Happy chickens are productive chickens. Keep your chickens active and amused with these suggestions for a chicken playground from author Liz Fulghum.
Chickens are happiest when they can cluck around during the day, free-ranging and foraging through mulch, leaves, and dirt for tasty bugs and seeds. But sometimes, to keep them safe or to keep your yard safe, you have to confine them to a run. Even when the run is large enough for the size of your flock, chickens can easily get bored once they’ve rummaged through everything on the ground and gobbled up any treats you have left for them.
Keeping your chickens entertained and their minds stimulated is just as important to their overall health and wellness as having a quality diet, access to fresh water, and a clean living space.
Bored chickens can exhibit the same aggressive behaviors as crowded chickens can, including bickering, pecking, and injuring each other. Chickens who spend most of their time confined to a run can also start to suffer from obesity. Lack of exercise combined with too many treats (such as corn or meal worms) can lead to health issues and even early death.
So, combat your chicken’s boredom and keep them trim and fit by making this your next weekend project: building a bird playground in your run!
Creating a chicken playground is an easy, inexpensive way to help keep your feathered friends active and entertained during the day. Chicken gyms don’t have to be complex or expensive, and you can use some or all of the ideas below depending on how much space you have available. Each one relies on easily found or built items. These ideas all take advantage of natural chicken behaviors, such as curiosity and exploration. And, as a bonus, you’ll have a chance to watch and photograph your birds’ antics as they get their daily workout.
A Chicken Jungle Gym
Chickens roost on a raised perch at night to avoid predators. But they also like to find things–tables, chairs, wheelbarrows, short fences– to hop up onto when out foraging and to get a better view of the world. Tap into this instinct and recreate the same experience inside their run by using branches, logs, and stumps to create perching areas at different heights that your chickens can explore.
If you have a full-height run, large branches can be installed diagonally or vertically from the top to the bottom. This allows you to use all that vertical space and actually make more room for your chickens that they can actively use. Just make sure some sturdy branches run horizontally so your chickens can perch on them. Smaller branches will fit in shorter runs and can sit horizontally and raised up if needed by attaching to the side of your run, or by placing on blocks.
Large cut tree stumps or logs are also a fantastic addition to your run, especially when you have several cut at different heights. Toss some treats on the top of each of the logs to encourage your chickens to explore all the various levels. You can also move them occasionally and flip them over to allow your chickens to forage all the insects that have taken shelter underneath them.
If you don’t have access to free logs and stumps from your own yard, talk to a local arborist, someone who sells firewood, or check your local Craiglist, Facebook Marketplace, or FreeCycle. You won’t have any trouble finding someone with some logs and branches they want to get rid of.
Make your chickens work for their treats. You already probably do this to some degree just by letting them root through fruit and vegetable scraps you’ve dumped in their run. But you can take it up a notch by hanging up your scraps. When your chickens peck at the treats, the hanger moves and they have to chase after it while it keeps swinging.
You can make a completely free treat hanger just by drilling a hole through a cabbage head and threading a thin rope or twine through it that’s long enough to hang from one of the logs or branches you put in their run. Check to make sure they aren’t eating the rope. If so, you might consider using a chain.
For something with a longer life that can be re-used multiple times with different treats, look for one of the treat dispensers that are available online or at your local farm stores. You can choose from lots of different designs. Some are cages that allow you to easily snap in scraps or a head of lettuce. Some are skewers that thread through your scraps. All of them can easily be hung from a hook in your run. When the chickens have finished all their scraps, just remove the hanger and keep it ready for next time.
Rolling Around in the Dust
If your run has the space, a dedicated dust bath area can be a fantastic addition for both play and health. Chickens use dust bathing to groom themselves, get rid of mites and other pests, and socialize. They can spend a long time enjoying a dust bath on a sunny day. It also happens to be good exercise.
When dust bathing, chickens create a shallow ditch in the ground and roll around in the loose dirt until it coats all their skin and feathers. Then they shake it out, dislodging any pests that may be hitchhiking around on them. They’ll repeat this process a number of times in between preening and stretching their wings.
There are dozens of articles out there about building the perfect dust bath for your chickens, from very simple designs to the Taj Mahal of baths. But fundamentally, a dust bath just needs to be a shallow basin that’s large enough to accommodate more than one chicken. You could use a small kiddie pool, a sandbox, or even a wooden box made from scrap. Fill it with a mix of loose dirt, sand, and peat moss, and then place it somewhere dry and sunny. Once your chickens discover it, it’ll likely become one of the most popular spots in your run! Plan to maintain your dust bath over time by keeping it clean and adding more material as your chickens use it up and kick it out of the container.
Chicken swings can be hit or miss. Younger chickens are more likely to take to them than older ones. Some chickens love them, while others want nothing to do with them. But if you’re looking for another item to add to your chicken playground, this is a fun, easy one.
You can buy pre-made swings, but they can be also be built from found objects: A simple swing seat can be made from a scrap board, a log that’s been cut in half, or even a good-sized branch. Make your base roughly 18 by 24 inches. Drill holes through your swing base, thread rope through, and knot below the seat. Hang your new swing 2 or 3 feet above the ground someplace where there’s plenty of room for movement.
Tips for Introducing Playground Activities to Your Chickens
Remember that chickens aren’t generally fans of change. Big changes, such as moving coops or adding new flock mates, can be enormous sources of stress, but even smaller changes, such as introducing new objects to their space, can ruffle a few feathers.
With that in mind, the best way to introduce new playground activities to your chickens is to choose just two or three and add them slowly to allow your flock time to adjust. It may take them several days before they try any of their new toys. Of course, because of chickens’ natural love for new and tasty food, any activities that involve treats will quickly become favorites. If you have a smaller run, you can also rotate old activities out and new ones in to keep things new and interesting. You’ll eventually find what your flock loves best.
A playground for your chickens may seem a little, well, extra, but at the end of the day, it’s about creating an enriching environment where your flock will thrive and be happy. Happier chickens are healthier, more productive layers, and overall have fewer social problems. It’s an incredibly easy, fun, and inexpensive way to spoil your birds. And that’s seems like a win-win for chickens and people.
Liz Fulghum is an entrepreneur and technologist who also has a passion for low-maintenance, productive gardening. Her urban backyard farmstead is an oasis from busy days and home to raised vegetable beds, fruit trees and shrubs, bees, and a small flock of chickens. You can follow her on Instagram @lizfulghum.