Today I will be answering a question from one of our readers:
Q: “I have four chickens and for some reason one of them did not return to the coop tonight, and I found her under the porch. I picked her up and brought her back to the coop. In the past this has never happened. I just found it strange that she didn’t go back on her own and was wondering if there were any theories as to why?” — Maureen Underwood, Hiram, Maine
A: Maureen, I want to thank you for your great question! I have had this happen to me at different times throughout the 15 years I’ve been raising chickens, and it’s happened for all different reasons. We may never know why your little girl decided to set up camp under the porch, but here are some theories.
There could be any number of factors to explain her wayward choice: breed type, broodiness, territory issues, shock, or just circumstances paired with lack of sight at night. One common thread that I’ve experienced is that we tend to “loose” chickens overnight when we have a smaller flock. To understand why your chicken might have spent the night under the porch, it’s important to look at some different aspects of the flock dynamic and socialization. This may be one of the keys to your mystery.
Chickens are social creatures. They are constantly communicating with each other through verbal clucks, growls and all manner of mixed, cacophonous banter. If you’re around chickens enough, you will even learn what some of these sounds mean. When one of our roosters finds a “special” scrap of food, he will do a sideways dance and make a series of short “chook, chook, chook” sounds, and the girls come a-running! When a hawks fly over, everyone’s eyes turn toward the sky, and each of them make a loud “whooooing” growl, a noise so eerie that it would rival some of the dinosaur noises from Jurassic Park. If you’re good, you can sometimes “talk” to your chickens and they’ll react to your sounds much like they would each other. The reason I mention this is that with a small, free range flock, there sometimes aren’t enough members to keep the flock verbally organized. In a small flock, there is less social interaction, less noise and the flock can spread out further without “bumping into a friend.” The answer may be as simple as she wandered off and couldn’t find or hear the rest of the flock.
Roosters, though they can be annoying, play a key role in keeping the flock organized as well. Some flocks seem to need leaders more than others. At different times we’ve had a flock of all females, and many times one will elect itself “rooster.” We had a female Polish that turned so “rooster-like” that she tried to mate with some of the other females. As soon as we introduced two cockerels to the flock, she gave up her rooster role and even went broody a year later.
Each of our roosters has a distinct call. There are theories as to why roosters crow, and one of the more popular ones is that they crow to call other females to join the flock, and to round the harem. Chickens are woodland grazers by nature. When left to free range they scratch and wander all day, beak to the ground, pecking at this and that. I have watched one of our chickens wander off into the woods, then, all of a sudden, she realizes she’s not near the rest of the flock. She’ll panic and start a series of calls. It’s usually a loud “squawk” followed by rapid “clucking.” When the other chickens answer her, she’ll run frantically towards them. Our roosters seem to get especially upset by this type of squawking and will sometimes run to meet her halfway. They will “herd” her by doing this little circle dance with one wing down and cluck at her as if she’s being reprimanded. Many times he will let out a good crow as if to celebrate. Again, your hen simply could have lost touch with the other three hens.
As our flock has increased in numbers, there is more of a chance of a buddy system. Someone is more likely to follow the wanderer, and between the two of them, they figure out that it’s time to go back to the coop. If your hen was separated, she may have not realized that it was time to return home before dusk settled in. Chickens also can’t see well at night. They have much stronger cones than rods in their eyes. The cones help them to see a broad spectrum of colors, and there’s even been scientific studies that say that chickens have the ability to see ultraviolet light. However, rods help the eye to see at night, and because rods are not as developed in chicken eyes, a chicken is all but blind in the dark. When the sun starts to set the chickens will instinctively head for the coop. If a chicken is caught in the dark, its natural reaction is to stay put and lie down. We like to do hands-on work with our chickens after dark for this reason. Once the sun goes down, we use a flashlight, pick up each chicken easily, carry them to the barn in the light, do what we gotta do (deworm, check vents, etc.), and return them to their roost. There’s a good chance that if your hen was too far away from the coop, she may have had a difficult time seeing and found the closest safe place to sleep for the night: under your porch.
Araucanas and Polishes tend to be loners. If anyone in our flock is going to wander off, chances are, it will be one of those breeds. We also have a Cuckoo Maran that was given to us as an adult bird. When we first adopted her, she slept with the rest of the chickens, and followed them everywhere. As she became more comfortable with her surroundings (or maybe uncomfortable?), she decided she liked sleeping in the barn with the goats. She also prefers to lay her eggs in the bales of hay that we keep in the barn, rather than the egg boxes in the coop.
Your hen also may have been hiding from a predator. One day a neighbor’s dog came into our yard and chased the chickens around. No one was hurt, but the flock was separated and they went into hiding. Each chicken was chased into a different part of the woods and stayed there until my husband and I found them. They wouldn’t move, it was as if they were stunned. In fact, I thought the first one we found was dead. Once we picked them up and looked them over, it was as if they came back to life. We found all but one. We thought she was a gonner, but the next morning, I found her under the bushes. Just laying there, waiting. It was as if she needed someone to tell her it was OK to come out. Something may have come into the yard, without your knowing, or a hawk or owl may have flown over and spooked her under the porch.
Another answer might be that she’s getting ready to set up a nest. While chickens are social creatures, when they get broody, sometimes they like to be left alone. Some of our chickens are very territorial over certain egg boxes. We had an Araucana that was collecting eggs to go broody. She and one of our Rhode Island Reds kept going around and around this one box. The Araucana would go in to lay her egg, and the Rhode Island Red would shove her out. One night our Araucana didn’t come back to the coop. We couldn’t find her for days, we thought something had snatched her. Then one morning she was back at the coop door trying to get in. We were very glad to see her again. Shortly after, I was mowing the lawn and I found a trail of broken blue egg shells leading under our pine tree. I separated the branches and found a perfect little nest with broken blue eggs. She must have had her eggs under there and something found them and ate them. This must have broke her broodiness, and she came back to join the flock.
If it’s a one time thing, chances are your hen may have been spooked, or simply distracted. If it’s an ongoing thing, it might be that she’s not getting along with another chicken, or she’s going broody. The good thing is that if she’s picked under the porch, chances are that’s where you’ll find her each night until she gets over it. Once chickens choose a spot, they tend to stick with it. Some things to try: Take the food away between feedings. Try to get her back in the coop before she settles in for the night, and then feed your chickens. Call them using the same words and tone of voice when you do. I’ve done this with my chickens, and it’s a good way to get your chickens to come anytime. I say “here girls” and shake their food in their scoop and they come running. You may have to do this for a few nights for her to get back in the swing of things. Try to keep her away from her “spot” and check under the porch often for eggs. If she’s laying, collect the eggs and sooner or later she should get over it.
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