Monday, May 16, 2011

Boredom Buster

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by Jennifer Burcke

Chickens are a lot more like toddlers than I could have ever imagined. They like shiny objects and can be distracted by a meager peace offering of dry cereal. They like to play and sometimes even fight with each other. If left alone too long without something to keep them busy, they will invent something to keep themselves busy. Once that happens, they begin to act like a toddler playgroup meeting too close to nap time. It can be a little ugly.

I don't like for our heritage chickens to be unhappy. Yes, I realize that they are animals; I'm not falling prey to anthropomorphism here on our farm. But I am a firm believer that animals can be happy, which means that conversely, they can be unhappy. Why do I care so much about the happiness of our flock? Simple. When the chickens are unhappy, they lay fewer eggs. When the chickens lay fewer eggs, my whole family is unhappy.

It stands to reason that happy birds would be more likely to lay more eggs. I can't really blame them, so I do my best to keep them happy. I make them oatmeal on cold mornings in the hopes that it might warm them up and improve their day. I keep their coop incredibly clean and add fresh bedding more often than I probably need to. I don't mind. Every time I find myself adding straw to their nest boxes I simply picture beautiful brown eggs resting there. It seems like more than a fair trade to me.

No matter how hard I try to keep our flock happy, there's something that I can't do anything about, so I might as well admit it right now. The weather is beyond my control. I can't make winter end sooner or temper the humidity in August. I also can't do much about the fact that we're in the midst of a 10-day rainy stretch here at 1840 Farm. Well, I can complain about it, but I don't see how that will make me or our chickens feel any better about the unending succession of rainy days.

After I gave up trying to control the weather, I decided to take matters into my own hands. It was time for me to invent a way to keep our hens busy and happy even when the weather kept them confined inside their coop. I hoped to somehow keep them entertained while offering them a healthy treat. I looked on the Internet for something along those lines, but came up empty-handed. There were several seed blocks that I thought my chickens would enjoy eating. Unfortunately, they were not an option for our family. When someone in your family has an allergy to peanuts and tree nuts, the last thing you want in your chicken coop is a seed mix that includes all of them.

I kept looking, but realized rather quickly that I would be making my own version of a birdie boredom buster. An hour later, I was standing in the fastener aisle at the local hardware store. I didn't really know what I wanted or needed. In fact, I didn't exactly know where to begin, but I hoped that inspiration would strike. I moved up and down the aisle perusing the different options. Twice, I was asked by employees of the store if they could help me find something. I didn't quite know how to explain that my confusion was twofold. First, I was shopping in a hardware store for the components to build a toy for a flock of chickens. Second, I didn't even know what I was gathering the parts to make.

Thirty minutes later, I had constructed what I thought was a rudimentary idea and the parts I needed to assemble it. As my items were passed over the scanner, the friendly employee at the register inquired what I was making with such a motley assortment of fixings. I finally gave in and admitted that I was making "something" for our chickens. I fully expected him to raise an eyebrow in my direction and tell his co-workers during his next break about the crazy chicken lady and her purchase. Instead, he looked at me inquisitively and then I knew exactly what was about to happen.

He began asking me about our chickens. How long had we kept them? How many eggs did they lay each day? What kind of coop did we have? It was as if he had been waiting for a crazy chicken lady to appear at his register and field his questions. Lucky for him, I was just such a person and more than happy to share what I knew with him. I did my best to encourage him to become a chicken keeper. I left knowing that he would spend the rest of his shift thinking about our conversation and wondering just how to jump into chicken keeping with both feet.

I assembled the contraption in our farmhouse kitchen. It was really quite simple.  Now it was time for the real test. I cored two red apples and removed the seeds. My son slid them onto the bolt . We took the contraption out to our coop and hung it from the chain that usually holds one of our hanging feeders. Then we sat back and waited to see what happened.

It took our chickens a few minutes to figure out what was going on. They were unsure of this new shiny thing that held what smelled like an apple but moved like a boxer. Then their curiosity got the best of them and they started to peck at the apples. Each time they pecked at them, the apples swayed from side to side. Suddenly, all seven hens were gathered around taking their turn. The apples didn't stand a chance. Seven beaks made quick work of them within thirty minutes. Clearly I was going to have to bring out the bigger, tougher fruits and vegetables. These girls meant business.

I thought about what would make a better target for the hens and decided on a head of cabbage. I figured that the dangling leaves would only add to the fun of their pinata-like game. It didn't hurt that cabbage is both inexpensive to purchase and easy to keep with its extended shelf life. The cabbage was a little tougher to mount on the bolt than the apples had been. I ended up needing to encourage it onto the bolt with the assistance of a hammer, but once it had cleared the core, it was solidly mounted and ready for action.
The cabbage entertained our hens for more than six hours. All the while, my BirdCam 2.0 captured photos and videos of them and their antics. They took turns pecking at it. They foraged for the falling pieces of cabbage and even pretended to ignore the swinging vegetable before returning for another round. It was exactly what I had hoped for. They were happy. They were busy. They laid five eggs on a rainy, cloudy day. I was ready to call this contraption a success.

While I'm very happy with how my boredom buster worked, it's just not like me to say that it can't be improved. So, I'm planning another trip to the hardware store to see what adjustments I might be able to make. I'm sure that the store employees will again ask me if I need any help. I'll politely thank them and go back to my browsing until I find something to purchase.

When I bring my items to the cash register, I'll hope to be greeted by the same person who was there the last time. I'll ask him if he has made any progress toward his goal of becoming a chicken keeper. Then I'll tell him how to make a boredom buster. We live in New England, where the long winter leads directly into what we affectionately refer to as "mud season." If he's going to keep chickens here, he's going to need one.


To read more about the adventures of the chickens living at 1840 Farm, visit my blog or
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  1. My chickens are still chicks (four weeks old), but they love it when I toss live beetles or grasshoppers into their brooder. I suppose it's a little like throwing Christians to the lions, but somehow my sensitive soul is able to expend some insect life in this way.
    Also, tall stems of grass with seedheads will trigger a lively game of keepaway among them.

  2. I am new to your articles and I see something on the floor that does not look like straw. What is it you have on the floor? Is it expensive? etc.

  3. Jennifer you are on to something should market The Boredom Buster!!! I have to make one now when I get home from vacation.

  4. KittyKelley,

    I have found that my hens prefer a mix of pine shavings and hay. They love to eat some of the fresh hay just as Patricia mentioned above your comment. The pine does a good job of keeping the coop smelling clean and the hay gives them something to scratch around in and a soft place to nest.

    When we built the coop, we covered the wood floor with a piece of kitchen countertop laminate that we purchased at the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore. It was very inexpensive and helps to keep the wood from retaining moisture. It is also very easy for us to clean.

  5. Dottie,

    I'm so glad that you like the idea of The Boredom Buster! I hope that you enjoy your vacation and that you let me know how your version turns out. I'd love to hear if your chickens enjoy theirs as much as mine do.

  6. Lots of great ideas in this post. My 3 girls are only about 6 weeks old...I can't wait to try this with them

  7. I love the boredom should market it by all means! I'm making one. Thanks! I also LOVE the idea of putting laminate on the coop floor. We have a local Restore as well so I will be heading there to find some....they always have laminate flooring and such.

  8. I try to remember to give our birds a variety of fruits and veggies. Not only does it add to their diet but it keeps them from getting bored by eating the same thing every day.

    Corn on the cob is great for boredom. It's also cheap, but not as cheap as cabbage. They'll eat it right down to the nubs.

    They love cockroaches (ugh!), snails, and earthworms. When I find a roach in the feed bin, as I do on occasion, I just scoop it up with the food and pour it in the feeder. The girls love playing keep away with a bug. When we garden, we often toss some of our abundant worms towards the hens. They love the game.

    We put stumps in their run area so they can sit on them. There are shortened broomsticks screwed into some of the supporting beams in their area. This is great for a game of tag as well as feeding into their inherent desire to be up off the ground when napping. We have a variety of logs, dowels, shelves and stumps in their living area so they have choices for roosting or napping in the daytime.

    Hay is a treat. We use it on our run and in the overhang (an area the previous owners used to store a popup camper under but that is now part of the chickens' living quarters) to help keep the smell down, give them something to scratch and dig in, and to provide something different for them to eat. They like the flowers, assorted green stuff, and the occasional bug they find in it.

    Our coop floor is cement. This makes for way easy cleaning as it's sweep, shovel and scrape. The outside areas are part cement and part dirt. They get their need for grinding pebbles from the dirt and the cement, in strategic areas, makes cleaning a bit easier.

  9. Hey Jenn,

    I notice you seem to prefer Barred Plymouth Rocks (I used to raise the as a kid and I loved the breed...great layers and wonderful meat chickens too) but in one of your pics, is she a Brown Nix? I had those as well, but my fave was the BN and the Aracuanas....the green and 'blue' eggs were really cool!

    I too like your Boredom Buster but really wish you'd uploaded a LOT more video....I can't have chickens where I'm at (I'm gonna fix that little problem by selling my house and foolin!) and I do so miss them......sigh, city people (bureaucrats) are a serious bunch of dullards.

    I write for and am also a Blogger (Casper Christianity Examiner, Casper Public Policy Examiner, Casper Coffee Examiner, etc., and Confronting Islam and Sharia Law respectively) but still can't figure how to utilize You Tube vids as uploads......ah the vagaries of modern Net Tech!

    Thanks for a really great, I've heard that a reasonable amount of cedar shavings (not too many because of the toxicity issue) can help minimize the mite/flea problems in the Coop....what have you heard?

  10. Is it true that when chickens get bored, like during a long Michigan winter, not being able to go outside because of the snow, start picking at other chickens, eating feathers until some of them have no feathers on their butts and some on their legs. I am at standstill, and don't know what to do. thanks, Cindi

  11. Hey Trisha,

    You might consider getting a sample of your concrete checked out for content, as there can be a LOT of chemical additives (depending on the mix that was used) in the concrete itself, not to mention what was added to the mix prior to you owning the place....what the girls eat ends up in the eggs.....

    And if you or anyone else who has hens also drink coffee, save your grounds a week at a time and at the end of the week, pour the used coffee grounds around your flower or garden beds, tilling up the area before you begin the process: worms LOVE coffee grounds and man oh man do they ever get BIG.....we're talkin' Night Crawler size!!!

    Hens go AWOL over N.C.'s..........take care.

  12. Susan,

    Glad to hear you liked the post. I hope that you are able to find something at your local ReStore that will work in your coop. Please feel free to share your own Boredom Buster here or on our FaceBook page when you build it. I'd love to see what you put together and hear about your chickens using it.

  13. Trisha,

    I'll have to give the corn on the cob a try. We grow it in our garden here at 1840 Farm and I'll be happy to share a few ears with our girls this summer!

  14. Neanderthal75,

    It sounds like you have a lot of great chicken keeping memories. Here at 1840 Farm, we have Plymouth Barred Rocks, Golden Laced Wyandottes, Black Australorps, and Silver Laced Wyandottes. I promise to share more videos in upcoming posts! I'm glad to hear that you are enjoying the sights and sounds of our farm while you are living in the city!

  15. Cindi,

    I don't have any personal experience with the issue that you are facing. However, my fellow contributor Nancy Farrell has a post that just might answer your question. You can read it here Good luck!

  16. I have over 2 dozen hens, and last winter (which was way worse compared to this winter) the hens were inside almost constantly. When I did open the door, they didn't want to go out in the snow. They were very bored, and pecked each other to the point several were missing a lot of feathers and bleeding. I had heard something about chickens liking cabbage and hanging it as a "toy" and had always fed them scraps, so I pierced a cabbage and then "threaded" it on a left over bale rope and hung it from the ceiling. Two cabbages were gone over night! My husband wasn't happy when he realized how many cabbages were being bought and not being consumed by us, but it was better than cranky, bloody hens! Your bolt contraption looks much nicer, though! I'm so thankful for this mild winter, as they hardly had to be kept in at all!

  17. You sound like me! I'm always on a creative mission to keep our girls happy. I made them a pool put of an old cake pan and they love it. I also found they love to tear apart chunks of sod and it will keep them busy all day. When I dig a hole for plants I always give the hens the top soil with grass attached. They love it. I sometimes hang cooked spaghetti noodles on the wires at the top of the cage so they have to fly up and get them.

  18. Pardon me if I missed it, but how did you make the Boredom Buster? What hardware do I need? Thank you and a very Happy New Year!


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