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Backyard Chicken Enrichment


Written by Board Member Janelle

 

Recently many of you welcomed new family members into your homes, as part of our latest battery hen rescue. It’s been a while now, and hopefully your girls have all settled in nicely! Now that they have had time to adapt to their new free lives, we thought it would be the perfect time to introduce you to the concept of chicken enrichment. Now most of us would be familiar with enrichment for other species, like throwing the ball for a dog, or playing chase the laser with a cat. But many people don’t realise that ALL species, be it a goldfish, a lorikeet or a guinea pig, need to be provided with some kind of enrichment for a healthy fulfilling life. It is part of the reason that battery cages are so bad for chickens, they have absolutely nothing to do to keep their minds and bodies occupied. And you may know by now if you have some of your own backyard chickens, that they very rarely sit still!



The reason that enrichment is so critical for animals that share their lives with us, is that by providing their food on a silver platter, we have removed so much of what used to take up all of their time. In the wild, many animals may spend up to 80% of the time doing activities related to finding food, whereas with us humans here to help, we have drastically reduced this, leaving only 20% of the day needed to be focused on food. That means essentially up to 80% of the day is empty! With good enrichment we can fill this void and keep our feathered friends entertained and happy.


No two chickens are the same, nor are any two living situations, so keep this in mind and apply only what is reasonable. Chickens that spend a large amount of time free-ranging outside of the coop tend to have a good time pecking around on the grass for whatever grubs they can find, and so may need less intervention to be occupied. Enrichment items are great for girls spending time in their coops however.

 


There are 5 components, or categories of enrichment, that make up an enrichment plan. These are:

  • Foraging (the act of searching for and finding food)

  • Physical (a varied and dynamic living space)

  • Sensory (utilizes the senses)

  • Social (between animals or between animals and humans)

  • Occupational (choice and control over where the chicken spends time)


Below we have provided a few practical and simple options for each category to get you started, but don’t be afraid to get creative with it and try out whatever you can think of!


Although it may be exciting to jump in and get started, adding one new activity or item at a time is most effective. You can see how the animals react (be it positively or negatively) and you can also space out the excitement. This novelty is another layer of enrichment that keeps life exciting and fresh. It is also important to do this as some animals may suffer from neophobia (fear of new things), and we don’t want to make anyone feel scared or uncomfortable in their environment. So it is super important to see how they react, introducing the item slowly, and being aware that some may need extra time to adapt.

 


Foraging enrichment

Scattering food

Move food dishes to different locations

Cover food dishes with paper

Paper parcels

Food dispenser (make your own with holes drilled into a PVC pipe or purchase a food ball that drops food as it rolls around)

Hang heads of lettuce/cabbage from string, make a garland of other produce from string

Offer treats! Many chickens adore pecking at a cut piece of watermelon, or snacking on your leftover oatmeal


Chickens are safe to enjoy pretty much any vegetables or snacks we enjoy ourselves, but always stay clear of avocados, these are toxic! Avocados are only safe for people, always keep them away from ALL animals.

 

Physical enrichment

Toys – provide multiple so that there is plenty to go around  

Stumps, ramps, branches and ladders for perching

Dirt for dust bathing (I am yet to meet a chicken who doesn’t love a good dust bath!!)

Shade in the form of overhead areas or shrubs and bushes

You can even try a chicken swing! 


You may like to consider an outing with your chickens (probably no more than two at a time). Try taking them for a walk around the block in a pet pram, or taking a stroll with them on a leash. Not all chickens will be comfortable with this so be mindful of how they are reacting. And pay particular attention to your surroundings, unknown dogs and chickens don’t tend to mix well! A favourite pastime of my girls is to walk in the pram down to a bunch of bushes nearby, where they enjoy scratching around for all sorts of new and wonderful things.  

 


Sensory enrichment

Videos (my hens find the cat videos on youtube quite entertaining, try it out on an ipad placed on the ground but be prepared for the chickens to peck at the screen!)

Mirrors or hanging CDs (anything with a reflection)

Experiment with smells – some chickens seem to like the smell of vanilla

Classical music – chickens are one of the many animals that seem to find this specific music calming!

Instruments (offer a chicken a xylophone and see if she will play?!)

 

Social enrichment

Chickens should always have other chicken companions, companionship offers a wealth of enrichment opportunities. Whether you notice it or not, chickens are always communicating with each other, and can often be spied sharing activities, be it pecking around or communal dustbathing

If they have to be separated for health or quarantine reasons, maintaining visual contact with other chickens is important

Spend time with your girls! This doesn’t have to mean physical contact (most hens prefer not to cuddle) but just being present and sitting down with them can make them very happy. They may enjoy pecking around nearby, and often enjoy helping you out whilst you are gardening. If you are looking for an activity to do with your chickens, you can try reading to them, or even consider teaching them one or two tricks! Clicker training is a great way to spend time with your girls one on one, particularly if she is food motivated

 


Occupational enrichment

Have different areas of the coop – an indoor area, outdoor area, shade, open spaces

Leave the coop door open (if safe to do so)

Invite your girls inside your home to explore

 

 

We hope you have fun trialing out new activities with your girls! If you discover a particularly successful treat or intervention, please do let us know so we can share it with our resident chickens here at the rescue!


Special thanks to Professor Bob Doneley and The Open Sanctuary Project for the inspiration and information in this post.

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