Hens can have extremely goofy chicken behavior and do some of the wackiest things. This is probably part of the appeal of backyard flocks! If you’ve ever wondered if your chicken’s wacky behavior was normal or there’s something wrong with it, you’re probably not alone.
New chicken-keepers may be especially confused by some of the bizarre behavior of these funny fowl. Some birds act even wackier than others and stump seasoned chicken tenders and experts alike.
Here are some common wacky chicken behavior questions and advice on what, if anything, you should do about it.
I’m Not Dead!
You’ve just found your favorite hen laying over on its side with one wing stretched out, looking nearly catatonic. Don’t worry. It’s probably not dead or even injured. Iit’s actually just sunbathing.
Although it looks strange, this is completely normal behavior and just one of the wacky things that chickens do.
“A normal behavior that scares a lot of people is sunbathing,” says Richard Blatchford, an assistant professor of extension, small to large-scale poultry, for the department of animal science at the University of California, Davis. Blatchford specializes in the husbandry, behavior and welfare of poultry and often talks with poultry producers and backyard flock-keepers about behavioral issues and how to change or address nuisance behaviors.
“The birds will just go down on their sides, spread a wing out and become motionless on the ground,” he says. “If people don’t realize that chickens sunbathe, they kind of look dead.
“Chickens tend to kind of zone out when they’re sunbathing, so you can get really close to them before they get up or move. I think this adds to the concern there’s something wrong with the bird because they never just sit there when you walk up to them.
“However, it’s totally normal. The bird is fine. They’ll finish their sunbath, get up and do their normal stuff.”
Chickens Gone Bald
If you remember when your first chicken went through its first molt, you may have seriously panicked over your bird going bald. Not necessarily a chicken behavior issue, the first molt can be freaky. But molting is completely normal.
However, there are a couple of reasons why birds lose feathers outside of molt that aren’t “normal” but may or may not be concerning. And some of the associated chicken behavior can be bad, even dangerous.
“The most common scenario is aggression,” Blatchford says. “If there’s aggression in a flock, birds show [it] by pecking. If they’re really aggressive, they end up pulling feathers out in particular parts of the body. You may notice a chicken missing feathers on the back of the head and neck, around the vent and sometimes the back. Feather loss due to aggression isn’t necessarily an issue for the birds themselves. They should grow the feathers back in the next molt.
“However, if it’s in the middle of winter and they’ve lost a lot of feathers, it might be an issue because they can’t thermoregulate as well. The biggest issue is it makes them susceptible to skin injury because their skin is really thin. If there’s continued aggression, a bird pecking in the same area may break the skin. Anytime there’s any injury, then start to worry. If there’s blood, you could end up getting some form of cannibalism happening, and you don’t want that.”
Blatchford advises cleaning up any blood quickly and ensuring there isn’t any left. He also recommends getting an ointment to put on the wounds or an antipeck spray or lotion, which helps heal the wound and keep other birds from pecking at it.
Cold weather and open wounds are the only times he says you should worry about a bird not having feathers in an area. Otherwise, they’re OK, and the feathers should grow back.
“Because feather loss is often a sign of aggression, you want to look into it in your flock, especially if it results in injury,” he says. “You must try to figure out who’s the one being aggressive. It could be one or multiple birds. You may have to do something with an aggressive bird, such as remove it from the flock or try to do some intervention to reduce the aggression.”
“The second common reason for feather loss outside of molt could be a health issue,” Blatchford adds. “Usually, you don’t see feather loss associated with a particular disease, but it could be something like mites or lice. They’re going to damage the feathers. Mites less so because they’re actually blood drinkers, while lice are feather chewers.”
A chicken with lice might not lose their feathers, but the feathers may become such poor quality that it looks like it has gaps. You should always check the bird over visually if you notice feather loss. Do this by parting the feathers and looking for little black or brown spots that may be running along the skin. These are bugs and you should treat the bird to get rid of them.
Birds Like to Bathe
If you see your birds writhing and wallowing in the dirt, throwing dust up everywhere, they’re not having a seizure. This particular chicken behavior? They’re just giving themselves a dust bath. The previously mentioned bugs are a big part of the reason chickens do dust baths. Dust helps remove excess oil from feathers and makes them less desirable for parasites such as lice and mites.
Dust baths are a natural cleaner and insect repellent rolled into one. And chickens seem to have fun doing it.
Don’t be surprised if they stretch out on the ground and spread their wings for an enjoyable round of catatonic sunbathing when they finish their dust bath. It’s this wacky behavior is pretty normal when you’re a chicken.
Hide & Seek
Some chickens like to play hide and seek. And some are really good at it, especially if they’re hiding a nest of eggs somewhere.
However, a chicken that hides from its flock mates may be ill or hurt and doesn’t want to be picked on. Chickens often peck at injured birds due to the social order of the flock and their natural curiosity. Worse, a bleeding injury could lead to cannibalism, an extremely gross behavior you definitely don’t want to see. You should quickly remove injured or dead birds from the flock to prevent it.
Blatchford says another reason birds might hide is if they’re being picked on a lot by the dominant birds. “They may be hesitant to come out around certain individuals,” he says. “It kind of depends on how big your flock is. If you have a larger flock, oftentimes, the really dominant individuals and really subordinate individuals don’t mix very much. They stay separate from each other.
“So, you may see a group of birds that are always doing stuff together or they’re the first birds to come and eat,” he says. “If you’re giving treats, they’re the ones that come up first. Then, you have other ones that kind of stay away until the dominant birds disappear. The second group of birds knows they’re going to get pecked at, picked on or chased away if they come too close to the more dominant individuals. Staying away is one of the ways they avoid aggression.”
However, if you have a smaller flock, the lower-ranking birds might not always be able to get away from the more dominant ones. Worse, if you happen to have one of those very dominant, somewhat aggressive birds in your flock, some lower-ranking birds may try to hide from them.
“You may also see a lot of pacing or stress behaviors because they’re not really able to escape from them,” Blatchford says. “They’re doing their best to get away from them, but they can’t quite do it.”
There’s also a possibility that a bird is broody, and she wants to sit on eggs. If a hen has a chance to hide a nest, she usually will. You might notice that some of your birds disappear, then pop back up with some chicks in tow.
“That’s actually happened to me before,” Blatchford says. “A hen that I really liked disappeared. My flock was free-ranging and I’d had a hawk take some before. I just figured she must have been a casualty. About three weeks later, out she came with a couple of little chicks.”
Mean Mama Hens
Some hens love being a mom and will actually go around adopting the chicks from other hens. Blatchford says some breeds, such as Orpingtons, are known for being really good moms. Then, you have the opposite.
“Some hens are just bad moms,” he says. “Like most animals, birds that are new moms tend not to be as good at it. They’re learning and figuring out what they’re supposed to do.
“If it’s the bird’s first hatch, maybe even her second hatch, she may be meaner to the chicks because she doesn’t really know exactly what she’s doing. Hopefully, that gets better with time. However, some birds just aren’t good moms ever. I’m not exactly sure why some birds are a bit more aggressive with their chicks than others.”
It’s probably normal to see a hen give her chick a little peck here and there as a signal that whatever the chick is doing isn’t right. However, constant picking goes beyond wacky behavior and into bad behavior.
“Some birds will actually kill chicks,” Blatchford says. “It could also be stress in the flock. Stress makes chickens do really weird things, like us. If she’s under stress, she may be rerouting that stress into aggression toward her chicks.”
If the aggression and pecking look bad, Blatchford recommends taking the chicks away. You can rear the chicks the same way you would if you’d gotten them from a hatchery, and they’ll be just fine.
“This sounds horrible,” he says, “but they don’t need their mom. They’re precocial individuals. They can find food. You just have to show them where it is and then provide artificial heat for them. We can take the role of mom over if need be.”
The next time your bird acts strange, do some research and talk to experienced chicken tenders to see if it’s something concerning or if your bird is just being a chicken. As Blatchford likes to say, “We write books about them, but they don’t know how to read, so they never do what they’re supposed to do.”
Roosters Crow at Dawn, Right?
It’s not just hens that can show chicken behavior a person might consider wacky. The male of the species may appear more aloof but also do funny things. One of the most frequent questions Richard Blatchford, an extension assistant professor at the University of California, Davis, gets about roosters is why it’s crowing all day long or in the middle of the night.
“We’re conditioned to think roosters crow in the morning because we’ve seen movies and cartoons all our lives where the sun comes up and the rooster crows,” he says. “They do crow a lot in the morning because the air quality helps the acoustics, so their crow travels further at that time of day. However, crowing is actually a territorial behavior. Essentially, what’s happening is the birds crow to tell their neighbor that they’re still there and that they’re still holding their territory, so don’t come in and try to invade me.”
Anytime a rooster feels like their territory is getting threatened, they will typically crow. It’s one of the first low-intensity aggressive behaviors they do in that situation.
“It could be something like you’re in an urban area and a car goes by with a loud radio that they’re not used to,” Blatchford says. “That could trigger (him) to crow because there’s something different in the environment and so he’s alerting, ‘I’m here and this is my territory.’”
Crowing in the middle of the night can be attributed to several things. A predator could be sniffing around the coop. Exterior lights coming on or car headlights going by could also trigger a rooster to sound off. Anything that disturbs the male can cause a round of raucous crowing your neighbors might not appreciate, hence the typical rule in urban areas banning roosters.
Usually, something is cuing him or stimulating him to crow at weird hours. If it happens on a regular basis, there’s probably something in the environment disturbing him.
It’s just a matter of figuring out what’s making that disturbance. If you have the ability to stop it, the crowing should go away.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Chickens magazine.