How To Keep Your Flock Happy (Let them act like birds!)
What? Keep your chickens happy? They are, after all, well... CHICKENS! Yes, yes; however you can make their lives happier and healthier by acknowledging a really important concept. That is, although they have been domesticated for about a gazillion years, and do OK inside small areas, they were once wild critters who roamed the jungles looking for food, keeping their young safe, protecting their flock, etcetera. Watching them over their life-cycles is fascinating and informative, and we come to realize that even the little-bitty chick you raised by hand has those innate wild survival skills. Who has seen a incubator-hatched, week-old chick start to scratch around in their bedding, looking for food? Or a young roo you've had since hatching, hold up a worm, croon to the ladies and drop it repeatedly so they'll come get the treat he is offering? Or a mama hen, normally your MOST docile sweetie, become a fierce velociraptor at the merest sign of (perceived) harm to her young chicks? This is all instinctive, and is a throw-back to their survival nature.
So, my friends, I offer up a few ideas on how to acknowledge the wild thing that lives inside your friendly, domestic flock, and keep them healthy and happy. This may help those just starting out with chickens to plan ahead, or give some experienced poultry keepers a few ideas.
Planning your coop: Chickens are amazingly tough, and do well in all but the cruelest weather. Make sure you plan for plenty of ventilation on several sides of your hen house! Circulating air prevents a lot of diseases and helps things dry out, and yes, is actually better than a totally snug, airtight coop, which should not be the goal.
Roaming: I know I am lucky to have a whole yard set aside for my assemblage of birds, but observation of friends’ flocks leads me to the firm conclusion that letting your birds out to scratch, find bugs, dust bathe, etc., is good for the chicken soul. City trick: Let them out a few days a week for just ½ hour before dark and they will stay close by and just spend a few minutes happily scratching around near their coop before heading back in to put themselves to bed. (Teach them to come when you call out “Treats, girls” or shake a rain stick, or a coffee can with treats inside. It’s very useful…trust me!)
If roaming is not an option at all, please make a nice sized pen for them in which to get their daily exercise, and remember chicken math is a reality, so if you think you will have three hens, make enough space for six!
Boredom & Treats: Besides feeding the proper chicken feed, which I won't address, you can relieve your flock's boredom at being (literally) cooped up, by tossing in left-over greens from those lettuce ends or cabbage ends you don't use in the kitchen. Get left over or over-ripe or otherwise unsalable pumpkins, squash, or melons from the markets and toss in a half to give them something to do in their pen. (I "glean" pumpkins after Halloween from neighbors!) Toss in the weeds you pull up from the garden (it quickly becomes compost in the chicken run, which can then go back in after a while to nurture your garden as fertilizer.)
I found an old wooden fish market box at the recycle center, put wheels on one end and a pull chain on the other end, planted greens in there, and voila! In about 4 weeks you have a "chicken garden" you can roll into their pen and your chickens will act like a cat does with catnip greens! Happy, Happy!
Don't Stress: Pecking order means pecking! Chickens cannot be put on timeout, in isolation, etc, just because you want them to get along. Just like us in our people world, they will get along either better or less well with certain individuals. If blood is drawn, use a cream or spray (never red!) or some such thing to provide antiseptic coverage and a deterrent (I like the tar stuff that comes in a glue-bottle container. Easy to apply!) If your chooks have enough to keep them busy, then pecking issues become much less of a problem.
*A note about roosters: I follow the advice someone told me: As 50% of the bird hatched are cockerels, there are a ton of them out there--too many to have a meanie one. Get rid of attack birds. Roosters have a job, so I don't try to befriend mine. As long as they are respectful of me, that is OK. Always walk in the coop being the lead bird. Think of this like dog training. You need to be the kind but firm leader.
I really believe, and anecdotal evidence from all my chicken friends seems to show, that whenever possible, letting our domestic chickens act like the wild foragers they are helps them to stay healthy and happy.