If you’re caring for chickens, it’s very important that you know how to safely handle and hold them. Some chickens are more receptive to being held than others, but you should practice a uniform, safe technique across the flock (with special consideration for health-compromised individuals) to keep all your residents happy and healthy. Regularly picking up a chicken will help familiarize them with the experience and can help make stressful events like health concerns, separations, and relocations a little less nerve-wracking.
When approaching a chicken, it’s essential that you do not chase them. Chasing is going to stress them out and may make them skittish around you. Lowering yourself down to their level and offering a little bit of food or a treat can help encourage chickens to want to spend time with you! Some more nervous chickens may still actively avoid your grip, so they might require a bit more coaxing.
Gently corral the chicken into a corner (herding chickens as a flock rather than singling out birds if possible) before you attempt to pick them up. Put your dominant hand on the midsection of their back and another in front of their breast to keep them from moving away from you, then carefully and gently move your hands to secure their wings against their body, optionally using your own chest to safely hold them against to maintain a free hand. This will prevent them from injuring themselves or jumping away from you. It’s okay if their legs are free as long as you have their torso and wings safely cradled.
Roosters may require a little more care as they sometimes can be a bit more defensive about handling than hens. If the chicken absolutely refuses to be handled, and it’s not an emergency, you can handle them in the evening after they’ve settled into their roost, as their sleep will put them into a very calm state.
Once safely in your grip, you can gently pet them (never stroking against their feather grain!) and talk to them softly in order to calm them down and make them more comfortable with human handling. There’s an optimal balance to be struck between holding them firmly, but not causing them injury. You always want the bird to be calm, not gasping or struggling under pressure, and feeling confident that they aren’t going to fall.
To carry the chicken, keep one hand securely under their rear end. You can tuck their head slightly under the crook of your arm, but don’t prevent them from being able to see as this can easily stress out and scare the bird.
If you need to check a chicken’s vent area, such as for external parasites (and you know that this chicken specifically is healthy enough to handle it), you can safely rotate them onto their side as long as you continue to safely hold their wings against their body. This generally should not be attempted with larger or health-compromised birds whose medical history you are unsure of. Also, more confrontational chickens may kick at you if you try to rotate them. Most birds who cannot be tilted on their side can safely be checked while they are restrained but still standing on the ground. By kneeling beside the bird with their tail facing forward, you can either bend down to check the vent area or have someone else check while you keep the chicken calmly restrained. Always watch for signs of distress, as some chickens get very stressed even with minor handling.
Setting Down A Chicken
When you set down a chicken, safely and carefully let their feet back onto the ground while continuing to keep their wings secure until you’re confident that they will gently leave you. Never throw a chicken! If it’s safe for their diet, you could give them a little extra treat after handling so they have a positive memory to associate the experience with.
Special Handling Requirements For Large Breed Chickens
Due to their health challenges, large breed chickens such as Cornish Cross birds require particular care to ensure their health and safety when handling:
- DO NOT chase a large breed bird as it can cause a heart attack. Carefully corral them into a corner first.
- Large breed chickens have much smaller wings, which are harder to control.
- Older large breed birds can die when held or restrained, so stay low to the ground and keep the bird in your lap if possible.
- Never flip them onto their side or back as it can cause heart attack and respiratory problems.
- Be very mindful of how calm they are; a panicked bird cannot breathe and large breed birds already have stressed cardiovascular systems- if you need to let them go to calm down, err on the side of extreme caution!
- Do not assume that anyone, even veterinarians, know how to safely handle large breed chickens. Always supervise their handling if not handling them yourself.
To handle a large breed chicken, first corral them into a corner to not cause them extra stress. Carefully place your hand on their back, then move your other hand underneath their keel and use your fingers to gently stabilize their legs. Put their wing against your chest and move your hand on their back onto their other wing to fully secure them. You should stay low to the ground as they would not be able to safely land if they struggled free from a high height! When setting them down, use extra time to ensure their comfort and safety.