A Guide to Keeping Chickens in Confinement
When You Just Can't Freerange
Most of us get chickens with every intention of letting them free range. After all, isn't that sort of the point? To not only move away from our dependence on confined animal feeding operations on factory farms, but to produce a higher-quality product for our family that we would otherwise not be able to purchase? Unfortunately, for any variety of reasons, it may simply not be possible to let your flock free range. Neighbors are too close, predators are too numerous, or maybe you just can't convince your chickens to leave your flowerbeds or vegetable garden alone. Whatever the reason, it can be hard to see their little faces gathering at the gate, waiting to be let out in the morning, knowing that you have to say "no".
But if keeping your chickens confined has you feeling like the warden of a tiny chicken prison, take heart--confinement doesn't have to be incarceration. With a little creativity and some effort, you can turn their coop and run into a chicken playground that they will never want to leave.
Chickens Are Not People
It's natural to assume that chickens would want to be free, because that is what we would want. Freedom is very important to us as human beings, but the truth is, chickens are not people. Chickens are wonderfully intelligent, complex, and emotional creatures, but their wants, needs, and instinctive drives are going to be different from ours because they have evolved with different needs. The main reason chickens tend to be so eager to free range is not because they long for the abstract concept of freedom, but because it is usually easier to fulfill their needs outside of their coop and run. By providing enrichment opportunities that fulfill these drives in confinement, you can have happy chickens that are also protected from predators and accidental death.
To understand what really makes your chickens tick and be able to meet their enrichment needs in confinement, you have to place yourself in the mindset of a chicken. Remember that they are small, feathered prey animals that adapted to survive in the dangerous jungles of Southeast Asia. They are hardwired to search for food, socialize, and evade predators. Virtually all of the enrichment opportunities you can provide to your chickens will relate to one of these three drives, and once you understand their basic psychology, you will be able to utilize the tools available to you to keep them fulfilled.
Chicken Tractors and Grass: the Incomplete Equation
When faced with the prospect of having to keep our chickens confined, the first course of action we tend to pursue is to build a chicken tractor, which is a mobile coop that can be periodically moved to a fresh patch of ground. While chicken tractors are very useful from a dietary perspective, they don't do much to alleviate the boredom of being confined, and you will likely find that your chickens still want to escape their enclosure whenever given the opportunity. If you choose to utilize chicken tractors, understand that they will benefit your chickens as far as allowing them to forage for greens and insects, but on their own will not be enough to satisfy their enrichment needs.
Planning for Confinement
If you haven't built your chicken coop yet, now is the perfect time to start thinking about how to design it to keep your chickens occupied. You may not be planning on keeping your chickens confined, but it is always ideal to be prepared, and it certainly won't hurt anything to have a really appealing coop for them to come home to, even if they do free range.
Not only will ample vertical space make it easier for you to access, clean, and modify your coop, it will give you more options for placing enrichment opportunities. Multiple levels to explore, networks of roosts, and even chicken swings are all good ideas for utilizing vertical space. If you haven't built your coop yet, plan for it to be tall enough for you to walk into easily. This will make life vastly easier on you, and happier for your chickens.
Create a "Maze"
The most successful confinement coops I have build for my birds have utilized a maze-like configuration where the chickens have to plan how they are going to journey from one area to another. In most coops, the space is one big open box, and there is no challenge to walk from the door to the roost, or from the roost to the nesting box. By creating a variety of paths and obstacles for the chickens, you make their world more interesting and varied. Just make sure that every nook and cranny of your chicken "maze" is easily accessible for cleaning, retrieving birds, or repairs and modifications.
Some ways you can create a "Maze" for your chickens is to create obstacles that force them to climb, go around, or go under barriers in order to get to specific parts of the coop, like to get outside, or to get to their feed. It doesn't have to be too complex--just something that prevents them from mindlessly walking from point A to point B.
Break Up the Visual Space
Much to the same tune of the chicken maze, you should break up the visual space of your coop and run. Imagine what it would be like to live in a big empty house with no rooms and very little furniture, and you can start to imagine what it is like for chickens in most chicken coops. On the other hand, put in some walls, furniture, and architectural elements, and your home will be vastly more comfortable. You can accomplish this by building your coop in a non-standard shape, such as a with wrap-around run or in an L-shape. If you already have a standard "box shaped" coop and run, you can break up the space within it by building walls and using "chicken furniture" such as logs and other items. Your goal is to prevent your chickens from having an unbroken line of sight from one end of the space to the other.
Don't forget sunlight
The most successful confinement coop I have implemented actually has no access at all to the outdoors, but is open to the fresh air on three sides and has a long bank of windows on one wall. This allows ample sunshine to enter the coop, and prevents chickens from feeling claustrophobic. It has worked so well that more than once I have had to remove otherwise wild or feral chickens from it, because they darted in while I was cleaning or feeding the birds there and then refused to leave. If you must keep your chickens confined completely in a coop (as is sometimes necessary), make sure it has windows. The sunlight and fresh air that enters through windows will vastly improve their quality of life and make it easier for human caregivers as well.
Modifying an Existing Coop for Confinement
If you have already built your coop and run or are retrofitting an existing structure, it can be more challenging to implement design plans that would make enrichment opportunities possible. However, with a little creativity and effort, almost any space can be turned into a chicken playground that will keep them busy and fulfilled all day long.
Working with a prefab coop
Prefabricated coops tend to be small, cramped, and poorly designed. If you already have one and don't have the means to purchase or build a better one, your best option is to build an extended run off of--or even enclosing--the prefab coop. This way, you can provide your chickens with the space they need to exercise and utilize enrichment objects. Make sure the extended run is tall enough for you to enter comfortably, as you will need to do so regularly to adjust their enrichment objects, clean the space, or to retrieve birds and eggs.
Working with a garage, shed, or other existing structure
When modifying an existing structure, make sure there is ample natural light and ventilation inside the coop area. If there are no windows, add them, as the fresh air and sunlight are crucial for happy, healthy chickens. Access to the outdoors is not critical, but they will require dirt to dust bathe in to maintain their health and hygiene.
Working with a large coop and/or run
If your property already has an amply-sized coop and run, then it will require very little modification to make it suitable for confinement chicken keeping. Cut windows in the coop if there are none, and break up the visual space of the run with barriers and "chicken furniture". Utilize the vertical space with networks of roosts and perches for them to navigate.
Meeting the Hygiene Needs of Your Flock
Whether you keep your chickens exclusively in a coop or offer them a run, they will need access to dry soil to dust bathe in. If you live in a particularly wet climate, you will want to provide a sheltered basin of soil and wood ash to meet this need. Otherwise, access to any exposed dirt will suffice. The chickens will hollow out "wallows" that they will use to dust bathe in, and dustbathing will often be a social event that multiple birds participate in together. Allowing them to engage in this natural, healthy behavior will not only make them happier, but will help prevent infestation of external parasites.
Although many people will swear by the virtues of Diatomaceous Earth (DE), proceed with care. DE is valued as a natural deterrent to pests like mites and lice, but it does not discriminate between the harmful bugs you want to kill, and the beneficial creatures you want to keep around, like bees and composting organisms. In addition, the microscopic shards that are so deadly to small insects are likewise harmful to birds' sensitive respiratory systems. Better to utilize wood ash if you have the option than to take the risks involved with DE.
Meeting the Physical Exercise Needs of Your Flock
In a freerange situation, the chickens would roam great distances in search of food. It can be difficult for chickens to burn off this energy in confinement, so it is important to give them opportunities to do so through enrichment objects.
Networks of roosts
Constructing a network of roosts, perhaps leading to a treat-holder or other incentive will give chickens an opportunity to exercise their legs and wings, as well as forcing them to think about the path they will take from one point to another. Roosts can be constructed using normal tree branches that are either affixed to a wire frame or wedged into the available wire of their existing run. Make sure whatever you construct is steady enough not to fall from their placement and potentially injure or kill your chickens. Securing branches with zip or cable ties is usually sufficient, but also make sure the sticks you are using are strong enough to support the weight of your chickens.
For whatever reason, chickens love climbing on wood piles. Logs, stumps, tree branches, etc can be piled in various configurations for them to climb on, roost on, and explore. Hollow logs make a great opportunity to hide treats, and logs can periodically be turned over to reveal tasty bugs underneath--much to your chickens' delight!
As with the branches used as roosts, make sure none of the logs or branches could tip over on top of a chicken and cause them injury.
Tubes, tunnels, shelves, and nooks
As I've mentioned before, breaking up the visual space helps stimulate your chickens' thought process, but by adding things like empty barrels, shelves. platforms, or even tunnels inside the run, you give them something to explore. Hiding treats in this network of hidey-holes will encourage them to forage and hunt within the provided spaces--just check them regularly for eggs, since some hens will find them to be an irresistible temptation for a nesting site.
Periodically move the objects around to create new spaces for exploring and keep things interesting.
Otherwise referred to as "chunnels", chicken tunnels are small, miniature runs that extend out into the yard, allowing chickens to explore and navigate your property without completely having free reign. This is very useful in a garden or other situation where you want to keep insects down, but don't want the chickens damaging the garden themselves. Chicken tunnels can be arranged to circumvent the garden, preventing weeds and pests from easily entering your domain, or can be designed to go over garden beds when needed to help you clean the plot for new plants.
Meeting the Foraging Needs of Your Flock
In nature, chickens would have to find their own food, and for many breeds, this instinct is so strong that they will dump their food onto the floor to make it more challenging to eat rather than just eat it out of the feeder. To help give them an outlet for this energy, there are several things you can do to fulfill their instinct to forage.
At night, after your chickens have gone to bed, go around the coop and run hiding treats. Pieces of bread, vegetables, dried mealworms, or scratch grains all make excellent goodies for your chickens to seek out. Hide them inside of hollow logs, cinder blocks, or other nooks and crannies--just don't put them in the nesting boxes. You don't want to encourage chickens scratching in the boxes and kicking eggs out!
An alternative to hiding treats is to suspend them from the ceiling or supports of the run. A head of cabbage or lettuce makes fine "Chicken tetherball", while suet holders are perfect for tucking greens, fruits, and veggies. Combine hanging treats with the network of roosts mentioned earlier for double the fun. Chickens love a puzzle!
Chickens love to scratch and dig, and if you don't give them an outlet for this, they will dump their feed on the ground to eat it rather than keeping it in the feeder. You could retaliate by installing spill-proof feeders, but this won't do much to quell their instinct or relieve the pent-up energy. Build a basin or bin in your coop that you can fill with loose dirt, grass clippings, leaves, pine shavings, or other material, and scatter scratch grains in it for the chickens to dig for. Inside the coop, scattering scratch grains in the bedding material will encourage the chickens to dig through it. This turns the bedding over, allowing it to air out and extending its usefulness, making less work for you with fewer coop cleanups.
Install cone-shaped wire baskets around your coop and fill them with grass, dandelion greens, clover, and other green goodies to simulate the foraging experience for your chickens.
Using boards, logs, cinderblocks, tires, or whatever else you have handy, block off an area of the chicken run and cover it with chicken wire. Plant tasty greens like lettuce, spinach, turnips, clover, or anything else your chickens like to eat. As the plants grow within reach, your chickens will be able to nip them off through the wire, but they won't be able to scratch them up and leave the earth bare.
More ways to make your chickens happy
In addition to all of the practical things you can do to keep your chickens busy, you can also utilize aesthetic elements to make their space more visually stimulating. Chickens can see in color, and are sensitive to movement. Having brightly-colored flower pots, shiny mirrors, or spinning pinwheels in or around their run will give them something visually to figure out. In nature, chickens would investigate new sights to be sure that they are not being stalked by a predator, so these objects help satisfy that instinct. It may seem counter-intuitive to install items that will startle or concern your chickens, but in moderation, this can actually help them stay alert and sharp, particularly if you plan on letting them free-range again at some point in the future.
If you are concerned about startling or alarming your chickens, simply forgo any moving objects like the pinwheels. Utilizing bright colors and shiny surfaces should be sufficient.
Make Some Music
Increasingly, chicken owners are giving their birds access to musical instruments like xylophones, toy pianos, and other noise makers. While interest in these objects will vary by individual, some chickens seem genuinely enthralled by the ability to make beautiful noises.
We are always learning
If you have a unique way to keep your chickens busy that wasn't mentioned here, please feel free to share it in the comments. We are always learning new ways to keep our chickens interested and engaged in their environment, and value your input!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.