Learn from Watching Your Chickens

It’s good to watch your chickens and notice what they do. You can learn a lot more about them that way. And knowing them better will help you care for them better. It’ll also help you see how to integrate them into your farm more effectively.

This last summer, we were raising a group of Black Australorp chicks we’d hatched to use as replacements in our breeding flock. (Chickens don’t lay forever, so it’s good to have a plan to raise replacement layers, but that’s a separate topic.)

Each morning, as we’d let them out of their coop to free-range, they’d half-run, half-fly across the yard to where our compost heap and a producing fig tree was. We’d dumped a barrel of grain that was no longer fit for human consumption onto the compost heap. And it was loaded with soldier fly larvae and other bugs. Nearby, the fig tree had plenty of low hanging fruit plus dropped fruit.

The Australorps soon demolished every bug I could see in the compost pile, spent plenty of time scratching around for hidden bugs and cleaned up all the fruit they could reach from the fig. (It’s funny to watch birds this size jump to reach the lower figs up to about a foot-and-a-half from the ground.)

Once they’d foraged in this area and gotten their fill, they’d move out past the other end of our house to where they’d spend a good part of the day scratching around in the leaves to look for food — seeds, acorns, bugs. They’d take dust baths or rest in the shade during hotter parts of the day.

In the late afternoon, they’d venture out into the open lawn areas more. Over the course of several weeks and months, they’d venture farther and farther into the pasture. I assume this was because they had exhausted the nearby bug and seed food supply.

Things I learned

For one, it’s a reminder that chickens don’t stay in one place all day. They move around. And that’s a big part of how they stay healthy. I’ve never seen chickens that have a way to move around to fresh ground regularly have a problem with parasites. It’s a natural control. Parasites typically only become a problem if chickens are kept in one place or moved infrequently because that allows them to complete their reproductive cycle.

It’s not natural for a chicken to stay in one area all day, every day. Yet unfortunately, with most chicken “houses” that’s what’s done.

Second, it’s interesting to see how much they tend to stay in shaded and wooded areas when it’s hot. Once they’ve finished eating from more concentrated food sources (compost heap and fruit tree) they really seem to prefer the edge of wooded areas where there’s a lot of shade and leaf litter from fallen leaves. In thinking where to keep your chickens, edges of wooded areas are a good place as are orchards. Pastures are good too, but their preference for shade helps underscore the need for it when putting them on pasture.

Shade not only offers protection from the heat of the summer sun, but it is also a visual obstruction against aerial predators, such as hawks (which we certainly have around here).

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