Do Chickens Need Toys to Play With?
Authored by Gail Damerow
Authored by Gail Damerow
Like people, chickens can get bored. To alleviate boredom they will look for things to do. The things they find to do may not be in their best interest, or yours. To keep your flock busy with boredom busters, you might consider maintaining a supply of fun toys for chickens.
Chickens like to remain active and explore. Chickens that are cooped up experience something akin to cabin fever. You might call it coop fever.
Coop fever leads to stress and irritability. In looking for ways to vent their frustration, they might eat their own eggs, peck each other, and develop other harmful habits.
Chickens that live in an enriched environment with lots of variety are less likely to get bored. An outdoor area where they can spend time exploring lets them find things to peck besides each other.
But at times — such as during extremely cold weather — a flock may need to be confined indoors. Lots of perches, at different angles and heights, provide some degree of indoor enrichment.
Some of the toys offered at pet stores for the entertainment of parrots and other indoor cage birds are just as much fun for poultry to play with. But you don’t necessarily need to spend money to provide toys for chickens. Just like with kids, often the simplest toys are the most fun.
Boredom can be a significant problem for chicks in a brooder. Baby chicks are curious and eager to explore and learn about the world. But most brooders don’t offer much environmental variety.
From about one week of age chicks start looking for places to perch. It may be on top of the feeder or drinker, or on the upper side of the brooder heater. A better option would be a small practice perch to help chicks learn to balance and jump. In fact, chickens that didn’t grow up with early perches to practice on often have difficulty learning to perch later on, and may end up preferring to sleep on the coop floor.
Another way to encourage chicks to engage in normal chicken behavior is to brood them on a solid floor covered with loose bedding. By contrast, brooding on bare wooden slats or wire mesh can trigger picking (cannibalism), simply because the chicks don’t have much else to do. With loose bedding, on the other hand, even the youngest chicks will soon be whiling away their time in the pleasurable activity of dust bathing
For grown chickens, as well as for chicks, lack of opportunities to exercise can lead to boredom. Extra perches, both inside the coop and outdoors in the run, are helpful as boredom busters. They also offer the more timid flock members places to move away from others.
When perches are arranged in rungs, like a ladder, the chickens may amuse themselves by jumping up or down from one rung to another. Two small ladders securely fastened together in the shape of an A-frame lead to games of King of the Mountain. Some chickens enjoy balancing on a flexible ladder, or swinging bridge. A lot of chickens enjoy playing on a swing, which easily can be made from a flat board or wooden clothing rod hung at both ends by ropes or chains. I once watched two of my hens trying to swing together without breaking rhythm and losing balance. That they spent endless time at it, rather than quit in frustration, told me they were having fun.
Some chickens enjoy playing on a spinning perch made from a repurposed bicycle wheel. Simply mount the wheel with the axle oriented horizontally. When a chicken walks on the wheel, the wheel moves underneath it, like a treadmill.
How many times have you seen a kid’s jungle gym or play set sitting unused out in the yard? Those things, including both swings and seesaws, are ideal toys for chickens.
Chickens spend a lot of time looking for things to eat. Free ranging is therefore a great boredom buster. Another way to reduce boredom is to feed the flock less at one time and feed more often.
Regular layer pellets can quickly satisfy a chicken’s nutritional needs, leaving the bird little else to do for the rest of the day. Mini pellets or crumbles, which are just crushed pellets, have the advantage of taking longer to eat.
Feeding a small portion of the ration as grain, table scraps, or garden greens gives chickens something to hunt out and peck. Providing a Flock Block is another way to give chickens something to peck.
Hanging a vegetable from a thick string, or placing it in string bag, offers more pecking opportunities. My chickens can spend hours decimating a mangle from my garden. Other options that hang easily include a head of lettuce or cabbage, ears of corn, or a cucumber.
Or you might string together smaller items — such as tomatoes, slices of apple or cucumber, and chucks of other edibles — like beads on a necklace. Stretch the string at about the height of a chicken’s head for a tasty smorget.
The vegetable needn’t be hanging, either. Chickens love to peck at a slice of watermelon, or a half pumpkin, seeds and all.
Dry leaves, or a bale of hay or straw, give chickens something interesting to explore. They also attract insects for the flock to peck at. Treat balls are popular food toys for chickens. Versions may be round or cylindrical, so they roll, and are filled with bits of food — such as scratch grain or dried meal worms —that fall out as the chickens roll the thing around the yard or coop.
An established fact is that chickens like music. Not so well know is that they also like to play music, or rather peck music. Things that make music when pecked include bells, wind chimes and toy xylophones. Hang bells and wind chimes so they swing freely. Attach a xylophone to a wall or fence at about the height of a chicken’s head.
Chickens also like to peck at anything shiny. An old-time farm toy for chickens is a shiny aluminum pie plate. Poke a hole in one edge and hang it to swing, or affix it to the coop wall at head height.
Non-breakable kid-safe acrylic mirrors are now finding their way into backyard chicken coops. Some chickens ignore mirrors. Others stare at them for hours, seemingly admiring themselves. Still others peck or attack the mirror as if they feel threatened by the image they see. A chicken that attacks a mirror (or any other toy) is experiencing stress, in which case remove the offending item.
Chickens are like children. Not every chicken likes every toy. You have to try different options to see which ones your chickens respond to. You’ll also want to vary the types of toys you provide. Like kids, chickens lose interest in a toy that’s always there.
And finally, make sure the toys you select don’t include small pieces or loose string the chickens could choke on. Like choosing toys for kids, select only toys that are chicken safe