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Backyard Chickens

Chicken Behavior: Normal or Not?

Chicken Behavior: Normal or Not?

Whether it has to do with the way they lay eggs, how they interact with one another, or anything in between, you probably notice a lot of things about the way your chickens behave. And if you’re new to raising chickens (or if your chickens’ behavior has changed), you might find yourself asking what’s normal and what’s not.

You’re wise to wonder. Did you know that chickens’ behaviors can be driven by their natural instinct OR they can be learned from other members of the flock?  Instinctive behaviors tend to be considered “normal behavior.” These behaviors often have a specific purpose correlated to survival that can be traced back to their wild ancestor, the Jungle Fowl. Chickens have a strong motivation to perform these instinctual behaviors. 

Learned behaviors can be both abnormal and normal. These types of behaviors may not be observed in all flocks.  As chicken keepers, one way to care for our flocks is to monitor our chickens’ behavior to help assess their welfare. Use the list below to make sense of the behaviors you see your flock exhibit: 

 

Behavior

Description

Is this a normal behavior?

Why do they do it?

Laying with legs stretched out

Temporarily laying on side with legs stretched out

Yes

When a chicken lays on her side with her legs stretched out, she may be starting to dust bathe. She may also just be a little hot, especially if she is also lifting her wing. If this behavior is performed in the sun, your chicken may be sunbathing and soaking up Vitamin D.

Picking, scratching and eating potential food sources

Hens are foraging for food

Yes

Believe it or not, chickens have a natural instinct to look for new food sources, even when adequate food is provided. (So, it’s not you, it’s them!) Sometimes if they can’t perform this behavior, they become bored and resort to other, abnormal behavior.

Panting

Open mouth and rapid breathing

Yes

Panting indicates that chickens are either hot or stressed. Panting allows hens to remove heat from their body when they exhale. 

Fighting between chickens

Two hens facing each other with raised hackles (neck feathers) and wings flapping; pecking on their combs (skin on top of their head); jumping on each other’s backs

Yes (Short disagreements between chickens is a normal part of living within the flock. However excessive fighting can lead to injuries and death and is not normal.)

Chickens live within a social hierarchy called a pecking order. This means there is dominant hen that is typically “the boss” of the flock. Sometimes, chickens will fight each other for the boss position. If you introduce some new birds into your flock, you may see some initial fighting to establish a pecking order. Bored chickens also tend to fight more than chickens that are able to perform their instinctive behaviors. Hens may also fight over food or water. Finally, when hens are broody or have young chickens, they tend to be protective and therefore fight more.

Feather pecking

 

Yes/No

This behavior can be a normal form of grooming or a way of establishing pecking order. However, excessive feather pecking can lead to cannibalism. Typically, stress is a major reason chickens exhibit excessive feather pecking. Some also believe that birds feather peck in order to eat the feathers because they aren’t consuming a balanced diet.

Dust bathing

 

Yes

Hens perform this behavior to help clean their feathers (preventing oil build up) and keep mites, lice, and other parasites out of their feathers. Dust bathing can also help keep chickens’ bodies cool during hot weather. Even when hens don’t have dust bathing material, they may still perform this behavior.

Cannibalism

 

No

Cannibalism is a learned behavior. Unfortunately, once it begins it is hard to stop. It happens most often in younger birds that are still growing their feathers. It usually begins as feather pecking and then escalates to cannibalism. Stress is a major cause of feather pecking, so it is important to make sure your chickens are getting enough nutrients, have enough space, and can manage the stressors they experience.  Believe it or not, cannibalism in chickens can also be caused by exposure to too much bright light or exposure to light for too long. Last but not least, chickens tend to peck at red things. If one of your chickens has been cut or is bleeding, isolating that bird can prevent other hens from cannibalizing her.

Laying eggs outside of the nest box

 

No

Hens like to lay their eggs in an area that makes them safe. This usually means a spot that is quiet, dark, and in a protected area. If hens are laying their eggs out in the open, it is not typical behavior. It may mean that the hen doesn’t feel safe using the nest box due to another dominant hen or predator. You can sometimes help your hen with this issue, though! Laying inside the nest box is a learned behavior. Young hens will sometimes lay outside the nest box and can be encouraged to lay in the proper place by observing other hens. Keep an eye out, though, because stress can also disrupt your hens laying cycle and cause her to lay in places she normally wouldn’t.

 

 

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