Chicken Behavior - get to know your birds

Understanding chicken behavior isn't difficult, it just a little power of observation.

The more you're aware of chicken behavior, the better backyard flock manager you'll be. Knowing a thing or two about how chickens act will help you feed them what they need, protect them more effectively, and generally enjoy them. If they're happy, chances are that you'll be happy too. It's a team effort.

Let's review some of their behavior characteristics, and as we go I'll give some examples of how I've made good use of this knowledge when working with my chickens.

As best as I can, I try not to look at these behavior characteristics as good or bad, just a behavior that my fine feathered friends exhibit that I need to keep in mind.

Yes, They're Bird Brains

Chickens can be easily confused, so expect them to live up to the expression "bird brain." As an example, I once took my young chickens out of the coop and set them outside to enjoy the sunshine, bugs, soil to scratch in, and the natural grass and weeds available to eat. They were literally 15 feet from the coop, and I left the door to the coop wide open, but they couldn't find their way back inside.

I had to wait until they roosted on some nearby scrap wood in the evening before I could catch them, one at a time, and return them to the roosts inside the coop. The next day I simply opened the coop door and let them go outside on their own. When they did their own limited exploration, they understood how to get back home in the evening.

Okay then, my bird brains passed that class, Finding Your Coop 101.

One odd chicken behavior is they poop anywhere they please. Chickens on the porch means poop on the porch.

Chickens are just like mice, they poop where they eat. It's as if they don't recognize their own food and water. When a chicken needs to go, they'll go in, on, into and on top of anything...they don't care in the least. They give no thought to whether it's where they sleep, eat or simply hang out, if they need to crap, they go ahead and do it. The only place I haven't seen much evidence of this is in the nest boxes. So, perhaps they have a little common sense after all.

Chicken behavior includes an invitation to mate...thank you no, but I'll pet you.

Perhaps the most unusual chicken behavior is demonstrated by hens once they get accustomed to your presence. Hens will hunch down and stand right in your pathway as an invitation for you to mate with them. Sometimes they won't move out of the way until you acknowledge their presence in some manner.

Of course, I'm not going to be a particpant in this particular chicken behavior, but I do take the opportunity to pet them and give them some sense of satisfaction by massaging them on either side of their rump. This causes them to lift up their tail feathers as they would when mating with a rooster. Often this seems to satisfy them and then they get out of my way and let me get back to my duties as flock manager.

Again, they're bird brains. They can't figure out that their mate isn't a rather large two-legged creature, wearing glasses, a jacket and a ball cap...and not a single feather on the guy anywhere. Go figure.

Hanging Around the Chicken Yard

Chickens can be easily startled by strange sounds and abrupt movements, so it's best to go slow and easy around your flock. This is especially important if you want to have interactions with your birds. On occasion I'll sit in the chicken yard just to watch my flock and learn more about chicken behavior. As they grow accustomed to me being there, they aren't shy about getting closer, and I always move slow and easy so they get more comfortable with me being there.

Children can hold chickens, but being cuddly isn't a chicken behavior I'm familiar with.

You won't find the word "cuddly" in any discussion of chicken behavior, so when it comes to handling your chickens, you have to be in charge. Holding them firmly and comfortably, and talking to them while you hold them is probably the best course of action.

Even children can hold a chicken as long as they know to hold them firmly, yet in a gentle manner. Here's an elementary school child holding a rooster. If there is a bird that doesn't want to be held, it's a rooster to be sure.

Recognize too that chickens have a pecking order. It's probably the first chicken behavior that any of us learn about. You can see it as they peck at one another, almost like a big kid pushing a smaller kid out of the way. It might not be easy to recognize, but there is a hierarchy in your flock. The hierarchy can be seen developing even when they're very young birds.

Having a pecking order is a natural chicken behavior that promotes harmony in the flock.

If you have a rooster, you might notice the hierarchy one day as the rooster gets aggressive with you. It makes no difference if you are four to five feet taller and 25 times his weight, he knows that he is at the top of the hierarchy, and he's going to show you that you're not!

Sometimes a rooster will raise Hell with you. Just relax, it's normal chicken behavior for male birds. If the rooster gets too bossy for your tastes, butcher 'em and eat 'em, and see if that better suits your tastes. It's a bit of revenge that you can enjoy, and you'll have one less pain in the neck on your hands in the chicken yard.

When introducing new birds into your flock, you'll need to allow them time to adjust the pecking order. This will only take a couple of days or so, but watch them in the meantime.

Your birds will be curious about nearly everything. So, whatever is in their enclosure, it's going to get pecked, scratched, shook up, tossed around, and often they'll attempt to eat it unless it's clearly not edible. That's why you never want to have string laying around where they can get at it. String usually comes off of feed bags and bales of hay and straw. Always keep string somewhere your chickens can't get at it, like in your pocket. If not, at least one member of your flock will get in trouble with it.

Once there was a string attached to a pop top pull ring from a food can, and it found its way into the chicken yard. Soon, I found the pull ring lodged in the mouth of one of my chickens, with the string completely swallowed. I had no alternative except to pull the string out as far as I could, and then cut it. Thankfully the chicken survived her string swallowing act and went back to eating and drinking normally.

Other problems include string wrapped up in their wings, and tied around their feet. It has a way of embedding itself deep into their tissue before you know it, so attention is needed to keep string away from the bird brains.

Small inedible items that can harm your birds should also be kept away to help avoid potential injury. Small nails, and tiny pieces of wire and glass are examples of potential hazards for the curious and omnivorous chicken.

Taking a dust bath and then shaking off the dust is a natural chicken behavior.

Taking a dust bath is a natural chicken behavior associated with ridding the birds of external parasites. Sometimes it helps them stay cool. Think about getting buried in sand at the beach, and you can imagine the cooling effect. Have a good pile of loose dirt somewhere for your chickens to mess with. If you dig out a shallow depression in the soil, don't be surprised if they recognize that as their designated dust bath location.

Chickens love freshly cultivated soil, whether for dust bathing or scratching up some food.

If you need ground scratchers, chickens might be your best bet. They do very little all day except scratch the ground in the hope of turning up a worm, a bug, a tasty piece of gravel or something else that they can peck at and consume.

As they scratch at the ground, they will uncover things that otherwise would have stayed buried for many years. Belt buckles, glass, toys, hardware, and even a starting pistol have been turned up in my yard thanks to the help of my chickens. You don't even have to ask them to find things - it's part of their natural chicken behavior.

If I didn't know better, I'd swear that these items simply rise up from beneath the soil because my chickens have this magical ability to attract all things buried. If you're looking for things that are buried about six inches below the surface, just start raising chickens - they'll be cheerful archeologists working on your behalf.

There is a downside to all of this scratching. If you allow your birds to run loose in your flower beds, this natural chicken behavior will have them tearing up bedding material, mulch, landscape fabric, and whatever they think is in the way as they search for food. Seedlings don't stand a chance with chickens, they'll scratch them out of the ground, pull them up by the roots, and do their best to act as tiny roto-tillers in places you'd least like to have a roto-tiller.

You'll find that natural chicken behavior includes flying, but they're essentially flightless birds in most situations. If they're crowded up, attacked or otherwise desperately need to get from one place to another, they'll entertain you with low altitude flying. Otherwise, their ability to fly is a bit like a cardboard box...not at all impressive.

If you need to keep your birds from flying, you'll have to clip their wings. It's not difficult to do, and it's very effective at keeping them grounded.

Chickens can get along just fine with other birds like turkeys, ducks and geese.

Usually, mixing chickens with other animals is just fine, but you need to be watchful. If left to mingle with my turkeys, the chickens will pluck broken tail feathers out of the large male birds as they spread their fan tails and strut around the yard. Since the female turkeys don't fan their tails and expose their backsides to the chickens, they have no trouble at all.

Oddly enough, the chickens eat the pin feather stubs. I can't think of anything less appealing than the thick stubby quills that come out of the south end of a north bound turkey, but the chickens like them. I'm certain they don't mean any harm, but it clearly is painful for the turkey.

I've had chickens mixed in with my ducks and geese, and they all got along just fine. The only caution I would advise is not having a deep sided pool for ducks where the chickens can fall in, as they're not a water bird and they can't get out of the water nearly as easily as ducks and geese.

What's Good to Eat?

Chickens are excellent consumers and reprocessors of kitchen scraps.

Don't worry too much about not having food for your flock because chickens are omnivorous. Be it animal, vegetable or mineral, chickens will try to eat it. It's especially appealing if it moves like bugs and worms.

You'll never see a faster catcher and consumer of mice than a chicken. Three steps and three seconds, and the little field mouse is on its way down the hatch. It's something to behold.

When it comes to chicken behavior at meal times, anything that crawls, slithers or skids along the ground can appear attractive and a likely source of food. Chances are, your chickens will at least peck at it if not consume it eagerly.

Weeds, extra produce and scrap vegetation from the garden, kitchen scraps, and any type of grain will appeal to chickens. Toss these in with the flock and watch them as they do a good job of picking it clean.

It is very important that you recognize that chickens are blood thirsty like no pirate or buccaneer ever written about in history and adventure books. If it's a wound, a sore, or just dripping blood, chickens are going to be there to make it a larger wound, a larger sore, and a more serious blood flow. Again, it's just chicken behavior, not necessarily something bad, just something we need to be aware of.

This blood thirstiness might explain their interest in pulling out pin feathers from the rump of my turkeys. Often there would be a bit of blood, and they went after that as an encore to pulling out the pin feather.

Chickens like nothing better than blood soaked soil, pools of blood and blood dribbling off of a table to satisfy their taste for it. On rare occasions when I butcher chickens outdoors where the flock is foraging nearby, they had no shyness about running over and getting right in there to share in the blood. I'm convinced they're attracted to it by smell.

Keep an eye on your chickens to make certain there isn't a weak one being pecked to death. A flock of chickens will eat one of their own alive, one small piece at a time. I know it doesn't sound like chicken behavior we're used to seeing from nice fluffy egg layers, but they most certainly are natural cannibals...many animals are.

You most certainly don't want to encourage this type of behavior as it won't be one chicken picking on an injured bird, the whole flock will take turns poking a hole in a bird that has a visible injury, especially one exhibiting blood. For more information, see chickens pecking each other.

My Chickens are All Named "Dusty"

Chickens and the places they call home are dusty. It's something that you can't get away from. Don't ask me where all of the dust comes from, because I can't tell you for certain. Perhaps it's the dust baths that chickens enjoy.

When you look at all the dust covering the inside of their coop, you might get the idea that chickens are the origin of dust on this planet. At least that's my explanation and I'm sticking with it.

Since chickens are dusty, they need a well ventilated coop.

Well ventilated coops cut down on dusty conditions, especially in the summer months.

Some Chicken Behavior is Naturally Defensive

One chicken behavior that is defensive is roosting at night. Make sure their roosts are high enough to keep them away from predators.

Your flock of birds will naturally hunker down at night wherever they choose to roost, so be sure they have a safe place to do it. Once on the roost, they'll likely stay there all night long, no matter what happens around them. This type of chicken behavior is best done at elevated locations. That's what helps keep them safe from prowling predators below.

One evening I noticed that the doorway between two of my chicken yards was closed. That prevented my girls from getting into the coop and hopping up onto the roosts for the night. Instead, they flew up to the top of the fence and perched there. Another one flew up into a tree, and several others simply hopped up onto something higher than the ground to spend the night.

When you're thinking about examining your birds or catching one for treatment of an illness or injury, keep in mind this chicken behavior of roosting and hunkering down in the evening. It's easy to make use of it for when you need to handle your birds. It's very likely that you'll be able to walk right up to them and pick them up because generally they're hunkered down until dawn.

Chickens need to be able to evade capture by predators. That means pleny of room to run and flap their wings.

During daylight hours, your chickens will try to evade a predator as best they can if given enough room to run and flap their wings. If they don't have room to evade capture and they get pinned for a moment, they'll usually just give up and let the predator have its way with them. It's an odd chicken behavior, but that's what they do. It's almost like they say, "Yeah, you got me" and then it's all over with.

My little dog has run down a few loose chickens (at my request) and when I catch up with him, he's simply pinning the chicken and looking back at me with an expression like, "This one won't run anymore, it's no fun to play with. Do you have another?" As you can see, this type of chicken behavior can be exploited when on occasion you need to round up loose birds.

Give your chickens room to run and they'll stand a better chance of survival if a predator finds a way to get in the yard with them.

Chickens and Water

Chicken love water running across the ground.

Another chicken behavior that I've seen repeatedly is their interest in running water. If you let a hose run water across the ground, they'll follow the leading edges of the water flow like it was alive. They're fascinated by running water and follow it and drink from the leading edge of the stream.

Fresh water is important for good health of your birds, but they'll gladly drink out of a mud puddle if one is handy. Whatever puddle of water is nearby is satisfactory to chickens, much like it is to dogs. If you're going to have puddles of water in with your chickens, they'll be drinking out of them first, and using your water founts only where there isn't any puddle to drink from.

Chicken Behavior Associated with Egg Laying

This type of feeder is a potential place for hens to lay eggs. Talk about an odd chicken behavior! Chickens lay eggs anywhere.

One peculiar chicken behavior pattern is exhibited by hens only. In the absence of nest boxes, hens will lay eggs anywhere. I've seen eggs deposited inside of feeders. This means each hen had to perch on top of the hanging feeder and drop her egg inside of it. Once inside the hanging feeder, eggs are largely hidden from view. If you're thinking that you're being shorted on egg production, just look in the most unusual places, and chances are you'll find a clutch of eggs.

No matter the number of nest boxes, hens will prefer laying their eggs in a nest box that already has eggs. That's why decoy eggs help train hens as to where they should squat and drop. When laying eggs, hens will follow the leader and lay eggs in a clutch where others have done the same thing. Don't concern yourself with adding nest boxes unless you see that all nest boxes are regularly filled with hens.

Broodiness is a chicken behavior exclusively attributable to hens...they insist on sitting on their eggs, and the eggs of other hens.

One of the reasons nest boxes will remain occupied with hens is they can get broody every now and then. Some breeds have a much greater tendency in this area than others. A broody hen is one that won't get off the clutch of eggs and may even peck at you when you try to get under her to collect them. This chicken behavior is usually just a minor inconvenience when gathering eggs and nothing more. When you see a hen camped out in the nest for an hour or so, that's a sign she's getting broody.

Chicken behavior among the females includes clucking and cackling about their prowess in matters of egg laying.

As hens mature, they proudly announce they're intentions and accomplishments by cackling and strutting about. They're clearly very proud about being egg layers, and they want everyone to know about it...that includes you and local predators looking for chickens and eggs. As long as they're not screeching, all is well with your flock.

It's a nice feeling as I sit inside the house writing these pages, listening to my girls outside cackling and clucking about their ability, interest, and enthusiasm associated with laying eggs. Those are happy sounds here at the Squat and Drop egg production facility.

Are there other chicken behavior traits that one might make note of? Of course there are, but these are the most important ones that I can think of. I'll update this page if other key characteristics come to mind. Until then, enjoy your backyard flock.

Done with Chicken Behavior, take me back to Backyard Chickens

For the newbies out there, here are some resources for getting more familiar with chicken behavior and what it takes to care for your backyard flock. If you're like most people who raise chickens, you can build a nice relationship with your birds, if you understand them better. Treat them well and they'll be a good provider of meat and eggs for you and your family.






I've read this book by Harvey Ussery. It's an excellent resource filled with vital information for both the beginner and advanced chicken yard manager.


I own the forerunner to this book about colorful and exotic chickens. It's a great coffee table book that makes me want to raise nearly every conceivable variety of chicken. If you think chickens are plain and uninspiring, you need to spend time with this book that displays the magnificence of chickens that you can raise if you'd like.