Do Chickens need toys?
This blog will discuss how enrichment for your chickens translates to toys for your chickens, the benefits different toys can have for your backyard flock and give you some ideas on how to enrich your chickens lives with toys and games to make for happier, even healthier hens.
So what is enrichment? There is many different types of enrichment but for the purpose of this blog It will be in reference to environmental enrichment for the psychological benefits it can have on a flock of chickens. Environmental Enrichment is defined as the improvement of the environment of captive animals that increases the behavioural opportunities of the animal and leads to the enhancement of its biological function. For this articles we are talking about chickens and the use of things like toys, games, changes in feeding practices or even moving things around within their housing.
So can giving a chicken toys actually have any real benefit to them? Many studies have been done on hens in a commercial settings, far fewer in a less commercial setting. Does this mean information gathered cannot be used to benefit the average backyard flock? This is unlikely, on a basic animal behavior level most of the data gathered makes perfect sense. Many of these birds can show extreme divergence from what would be agreed on as normal behaviors which is a clear sign the animal is under psychological or physiological stress. In these studies adding various things to the environment as enrichment at various time periods drastically reduced these abnormal behaviors, improved overall flock health and increased egg production. This in itself could be taken to suggest that the birds were at the very least less stressed. So how can this translate to smaller flocks?
A smaller flock that is contained in even a large pen or run are still limited in what they can do and repetitive, aggressive or abnormal behaviors can still occur, albeit more subtle than those seen in a commercial setting. While this can go unnoticed, even a small amount of psychological stress can still have a negative effect on the physical health of a hen. Something I have experienced in owning hens, are some of the typical problems with having a group of any animals such as bullying. I have been told by many that this is “normal ”but as I improved my set up, experimented with enrichment and changed enclosure layouts over the years with how I keep them, our instances of bullying (even when adding new hens) is virtually at nil. Even when the chickens have their needs met on a basic level and their environment is perfectly adequate the question should be How can we optimize are flocks lives as their caregivers?
One article published showed positive results from auditory and visual enrichment, auditory being played music, with visual being projected images as stimuli. It was suggested those images that are moving, bright and of moderate complexity were the most beneficial. A study done in Norway highlighted the positive effect toys had on commercial hens. These toys were simple boxes and string. Although simple, it was noted the overall wellbeing of the chickens was improved measurably. Another study by using platforms and straw bales, not only improved the birds overall wellbeing but also improved their physical health, in a way that is something most chicken owners can easily incorporate into home set ups. Not only does this this increase the surface area the birds actually have to use but also encourages them to keep active.
By our providing for all their needs, we inadvertently can lead to ‘lazy’ chickens without them needing to search for food, water and shelter and thereby depriving them of their natural instinctual behavior. What we really should aspire to is to encouraging as many of their natural behaviors as we can, which even though they are pretty far removed from their red junglefowl ancestors their basic instincts and behaviors still remain the same. While we can’t give them a jungle, we can keep them busy, happy and active using enrichment whilst still providing for their basic biological needs.
Do chickens NEED toys? to live no, but they will certainly help your flock thrive! Be happier and healthier.
Chances are you already providing some sort of enrichment whether it be access to grass, a dust bath they dug in a corner somewhere, the roosting bars they sleep on or even the other members of the flock, all of these things help your chickens do what comes naturally to them. When you want to add enrichment to their space you can do something very simple or get really creative!
Spend some time just watching them you may notice there’s something they are not doing enough of or something you feel they should be doing more of, and use that as your starting point. As an example, if you’ve filled a trug with sand and dirt as a dust bath but they aren’t using it, investigate why? It could be the mix you used, it could be the position or even the trug you used. Some things they just won’t like or use. When they are actively using something new you’ve put in you have immediately have extra enrichment for your birds. If they don’t use the new item, then try something else, but it’s still been useful in that you have introduced a novel object even for a short time and this still has its benefits in itself. If you see any fear reactions to something new you’ve put, take it out of their area and put it at a distance, that they are not scared of it and gradually move it closer.
Integrating enrichments into your feeding routines is a great way to enhance the day to day lives of your flock, using the treats you would normally give your birds, such as scratch, leftover vegetables and of course live mealworms as a way for them to express natural behaviors and encourage the use of any enrichment you have added. Scatter feeding is fantastic and an easy way to do this. By scattering the feed all over their space in places that they will have to scratch through and look to find the treats is far better than on a solid surface where it will be cleared up in seconds. Chopping the vegetables up into beak size pieces and scattering it through woodchip, throwing the mealworms over longer areas of grass, throwing scratch feed amongst bark chips would be just a few examples.
You could even get creative and make your own puzzle type feeder. Using an old box large enough for a few birds and layer dried herbs such as lavender and rosemary, a substrate such as straw and bark chip and mealworms in it. when you put it down for them throw a few mealworms over the top so the birds know what they are looking for and you have an aromatherapy mealworm scratch box.
Using empty toilet roll tubes folded at the top and bottom, make some holes and thread some old shoelaces through so that they dangle along the bottom fill with scratch, mealworms and veg and you have a pecking treat toy. This could also be done with could with two yogurt pots put together.
Fill an old hand whisk with cabbage leaves, broccoli or large pieces of apple for them to peck bits off for themselves you have a vegetable/fruit cage. These could be great to do with children too, encouraging them to come up with some ideas themselves.
Most of these homemade, recycled DIY toys will usually not last long and you will need to supervise them, and discard anything if it becomes hazardous. Using ideas like this try and invent your own new ideas using household items you may have otherwise discarded. The changes in itself is a benefit to your flock, introducing novelty items regularly can help reduce fear responses and the more you do it the more the birds will interact with new objects introduced. There are lots of toys on the market for sale if you are not DIY inclined.
Getting your birds to use space that is currently not that attractive to the chickens is easy enough to do with the right motivation. Adding day perches or shelves will normally be utilized, straw bales or if space is a bit tight a box tightly packed with straw weighted down with something at the bottom or secured in place will do a similar job.
You could also use visual and audible enrichments, Putting music on your phone while you are letting them out, cleaning, feeding and watering. Putting a pinwheel up somewhere they can see it when its spinning.
You are also enrichment to your birds even if they are not very tactile with you, just watching you and listening to you is enough! if your birds are of a friendlier disposition you can train them, yes you can train a chicken! But that’s a whole other blog for another time.
Chickens are interactive creatures, have fun with them, and anything that you can use or do to break monotony of their day can improve flock relations, improve overall physical and psychological health, increase resilience to stress and even increase egg production…. but most importantly they will be happier.