Understanding chicken behaviour makes management easier and more efficient and helps provide chickens with the best quality of life. By observing their behaviours, chicken owners can identify signs of distress or illness and take appropriate action. Additionally, understanding chicken behaviour allows owners to create an environment that promotes natural behaviours such as scratching, pecking, and dust bathing, which contribute to their overall well-being.
Maintenance behaviours help sustain physiological equilibrium. These include feeding and foraging, drinking, resting, and comfort. Feeding and foraging are essential maintenance behaviours, as they provide chickens with the necessary nutrients and energy to support their bodily functions. Drinking is also crucial for hydration and proper digestion. Resting allows chickens to recharge and recover, while comfort behaviours such as preening and stretching help them maintain good physical condition. Overall, ensuring that chickens can engage in these maintenance behaviours is vital for their health and welfare.
Foraging and Feeding
Approximately 61% of the time that chickens are active is spent on feeding and foraging. Pecking and scratching at the ground are examples of foraging behaviours used to locate food sources. Eating and swallowing food are behaviours related to feeding. Even when it is not required, hens engage in the highly driven behaviour of foraging. This practice, known as contra-freeloading, implies that the hens forage for food even in situations where it is easily accessible. It is possible that you have noticed your hens eating and foraging simultaneously. This is because eating and searching for food are social activities.If a hen sees another hen eating, it will want to follow suit. This helps them find food and lessens the likelihood that predators will see them. Instead of each bird needing to forage and stay alert, synchronised foraging occurs when birds hunt for predators in shifts while the others feed. Frustrated because it is unable to engage in its natural foraging habits, a chicken may resort to aggressive feather pecking, egg devouring, and cannibalism as unwelcome deviant behaviours.
Chickens need to sleep and rest to be ready for the activities of the next day. All the bird’s memories are combined and kept as it sleeps. Resting on perches is what hens prefer to do when they are not working. “Roosting” is the term for resting on a perch. The birds may rest high and be safe from any predators on the ground when they nest. Typically, hens begin to roost at sunset. Additionally, perches give lesser birds a place to hide from the harassment of larger, more powerful species. A bird’s bone strength, foot health, and feather condition all increase when it can roost and use perches. Roosting starts for chicks around one to two weeks of age.
Chickens engage in behaviours connected to bodily upkeep and care. These are referred to as comfort behaviours and include stretching and caring for feathers. Dust bathing, preening, wing flapping, leg and wing stretching, and tail wagging are a few examples. The chicken’s way of taking care of itself and making sure its feathers are in good condition is called preening. A chicken’s beak is used to comb through its feathers during preening, realigning the barbs and barbules. The feathers can now operate as intended. The chicken cleans its feathers of any detritus or outside parasites while preening. Feathers are oiled as part of the preening process. The bird uses its beak to transfer oil from it preen gland throughout its feathers throughout this procedure. The application of preen oil and preening help maintain the health of feathers and provide insulation and waterproofing. Preening is a social behaviour. Chickens are often seen synchronously preening as a larger group rather than just an individual.
Another comfort behaviour 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.
Dust bathing is an excellent way for hens to get rid of dead skin and stale preen oil, although the type of substrate used has an impact on how well it removes external parasites. Giving the chicken a dust bath aids in its waterproofing, insulation, and upkeep. Dust bathing is a synchronous social behaviour, just like preening.
Preening and dust bathing are two highly driven behaviours. Frustration and behavioural problems may arise if these behaviours are not allowed in the hens. These behaviours can include pacing back and forth, tugging at feathers from other birds in the flock, sham dust bathing (imitating dust bathing in the absence of substrate), and gakel sounds. Any stress or irritation within the flock needs to be addressed because it might lead to cannibalism and pecking at one another among the birds.
Roosters explore for a great deal of time. The chick begins pecking at possible food items on its first day of life, which is when this behaviour begins. Scratching the ground and using the beak to peck at things and the surroundings are examples of exploratory behaviour. The beak is the primary exploring organ of chickens. Numerous nerve terminals with touch receptors at their tips give the bird sensory information. The bird picks up information about objects and their surroundings by pecking at them.
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.”Typically, chickens reside in tiny groups with clear social hierarchies. There is a distinct hierarchy within flocks that indicates which birds are subordinate (lower on the hierarchy) and which are dominating. Within a flock, hens and roosters have their own distinct hierarchy. After hatching, the pecking order takes about a week to fully form, and by six weeks, it is completely entrenched. The birds will coexist peacefully until this pecking order is solidified, barring the addition of a new bird or an odd occurrence.Within the flock, hens can identify one another, determine their position in the pecking order, and determine if they are superior or inferior to one another. To demonstrate its obedience to the superior birds in the pecking order, an inferior bird exhibits specific submissive behaviours. These actions include hiding, such as running away, and stooping or crouching. A hen indicates her submission to the flock master by crouching or squatting down in their direction.
Because they are social learners, hens can pick up new skills by watching a flockmate use them. They can learn knowledge by watching people. When a new chicken joins a flock, the existing members of the flock can determine where the newcomer fits into the hierarchy and how they stack up against them. A hen will see a newbie chicken interacting with a dominant flockmate (the one higher on the pecking order). The observant hen will not challenge the new bird since it knows it is higher in the pecking order if it defeats the dominant flockmate. The observing bird will, however, challenge the newcomer to learn about their connection if the new bird loses.When they are chicks, hens also use social learning. Chicks learn where their home range is, how to perch, what foods are nice to eat, and all these things by watching their moms. Even from witnessing other chicks, chicks can learn. The observing chicks learn not to attempt a food if they see another chick eat it and react with disdain.
The main ways that chickens communicate are through vocalisations and body language. If flock mates are at an intermediate distance from them, displays are frequently employed as a means of communication. Birds use vocalisations to interact with other birds in their flock and with those that are located further away. The head and body are positioned differently during displays. These alterations could include the tail being up or down, the head positioned downward, and the feathers lying flat or spread wide. These are all significant signals that convey information about one’s health, personal space, and group dynamics. They are also given during territorial disputes and mating behaviour.
The various noises or calls that hens make to each other are known as vocalisations. It is how they communicate. You can use these vocalisations to interact with hens in your flock as well as with flocks outside of your own. To protect his territory from other roosters, for instance, a rooster can utilise his crow call instead of engaging in combat. More than thirty vocalizations are made by chickens, and each one conveys a distinct message about contentment, joy, frustration, sadness, fear, danger, nesting, food, courtship, and territory. A chicken that hears one of these vocalisations interprets the cues and acts appropriately. The mother hen will go straight for a chick that calls out for help.In the same way, a hen calling her chicks to come to her will cluck at them. In response, her chicks will approach her closely and huddle beneath her protective wing. A separate alarm call is made by chickens for airborne predators and another one for ground predators. Every call receives a separate set of behavioural reactions. Before they even hatch, hens begin vocalising to communicate with their mothers while they are still in the shell. To hatch at around the same time, chicks in different eggs can also interact with one another and encourage one another to grow faster.
While some of the behaviours that chicks exhibit is instinctive, others need to be taught. Instinctive behaviours include preening, scratching at the ground, and reacting to the mother hen. Certain behaviours, like drinking, must be taught because they are not innate. Chicks learn by imprinting. Konrad Lorenz (1903–1989), who won a Nobel Prize for his studies on imprinting in ducks, made the initial discovery of imprinting. He demonstrated how ducklings recognise their parent by imprinting on the first moving object they encounter. The process of imprinting is the same for chicks, who follow and learn from the first moving item out of instinct. This is often the mother hen, who will teach them all the necessary behaviours, including social interactions, drinking, foraging, staying within the home range, and perching. If no mother is present, the chicks will imprint on the other chicks.
Another chick-specific behaviour is play. While performing play behaviours, 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.
A variety of behaviors are exhibited by chickens. Foraging, drinking, relaxing, preening, and dust bathing are examples of maintenance behaviours that support physiological homeostasis. Social behaviours entail interpersonal communication. Pecking order, social group behaviour, peer learning, and vocalisations and displays as means of communication are some aspects of this. Certain activities that are unique to chicks include play behaviour and imprinting, which is a particular method of learning. To provide the best possible care for a chicken, it is imperative that you comprehend its behaviour.
Author: Dr. T. SUSMITA, Assistant Professor, Poultry science, NTR College of Veterinaryscience, SRI VENKATESWARA VETERINARY UNIVERSITY, GANNAVARAM, ANDHRAPRADESH.