very often be born out of good intentions, the panic-driven roots of the behaviour could spell danger for the individual chickens who are suddenly a popular feature in any back garden. Reasons for this panic buying are likely to be varied — the desire for easy access to regular eggs being the main one, of course.

The same concerns about pandemic pet purchasing of dogs and cats apply to chickens. People may now have plenty of time to spend with their new chickens in the garden, but as they head back to work, will the standard of care drop for their chickens? Another danger during this surge in chicken-keeping is new owners being completely unprepared with regards to the knowledge required.

In this article I’d like to highlight why chicken consultancy advice ought to be considered an important part of animal behaviour work. Chickens need to be embraced by animal behaviour consultants, now more than ever.

My start with chickens

I have a deep passion for chickens, and more than 20 years of experience in the backyard chicken industry. More recently, I have also begun to work with people and their chickens in a more professional capacity. I began chicken-keeping when I was taken out of school due to both bullying and a back injury. My parents made a decision to buy me 12 day-old chicks to rear up myself, because my animal allergies did not extend to feathers. So began an incredible learning curve and the most inspirational year of my youth.

Alongside a stack of books, my best teachers were of course the chickens themselves. From as early as crawling age I had been what I can only describe as a “student of nature,” so with my new flock I attentively watched chicken body language and verbal communication, and would spend hours studying their daily behaviours.

Chicken social systems are not always forgiving. As a child who had a hard time being bullied at school, it was a tough lesson to see that the same problems can and will happen within chicken society. I needed to learn how to carefully introduce new members, and how to keep the peace within an existing flock, ensuring adequate resources to go around, and making sure that all basic care was kept up to a high level, so that the chickens had a good foundation to thrive from. Enrichment was not a word I had come across at this point, but I spent many a day creatively inventing new problems and puzzles for the chickens to solve. It was in these early days that I unknowingly learnt the fundamentals of classical and operant conditioning. As chicks, I would call each in turn by name, to fly onto my outstretched arm. I would then either gently stroke them, or feed them healthy treats —  those who liked this would stay, those who didn’t, would leave —  it was clear to see how high-value a reinforcer choice was, because those who were allowed to leave would inevitably come back, usually each time with increased confidence.

Navigating the misconceptions

In these early years I was exposed to the highs and lows of chicken keeping without a great deal of special guidance, aside from very supportive parents. Even though I had a good level of intuition when it came to animal care, there are practices that I learnt from old poultry books that, in hindsight, I would rather not have done. One example of this is flipping a chicken over onto their back, rendering them motionless for husbandry practices. I now know that this practice induces the catatonic state of tonic immobility.

Valuable information such as this desperately needs to be made more available to the public as chickens become more popular. It still seems to be relatively common for people to think that it is okay to “hypnotise” a chicken in this way, in some cases simply doing this as a spectacle rather than for any specific purpose. Carrying chickens upside down by their legs will also render them motionless, with presumably the same physiological effect as being flipped upside-down onto their backs. There are of course more comfortable and species-sympathetic ways that a chicken can be carried, and this should be a fundamental part of chicken keeping guidance.

Championing Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive principles

As behaviour consultants we can go a step further when helping with handling chickens, and begin to teach the basics of crate training. A common issue seen in backyard chicken flocks is the classic problem of catching the chicken in the first place. This helter-skelter chase around a garden or enclosure evokes the Benny Hill theme song… But I’m pretty sure the chicken being chased doesn’t have the same sense of fun! With cortisol levels running higher, this is not conducive to a positive handling session. Instead, by teaching crate training, this comedy chase can step aside for a more low-key and supportive prelude to handling. There are numerous alternatives when catching chickens. For bantams and light breeds, birds can fly onto an outstretched arm, as I have described myself training my first chickens to do. An alternative for heavier breeds might be to be trained to hop onto a lap. One of my bantam Pekins, Puffin, has learnt to run into my open, outstretched hands instead. Bandit, pictured, doesn’t quite understand stimulus control yet, and flew onto my poised hands when I was holding my phone, ready to take a picture…

Chicken introductions

Understanding chicken social structures is especially important in order to promote the very best psychological and physiological health. The chicken’s linear or triangular hierarchy has been well documented, and is often called the pecking order. It naturally consists of 5 to 30 birds. It appears that in larger groups of 120 birds or more, these hierarchy systems break down, and the birds instead rely on “status signalling” rather than the remembered individual assessment of a small group pecking order, which starts from the individuals’ first meeting.1 Why is this important for your average backyard chicken owner? It is likely that the numbers being kept are within the smaller numbers, where the individual assessment methods are carried out. With this in mind, introductions must be done very slowly and considerately —  first impressions matter for chickens! In a similar way to other species, careful shaping and habituation can be applied so that owners have the best chance of success at introducing new hens to individuals in their flock. The stability of the social structure depends upon the recognition of familiar birds, and their place in that particular hierarchy.2

Here you can see new hen Trixie (foreground) meeting one of the resident hens, Doris. Successfully integrating one new hen is often the hardest, and can lead to high stress levels and even mortality if not done incrementally.  

The next step over a week later: Doris having some supervised time with Trixie, while Tawny and Bonnie Boy remain the other side of the fence.

Trixie with Bonnie Boy. She initially spent exclusive time with each individual in her quarantine garden.

Over the space of two weeks she spent time with each member of the flock individually, before next going for shared excursions with the whole flock.

A successful integration, done over a period of two weeks. New hen, Trixie, on the right.

Other introduction misconceptions

Another common piece of advice people are given when introducing new chickens to an existing flock is to simply put the new hens in with the original flock at night. The thought is that they will wake to find the newcomers in the morning, and be more accepting of them through this method of introduction. This does not take into account the complex social structures of chickens, and puts the new hens at the disadvantage of being trapped in an enclosed space in the hen house, without any prior knowledge of the layout in order to find escape routes. There is a higher likelihood of stress and trauma during this kind of introduction, leading to a higher likelihood of ill physical health too. There is also the danger that the pecking order becomes pre-decided with this kind of introduction, rather than the slow and careful approach of an incremental introduction.

Reducing resource guarding and other unwanted behaviors

To reduce fear, stress, and damaging behaviours such as feather pecking, it is important that owners provide a complex environment with ample behavioural opportunities and separate functional areas.3 A good knowledge of animal enrichment and its application will help with this. Even just providing opportunities for chickens to scratch and forage for their food can be extremely valuable to them. Foraging is such an important part of their behavioural repertoire, that contrafreeloading has been observed in broiler chickens. Feeding behaviour would normally take up a large portion of their daily time budget, and can be replicated more effectively by providing foraging opportunities rather than feed in a dish or trough. This will also prevent feather-pecking, which is thought to be redirected foraging behaviour. In addition to manufactured feed, simple activities such as providing logs for insects to gather under, and then uncovering a select few of these, can be hugely enriching activities. Throughout these tasks, it is important that there are always ample resources available, enabling all parties to get involved in the activities, and resource guarding opportunities reduced.

If there is a hen that is observably the lowest in the pecking order, it may help them if their owner can introduce some problem-solving activities in a safe space, away from the other hens. This will help to prevent development of negative mental state as they miss out on normal day-to-day tasks.

Freedom to roam, and to feel safe while doing so

Provision of appropriate space will help in the setting up of a behaviourally healthy flock. The RSPCA’s rough guideline is a minimum space of 12 square metres for 30 birds, dependent on the size of the chickens and the layout of facilities. Spatial allowance has a profound effect on the ability of a chicken to perform comfort behaviours, such as wing-flapping, preening, and dust-bathing.4 Some of the more popular hen houses and attached runs are based on minimum space requirements. If reduced comfort behaviours or increased agonistic behaviours or stereotypies are seen in these systems, it is likely that more enrichment needs to be included, or extra space should be provided.

Tree or shrub cover is also essential for behavioural wellbeing — on signal of an alarm call from the cockerel or from a sentinel, the hens will all run for cover. Large fields for free-range chickens are not complete without adequate natural shelter so that the hens can run from a perceived threat. If this is not provided, they will instead choose to spend increased time in or near the house in order to feel safe.

Addressing physical health

Some knowledge of chicken health is essential in order to know when to refer back to a relevant specialist. Ex-battery chickens are becoming increasingly popular to rehome, which is fantastic for the chicken industry on the whole, and as far as increasing the reach of knowledge about chickens. These highly selected strains of chickens do come with their own physical and psychological needs however. They seemingly have a compromised immune function, with the most productive strains showing the greatest decline in humoral immune capacity.5 It is important that new chicken owners are made aware of some of the more common of these problems. Calcium deficiency can lead to problems such as osteoporosis. Reproductive disorders, such as egg binding and egg yolk peritonitis, can also be more prevalent in ex-battery chickens. These may initially present as the chicken looking slower and more listless in their behaviour, along with some other signs beyond the scope of this article. It is only through further questions that you can help to determine the cause of the problem, referring back to a veterinary professional if necessary.

Egg eating, which is sometimes linked to calcium deficiencies, is a particularly difficult behaviour for many owners to work with. Overcrowding in the hen house can lead to a chicken laying her egg in an unsuitable place, such as on the floor. This leads to another individual inadvertently breaking the egg, only to then discover the tasty contents! This may be due to inadequate nesting space, inadequate floor space, or even more obscure reasons such as parasites or a lack of clean water. Some people have success using “dummy eggs,” which limit the chance of success at the behaviour. This becomes a variable schedule of reinforcement, however, so there is always the chance that the hens will continue to test the durability of the eggs. Other more effective ways for owners to work with this are as follows: allow ample nesting boxes; dim the lighting in the hen house; ensure that the house is adequately arranged with correct bedding, perching, and plenty of space; and importantly, collect eggs more frequently.

Because chickens can be prone to respiratory disorders, it is important that owners keep the environment clean. Chickens pass a large proportion of their faeces overnight, which means a daily cleanup of these droppings in the morning is an easy way for chicken owners to keep on top of hygiene. With an increased ability to smell the chemical ammonia, by the time we can smell it, it may already be causing the chickens some level of stress.

We know that physical and psychological health are often inextricably linked. In chickens, this sometimes seems even more the case. They are prone to a number of respiratory, digestive, and reproductive pathologies, and yet are often reported to have been “fine until it was too late.” As with many prey species, the instinct to disguise any physical issues is very strong in the chicken. They are certainly stoic little birds, and with good reason! Survival of the fittest is very apparent in the chicken’s world.

Chickens in “lockdown”

When dealing with an unwell chicken, it is important to work out whether they need to be immediately isolated or not. While isolation is essential if dealing with a contagious disease, for some disorders the owners may be able to work out a compromise that works with the social needs of chickens. It may be that the chicken in question can simply be on the other side of a fence, and be able to see and hear their flock mates. Some chickens will recover better if kept isolated, because this lifts the social pressures born from the chicken hierarchy. Others will appear to wither away as soon as they are separated from the group, and therefore a different approach should be taken. Some behaviours, such as foraging are linked to behavioural synchrony — as such, it may well help to encourage an unwell chicken to eat, if she is with her friends, or can at least see them — she can then join in with the activity of eating.

Behavioral signs of health issues

There are some health issues that have clear behavioural signs attached to them. For example, chickens sometimes suddenly resort to roosting elsewhere at night. Chickens have a fairly defined home range, and as a social and diurnal species, should want to seek the safety of their familiar coop and companions at night. If they choose another place to rest, it’s possible the coop doesn’t meet their physical needs, so it is worthwhile checking whether there is enough space, nesting boxes, and adequate perches, etc. They may roost elsewhere due to a lack of ventilation, bullying within the flock, a mite infestation, or rats, to name a few reasons. On several occasions I have addressed this issue. In many of these cases the problem was due to a red mite infestation, which is a very common parasite in a backyard chicken population. Often the entire flock begins to adjust their usual roosting behaviour in these cases. If the behaviour is being displayed by an individual only (see picture opposite), this could instead be indicative of an issue within the social dynamics of the flock. Ample resources should be provided to prevent this, especially nesting boxes and perching opportunities within the hen house.

Broody behaviour

Lastly, another common issue that pet chicken owners may find challenging is broodiness. There appears to be confusion over the best way to deal with unwanted broodiness, and I’m afraid I cannot clear this up completely. Research seems sparse in this area, and currently the way many are advised to work with a backyard broody chicken is to put her in a broody “cage,” with the idea being to provide enough air flow to lower her body temperature down, which will have risen as part of the behavioural process of incubating eggs. This method falls far short of the RSPCA’s five freedoms, clearly putting the broody hen into a state of discomfort and distress. I personally have struggled to find reasonable practices outlined elsewhere, and believe this to be an area where more research needs to be done. My preferred way to work with broody hens is to allow them to be broody, and simply try to eliminate stress. I will watch that they are leaving the nest site daily to get adequate food and water. If they are not doing this, that is the only time when I will step in and gently lift them off the nest daily. In some situations, owners will need to keep a close eye on their chicken as they come back out of their nesting period, because they will need to re-establish themselves within the flock.

Looking to the future for chickens

The increased popularity that chickens have received during this pandemic really ought to have some positive effects as well as some of the concerns I have highlighted. In order to point this increase in chicken-keeping in the right direction, now is the time for behaviour consultants to broaden their scope of knowledge to chickens. They are such fascinating and amazing animals that I promise any behaviour consultant, you will not regret working with them more! I would also love new owners to be made more aware that it is even possible to go to a professional for help with their chickens — in certain situations, even veterinary care is not always thought to be socially applicable to chickens, and behavioural health is sadly likely to be a step behind this. We need more than ever to push forward in advancing these standards for chickens. They deserve the utmost care and consideration from all of us!

References

  1. D’Eath, R. and Keeling, L. (2003). Social discrimination and aggression by laying hens in large groups: from peck orders to social tolerance. Applied Animal Behavior Science 84:3, 197-212
  2. Nicol, C. (2015). The Behavioural Biology of Chickens. Oxfordshire: CABI, pp. 112
  3. Bas Rodenburg, T. & Koene, P. (2007) The impact of group size on damaging behaviours, aggression, fear and stress in farm animals. Applied Animal Behavior Science 103:3-4, 205-214
  4. Fortomaris, P. et al (2007) Performance and behaviour of broiler chickens as affected by the housing system. Arkiv für Geflügelkunde 71:3, 97-104.
  5. Bridle, B. et al (2006) T lymphocyte subpopulations diverge in commercially raised chickens. Canadian Journal of Veterinary Research 70:3, 183-190.

Maisie Wake is a behaviour consultant specialising in both equines and chickens, and is a proud member of the Equine Behaviour and Training Association (http://ebta.co.uk/). No equivalent association exists for chickens (yet!), so she has dedicated her life to looking deeper into chicken psychology. She is also an equine massage therapist, currently in training as an animal physiotherapist. As such, the inextricable link between psychological and physiological states is of special interest to her. You can find out more about Maisie’s services on her website, maisiewake.com, Facebook page facebook.com/mwaketherapy, or Instagram @maisie_wake.