What Happens in the Coop Stays in the Coop – Keeping your chickens entertained during winter
When colder temperatures hit and chickens are ‘cooped’ up, they are prone to becoming bored. This can lead to behavioural issues you may not normally see in your flock such as egg eating, feather pecking, and even cannibalism in severe cases.
Chickens generally do quite well in our Alberta winters, provided that the breeds you have are suitable to our climate and that they are provided a dry, draft-free, warm shelter with access to water that is not frozen. Chickens that are accustomed to the climate will still happily go outside in temperatures well below 0°C, so try not to keep them confined to inside the coop except for in the most frigid weather conditions.
To save your flock’s sanity (and yours!) you may want to consider adding some environmental enrichment in extreme cold temperatures.
Add New Perches! Consider adding new perches to the coop and/or moving existing perches around the coop to keep the environment new and interesting. Be creative! You could add a chair, a tree branch, a Chicken Swing (yes such a thing does exist! Or you can also make your own), an old ladder, a tree stump, etc. Recycle your Christmas tree and put it in the coop. The chickens will enjoy exploring and roosting on it.
Hang a Head of Cabbage! (Or other edible food) Cabbage, cucumber, broccoli, a head of lettuce, your pumpkin from Halloween… the sky is the limit! This will provide the chickens with hours of entertainment. Whatever you choose, hang it at eye level and make sure that it is securely attached. Ensure you remove any unused portions at the end of the day so you don’t attract uninvited guests. A word of caution with treats – while they are often very effective at keeping chickens occupied, they should be used sparingly (no more than 5% of the chicken’s diet) as they can be detrimental to the
chicken’s health in excess. Make sure you are providing a nutritionally balanced feed free choice that makes up the majority of your flock’s diet.
Give Them Something to Dig Through! Throw a bale of straw or hay in the run for the chickens to dig through. This will keep them entertained for hours as it encourage their natural behaviour to forage, especially if you throw in a handful of scratch or dried mealworms for them to search for. If you would like some entertainment, throw in crickets or live worms for the chicken’s to go after!
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall… Chickens thoroughly enjoy looking at themselves! Hang a mirror at eye level in the coop. Ensure that it is securely attached.
Make Sure You Provide a Dust Bath! If you already have a dust bath for your chickens, consider adding a second one in a different location to keep them entertained. The dust bath should be sheltered from snow.
If despite your best efforts, you start to see egg eating, feather pecking, or cannibalistic behaviour in your flock – don’t fly the coop just yet!
Additional Tips and Tricks:
Eating Eggs – It’s Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be! Breaking and eating eggs can happen when the chickens are not given sufficient space. Ensure you act quickly as this behaviour will spread to the other birds in the flock who will try to mimic the behaviour. Ensure any broken eggs are cleaned up immediately and avoid feeding raw eggs to your flock so they do not acquire a taste for it. You can try to deter a chicken from breaking and eating eggs by placing plastic or ceramic eggs in the nest boxes. Chickens that are fed a complete feed ration and are provided oyster shells free choice are less likely to be interested in eating eggs. Ensure eggs are collected often, at least twice a day.
To Peck or Not to Peck: Chickens have a defined pecking order in the flock; some pecking is normal and generally you do not need to interfere. More aggressive feather pecking can be caused by stress, boredom, hunger, or insufficient space. If the pecking is persistent and/or blood is drawn, it is time for you to play referee. The injured chicken should be removed from the flock immediately and not returned until it has fully healed. Consider adding more environmental enrichments, as discussed above, to try to re-direct the behaviour. Ensure your flock is fed a complete feed ration and that all birds have access to the feeders and waterers. Try to give your chickens as much space as possible, which gives flock members that are lower in status areas to escape.
Feather pecking in extreme cases can lead to Cannibalism, which is a serious welfare concern. Act quickly to control pecking before it escalates to where flock members are tearing the skin and tissues of other members. Chickens tend to mimic the behaviour of others, so this behaviour can also easily spread to others in the flock and can lead to a high mortality. The injured chicken should be removed from the flock immediately and not returned until it has fully healed. Placing the bird in a wire dog crate in a pen next to or in the permanent coop has proven to be effective, as the birds can see one another but cannot cause physical harm. This may last up to a few weeks. Once you re-introduce the bird to the rest of the flock, make sure to monitor the birds closely as you may need to separate the birds and try again. If you have one chicken that is being aggressive, you may consider isolating that bird for a few days as generally the bird will be more submissive once it re-joins the flock.
Consider adding new enrichments to the coop and/or moving existing enrichments around to keep the environment new and interesting for the birds. Ensure your flock is fed a complete feed ration, with space at the feeders or waterers for each bird. This may mean adding additional feeders and waterers to your coop. Give your flock as much space as is feasible, and ensure there is adequate nest boxes (one nest box for every 3-4 birds is recommended).