Understanding chicken behavior makes management easier and more efficient and helps you provide your chickens with the best quality of life.
Maintenance behaviors help sustain physiological equilibrium. These include feeding and foraging, drinking, resting, and comfort.
Foraging and Feeding
Chickens spend around 61 percent of their active time on foraging and feeding behavior. Foraging behaviors include pecking and scratching at the ground to find food sources. Feeding behaviors involve consuming and ingesting food.
Foraging is a highly motivated behavior that chickens perform even when it is not necessary. This is called contra-freeloading, which means the chickens work for food even when it is readily available. You may notice that your chickens are eating and foraging at the same time. This is because both feeding and foraging are social behaviors.
If a chicken sees another chicken feeding, it also wants to start feeding. This is beneficial in helping them find food and in lowering the predation risk. Synchronized foraging means the birds take turns looking out for predators while the rest eat, instead of each having to forage and be vigilant. If a chicken cannot perform foraging behaviors, it can become frustrated and exhibit unwanted abnormal behaviors, such as aggressive feather pecking, egg eating, and cannibalism.
Resting and sleeping are essential to chickens, preparing them for activities of the upcoming day. While sleeping, all the bird’s memories are consolidated and stored.
Although chickens can rest on the ground, they prefer to rest on perches. The behavior of resting on a perch is called roosting. Roosting allows the birds to rest elevated and protected from any ground predators. Chickens usually start roosting around dusk. Perches also provide somewhere for subordinate birds to escape the harassment of more dominant birds. The ability to roost and use perches improves the bird’s bone strength, foot health, and feather condition. Chicks start roosting at 1 to 2 weeks of age.
Chickens perform behaviors related to body care and maintenance. These are called comfort behaviors and involve taking care of plumage and stretching. Examples are dust bathing, preening, leg and wing stretching, wing flapping, and tail wagging.
Preening is the chicken’s version of grooming itself and ensuring its feathers are in good condition. When preening, a chicken runs its beak through its feathers, realigning the barbs and barbules. This allows the feathers to function properly. During preening, the chicken removes any debris or external parasites within its plumage.
Another part of preening is oiling the feathers. In this process, the bird takes oil from its preen gland into its beak and distributes it along the feathers. Preening and distribution of preen oil help keep feathers healthy and provides insulation and waterproofing. Preening is a social behavior. Chickens are often seen synchronously preening as a larger group rather than just an individual.
Another comfort behavior that chickens perform is dust bathing. Rather than bathing in water, chickens bathe in dust. When dust bathing, the chicken digs a small hollow, then lays down and rolls around in the dirt (or other substrate), rubbing it into its feathers. It then stands up and shakes all the substrate from its feathers.
Although the type of substrate is important in how effective it is in removing external parasites, the performance of dust bathing itself helps chickens get rid of dead skin and stale preen oil. Dust bathing helps the chicken with insulation, waterproofing, and maintaining the down condition. Just like preening, dust bathing is a synchronous social behavior.
Both dust bathing and preening are highly motivated behaviors. If chickens are prevented from performing these behaviors, frustration and behavioral issues can ensue. These can include pacing back and forth, sham dust bathing (imitation dust bathing when no substrate is present), repetitive pecking at one spot, pecking and pulling at feathers from other birds in the flock, and gakel calls. It is essential to address any stress or frustration in the flock as this can cause birds to peck at each other and may lead to cannibalism.
Chickens spend a lot of time exploring. This behavior starts on the first day of life when the chick starts pecking at potential food objects. Exploratory behavior consists of pecking at objects and the environment with the beak and scratching the floor. The main chicken exploratory organ is the beak. Its tip contains many nerve endings with touch receptors that provide sensory information to the bird. By pecking at an object and the environment, the bird learns about it.
Another important part of chicken behavior is their social behaviors that involve interaction with another chicken. Our first understanding of chicken social behavior came from research by T. Schjelderup-Ebbe (1894–1976) in 1935. This research documented the social structure of chickens and how they form a hierarchy or “pecking order.”
Chickens usually live in small groups with a very definite social hierarchy. Within flocks is a clearly defined ranking of which birds are the dominant birds (high in the hierarchy) and which are subordinate (bottom of the hierarchy).
Roosters and hens have their separate hierarchy within a flock. The pecking order starts to establish itself about 1 week after hatch and is fully established around 6 weeks of age. Once this pecking order is established and stable, the birds will happily live together unless a new bird is added or an unusual incident occurs.
Chickens recognize the other chickens within the flock, know their standing within the pecking order, and know whether they are dominant or subordinate to them. A subordinate bird performs certain submissive behaviors within the pecking order to show its submission to the dominant birds. These behaviors include escaping (running away) and crouching or squatting. If a hen squats or crouches to the flock owner, she is demonstrating her submission to the owner.
Chickens are social learners, meaning that they can learn a new behavior by observing a flock mate perform the behavior. They also can learn from observing humans.
If a new chicken comes into a flock, current flock residents can observe where the newcomer’s place is within the pecking order and where they rank in relation to the newcomer’s status. A hen will watch an interaction between a new chicken and a dominant flock mate (one higher in the pecking order). If the dominant flock mate loses to the newcomer, then the observing hen knows that the new bird is higher in the pecking order and will not challenge it. However, if the new bird loses, the observing bird will challenge the newcomer to discover their relationship.
Chickens also use social learning when they are chicks. By observing their mothers, chicks learn what is good to eat, where to find food, how to perch, and where their home range is located. Chicks even learn by observing other chicks. If they watch another chick eat something and react in disgust, the observing chicks learn not to try that food.
Chickens communicate primarily through displays or body language and vocalizations. Displays are often used to communicate if flock mates are within an intermediate distance from them. Vocalizations are used to communicate with flock mates and birds from other flocks farther away.
Displays involve changing the posture and position of the head and body. These changes could include the head held at an angle, the tail up or down, and feathers spread open wide or lying flat. These are all important signals that communicate about personal space, health, and group organization; they also are displayed during mating and territory disputes.
Vocalizations are the different sounds or calls that chickens use to communicate with each other. It is their version of talking. These vocalizations can be used to communicate with chickens within the same flock or with chickens in other flocks. For example, the rooster crow call can be used to defend his territory from other roosters without having to fight.
Chickens perform over thirty vocalizations, each communicating a different type of information, such as contentment, pleasure, frustration, distress, fear, danger, nesting, food, courtship, and territory. When a chicken hears one of these vocalizations, it understands the information and responds accordingly. If a chick makes a distress call, the mother hen will immediately look for it. Similarly, if a hen clucks at her chicks, she is calling them to come to her. Her chicks will respond by coming close to her and gathering under her wings. Chickens have two different alarm calls—one for aerial predators and another for ground predators. The behavioral responses are different for each call.
Chickens start using vocalization when they are still in the shell to communicate with the mother before they even hatch. Chicks also communicate with chicks in other eggs, getting them to accelerate their growth so that they can hatch around the same time.
Some behaviors that chicks perform are instinctive, while others must be learned. Preening, scratching at the ground, and responding to the mother hen are all instinctive behaviors. Behaviors such as drinking are not instinctual and need to be taught.
Chicks learn by imprinting. Imprinting was first discovered by Konrad Lorenz (1903–1989), who received a Nobel prize for his research on imprinting in ducks. He showed that ducklings imprint on the first moving object they see and identify this as their parent. Imprinting for chicks is the same: they instinctively follow the first moving object and learn from it. Usually, this is the mother hen, and she will teach them all the important behaviors, such as drinking, foraging, the home range, perching, and social relationships. If no mother is present, the chicks will imprint on the other chicks.
Another chick-specific behavior is play. While performing play behavior, chicks frolic and spar together. These are little play fights that they use as practice for the adult fights that occur later in life when establishing pecking order.
Chickens have a wide range of behaviors they perform. Maintenance behaviors, such as foraging, drinking, resting, preening, and dust bathing, are behaviors that help maintain physiological equilibrium. Social behaviors involve interaction with one another. Aspects of this are pecking order, how they behave in a social group, how they learn from each other, and how they communicate via displays and vocalizations.
Chicks have some behaviors that are specific to them, such as play behavior and a specific way of learning, namely imprinting. Overall, it is essential to understand a chicken’s behavior so that you can give it the best quality of life possible.
Brigid McCrea, Extension Specialist, and Bethany Baker, Associate Professor, both in Poultry Science with Auburn University
New October 2022, Common Backyard Chicken Behaviors, ANR-2936