Gertie (left) and Anna (right) peck a jar to spill out the flaxseeds inside. Photo credit: Wendy Chamberlin.
If chickens were as unintelligent as their reputation suggests, keeping them happy might be simpler. Popular culture, however, is misleading. Chickens learn not just from experience, but from watching each other and the humans who take care of them. They require frequent novelty and engage in cannibalism when bored.
I suspect free-range chickens demand less attention because they can better amuse themselves. Unfortunately, they also have a lower life expectancy. Ours, safely confined to a coop and run, need a lot of entertainment. As a bonus, keeping them busy entertains us, too.
Here’s an abridged list of the experiences to which we’ve subjected our chickens in the name of entertainment:
We made a chicken swing out of a sturdy branch, but the ladies kept falling off. (Our friends in Charlottesville tell us their flock likes their swing, so your mileage may vary.) We sometimes give them a peanut butter jar full of flaxseeds with holes drilled in the sides, which spills treats as they roll it around the pen. After we mow, we dump grass clippings into the run, raking them into heaps because all chickens share an ancestral grudge against piles and will destroy them by any means necessary. This wanton destruction gives them something to do. We gave them a rotten apple that they rolled like an edible soccer ball; and, once, a xylophone, around which they gathered with the solemn puzzlement of anthropologists discovering an alien artifact, occasionally pecking it and making it ring through the hot afternoon.
Chicken anthropologists! Top to bottom: a curious Brown Leghorn pullet (hard to tell which), Marta, Azul, Poppy, and Cinnamon. Photo credit: Wendy Chamberlin.
One of our chickens’ favorite things to do is climb on things, so filling the run with stumps and branches might be our most successful chicken enrichment strategy. The result, our friends tell us, resembles a chicken terrarium. Although we cycle through different branch configurations to keep the ladies entertained, it’s usually possible to walk most of the length of the run without touching the ground, so they spend a lot of time playing “the floor is lava.”
During run renovations one day, my mom called me over, gesturing to a branch still dangling with leaves. “Hey, you want to give them this one?”
Because I’d seen the chickens amuse themselves by stripping leaves off a branch just a few days ago, I took it and laid it down in the run, but paused when I recognized its seed pods. “Aren’t these poisonous?”
A quick Google search confirmed that mimosa seed pods are, in fact, toxic for animals, so I retrieved the branch from the run, scattering the chickens who had predictably clustered around to destroy it.
A chicken jungle gym made of fallen branches—including one mimosa branch, which was removed soon after this photo was taken. Photo credit: Claire Chamberlin.
“Actually, could you get the purple vine, too?” my mom called. “From under the coop.”
“What’s wrong with the purple vine?” How had we managed to almost poison the chickens twice in one day?
She shrugged. “Just in case. We think it’s coleus.” Although she’d found no articles explaining coleus’ effect on chickens, the list of symptoms it causes in dogs—ranging from bloody diarrhea to central nervous system dysfunction—was telling.
Retrieving poisonous plant #2 required me to navigate a veritable chicken jungle gym, squeezing between the chicken ramp and a small forest of tree stumps to reach under the coop. As I bent to reach into the pile of vines, a jutting twig blocked my progress: I couldn’t move my foot forward without snapping off part of the chickens’ playground. Half-crouched, leaning far enough forward that I could fit my head under the coop, I balanced on one foot while I pulled the other one free.
This process took long enough that Poppy, our White Cochin, showed up to investigate. Sisters, we appear to have caught a human. What do we do now? I petted her as she passed by.
My mother and I want our chickens to grow accustomed to human touch so we can more easily catch them if we need to bathe them, rescue them, or take them to the vet. I began by teaching them to eat out of my hand, laying a trail of sunflower seeds, Hansel and Gretel-style, that led closer to me until finally I rested the last sunflower seed on my fingertips. The first chicken who learned she could survive eating out of my hand was Marta, the Splash Andalusian, but Poppy picked up the habit from her pretty quickly.
Poppy is serious about food. She’ll bulldoze the others out of her way when she wants a snack, and during Japanese beetle season, she eats all the bugs my mom brings into the run while her friends are still hanging back murmuring how uncouth it was for their food to start flying away.
Our White Cochin, Poppy, roosts in the shade under the coop, using one of the many sturdy branches with which we made our chicken playground. Photo credit: Wendy Chamberlin.
After I started hand-feeding the chickens, my mother started petting them, a plan of which they didn’t approve. Predictably, our Cochin and Orpington were the least high-strung; the Leghorns and Andalusians spent several weeks uttering shrill screams whenever a human reached out to touch them. They’ve grown more used to human touch over time, but all eight still sometimes shy away. I don’t feel comfortable pushing their boundaries, but I keep doing it because I’ll need them to know they can handle being touched if I need to pick any of them up someday to save their lives. Also, I’m still selfishly hoping that they’ll decide they like being petted, because I enjoy petting chickens. Like I said: Entertaining the chickens keeps their humans busy, too.
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