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    Safe Cohabitation Considerations For Chickens

    three chickens relax under the cover of vegetation
    It’s important to understand who chickens are and what they need when considering living arrangements and social groupings. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

    This resource has been fully reviewed and updated by a member of The Open Sanctuary Project’s staff as of December 22, 2021

    Because every resident is a unique individual, it’s difficult to offer specific guidance regarding safe cohabitation with members of other species. However, there are certain species who may be more likely to safely cohabitate than others, and in some cases, there are species combinations that are best avoided entirely due to potential safety risks or care needs that are too different. In order to make responsible, informed decisions about living arrangements and social groupings for any species at your sanctuary, it’s important to consider who they are, generally, as a species; what their needs and preferences are; and also to consider who they are as an individual. Additionally, you’ll want to think about any safety risks they could potentially pose to another species and vice versa. Below we’ll discuss important things to keep in mind when considering living arrangements and social groupings involving chickens. In addition to the information below, you’ll need to consider the specific needs of the individuals you are considering housing them with.

    Social Considerations

    Domesticated chickens are highly social animals who, like their ancestor the red junglefowl, have evolved to live in flocks with other chickens. If you’ve had the privilege of spending time with chickens, you’ve likely noticed that they engage in a variety of group activities such as preening, dust bathing, sunbathing, and foraging. As prey animals, living in a flock setting offers more protection than living alone and also provides ample opportunity for observational learning, which allows individuals to avoid the potentially dangerous risks involved in learning through “trial and error”. Therefore, whenever possible, we recommend chickens be given the opportunity to live with other chickens, though we recognize that some chickens may be quite content living indoors with just their human companions. In order to foster healthy flock dynamics, be sure to provide your chicken residents with ample space, resources, and enrichment. Boredom, competing over resources, and the inability to stay away from flockmates (if they so choose) can have a negative impact on flock dynamics.

    Non-large breed chickens can live in mixed-sex flocks so long as everyone gets along well. If you have more than one rooster living with females, be sure to pay close attention to the dynamics between males and make sure females are not being overmounted. You may find that you need to make alterations to flock arrangements in the spring if hens are being overmounted or if roosters are getting into serious altercations with one another. Housing roosters separately from hens is also an option. You can read more about rooster flocks here.

    In order to avoid injury, large breed chickens should not live with chickens of the other sex. Due to their size, large breed roosters can seriously injure both large breed and non-large breed hens if they attempt to mount them. Female large breed chickens should only be housed with small roosters, such as bantams, so as to avoid painful mounting wounds and undue strain on their already compromised joints.

    If a chicken resident is unable to live with other chickens, it will be important to give them the opportunity to bond with a companion(s) of a different species while ensuring everyone’s safety. Similarly, if due to spatial constraints you are considering housing your chicken residents with residents of another species, you will need to do so thoughtfully.

    Further Reading
    Sometimes you need to consider separating an individual from their companions due to a health issue. You can read more about considering alternative living arrangements due to a health concern here. Also, be sure to check out Creating An Enriching Life For Chickens for enrichment ideas to utilize during times when someone must be away from their companions.

    Dietary Considerations

    If you are contemplating housing your chicken residents with another species, be sure to consider their dietary needs and whether or not these can be met if they are living with non-chicken residents. If other bird residents at your sanctuary are fed the same food as your chicken residents, this will make cohabitation easier than housing chickens with individuals who have vastly different diets. For example, food formulated for chickens would not be healthy or safe for your ruminant residents to regularly ingest. Similarly, food or mineral supplements for mammals may not be healthy or safe for chickens to consume. There are various reasons why housing chickens with mammalian residents may not be advisable- the significant difference in dietary needs is just one such reason.

    In addition to considering what other residents eat, if you are caring for large breed chickens, you’ll also need to consider how much other residents eat. Because large breed chickens must have their portions managed to prevent unhealthy weight gain and obesity-related health issues, it can be challenging to house them with other residents who are free-fed, even if they are eating the same food formulation. This arrangement would require the creation of a space the large breed chickens cannot access where food can be provided free-choice for other residents. If you decide to try this, be sure to do so thoughtfully and to watch closely to ensure that residents who should be free-fed can easily access their food and that large breed chicken residents cannot. Also, consider how the knowledge of food out of their reach might impact a large breed chicken- if they are constantly pacing outside the separate feeding area and consumed with trying to get to the food, this is not a fair set-up for them.

    ​​For more information on your residents’ dietary needs, check out our species-specific Daily Diet, Treats, And Supplements resources.

    Housing Considerations

    Chickens are vulnerable to predation both during the day and at night, and therefore require robust predator-proofing to keep them safe. Their outdoor space must include proper fencing (both to keep chicken residents inside their space and to keep other animals out), and the addition of aviary netting will protect against aerial predators. Larger mammals have different fencing needs, and you may find it challenging to create an outdoor space that accommodates what a larger resident needs while also providing the predator protection a chicken needs. 

    Overnight, chickens must be closed into completely predator-proof housing to keep them safe. If you care for individuals who are able to fly up and perch in trees, know that this is not a safe option for them overnight. All chicken residents should be closed into predator-proof spaces to ensure their safety overnight. Some chicken predators (like weasels) can fit through spaces as small as a quarter, and others (like raccoons) can reach through small spaces to get to chickens or can open latches to get into chicken spaces. Because ducks, geese, turkeys, and other sanctuary bird residents have similar housing requirements in terms of predator-proofing, housing them with chickens will be easier than housing chickens with larger mammals who, even if they require some degree of predator-protection, do not require the same overnight accommodations- not to mention the potential safety issues that could come with having your chicken residents locked inside with larger residents overnight.

    Won’t Larger Residents Act As Deterrents Or Protectors Against Predators?
    It’s not uncommon to hear about certain species being housed with others in an attempt to protect more vulnerable species from predators. In some cases, this simply entails housing larger species with smaller species, but other times it involves specific species who have been designated by humans as “livestock guardians” such as dogs, donkeys, or llamas. Unfortunately, this practice of relying on other residents to act as deterrents or protectors is not universally reliable and, therefore, is not something we recommend. While you can certainly find folks who advocate strongly for this solution (especially individuals from the farming community), you can also find heartbreaking stories of predator attacks. In addition to the “protected” residents being harmed despite the inclusion of a “guardian” in their living space, in some cases, the “guardian” has been injured or killed by a predator because they were not properly protected either. There have also been reports of “guardian” residents going after the individuals they live with, sometimes with little to no forewarning. We believe that there is simply no substitute for proper housing and fencing when it comes to predator protection, and living arrangements should be informed by the needs of each individual resident, not the role we feel they should play.

    For more information on your residents’ housing needs, check out our species-specific Creating A Good Home resources.

    Safety Considerations

    When considering mixed-species social groups, it’s important to consider any potential safety risks. Safety considerations for chickens include:

    Safety Concerns Associated With Larger Mammalian Species

    Any time a smaller species is housed with a significantly bigger one, there is the risk of injury, but pigs tend to pose a more significant risk to chickens than some other species. There have been reports of chickens being killed in a sanctuary environment by pigs. While you may think that the risk to chickens is directly linked to the pig’s size, this is not the only concern. It’s true that large pigs could accidentally trample a smaller chicken resident, but piglets can pose a potentially greater risk to chickens. Some of the reports of chicken residents being killed by pigs involved piglets who were trying to play with a chicken resident who entered their living space. Feral pigs also pose a significant risk to chickens. While adult domesticated pigs may pose less of a risk to birds, you should always exercise caution where possible when it comes to protecting resident lives and be mindful of the potential consequences of species cohabitation. For these reasons, we do not recommend housing chickens with pigs, especially feral pigs or piglets.

    We also don’t recommend housing chickens with dogs. While some dogs may do fine with chickens, a negative interaction could have devastating consequences. Additionally, as chickens are prey animals, a dog’s presence may cause them stress, even if they aren’t in immediate danger. Due to the potential risks, even if you have reason to believe a chicken and dog will get along, we recommend never leaving them together unsupervised.

    In addition to pigs and dogs, other bigger residents, such as ruminants, equines, or camelids, could injure a chicken, especially by accidentally trampling them. A chicken may have difficulty moving out of the way of a quickly moving resident who is significantly bigger than them, and large breed chickens, chickens with mobility issues, and hens who are broody are at an increased risk of being injured. Furthermore, some mammalian residents may be too confrontational or playful to be able to safely cohabitate with chickens, regardless of their size. For example, even though they are smaller in stature, a young goat kid could cause serious injury to a chicken resident if they are trying to play.

    It’s important to note that chicks are especially vulnerable, and in addition to the considerations above, should also be kept away from cats. While cats and mature chickens tend to do fine together, cats have been known to kill chicks. An additional consideration with cats is that chickens should not have access to their litter box as consuming litter could result in crop impaction (this is of particular concern with large breed chickens who may gorge on cat litter if given the chance).

    Safety Concerns Associated With Other Farmed Bird Species 

    If you are considering housing your chicken residents with other farmed bird residents, there are some important things to keep in mind. While chickens and turkeys have similar care needs, housing them together isn’t always the best idea. Turkeys are particularly susceptible to blackhead disease (histomoniasis), which is caused by Histomonas meleagridis, a parasitic protozoan that can be transmitted in Heterakis gallinarum. While chickens can become ill from blackhead disease, they are often asymptomatic carriers and can spread H. meleagridis without being obviously affected themselves. Because of this, some sources stress that chickens and turkeys should never live together. However, many sanctuaries have been able to house chickens and turkeys together without issue. If you decide to house your chicken and turkey residents together, we recommend having a discussion with your veterinarian about the risk of blackhead disease and how to prevent it (for example by performing regular fecal testing to check for H. gallinarum). While blackhead disease is a concern for turkeys of all ages, mortality is most common in poults under 12 weeks of age and, therefore, it’s recommended that poults younger than 12 weeks be kept away from chickens and spaces chickens have inhabited. Some sanctuaries have made it a policy to wait until turkeys are at least 6 months old before introducing them to chickens, while others feel it is best to always house chickens and turkeys separately so as to further reduce the risk of this serious disease.

    The risk of blackhead disease isn’t the only concern when housing chickens and turkeys together. While chickens can typically live with female turkeys without issue, male turkeys are another story. A tom could seriously injure or even kill a chicken if he was to mount them. Therefore, it’s safest not to house female chickens with male turkeys. There have also been reports of dangerous confrontations between roosters and non-large breed toms, and since we prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to resident safety, we typically advise that chickens be housed separately from non-large breed toms. 

    Similarly, if you are considering housing chickens with other avian residents, such as guinea fowl, ducks, or geese, be sure to watch that everyone is getting along well and there is no inter-species mounting or fighting. Keep in mind that ducks and geese have a protrusible phallus and could seriously injure a chicken if they were to attempt to mate with them.

    Risk Associated With Treatments Intended For Other Species

    If you plan to have your chicken residents live with another species, in addition to considering safety issues associated with any physical interactions between the two species, you’ll also want to consider whether or not this living arrangement will put the chickens in contact with substances that are not safe for them. There may be some treatments that are safe to use in a particular species that are not safe for others. Be sure to keep this in mind if using treatments your chicken residents may come into contact with. For some treatments, it may be safest to keep your chicken residents separate to prevent potential issues. 

    Additionally, if your setup is such that other residents may eat a chicken’s eggs, consider the potential risk involved if a resident eats an egg from a chicken who is currently on medication or has recently been on medication.

    Consider The Individual

    In addition to understanding who chickens are and what they need as a species, be sure to consider the specific individuals in your care- thinking about their unique personalities, histories, and preferences as well as their health care needs. As an example, consider ex-fighters. Ex-fighting birds have often been kept in close proximity, but just out of reach of other fighting birds, and may have been conditioned and trained specifically to react aggressively to other roosters in particular. This kind of conditioning is a major challenge when it comes to integrating ex-fighters with other roosters, and sometimes even other birds or other animals. The trauma that these birds have endured can be significant, and it can take a great deal of time and trust-building for them to recover. For ex-fighters, even being in eyesight and sometimes earshot of another rooster can be triggering or upsetting. In general, it is not recommended to attempt to house ex-fighters with other roosters for this reason. In cases such as these, it is important to respect their past experience and to offer them housing that honors their needs. This may include giving them their own separate housing space with visual barriers to block their view of other roosters.

    That being said, these survivors are still flock animals by nature, and thus also have social needs. While it may not be possible for them to meet those needs being housed in flocks with other roosters, many ex-fighters (and game birds generally) do very well in monogamous pairs with a single hen or with a pair of hens. Generally speaking, they tend not to have a tendency to overmount their hen companions, although again, each bird is an individual and must be carefully observed with their flockmates in order to ensure every flock member’s safety and well-being. For ex-fighting roosters, another possibility can be living as house companions. While some ex-fighters may never wish to build trust with humans after their experiences, many do and become very loving companions. In such cases, it is possible to integrate such a bird into a home environment as a solo house rooster. 

    Ex-fighters are certainly not the only example of chickens who may require alternate housing to a traditional flock arrangement. Consider hens, for instance. Certain hens may have a tendency to bully other hens. Such a hen might be telling you that she’d like to be the focus of attention and in charge of her environment. She may also do very well as a house companion, versus a member of a traditional flock.

    There’s a lot to consider when figuring out social groupings for sanctuary residents, and things can get even more complicated when you start thinking about how different species will do together. Be sure to consider the needs of all species involved and think about whether or not you can meet everyone’s needs and keep everyone safe in a mixed-species group.

    SOURCES:

    Thinking Chickens: A Review Of Cognition, Emotion, And Behavior In The Domestic Chicken | Lori Marino

    About Chickens | HSUS

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