It is very important to keep your chickens entertained, because, well, bored chickens can become all out blood-thirsty maniacs. I mean it.
For chickens, the best entertainment is pecking any and everything around them, including each other. Chicken on chicken violence really isn’t pretty and needs to be managed to reduce risk of injury. And injuries can lead to death! Emotional attachments aside, if one of our hens died prematurely we’d be losing a fairly significant investment. We had to feed them for about 4-6 months before they started actually laying eggs, and 4-6 months of chicken feed isn’t cheap.
And even if a chicken doesn’t get ruthlessly murdered by its companions, all that pecking can be stressful, and a stressed out chicken isn’t a healthy chicken, and an unhealthy chicken doesn’t lay as well as a healthy chicken. Thus happy chickens = plentiful fried egg breakfasts.
So the solution is obvious, they just need something more interesting to peck than each other. Read on for some of our best ideas.
Hanging Cabbage (or other vegetable or fruit).
Super simple, cheap, and so fun to watch. Here’s how to make one:
- Take a cabbage (or whatever fruit/vegetable chickens will eat) and drill a hole in it.
- Tie the cabbage to a rope by threading through the hole.
- Hang it in the run or wherever you have your chickens during the day (but not in the coop–too much moisture). Make sure it is around beak height for their comfort.
- Enjoy the show!
For Christmas, we gave them a cabbage and apple wreath (pictured above), which was demolished in under 24 hours.
Not an option for everyone, but if you have the yard space, I definitely recommend it. Chickens love wandering around and pecking at whatever catches their eye, plus they are natural foragers. This means they’ll require much less food when free ranging because of all the delicious bugs, grass, berries, and whatever else they find tasty. Reduced tick population? Check. Spending less money on feed? You bet. Amazing fertilizer for your lawn? Bingo.
Here’s how we trained them for free ranging. There might be better methods out there, but this worked for our flock:
- When you’re ready to let them outside as pullets, lock them in the coop for 48 hours straight.
- Then let them out during the day in a fenced in run area. When it gets dark, make sure they all go inside. If any don’t go in, you’ll have to shoo them in or pick them up and place them inside.
- Once they started laying eggs, we started to let them free range in our yard, keeping an eye on them if they wander too close to the road or a neighbor’s yard. We also made sure they always went into the coop at night during a nightly check, just in case. But they always went in!
I don’t know if its necessary to wait for them to lay, but our thinking was that they would establish the rule that eggs belong in the boxes, so we wouldn’t have to have Easter Egg hunts every day of the year. Plus by the time they start laying they’re bigger and stronger and more capable of fending off any predators that might come by. And note that we didn’t have to train them to lay in the boxes at all–they naturally want to lay in the enclosed comfortable space.
Check out the fertilizing power of chicken poop, as demonstrated by our broilers on our lawn:
While I’m sure dusting is already quite a hoot for chickens, it’s actually an important exercise in chicken hygiene to help them stay comfortable in varied weather and to manage pests like mites. If you enhance your dusting area with diatomaceous earth or, like we do, ashes from the wood stove, chickens can take dust baths and actually kill off any invasive critters because the microscopic particles cut the mites’ skin and they die. Science rules!
- You could just do a pile that they can bath in, or you can try to manage it a bit and use a vessel like an old tire or build a sandbox or something.
- Throw in some dirt and mix in some ashes or diatomaceous earth and you are good to go.
Someday I want to build a mini clawfoot tub for this purpose.
Ideally these would be in a hard plastic ball, but an empty peanut butter jar or soda bottle works fine too. I used a plastic peanut jar.
- Find a plastic container that you can seal, like a soda bottle or peanut butter jar. Sturdier is probably best for this toy to last longer.
- Drill/cut/poke holes in it that are large enough to allow chicken feed or whatever snack you’re using to easy fall out. 3/8″ worked OK for me.
- Fill it up with the food, seal the top, and let them have at it.
I’m having some trouble teaching them the rules, but the process of setting this up is a great way to keep yourself entertained through a long, hard winter or to give your kids something fun to do.
- Get some carrots and parsnips. You could also use other root vegetables, but know that for best results it’s best if you have two different colors!
- Cut them into circles. To play the game right, you need twelve circles of each color.
- Create the checkerboard. You could just draw a grid in the dirt, but laying sticks has the added element of giving them even more stuff to peck at. You’ll need 14 sticks of equal length. Lay 7 rows and top with 7 columns, and you have a regulation 8×8 grid.
- Position the cut root vegetable circles and take funny photos of your genius chickens.
If you’re having an especially boring winter, you could also carve chess pieces out of your root vegetables.
Coping with Winter
In our experience, winter is especially treacherous, as the chickens often find themselves cooped up (literally) and peck at each other much more in the more confined space. In addition to the ideas above, here are some ideas we’ve developed to help keep your chickens happy in the dead of winter:
Shovel out the run. On the less frigid days, the chickens are happy to hang out in their run instead of in the coop. After it snows, clear areas for dusting, roosting, and pecking, and they’ll surprise you with how little a 20°F day bothers them.
Check on them a few times a day. This will not only give them an entertaining surprise visit from their favorite food-bearer, it will also give you a chance to make sure their water is not spilled or frozen. No water means no chickens means no eggs.
Give them interesting scraps. On the days when they actually go into the run, give them something good to peck at. I make my own beer and have found that chickens really love the leftover spent grain. That half empty bowl of popcorn you left out overnight is also a big favorite for the birds. My one piece of advice is to do this sparingly, as they will devour pretty much anything you put out there, and this shift in the diet seems to affect egg production.