If you are able to free range your chickens, that’s great! Their lives are probably pretty interesting, and their diet is quite varied. But if you live in an area where predators are a problem, as I do, free-ranging just isn’t possible. My chickens spend their time in a roomy and comfortable, but also safe, chicken coop and run.
The thing is, when you really think about, life for a confined chicken isn’t very stimulating. Their whole world is pretty small, and they eat mainly the same food day in and day out. Their view, the sounds they hear, and even the things they smell don’t change much. Taking all that into consideration, it shouldn’t surprise you that they can get a little bored.
Unfortunately, depression and boredom in chickens can lead to other problems. They might pick on each other or start eating their eggs. In extreme cases, they might even turn to cannibalism. Obviously, these are behaviors you want to avoid. The best way to overcome boredom and depression in your flock is to provide enrichment that will keep them stimulated and encourage their natural behaviors.
What Exactly Does It Mean to Enrich Their Environment?
If you have ever been to the zoo and heard a talk by one of the keepers, you’ve probably heard them talk about how they provide enrichment for the animals. They might give a lion a giant ball to play with one day, and some kind of special food treat the next.
The concept of providing enrichment for these confined animals can easily be applied to our backyard flocks (and other livestock, too!) In fact, if you do things like scattering mealworms in the straw for your chickens to find or give them a cut up pumpkin as a special treat, you are already providing them with some enrichment activities.
Studies among many different species have shown that providing enrichment for animals living in captivity has shown positive behavior changes like a decrease in aggressive and destructive behaviors. Other benefits include more successful reproduction, increased activity, and improved overall health and well being.
How to Provide Enrichment for Your Chickens
The idea is to provide novelty, variety, stimulation, and encourage natural behaviors. For chickens, that means providing opportunities for things like dust bathing, roosting, and foraging. You want to change things up and vary their routine.
Something as simple as tossing them their mealworm treats at a different time every day provides a change in routine. Step it up by giving the treats in a variety of ways, like tossing them in the straw for them to find one day and using a treat dispenser the next. Even better, change up the treats each day; give them black oil sunflower seeds one day, scratch grains the next and cracked corn another. Switching things up will keep them interested.
Some Ideas to Get You Started
Correcting Destructive Behaviors
One of the most significant benefits of enrichment is altering destructive behaviors. For example, if you are having a problem with feather pecking in your flock, find something to distract them from that behavior. You could try hanging a cabbage in their run for them to peck at. If that causes an improvement in the bad behavior, try hanging some other kind of treat each day to keep them interested.
Offering different foods to your chickens is an easy way to provide enrichment for your chickens, and it has the added benefit of providing better nutrition. Observe a flock of free range chickens, and you’ll see that they spend their time foraging for fallen fruits, bugs, seeds, or favorite vegetation to munch on. Mimicking that behavior in your confined flock is key to their wellbeing.
Offer things like kitchen scraps, leftover pasta, surplus fruits and veggies from your garden, and of course mealworms, to change things up. Chickens love pumpkin, zucchini, apple peels, and kale. And, don’t just change up the food, change up the way you offer it to them, too. Puzzle feeders that are made for dogs can be great fun for your chickens, also.
One of the easiest things you can do is to change up their environment once in a while. Move their perches around. Try putting some up high and some down low or add a swinging perch. Vary the material and size of their perches, too.
Another fun idea is to change up the material in the bottom of their run. Use fallen leaves in the fall and winter. They’ll love searching out all the bugs to munch on. Maybe you can get your hands on some wood chips leftover from some tree work. And, of course, you can use straw and bagged chips sometimes, too.
When you mow your lawn, give your chickens a big pile of grass clippings (make sure they’re not chemically treated, of course). They will be busy scratching through it for hours looking for bugs, and they’ll eat a lot of the grass, too.
When you weed the garden, save the dandelions and other safe weeds for your chickens. They’ll even be thrilled if you toss them a couple shovels full of loose dirt to scratch through.
If you can change up their environment once in a while, your chickens will love you for it. Let them forage in your fenced in garden at the end of the season. If your yard is fenced, maybe you could give them some supervised foraging time once in a while, too. They’re great for free weed and pest control!
A Word of Caution
When offering new foods to your chickens, never give them anything that’s moldy. Avoid green potato peels, salt, fatty foods, dried beans, and chocolate. Be aware that giving them a lot of onions or garlic may affect the flavor of their eggs. Any time you add something new to the coop or run, be on the lookout for potential strangulation or entrapment hazards.
Have fun with it! Providing enrichment opportunities can be just as entertaining for you as it is your chickens. You’ll get a kick out of watching them go crazy over a new treat or toy, and coming up with new ideas can be a lot of fun, too!