Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Chicken Behavior: Normal or Abnormal

Sometimes, our chickens do things that we simply don't understand. If you have chickens, you've probably looked out your window and thought "That stupid bird, why on earth is it doing that?"
So, why do chickens do certain things, and what is normal for them to do?

What are normal chicken behaviors?

Normal behaviors in chickens can seem odd to us. However, for this article, note that there is a difference between "normal" and "natural" behaviors. Natural behaviors can change by the situation that the bird is in, and is driven by it's instinct, though it may not be normal because it's not something the bird does under typical circumstances. For example, cannibalism in chickens is not normal in a flock with plenty of space, but is caused by a natural instinct when overcrowded. Cannibalism is a natural behavior that suggests a problem. 

So, let's explore some normal chicken behaviors. 

Fighting. Like any other animal, chickens sometimes fight over food and dominance among other things. If you have two roosters, they will likely get in a couple of fights because they need to sort out who is the lead rooster. Fighting is okay, but if they are fighting to a point of serious injury, you may want to intervene. 

Mating. Chicken mating does not look fun. It looks a lot like the rooster is trying to kill the hen, especially among young pullets and cockerels. Between a mature lead rooster and hen, the cock will (sometimes) do a "dance" in which he drops his wing and walks in a half circle towards the hen. If the hen accepts, she will squat for him, and he will jump on top of her. They touch their vents together so the semen enters the hen's vent (the rooster has no penis). The act is short, usually lasting between 5 and 15 seconds, and does not always go smoothly. The hen can then store the semen for up to three weeks, and sometimes longer.  With younger pullets and cockerels, they mating may not be so easy. The cockerel will generally skip the "dance" and just hop on. The pullets often don't squat, or try to touch her vent to his. They may even try to get away. This looks violent, but they will eventually get the hang of it. Here is a video of mating, without the dance.

Scratching. Chickens will scratch the ground to dig up bugs and plants to eat. They leave a "chicken scratch" or thinned patches of grass. If you don't like these patches, you can keep your chickens in a designated area. If you don't mind the thin patches, the chickens eat tons of those pesky bugs that live in your grass! You may never have to deal  with another slug ever again, for the low cost of a few bald spots on your lawn!

Cease Laying. Hens stop laying eggs when they are molting, and, with most breeds, in the winter. This is completely normal. You can encourage your hens to continue laying in the winter by using an artificial light for a couple hours after sunset each day. Some roosters will also need photostimulated to produce sperm. They stop laying during a molt to conserve energy and protein for growing new feathers. During this time, there is nothing you can do to make them lay, and it would be unhealthy to do so. You can feed them high-protein treats like cat food or nuts to assist the process. Most chickens molt for the first time in fall of the second or third year, but some molt within their first year. It is also not uncommon for them to molt during the winter. 

Crowing, morning-day-night. It is often accepted that roosters only crow in the morning, this is not true. Roosters can crow from the moment they can see UV rays, until they go to sleep the next night. Some roosters even wake up and crow! So why do roosters crow? There are many reasons. They crow to let their presence be known to other roosters, to take possession of hens, to call the hens to him, and just because he feels like it. This is normal behavior. To keep the rooster from waking you, I suggest using a fan to block out noise.

Preening. This is when a chicken cleans their feathers, and they spend a lot of time doing it. They use their beak and tongue to remove loose dirt and bugs from their feathers. It may appear as though they are puling their feathers out, but that are not. 

Dusting. Chickens love to dust! They use their legs and wings to loosen up dirt, and then they roll in that loose dirt. This helps to prevent mites and other external parasites. Using old tires to make dusting pits may keep them out of your flowerbeds. 

Broodiness. Some people become concerned that their chicken is depressed when it sits on a nest, not moving, and hissing at them when they come near her. However, she has just gone broody! A broody hen will sit on eggs, even if they are infertile. Some will even attempt to hatch golf balls! This is normal behavior. If you wish to have more chicks, put some fertile eggs under her! Because she can raise the chicks with the flock, you don't have to go through the trouble of introducing them later on.

Abnormal Behavior 

Pecking and Feather Picking. Pecking is a common problem, and is abnormal when it becomes obsessive. Whether you have a chicken that is doing it to themselves or others, it's a sign that your bird is bored or overcrowded. If you have enough space for your chickens, then it may be due to a specific bird which, if excessive, may need to be culled for the health of the rest of the flock. 

Cannibalism. Chickens are naturally cannibalistic. If they see a dead chicken, they have no problem eating it, and it will not hurt them as long as the carcass is not diseased. However, killing and eating a fellow flock member is not normal. It suggests that your flock is overcrowded. This is often a problem seen in commercial flocks, both in battery cages and in barns. If you're having this problem, you need to reduce your flock size or increase your coop/run size. 

Overmating/Aggressive Mating. Aggressive mating is often a problem with young cockerels and pullets. Cockerels will gang up on a pullet, forcing her down, one after another. This is not normal mating and may seriously injure the pullet, and she should be removed if this happens. Though they are inexperienced and aren't sure what to do, mating should be a quick process that she can get up and shake off. Overmating is a bit more normal, but still suggests a problem. It is when the cock's spurs tear off the feathers on the back and/or on the neck (from his beak) due to mating too often. This can happen when there is not enough hens for one rooster, or adolescent cockerels which tend to be a little rough. The problem can be solved by culling* excess roosters, adding more hens, or outfitting your hens with chicken saddles.

Wing Drooping. Droopy wings and tails are a common sign of multiple illnesses. If you notice a chicken with droopy wings, you should immediately examine your chicken. It appears as the chicken is slightly squatted, with its wings a bit spread and pointed downward, rather than held against the body as they would be normally.

Lethargy. Not to be confused with broodiness, lethargy suggests illness. Chickens normally like to stay up, awake, and peck around. A chicken that is lying in one spot for extended periods of time, unable to hold its head up, or have difficulty walking is lethargic and possibly sick. 

Human Aggression. This is actually a normal, but intolerable, behavior, most commonly among males. A rooster may fly up to you, flapping his wings and trying to hit you with his claws and spurs. This can be very dangerous, especially around children, as a cock's spurs can grow over two inches long and are sharp. If a rooster attacks you from above (flying), knock him directly to the ground.  If he attacks your feet, give him a little shove-kick (not enough to injure him). Then, pick him up and force him to stay still under your arm, or just chase him around for a few seconds. This will tell him "I am the boss, I am the lead chicken, you do not attack me!" Yes, to chickens, we are all just a bunch of chickens,

Crowing hen. This is a fairly uncommon occurrence, yet it does happen. When it does, it is usually an older hen that is taking on the role of a rooster, especially if a rooster has been removed. It doesn't sound exactly like a rooster's crow, however. This video shows two hens crowing at each other!

Inter-species mating. This is generally abnormal behavior, but isn't always a problem. Guineas and chickens can mate fairly safely. However, a male duck over a chicken hen can be dangerous. Male chickens do not have penises, so hens are not meant to breed that way. Male ducks not only have a penis, but a corkscrew-shaped phallus that may be covered in small barbs. A drake mating with a chicken could be very harmful. 

In conclusion 

Thank you for reading, I hope I was able to help with any questions you may have had. If you have any tips or suggestions, comment or contact me through the "Contact Me" page. 

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