Five types of hen behaviour that are instinctive
Your hens are fascinating and complex creatures. They are sociable, highly intelligent and empathetic individuals. However, if you are new to hen keeping – or if you have recently rehomed some new girls, you may be surprised by some of their behaviours. You may have noticed that they often employ repetitive and sometimes downright bizarre behaviour and you’d be forgiven for wondering what on earth was going on.
In fact, chickens have deep rooted instincts, no matter where they start life, and these behaviours serve an important function. From rolling around in your flower beds and synchronised scratching to seemingly excessive pecking – our Hen Helpline regularly receives calls from concerned chicken parents. We fully advocate getting in touch with us to discuss your concerns – and if it is necessary, we have a list of hen friendly vets that we can refer you to for advice.
But rest assured, the five behaviours below are not just commonplace for hens – they are completely natural – no matter how odd they might seem to us!
The pecking order – not just a clever name.
Did you know that chickens are born with the instinct to peck? Whilst it can seem like an aggressive behaviour to the untrained eye, pecking serves a dual function for our feathered friends. First and foremost, hens use their beaks to explore the world around them. Their surroundings and, indeed, their coop-mates are all likely to get a good peck – purely out of curiosity.
Secondly, pecking is an integral way for chickens to maintain personal space – something that is extremely important to them. They achieve this by holding their heads and orienting their bodies at a certain angle, to ensure that they have a enough space around them. If another hen adopts a ‘head to head’ stance, it is seen as a challenge and pecking will ensue. It is in this way that dominant chickens assert themselves over subordinates, thus establishing a social hierarchy known universally as the pecking order.
Have you ever wondered why your hens perform the same scratching routine in a set pattern using a series of alternative scratches? Chickens usually start with their right foot which is controlled by the left side of the brain. If the chicken finds food with its right foot, the right eye will see it first. The left side of the brain linked to the right eye is responsible for the chicken deciding if an object is food or not. A quick decision can then be made, and the food is quickly eaten.
For hens, preening is about so much more than just looking good and keeping clean. Good feather care is essential for keeping your girls warm and dry in all seasons. Feathers consist of a shaft that has many barbs attached. These barbs are held together by smaller barbules. Occasionally, the barbs can be pulled apart, which renders them ineffective. So, your hen will run her trusty beak through her feathers to realign them.
Feathers also need to be kept well oiled. A chicken has an oil gland situated at the base of its tail and with a quick pinch from her beak, she will extract a waxy oil that can then be distributed throughout her feathers to keep them in tip top condition.
The perfect perch
Chickens are descended from the Asian Jungle Fowl, which roost in trees. Whilst the average domestic hen is far too big to hotfoot it up the nearest oak, they still carry the instinct to perch. At night, a cosy perch will help your hens to feel safe and secure. During the day, chickens still love to take a step back and watch the world go by every now and then – so placing a perch in their run is a great enrichment addition.
The perfect perch will be between 3-5cm wide and at a height to suit the size of your birds. It should have enough space for comfort – as a rough guideline 20cm –25cm per chicken. This allows them space to huddle together for extra cosiness, without causing overcrowding. Finally, your hens should be able to easily get up or down from the perch without any issues.
Ex-commercial caged hens, who have never walked on solid ground or experienced sunlight will immediately demonstrate natural behaviours such as dust bathing and sunbathing, proving that these behaviours are instinctive. Far from a luxurious learned trait, these actions play an important part in your hens’ well-being.
Dust bathing is part of your hen’s grooming routine that compliments her preening. A good old roll in some loose sand or soil not only helps prevent her feathers from becoming too oily but also keeps mites and parasites at bay too.
Everyone loves a good lie in the sunshine, but for a chicken, sunbathing converts the oil ( which they have spread over their feathers during preening) into Vitamin D – which, as for humans, is essential for strong bones.