So you have worked out how to keep your hens under the correct cover as specified by APHA (see previous blog). But your ladies are used to having free range of your garden/farm/yard/kitchen/living room (it happens!)! How are you going to keep them happy?
Boredom Busters – how to keep your poultry perky during lockdown🐔
Deb Howe, Eggucation Director
6th December 2021
We all know that the lockdown has has serious effects on the nation’s happiness as people, with mental health taking a predictable nosedive. I am the last person who would anthropomorphise any animal – but I think in this case, it helps us get our heads around the need to look the species we want to enrich. What makes it ‘tick’
When we as humans can’t carry out the patterns of behaviour that make us happy – no matter what they are – shopping in Meadowhall (ewww lol), meeting our best buddies for lunch, going to live music event, the traditional family trip to the Xmas markets etc….it affects our sense of well being. Those are the behaviours we, as individuals, need to stay happy. This has knock on effects on many parts of our health.
My interest in animal behaviour & welfare has always been massive passion. After my Zoology degree at Sheffield Uni, I moved to Edinburgh to Study for a Masters in Applied Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare – in essence looking at what animals NEED, mainly focussed on livestock animals. Then applying that knowledge to their daily lives, husbandry routines and enclosures, to ensure their behavioural needs are met. Happy animals are less stressed. Less stressed means more productive and less susceptible to illness. Win win for the animals and the owners/farmers…..
So the most important thing for me with all the species of animals I personally keep, is that I allow natural patterns of behaviour as much as is practical. It’s at the forefront of my mind.
So what is important to your hens? I will try and cover all areas of hen behaviour. But clearly some are more affected by lockdown than others…..
Don’t forget your birds will look forward to your company too – so make sure your biosecurity is up to scratch before you enter their space – see previous blog.
Some of our breeding sheds at Eggucation HQ
Space – How many birds fit into my shed?
Even more important now that its winter and the birds spend more hours in the shed, let alone the fact they will be foraging less, and their food and eater needs to be under cover.
There are a lot of figures out there about ‘how much space per hen’ in terms of floor space. The Poultry Club of Great Britain specify 20cm x 20cm per bantam, and 30cm x 30cm for large fowl. The Soil Association suggest 40cm x 40cm for large fowl. And again 18-20cm of perch space per bird.
We all know the birds will double deck themselves on one perch when there are two in the house 🤦🏼♀️ Squuuuueeeeeeeze themselves into one house even if you have two. But again its common sense. The more internal floor space they have now the better – for you and them – or you wil be cleaning out every ten minutes!!! Its so important to keep bedding dry – try opening up a paper feed sack and putting under your perch – remove it once its ‘loaded’ and you have fresh bedding underneath…..
“So. When looking at what makes our animals happy we need to look at what makes a horse a horse, a dog a dog, sheep a sheep – and hens hens etc… What we need to understand with keeping any animal is what is important for them – not what we think they need!!”
Hens have been shown to have the ability to recognise up to 30 individuals. And its not rocket science to work out where the phrases ‘pecking order’ and ‘hen pecked’ came from. A stable flock is important, and we can all probably recognise the dominant hen in our flocks. I would always recommend hens live in a social group no fewer than three. When I sell birds I won’t sell one on its own – when being integrated into a new flock a single bird will have a hard time. She needs a wingman(hen) to cover her back. Its always best to put new birds into a coop at night when everyone has gone to bed. There will no doubt be some ruffles in the morning but this is often far less traumatic for everyone if it’s done this way. Even when Avian Flu is over, don’t let your new birds out of the run to free range until you are sure they know where bed is – ie after you stop having to pop them in the house at night!
All hens need to preen to maintain their feather condition. They often seem to do this as a group, and it’s an important instinctive behaviour.
Perching had been shown to have many physical benefits such as increased bone density, apart from the innate need to perch up high – a predator avoidance behaviour.
Hens enjoying some Kale – give them the whole plant!
Photograph by Danny Camerlinck
Nesting behaviour is a big part of a laying hens day! She can spend a happy hour or two rearranging straw, or flicking shavings to make her perfect egg laying area – and then really enjoy telling you about it once the recess egg is laid! Most hens prefer a dark corner to lay their eggs.
I use standard garden shed for my hen sheds. No external nest boxes – but I do provide nest boxes inside. Mine are old plastic recycling bins on their side with a 10cm piece of wood screwed to the front to hold the bedding in and add to privacy – I have even been know to stack these successfully with a wooden button screwed to the sides for stability.
If you have a shed as a coop, try recycling a recycling box as a nest box!
A tray of dry sand – or in summer a nice dry patch of soil – is vital for your birds skin health. It is like their dry shampoo! It not only maintains feather condition, helps remove any parasites, but is a very find innate need for the birds. Being unable to do this behaviour can cause stress. And it’s an easy fix even in a lockdown winter. Childrens sand pit sand is ideal – and depending on the never of birds you have you might even get away with a large cat litter tray – be warned the behaviour is infectious and I am sure its part of the flock bonding between individuals to bathe toghether – makes sense to me!!!! You can even mix some DE powder in and/or fire ash (if you have a log burner etc and burn just wood) to add to the anti parasite action of the dust bath.
This one is a biggy…Scratching and foraging – these are very hard wired innate behaviours in hens. Chicks, as soon as they come out of the incubator, and even through the plastic window when still inside, will peck at shiny things (water) or any small speck. Lets face it, its what our birds spend the majority of their day doing…..and the main way we can enrich their days…
So when they are enclosed what ideas can we use to keep them from getting bored….
As I mentioned in the last blog – good chunky woodchip from your local tree surgeon is an awesome run material. Not expensive, and biodegrades with the chicken manure to form fab compost. You will need a good 2” layer. You right need to put some finer mesh around the bottom of the run, or boards, to stop it leaking out when the hens scratch in it. It might need a refresh, as its unlikely to last the winter, but one way to stop it getting a crust of poop on the top is to keep your birds scratching. You have to be very wary with ground feeding birds – ie throwing food on the floor – it attracts vermin into your coop, so go careful and make sure you feed it early enough in the day to ensure its all eaten by bedtime. You will find worms soon move into the woodchip layer – super scratch feed.
Mix a little corn in with some straw and pop this in in the morning so all the feed has gone by night time
Scratch feeds for in the shed – When the birds get shut in their coop at night, try throwing a little mixed corn or micronised peas in. The birds will enjoy scratching though their bedding to find these, and will continue in the morning once they are awake and before you let them out – this is safe ‘ground feeding’ as your coop will exclude vermin overnight.
Use the height – Pop some perches outside in the run, make use of the extra ‘mezzanine space’ – building a cover for your feed means that you have additional space on the top you can use to hide treats. This can also have a second advantage of providing a dry area if your run does not have the luxury of a solid roof – for the hens to have their dust bath. Try making a hen swing haha – can’t say my birds have these but apparently they are a ‘thing’.
🍓Hang fruit and veg around the enclosure – remember to comply with regulations this must NOT have been through your kitchen“1
🥬Cabbage (not too much watery greens)
🍏Apples on suspended kebab skewers…..
In reality anything you can tie/thread to hang up. Some poultry keepers have used soaked grass pellets to replace the grass their birds are missing out on – just horse grass pellets from your feed mill soaked in water until they form a mash. Commercial hen treats are available to hang in your runs – like the ones for caged birds, but these are obviously more expensive.
If you have a smaller run you can move regularly, rather than woodchip, mix some straw and mixed corn snd the birds will be happy scratching for hours.