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Creating An Enriching Life For Chickens

Three roosters perching together on a branch outdoors.
Photo: Rooster Haus Rescue

Updated September 15, 2020

Enrichment is often thought of as an extra or optional provision for residents. Sanctuary workers are understandably focused on providing the food, water, and housing that is necessary for residents to live. However, we are hoping that by incorporating enrichment as an aspect of general care, the lives of residents will be enriched. This is of particular importance for residents residing in smaller, more confined, or barren living spaces. In areas that experience intense cold, the best way to keep chicken residents warm is to leave them in a smaller, coop-like space when they may normally have a larger outdoor space for foraging and other chicken behaviors. In cases like these, enrichment can make a world of difference in the lives of residents. No one likes to be bored, including residents, regardless of species!

Developing An Enrichment Plan

It is important to understand the species-specific needs of your residents, as well as to consider their individual needs. An example of a species-specific understanding acknowledges that chickens are very motivated to forage for their food, though some have been bred to exhibit less active behavior, like large breed chickens, who have particular health issues that need to be taken into consideration when developing an enrichment plan. This is critical, as adding roosts, chicken swings, and certain types of nutritional enrichment could prove dangerous for large breed chickens. 

For example: On an individual level, Cindy the little brown hen underwent surgery recently and her movements must be limited, especially walking, for the next week or two. Setting Cindy up in a sling or small living space and providing enrichment as a means of mental stimulation can assist in her healing. Examples of possible enrichment strategies for Cindy include playing the radio, stringing a treat garland within her reach, adding a familiar smell to her temporary living space, and providing a television or computer screen-savers.

That’s right: Studies have shown that chickens are stimulated by visual enrichment, particularly those involving movement. Images and clips should be rotated every so often to keep their interest.

When developing an enrichment plan for residents, it’s important to consider the types of behavior in which you’re hoping to see an increase or decrease. For example, if you’re hoping to reduce feather-picking, there are particular enrichment options that are ideal for that, such as tying a bunching of white string to an accessible part of their living space. Do you wish to increase exploratory behavior? Novel objects and nutritional foraging enrichment may be better suited in this case. We know you have your hands full managing a sanctuary; developing an enrichment plan for species, particular groupings of residents, and individuals can actually help you save time and money in the future. 

In this resource, we will cover different types of enrichment and how they can be implemented at your sanctuary.

Social Enrichment

A rooster looking at themself in a mirror.
Photo: Rooster Haus Rescue

This one may seem obvious, but it’s important to mention. Chickens are social animals and it’s important they have access to other chickens. Of course, there are times when this isn’t possible, due to medical issues, flock disagreements, or sadly, the death of their flock-mates. In cases like these where direct contact with others of their species isn’t possible, there are ways that you can enrich their lives during this time:

  • Ideally, chickens should be housed with other chickens. If this isn’t possible, then extra steps should be taken to alleviate the stress caused by any sense of isolation.
  • Provide visual contact with other chickens.
  • Add a mirror (some organizations hang old CDs) to their living space.
  • Include a small amount of soiled bedding (if contagion isn’t an issue)  from their original flock space.
  • Play a recording of normal chicken sounds.
  • If you have a large breed rooster who can’t be housed with the hens, sometimes they can be integrated into a flock of turkeys or have a turkey companion.
  • House chickens have been known to form strong social bonds with humans as well as some other species, though this should be done thoughtfully and carefully to prevent injury. If possible, consider adopting or rescuing a second chicken.

Nutritional Enrichment

A flock of chickens investigating a head of lettuce suspended by a rope.
Photo: Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge

This is a fun one! We all know chickens revel in scratching at dirt and foraging and enjoy an array of tasty treats. 

Here is a list of ideas for nutritional enrichment for your chicken residents:

  • Take a two to three-inch wide PVC pipe and put caps on the ends. The length of the tube could be twelve inches 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 to place chicken food in wiffle balls. As the balls roll, treats fall out.
  • There are also food balls made specifically for chickens that distribute a small amount of food when the ball is manipulated.
  • Some puzzle feeders made for dogs can be used with supervision.
  • Hang heads of cabbage or lettuce from a string, making a tasty treat piñata! We recommend covering the string with stiff tubing or a piece of hose to prevent residents from getting tangled in the string.
  • Add a pile of leaves (be sure they aren’t toxic to chickens) and sprinkle treats throughout.
  • String safe produce and make a garland to hang in their living space.
  • Chickens are an amazing species that actually exhibit a behavior called contrafreeloading. Contrafreeloading is the term for when an animal will choose to perform a task to receive food even when there is food readily available. This is most evidently seen in red jungle fowl, from which domesticated chickens descend. Red jungle fowl exhibit this behavior most, with domestic chickens following, though large breed chickens tend to exhibit less of this behavior. See an example of a chicken performing as task for food here.
  • If you think hiding a bird’s food or making them work for their food is unkind, you can try an experiment with your residents. Provide a puzzle with food in it next to a bowl of food, and see how your residents behave.
  • When temperatures are hot, add chopped up produce to a mold, add water and freeze, creating a cool treat that can keep your residents engaged on a hot day.

Check out our resource on safe treats for chicken residents here!

Considering Needs Of Large Breed Residents!

Large breed chickens (such as Cornish-Cross individuals) have been bred to gain weight in a short period of time, and spend a lot of their time hungry and motivated to eat. You can still carefully allow your large breed residents to exhibit natural behaviors such as foraging without causing them harm from overeating with tools like slow feeders. There are also food balls made specifically for chickens that distribute a small amount of food when the ball is manipulated. However, although chickens as a species have shown interest in working for their food even when other food is readily available, this behavior is seen less in large breed chickens. This enrichment may potentially provide the desired stimulation, or may not be of interest to your large breed birds at all.

Visual Enrichment

Three large breed chickens look at themselves in a mirror.
Photo: Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge
A chicken standing on a desk indoors looking at a video of a chicken on a computer screen.
A little visual enrichment can go a long way for chicken residents. | Photo: Edgar’s Mission

Research has shown that chickens can benefit from visual forms of enrichment. In particular, studies revealed that chickens who have been given visual forms of enrichment exhibit less fear when they are transferred to unfamiliar environments.  Visual enrichment could include:

  • Computer screen savers, particularly those that move
  • Television or movies
  • Images of chickens projected onto walls has shown behavioral imitation among the flock it is shown to. So projecting scenes of happy chickens may help your resident chickens feel good too. Interest in images may fade after a few weeks and thus should be changed routinely to sustain interest.
  • Provide mirrors or hang CDs around their living space. Note: Be mindful of individual personalities when adding mirrors around roosters. This may not be an ideal form of enrichment for them if they exhibit confrontational behaviors.
  • Place a pinwheel outside of their living space

Olfactory Enrichment

Olfactory enrichment is often overlooked when considering chickens. However, studies have shown that chickens have an advanced sense of smell, and providing chickens access to certain smells can contribute to feelings of safety though these studies focus more on the familiarity of smell than the properties of a scent itself..

  • If you need to transfer a chicken to a new living space, add a bit of soiled bedding from their previous space.
  • Chicks have been shown to prefer smells like vanilla over garlic. 
  • Chicks exposed to geraniol oil exhibited an increase in pecking, vocalization, preening, and movement.
  • If introducing new birds to an existing flock, the presence of vanilla scent may have a calming effect if both living spaces where the birds resided had vanilla in them as well.

Auditory Enrichment

Do you love a good tune? Or have a favorite song that soothes you? The same can be true for chickens!

  • Chickens have been shown to experience reduced fear when classical music is played for them! 
  • Other studies have shown that playing a radio for hens made them calmer.
  • Natural sounds for chickens can be soothing, but were not shown to be as helpful as music.

Tactile Enrichment

A rooster spending time with a stuffed animal rooster outside.
Photo: Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge
A chicken investigating a hanging cat toy outside.
Riley is curious about this new cat toy in his living space! | Photo: Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary
Seven large breed chickens spend time at the margins of a plastic pool being filled with water.
Have an enriching pool party on a hot day! | Photo: Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary

To encourage chickens to interact with their environment and redirect otherwise problematic behavior, consider adding tactile enrichment to their living spaces. This might include:

  • Tying a bunch of white strings in their living space (being careful that they cant ingest them).
  • Adding sand or dirt for a nice dust bath can be stimulating and help keep ectoparasite infestations down.
  • Add colorful balls (large enough that they can’t swallow them and made from material they cannot digest) to food dishes.
  • Add a cat toy to their living space (that they cannot ingest).
  • Place a soccer ball or tennis ball for them to interact with into their living space.
  • Add chicken swings, unique roosting opportunities (like wooden ladders or chicken “playgrounds”). However, it is important to consider the needs of your individual residents. Structures like these may not be advisable for senior and large breed chickens as they could result in serious injury.

Take Notes

Because every chicken is an individual, they are likely to have individual responses to enrichment. When you first add enrichment items, be sure to carefully observe the reactions of your residents. To prevent discomfort to new items or enrichment schedules, consider adding novel objects to an area to the side of their enclosure or in a space that doesn’t require them walking past the item to go inside, outside, or reach their water or food. If you believe one of your resident flocks or individuals may be fearful of certain enrichment, encouraging them to investigate object while you are sitting and holding the object can help ease fears. Using food or treats to motivate them to interact with the item is a great way to start. Giving your residents the option to engage or not with enrichment items can be empowering and improve emotional states. Be sure to make notes of any reactions and when their level of interest seems to subside. This will help you know how to best schedule days to change up their enrichment and provide them with a mentally stimulating environment.

Novelty

A rooster peers out through a window cut into a cardboard box.
Even a cardboard box can provide enrichment for the right individual Photo: Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge
Chickens perch on and investigate a wheelbarrow.
Rusty, Rosie, and Ophelia find the wheelbarrow enriching while watching care staff keeping their space nice and tidy! Photo credit: Lewis Oliver

Novelty can be enriching on its own. Making changes to the “furniture” arrangement, placement of food, addition of balls, toys, and swings, can all create an interesting an enriching environment for your chicken residents. Chickens are clever and become bored after some time with provided enrichment. For this reason, it is important to incorporate “switch it up” days into your residents’ enrichment schedules. As mentioned above, it’s important to take notes on flock and individual responses so you can properly tailor enrichment to the interests and needs of your residents. 

Positive Reinforcement Engagement

Many chickens may enjoy interacting with their human caretakers. One way to build a strong human-chicken bond and boost cognitive functioning in your chicken residents is to engage in clicker “training” (we prefer bonding or engagement).

It Shouldn't Be For Humans

It is important to note that clicker “training” should only be implemented for the positive experiences that can be provided to your residents, never as an exploitative activity to train your residents to ”perform” for human amusement.

Examples of activities to learn with your chicken residents could include learning to choose a specific shape or color and rewarding with an immediate click and treat. Other examples include teaching chickens to come to the call of their name, how to ring a bell, and into more challenging tasks such as picking a specific card from a deck, pecking at a lever to release food (remember contrafreeloading?),  walking through agility courses, and even learning to play tic-tac-toe. Positive reinforcement can also be used to ease medical procedures and transfers. This infographic from Poultry DVM provides a brief tutorial on how to engage chickens with a clicker.

Building A Schedule

Once you learn more about your residents’ interests, you can build an enrichment schedule to provide varying forms of enrichment as part of your caretaking routine. This will keep things interesting for the chickens and help provide a stimulating and happy life for your residents.

Do you have an exciting enrichment strategy you use with your chickens? Tell us all about it!

SOURCES:

Environmental Enrichment Ideas For Poultry | Poultry DVM

Music | Poultry DVM

Familiar Smells | Poultry DVM

Colorful Balls | Poultry DVM

Mirror | Poultry DVM

Enrich Your Chickens’ Environment For Better Health | Hobby Farms (Non-Compassionate Source)

Environmental Enrichment For Poultry Welfare (Non-Compassionate Source)

The Effects Of Four Types Of Enrichment On Feather-Pecking Behaviour In Laying Hens Housed In Barren Environments | Animal Welfare (Non-Compassionate Source)

Domestication Effects On Foraging Behaviour – Consequences For Adaptability In Chickens | Linköping Studies in Science and Technology, Christina Lindqvist (Non-Compassionate Source)

Do You Need Toys For Chickens? | Backyard Poultry (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?

If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on September 15, 2020

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