The benefits of enrichment for chickens
Providing enrichment to our dogs and cats is becoming a common practice for most pet owners. However, all animals can benefit from enrichment, including our feathered friends! Backyard chickens are becoming increasingly popular pets, and as we further our husbandry practices we must include enrichment to provide them with optimal welfare.
There are many benefits to providing enrichment activities to your flock. Not only does it help prevent and reduce the likelihood of certain behaviour problems such as cannibalism and feather plucking,1 but it reduces boredom and stress for the birds. Additionally, enrichment has shown to encourage natural behaviours, build problem-solving skills, and even increases bone health!2 Certain types of enrichment can help develop neural connectivity and increase cognitive function when provided to young chicks.3 Given all these benefits, it is important for the average chicken guardian to implement an enrichment program into the care of their flock.
Types of enrichment
There are lots of types of enrichment, such as auditory, visual, mental, environmental, food-based and more.1 We will be focusing on enrichment activities that can easily be implemented with the average backyard flock. This is by no means a complete list of activities, and what may work for one flock may not be suitable for another. Additionally, enrichment should be supervised to ensure optimal safety of the flock.
Coop décor can double as environmental enrichment. Consider placing old ladders in the coop, or hanging mirrors. Providing old tires filled with dirt as a dust bathing spot or giving them a grub-filled log to jump on and scratch apart are great ways to provide enrichment on a low budget. I like to find various objects being given away for free online that I can use for enrichment. Some of my favourites are:
Agility teeter-totter – This is great for the more adventurous chicken but requires some supervision to prevent chickens from walking under as the teeter-totter dips down. Typically, I use some grubs or meal worms to introduce the teeter-totter, using them to encourage the chickens to walk across. Once they’ve got the hang of it I will reduce the amount of treats used to reinforce the behaviour and let them explore it at their own pace. My chickens took great joy in figuring out how to launch one another on top of their coop using the teeter-totter!
Swing – These are a popular accessory for many runs and can be purchased online or made at home. I find the most successful swings are those made of tree branches that are hung at varying heights (starting lower to the ground and building up) allowing the chickens to hop from swing to swing.
Dig boxes – A dig box is an enclosed space full of dirt, which a guardian can then mix treats into. Providing a dig box not only gives chickens somewhere to forage and dig for hidden treats, but can also double as a dust bathing space when all the treats are gone.
Child play bridges – Play structures for children can be easily modified for chickens. Adding fake grass or other grippy materials can make the play structure easier for chickens to perch on. My chickens particularly enjoy bridge structures that allow them to walk over and under the bridge. I find it also divides up the space a bit and creates room for chickens to get away from a bullying flock member.
Jungle gym – Homemade jungle gyms are easy to assemble and are a great hit with the chicks! Building a wooden structure with various perches at a range of different heights is a great way to keep your chickens occupied. Some of the commercially available chicken jungle gyms also include a dig box area for the chickens to play in.
Cat houses – Fabric cat houses and beds can make fun nesting spots or hideouts for chickens. While these are more commonly used with house chickens they can still be used with outdoor chickens as long as steps are taken to keep them clean and in good condition.
Playing with texture, grip, height, and location allowed me to modify the above objects to make them as appealing as possible to my chickens. While each chicken will develop their own personal preferences, rotating out enrichment objects can provide a sense of novelty despite the object being familiar.
Puzzle feeders allow the chickens to use their brain to problem solve in order to get their reward. This helps prevent boredom, provides novelty, and acts as an outlet for energy. I use a range of dog and cat puzzle feeders with my chickens, who often figure out the puzzle before my dog does! It’s important when using puzzle feeders to help your chickens at first to understand how the puzzle works before leaving them to their own devices. Below are several of my favourite puzzle toys to use with chickens!
Slim Cat Treat Ball – This is a round ball with two difficulty settings featuring different sized holes. You fill the inside of the ball with a treat like hen scratch before setting the difficulty and letting the chicks have their fun! As they kick and peck the ball around their enclosure, treats roll out.
The SlimCat Treat Ball
Outward Hound Bone Tornado – While this puzzle is designed for dogs, my girls love it! I fill the compartments of the toy with grubs and set it slightly off center so when they push toward the grubs it opens the next compartment. This is an easier puzzle toy for chickens as they typically figure out how it works quite quickly.
Outward Hound Tic Tac Twirl – This puzzle toy is also designed for dogs and is slightly more challenging. When they push one of the four squares down, it pushes treats out through a hole in the treat compartment. To help my girls figure it out on their own I sprinkle a few treats on top of the squares to encourage them to push down and dump the treats out.
Hentastic Boredom Buster – A puzzle toy designed for chickens! This is an orange cylinder with several holes through it where specially sold treats can be slotted in. You can hang the puzzle toy at different heights for different difficulties as the chickens peck away at the treats. You can also use bananas or veggies as replacement treats to fill the holes.
The Hentastic Boredom Buster
Veggie Treat Ball – This toy is designed for small animals and features a wire ball that can be attached to the side of a fence or cage. The ball can be filled up with veggies, allowing the chickens to pull the veggies out through the bars. To add to the challenge, the ball can be only loosely attached to the fence so it moves freely when pushed.
When it comes to food-based enrichment there are lots of DIY options as well as store-bought puzzle feeders that can be implemented. Poking holes in a plastic water bottle and filling it with hen scratch is a more cost-effective version of the Slim Cat Treat Ball and is equally effective. Hanging veggies in the run is also a cheap, easy way to add some fun to your chicken’s life, just as adding a novel food source can be cheap and effective.
Chickens have been shown to display a wide repertoire of vocal abilities from warning calls to alerting others to a food source. They are master communicators! It only makes sense that they would enjoy a variety of auditory enrichment.
Music – Chickens have been shown to respond to music from an early age, with studies showing that it can even modify neural connectivity leading to enhanced cognitive function when exposed at an early age. Classical music has shown positive results with young chickens. Ensure music is played at an appropriate volume so as to not be frightening.4
Chicken soundtrack – Playing soundtracks of happy chickens clucking can be engaging for chickens of all ages, while young chickens find maternal sounds soothing and stress-reducing.
Xylophone – Sprinkle some treats over a xylophone and watch as the chickens peck out their own songs while collecting the treats. This can also be taught as a trick by drawing black dots on the xylophone, waiting for a chicken to peck at the dot, and then rewarding them with a treat.
Bells – Hang a variety of different colored and shaped bells around the enclosure and let your chickens investigate.
Allow the chickens time with and without music in order to avoid overstimulating them. Just as people enjoy both music and quiet time, so do chickens. YouTube and other streaming websites offer a wide variety of chicken videos that can imitate maternal sounds and other vocalization types. Avoid panicked vocalizations or videos that may include predator warning calls or distressed chickens to prevent causing unnecessary stress.
Chickens have great eyesight and enjoy visual stimuli similar to how people do. Long periods of intense light can be aggravating, while being in dim lighting for long periods can affect a chicken’s ability to perform tasks. Different colors of light have been shown to affect how much time chickens spend walking vs sitting, and their fear response.5 Their eyesight is so great they can even recognize moving images on screens!
TV – Chickens are able to identify food items and even predators on screens, so showing them videos can be highly engaging for them.
iPad games – Chickens are able to play games on iPads or other smart devices that involve tapping moving objects. These games can be a little frustrating for chickens if they are not given rewards for tapping the moving object, so be sure to have some treats set aside!
Reflective objects – Not only do reflective objects show a mirror image of the chicken, which can be highly engaging, they also reflect sunlight in a variety of shapes and intensities.
Each chicken is unique and will have different preferences and engagement levels in response to each activity. Chickens have shown a preference for sideways moving objects on screens rather then up and down moving objects, which can help you to select an appropriate game for them. Just like people, make sure you limit their screen time!
Using enrichment to encourage natural behaviours
To have the most success with your enrichment, first ask yourself what kind of natural behaviour you are trying to encourage. Foraging? Try sprinkling treats in a dig box! Pecking? The Hentastic Boredom Buster is perfect for pecking! Wearing down nails or beak? The Slim Cat Treat Ball encourages them to use their feet and beak to push it around and spill the treats. While chickens can have a tendency to guard their favourite items from one another, an easy solution is to offer multiple enrichment activities at once, allowing lower status hens to get in on the action without causing conflict. Alternatively, temporarily separating lower status chickens to give them an opportunity to investigate the enrichment item will work to prevent bullying related to guarding.
Each food-based activity encourages the hens to explore a novel object and rewards them for interacting with it. Environmental enrichment gives them variety in perch height, stability of perch, texture, and more while making their enclosure far more interesting and engaging. Auditory stimuli can be soothing and help develop cognitive abilities while visual stimuli can reduce boredom and increase engagement.6 Each bird can develop their own preferences about which object they prefer to interact with, allowing them more freedom, choice, and control in their lives. After all, isn’t that what we all want?
Chickens calmly sharing their enrichment
- Riber, A.B. et al (2018) Review of environmental enrichment for broiler chickens. Poultry Science 98, 378-396.
- Campbell, D., de Haas, E., & Lee, C. (2019). A review of environmental enrichment for laying hens during rearing in relation to their behavioral and physiological development. Poultry Science 98, 9-28.
- Lay, Jr. D.C. et al (2011) Hen welfare in different housing systems. Poultry Science 90, 278-294.
- Marino, L. (2017) Thinking Chickens: a review of cognition, emotion, and behavior in the domestic chicken. Animal Cognition20: 127–147.
- Sultana, S. et al (2013) The Effect of Monochromatic and Mixed LED Light Colour on the Behaviour and Fear Responses of Broiler Chicken. Avian Biology Research 6:3, 207-214
- Dávila, S.G. et al (2011) Effects of auditory and physical enrichment on 3 measurements of fear and stress (tonic immobility duration, heterophil to lymphocyte ratio, and fluctuating asymmetry) in several breeds of layer chicks. Poultry Science 90, 2459