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What causes you stress? Work? Lack of sleep? Junk food? The circumstances and events that cause people to worry and fret can be the same stress factors for our chickens. (With a few big additions, of course: We’re not being hunted by predators,) Most any measures we would take for self-care can be applied to our birds to reduce their stress. Let’s look at some common stressors affecting backyard flocks and how to address stress in chickens.
1. Predator Problems
By and large, the biggest single stressor a chicken will face in its life is the constant looming fear of predators. Have you ever wondered why chickens are so jumpy? Even the cuddliest chicken is, by nature, always on alert for danger. And it’s right to be: Everything loves the taste of chicken.
You can’t reverse thousands of years of evolution, but you can make your flock feel more secure by not exposing them to repeated encounters with predators. That means, first and foremost, build the most secure coop you can. Research the predators in your area, and get to know them and their habits, and then build your coop accordingly. In most places in North America—rural, suburban or urban—you are quite likely to encounter domestic dogs, raccoons and rodents.
What does a predator-proof coop look like? It may require some of the following features:
- A raised structure or solid flooring, depending on whether your coop is stationary or movable
- Hardware cloth lining the windows Don’t bother with chicken wire. It’s too thin and flimsy, and determined predators will make a mess of it in no time.
- A secure coop door that is locked up nightly A good lock for a coop door requires a dexterous hand with an opposable thumb; because raccoons have such nimble hands, anything less is easily popped open by determined raccoons.
2. Laying Eggs
Another major stressor a backyard hen endures is laying eggs daily. Laying a single egg requires, above all, a safe place for a hen to sit for up to 30 minutes or more, which is about how long it takes to lay an egg. During this time, a hen is quite vulnerable: To borrow a phrase, she’s a sitting duck for acts of predation from any number of daytime hunters.
If you’ve done your due diligence as the steward of your flock, your coop is a secure place for your ladies to escape to lay their eggs. And the nest box should be set up with privacy in mind: dark, dry, soft and warm.
With planning and preparation, these things are achievable. Nest boxes should be inside the coop, free from the elements and covered effectively to keep rain, wind and snow out. Boxes should always be lined with something cozy: Pine shavings are a favorite because they’re easy to source, inexpensive and dry quickly if they do get wet, but so many other materials work well, including straw, shredded newspaper or shredded leaves.
See some additional bedding options here.
3. Diet Discussion
Candy-eaters and soda-drinkers might disagree with me here, but diet can have a huge impact on stress levels. It certainly affects overall health, which has a trickle-down effect to stress. While you can subsist on a diet of junk food for a while, it will eventually catch up, and this is absolutely true of chickens, as well.
Chickens can’t exactly get “fat”—as in, carry excess weight on their frames—but they can accumulate excess fat stores, especially around hens’ reproductive organs. This can lead to some serious health problems, such as egg binding or prolapse.
What does chicken junk food look like? Chickens love table scraps, but they should always be fresh, never moldy, and whole foods. Never feed your birds greasy or oily leftovers and certainly no candy or heavily processed foods. Cracked corn or scratch can be a wonderful treat for chickens; however, too much scratch can be a bad thing. Limit scratch to the winter months, when birds need extra calories to keep warm, and in moderation. All treats should be offered after birds have had access to their daily feed rations.
You may have already guessed that the quality of their daily feed matters a great deal, too. First, read labels and know that you are providing your birds with appropriate feed for their age and life stage.
For example, chicks need a different feed than laying hens because they’re growing body mass in a short period of time, as opposed to pulling calcium to make eggs gradually. If your budget allows, opt for organic, non-GMO feed.
4. Brooding & Raising Chicks
It’s hard work being a parent: You’re always on duty, making sure your children are fed, cared for and safe at every hour of the day and night. It’s no different for chickens, except that those caregiving duties fall squarely on the fluffy shoulders of mother hens. (Roosters have a separate set of skills, and they don’t deviate from those duties.)
If you’ve recently experienced the joy of hatching baby chicks or allowing a broody hen to hatch her own clutch, you have seen firsthand how small and fragile those new babies really are. Mother hens know this and are on alert at all times for dangers, and particularly predators. Smaller animals are a danger to chicks where they wouldn’t bother adult chickens: think mice or rats, and snakes. Other concerns include the other hens in the flock that may feel threatened by the new additions and become aggressive toward them.
The key to reducing stress in chickens that are new mothers is the same across species: Support them! Mother hens should be given quiet, safe quarters to sit on their clutches for the three weeks of incubation and for the several weeks after hatching. Offer her food and water on the nest; otherwise, a committed mama may rarely get off the nest to take care of herself. Make sure that broody pen is absolutely predator-proof, too. Their only defense is what she can provide, so the broody pen should be as ironclad as you can make it.
If you’re raising chicks without a broody hen, that makes you the mother hen. Reduce chicks’ stress by giving them ample space to explore, peck, scratch, roost, communicate and practice their hierarchy—all the things they learn at a young age.
5. Little Space To Roam
Chickens get cabin fever, even if their cabin is a coop—and even if it’s a really, really nice coop. Chickens’ natural inclinations are to range and roam, and they will graze throughout the day as a group, and they nest in the trees at night.
Our domesticated birds take really well to the coops, barns, mobile pens and other structures we make for them, and with a bit of training, they reliably return to those safe places every day at dusk, which is exactly what we want. But those safe places must have enough physical room for the birds to move about freely and for birds lower in the pecking order to seek refuge from the more alpha members of the flock. If lower-ranked birds aren’t able to move away from alphas, they are at serious risk for becoming the victims of aggressive behavior or even cannibalism.
The solution is pretty simple: Go big or go home! When building, planning or buying a coop, produce something larger than you think you’ll need based on the number of birds you plan to keep. Each bird needs approximately 3 to 4 square feet of space in closed enclosures, such as coops or runs. If your birds are able to free-range, even better! Ten square feet is a minimum outside, but they will relish double that amount of space or even more. Ample room to roam, scratch, peck, roost, dust bathe and bask in the sun is a surefire way of reducing almost any stress.
6. Weather Worries
The weather itself is not a stressor for chickens; they’re pretty bold and usually prefer to be outdoors, even in less-than-ideal weather, if given the choice. It’s how the weather can have adverse effects on health that is the stressor.
In the summer, the heat can put a significant strain on a flock of healthy birds. Make sure free-range birds always have shade to retreat to, and that all chickens, regardless of locale, have fresh water available to them at all times. However, in snowy climates, or regions where temperatures dip well below freezing for long periods of time, frostbite is the greater concern. The best precaution to take is to prepare your coop accordingly: Provide generous ventilation to allow moisture to move, but avoid drafts.
We can’t protect our chickens from every disturbance, and we can’t coddle them. But we can be mindful and aware of how our daily actions affect our birds’ stress levels. Knowing that chickens think a loud, jarring sound likely means an attack from a predator, we can be cognizant of our activities around the chicken coop.
For me, this means tending to weed-whacking or mowing duties when the birds are free-ranging away from the coop. It also means instating a no-chasing-chickens rule for my own children and any guests who may visit our coop. When you can remember that chickens are a prey animal, it’s easier to see how our daily human interactions with them can culminate in building stress levels over time.
This story appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Chickens.