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Backyard Chicken Enrichment: A Guide for Keeping the Happiest Chickens

chicken enrichment

Chickens love to forage, explore, and play. They are curious creatures that enjoy interacting with the world around them. Giving your chickens a chance to do these natural behaviours is called enrichment! Enrichment can be fun but also important- it means providing your chickens with extra stimulation so they stay happy and healthy.

What is chicken enrichment? It is the act of giving chickens extra stimulation to keep them happy, healthy, and entertained. This can include things like food enrichment ideas, puzzles for chickens, and making sure they have enough space in their coop. 

Chickens are a lot smarter than you may think. In this article we will discuss how to set up your chicken coop for maximum happiness, as well as give some great enrichment ideas that your chickens will love!

What is Chicken Enrichment?

Chicken enrichment is about creating an environment as close to the chicken’s natural environment as possible while they are in captivity. Enrichment can come in dozens of different forms, such as visual, food-based, and social enrichment. 

Many activities that pet owners and farmers can do to provide an enriching environment for the animals in their care. Every activity or arrangement done for the animals isn’t always necessarily just one form of enrichment. 

An example of this would be hiding a chicken’s food around their coop. Hiding their food around the coop is food-based, olfactory, environmental, tactile, and manipulative enrichment in many different ways that will be explained further down.

Here’s 15 easy chicken enrichment ideas to get you started:

  1. Hang some vegetables on twine in the coop.
  2. Cut up fruit and scatter into the chicken yard.
  3. Hide small berries and cooked beans in the chicken bedding.
  4. Stuff the gaps in a log with fruit and veg.
  5. Halloween – put carved pumpkin ( and all the seeds) in the coop.
  6. Fill a Kong toy with frozen peas or cranberries.
  7. Thread a baguette onto a rope and hang in the coop.
  8. Cook some pasta and hide it in the coop.
  9. Give your chickens some meaty bones.
  10.  Make a Chicken Cake out of suet, lard, seeds, and peanut butter.
  11.  Hang child safe mirrors in the coop.
  12.  Coat plastic teething keys with peanut butter and hang in the coop.
  13.  Make ( or buy) a chicken swing ( yes, they will love it).
  14.  Use an old tyre and make a dust bath.
  15.  Grab a kids xylophone and fix it to the wall of the coop so chickens can play they’re own music.

Why do Chickens Need Enrichment?

Chickens, just like humans and any other animal, need enrichment to have a healthy, happy life. Enrichment provides stimulation to help a chicken express their instinctual behaviours in a natural environment. These behaviours include:

  • foraging
  • exploring
  • playing with their environment (toys)
  • preening
  • dust bathing
  • pecking
  • scratching
  • clucking and crowing
  • brooding
  • sunbathing

Chicken enrichment can be as small and practical as giving your pet chicken playground devices for exercise or as large-scale as improving conditions of chickens farmed for eggs.

While not much research currently exists on chicken enrichment, outside of what is produced from poultry farms and how to enrich the meat and eggs, animal welfare experts are working on finding better ways to treat chickens due to pressures from animal rights groups.

One study found that providing basic environmental enrichment for broiler chickens (the chickens produced for meat) decreased the likelihood of leg problems, contact dermatitis, and stress. 

Pet Chickens

As mentioned earlier, more people are choosing chickens for pets. Chickens are loveable birds, and you never have to worry about them flying away. Pet chickens can live up to seven years

Providing your chicken with an enriching environment indoors and outdoors will help them feel happy and more natural. Imagine how you’d feel like a human being stuck in a chicken coop all day, every day!

Poultry Farm and Homesteading Chickens 

People also choose to have chickens on their property to farm for eggs and meat. Like the products we buy from the store, they come from poultry farms on a large scale. No matter how big or small scale the farming is done, farmers and homesteaders are starting to provide enriching environments for their chickens.

The poultry industry has received considerable backlash from both consumers and animal welfare advocates, which is why many people are now choosing to try backyard chicken farming as an alternative. 

Overall, it is important to give the chicken the best quality of life, regardless of why they are being farmed.

Visual Enrichment for Chickens

Visual enrichment is providing different aspects of visual stimuli that an animal would see in their natural environment. When placing objects or doing activities to provide visual enrichment, you can use exact objects or objects to mimic what a chicken would see in their natural environment.

How to Provide Visual Enrichment for a Chicken

Not many people think about a chicken’s natural environment, especially what they would see. Chickens have been domesticated for so long; it’s easy to assume that whatever is available in the chicken coop is what they see naturally.

You should make sure that there is enough light in the chicken coop during the day if they aren’t outside. You can add windows or place lamps inside the chicken coop. Lamps are especially helpful during the winter months. This study found that chickens who didn’t have much light exposure had short-sightedness and a decreased ability to focus.

One thing that is important when providing visual enrichment for a chicken is not placing objects in their living area that could scare or startle them. Chickens are naturally prey animals, so they are very sensitive and aware of their surroundings.

Try adding a child safe mirror to your coop so your chickens can admire themselves!

Auditory Enrichment for Chickens

Auditory enrichment is giving an animal different sounds that they would find in their natural environment or sounds that could be stimulating for them.

How to Provide Auditory Enrichment for a Chicken

Providing auditory enrichment for a chicken is important because, as mentioned earlier, chickens are prey animals and are sensitive to their environment. Chickens need sounds they’d naturally hear if they weren’t in captivity.

Even playing classical music can be a form of auditory enrichment for chickens. This study found that exposing chicks to light, classical music reduces their chemical stress levels compared to chicks who didn’t listen to classical music. Another study found that simply playing the radio for chickens reduced their aggressive behaviors. 

If chickens are exposed to loud sounds that can be startling, they are likely to jump on top of each other, causing injuries and even death.

Chicken Egg Enrichment

It’s a well-known fact that human fetuses can hear outside of the womb starting at eighteen weeks, but did you know that chicks can hear and even chirp back while they are in their eggs? Hens are known to communicate not only with each other but with their chicks as well before they’ve hatched.

Make sure that your nest box is in a place that is quiet and where the hen can communicate with her future chicks.

Food-Based Enrichment for Chickens

Food-based enrichment can come in many forms. One way to provide an animal with food-based enrichment is to give them foods that they will respond well to, whether they find it in their environment naturally or not. 

Another way to provide food-based enrichment is to either feed them how they would eat in the wild or give them their food in a toy, bowl, or puzzle to work for their food. This will mimic the hunting and foraging they would do if they weren’t in captivity.

Food-based enrichment is also important for an animal’s well-being because it can help keep them at a healthy weight. It also prevents them from depending on the predictability of being fed, so if they one day escape their pen, they know how to survive successfully in the wild.

How to Provide Food-Based Enrichment for a Chicken

Providing food-based enrichment for a chicken can be fairly similar to what you’d do for most animals. For starters, hiding their food around the coop if they live in one is a great way to get them stimulated. This will also enrich them in several other ways. Try hanging  making a piñata with a cabbage in the coop and watch them peck away.

Chicken Cabbage Piñata

Chickens should get most of their nutrients from poultry feed, but the chicken’s diet should also be supplemented with insects, plants, and seeds. If their habitat doesn’t naturally have insects, plants, and seeds that your chicken can easily forage, you should place plants to attract insects that chickens can eat and scatter seeds throughout the area every few days to forage.

When providing food-based enrichment for a chicken, the most important thing is not to give the chicken any food that will harm them in any way. Some foods that can harm a chicken are:

  • Human food -it’s actually illegal to do this in some places due to disease prevention.
  • Provide tall grass – tall grass can get stuck within the chicken’s digestive tract.
  • Leave food and water out too long– check your chicken’s environment daily. Leaving food and water out can attract rodents and other pests.
  • Leave only one source of food and water- if you have multiple chickens, the social hierarchy will come into play, and higher up chickens will be more dominant toward the food and water sources.
  • Place food and water in unprotected places – one study showed that free-range chickens are more likely to eat when their food is covered, at least by trees, and are less susceptible to being prey or have competition with other animals.

Environmental Enrichment for Chickens for the Perfect Coop

Even though you can use the term “environmental enrichment” to encompass all of the types of enrichment mentioned in this article, you can take it a step further. Providing an animal with living quarters as close to their natural environment or mimicking their natural habitat is essential for their welfare. 

Environmental enrichment is also important because the enriched animal will experience their lives as close to as they would outside of captivity without predators’ threat. They will be able to freely move around their environment and also be encouraged to exercise.

How to Provide Environmental Enrichment for a Chicken

If you keep a chicken as a pet or are homesteading, one thing you should do is to make sure you have a safe and secure chicken coop for your chicken to be in. The coop should protect the chicken from predators, insects, and the weather. You should also routinely clean the coop and any arrangements to prevent bacteria from growing.

Another important aspect of environmental enrichment for a chicken is that since chickens are prey animals, they should have a space to hide in their environment if they feel stressed or threatened, even if it isn’t from a predator.

If you live in a cold environment, there should be some sort of heat source, such as a heat lamp for the chickens in the winter so they can stay warm. Since chickens can’t fly, it’s also important that if you have a coop raised off of the ground that you have a ramp, the chickens can easily walk up. Coops should also have adequate ventilation to prevent infection.

Chickens also primarily have two spaces they spend their time in: where they eat and where they sleep. When building a chicken coop, make sure there is a gated area outside of the coop that the chicken can access their food and exercise. Ensure the space where they eat and outside has some plants to cover the chickens, so they feel safe while eating.

Roosts and Perches

Chickens need a place to roost and perch in their coop. A roost is an elevated area inside the chicken coop that a chicken can perch on and sleep. Many chicken owners provide bars for chickens to perch on. If you have more than one chicken, you can stagger the height of the bars. They should also always be above the nesting boxes.

One study found that chickens displayed less aggressive behaviors if they had their roosts on wood shavings or hay bales, compared to normal rods.

Make a Chicken Swing

Chickens love to swing, so why not make one of these for them?

Egg Enrichment

If you’re homesteading and raising more chickens from eggs, there are some things you should consider when changing the environment so your chicks can have a warm, safe, hatching into the world. 

Nest boxes should be quiet and lined with dry straw. They should also be enclosed for maximum comfort when the chicken is laying their eggs. Each nesting box should be big enough to hold two or three chickens comfortably.

Too many chickens

Avoid overcrowding chickens. If you’re homesteading, try to keep two to three square feet per chicken inside the coop. If it’s on a poultry farm, this can be difficult. More and more animal activists are fighting for the better treatment of chickens, and even some free-range farms don’t adhere to the amount of space they give their chickens.

If you have chickens as pets or are homesteading, you should never allow chickens into your house. Even though some chickens are bred to reduce salmonella’s likelihood, chickens can bring the bacteria into your home.

When you finish building your chicken coop and fenced-in structure, make sure that there are no sharp edges, such as a stray wire or a nail sticking out. This could severely injure your chicken. Also, ensure that your chicken can’t get trapped in the fencing or that there are no gaps between the pieces of wood in the coop.

Olfactory Enrichment for Chickens

Olfactory enrichment is providing scents to stimulate an animal. They could be scents to encourage eating, play, and exercise. Olfactory enrichment can overlap with many other forms of enrichment because the sense of smell is the basis for other forms of enrichment.

How to Provide Olfactory Enrichment for a Chicken

Providing olfactory enrichment for a chicken might seem difficult at first. One study found that placing a familiar scent to chickens within their coop reduced stress and aggressive behaviors. 

Another study found that chicks prefer the scent of vanilla. The chicks exposed to vanilla had lower stress levels than those exposed to other scents or no scent at all.

You should also expose your chickens to fresh herbs while outdoors to stimulate their senses.

Cognitive, Tactile, and Manipulative Enrichment for Chickens

The three types of enrichment: cognitive, tactile, and manipulative, all go together and support each other well. Cognitive enrichment provides activities to make the animal think and challenge them as if they were in their natural environment. Without cognitive enrichment, animals tend to feel less stimulated and more depressed.

Tactile enrichment is providing toys and spaces in an animal’s environment to touch. The sense of touch goes back many generations, and parts of the animal’s environment should physically feel like they were in their natural habitat.

Manipulative enrichment is when you provide toys, activities, or puzzles that mimic things an animal would be doing outside of captivity. Many popular choices for manipulative enrichment also work with food-based enrichment, such as toys to make the animal feel like hunting or gathering in the wild.

Manipulative enrichment also plays an important role in how comfortable an animal feels in their environment. If they can control parts of their environment, they will feel safer and happier.

How to Provide Cognitive, Tactile, and Manipulative Enrichment for a Chicken

Since chickens have been domesticated to be farmed for so long, it’s easy not to think of providing any form of enrichment for a chicken. Cognitive, tactile, and manipulative enrichment are essential for pet and homesteaded chickens.

Brain games for chickens

Providing cognitive enrichment for a chicken can be challenging. Not many people think of chickens as the most intelligent animals. However, with cognitive enrichment and some coaching from food-based enrichment, your pet chicken could be doing tricks and running mazes.

One study found that providing cognitive enrichment, even as simple as a laser toy, lowered the number of leg injuries in chickens and increased their muscle mass.

Chickens love dust baths

An essential part of providing tactile enrichment for a chicken is to allow them to feel they are in their natural environment physically. Make sure there is a place outdoors that your chickens can have a dust bath. If chickens don’t have a place to take a dust bath, they will become susceptible to lice and mites. 

Chickens like to play with toys

Providing manipulative enrichment for a chicken is important. Since they’re prey animals, chickens need to understand how to manipulate their environment. This study found that placing objects in the coop with chicks reduced their overall fearfulness to new objects and situations as they grew up keeping them calmer. 

One study found that placing coloured key rings into the coops with different hens decreased the amount that the hens pecked and killed each other. This could be that adding the rings gave the hens something to focus their attention on.

When providing cognitive, tactile, and manipulative enrichments for a chicken, the most important thing is not to provide them with toys or puzzles that they can hurt themselves with.

If you’re starting cognitive enrichment with your chickens, it’s important to watch them while they’re playing. If they’re starting to feel distressed or uncomfortable around the toy, you should remove it from the environment. Expose it to them at shorter intervals so they can become accustomed to it.

Social Enrichment for Chickens

Social enrichment is allowing an animal to socialise with animals of the same or different species. Social enrichment is important because every animal is naturally a social being; they all crave some form of social interaction.

How to Provide Social Enrichment for a Chicken

While most chickens at poultry farms may appear to get more than enough socialisation, they actually don’t. Chickens at poultry farms are often kept in cages, so even though there’s physical proximity to other chickens available, they don’t get to feel and play with other chickens. So, poultry farms aren’t as much of a hen party as they’d seem.

If you’re introducing a new chicken to the flock you already have or are growing a flock, the new chicken should be separated for thirty days. It’s not really for a socialising aspect; it’s more to prevent any spread of disease the new chicken you’re bringing in could have. You should also clean any equipment and yourself between handling new chickens and your old ones.

Chickens also have their form of a social hierarchy, also known as the “pecking order.” They can be aggressive and assert dominance over each other. 

Ensure that each chicken has enough space within the environment you built for them to prevent social problems. This should be about ten square feet outdoors and two square feet indoors per chicken

Chickens are also known for their empathy. When one chicken feels one thing, the other chickens will almost instantly know that another chicken feels this way. Ensure that when you are providing social enrichment for chickens, they are in a safe and comfortable environment.

One essential thing to do when providing social enrichment for chickens is not to allow them to socialise with natural predators. This can cause the chicken to feel stressed and unsafe. If you are homesteading or have a pet chicken with other pets, such as cats or dogs, here’s an article about how to introduce cats safely.

A final thing to consider for social enrichment for chickens is not to force them to have a bond with other chickens or species. It may not come naturally, but as with humans, some chickens just don’t get along.

Human Interaction Enrichment

Human enrichment is important for animals in captivity because it provides a safe and healthy relationship between the animal and their human caregiver.

Human interaction enrichment is also important because the owners will get to know the chicken well. If the chicken starts showing signs of illness, the owner can quickly take them to a veterinarian for care. Chickens, like all birds can go down hill rapidly so it’s important that you know what’s normal for your chicken so you can tell when they are off colour as soon as possible.

Human interaction with chickens is also fruitful. Chickens are known to be able to memorise up to one hundred different faces!

How to Provide Human Interaction Enrichment for a Chicken

Chickens and humans have lived around each other for thousands of years. Human interaction can come in many forms with chickens. It also depends on the number of chickens you’re trying to socialise with. If you have a pet chicken, it’s fairly simple, and if you provide the previously mentioned types of enrichment for your chicken, you two will naturally have a strong bond.

If you are homesteading your chickens and have about ten or more, it may be a bit more challenging. Name your chickens and try to spend a few minutes each day giving individual attention to them. You may also learn each chicken’s distinct personality and that not every chicken will rely on human interaction the same way some do.

Chickens on poultry farms are probably the hardest to have human interaction enrichment with them. Usually, the most human interaction they get is during farming, breeding, and virus testing. Even during these parts, poultry farm chickens may never interact with humans because many of these activities are now being done by machines.

According to one study, providing early human interaction with chicks will prevent them from becoming so fearful later on in life, which, as mentioned earlier, can cause injuries and death in older chickens if they are housed as they are on a poultry farm.

Cleanliness

After handling or cleaning up after your chicken(s), it is essential to wash your hands and change your clothes. Not only can chickens spread salmonella through their faeces, but they can also spread avian flu. A bird can still spread avian flu in a number of ways, even if they are visibly healthy. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there have been no cases of the spread of avian flu from a bird to a person while the bird is being handled correctly. 

It will take time to bond with your chickens. If the chicken is obviously distressed or scared, you should give the chicken time. Humans should also allow the chicken to approach them. Many funny images can come to mind of humans chasing after chickens to catch them, so allowing the chicken to initiate is the most important.

If you’re homesteading or have pet chickens, you also shouldn’t introduce them to humans outside of your household. This can cause them distress, and other humans may not know how to properly interact with the chicken, causing it to become scared. It is also a good way to prevent any possible disease transmission.

Love your chickens

Even though we don’t think about it as much, mostly because they have been farmed for years, chickens need every aspect of enrichment we can give them. Providing enrichment for chickens will provide them with a happier and healthier life that mimics the life they would have if they weren’t in captivity.

Recommended Chicken Enrichment Toys and Games

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poultrydvm environmental enrichment infographic