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Understanding Chicken Behavior (How To Read Chicken Body Language)

how to read chicken body language

Whenever I would goof up as a kid I remember my brother telling me “you’re as dumb as a chicken in a box sometimes.” The implication here is that chickens are stupid, simple creatures.

Many of us believe chickens are straight-forward animals with limited ability to think. They are quite different, we assume, from more “complex” animals such as dogs or monkeys. 

Well, recent research on chicken behaviors has revealed interesting new facts about chickens. These studies show that chickens are more complicated than we thought. 

Did you know that chickens have a complex family structure and can recognize up to 100 different animals? They can even recognize animals of different species. That means that your chickens recognize the difference between you, your daughter, and the person that does chores for your while you’re away on vacation. Amazing! 

Long story short, chickens are smart, and have reasons for doing what they do. By observing their behaviors, you can get a lot of information about their mood, health, and wellbeing. 

Keep reading to learn more about chicken behaviors and how to read chickens’ body language. 

What Does Happy Chicken Behavior Look Like

how to read chicken body language

Happy Body Language

Body language is a key behavior to observe to get a quick read on your chicken’s health and general wellbeing. Happy, healthy chickens are confident self-starters. They are alert and will strut around the yard with an upright, perky posture. They are curious, and actively look for something to do, be it socializing with other members of the flock, hunting for food, or taking a dust bath. 

A Happy Chicken Sings a Different Tune

While there may seem to be no rhyme or reason to the noises your chickens make, each different call serves a distinct purpose. According to journalist Robert Grillo, “Chickens have over 30 distinct vocalizations that communicate a wide range of information pertaining to territory, mating, nesting, distress, danger or fear, contentment and food discovery.”

Tapping into the calls your flock makes can give you great insight into their feelings and needs. Below are four common “happy noises” you might observe in your own flock. 

  1. Buck-Buck-Buck: This is generally a hen sound made before or after laying an egg. It is a happy sound that alerts other birds of a successful laying cycle and a potential new member of the family. 
  2. Purring: Chickens actually purr when they feel content. You will often hear the flock purring while they are dust bathing themselves in the yard. 
  3. Crowing: A happy rooster crows to show his supremacy in the coop and wake his flock. Usually there is a singing session directly following the first crow of the day. 
  4. Singing Together: Randomly it seems like all your chickens will start a pleasant cluck all at once. One will start, and the girls join right in, getting louder and louder together. This often happens when the chickens first wake up as a way to say “good morning” or “all is good.”

What Does Sad Chicken Behavior Look Like?

sad chicken body language and how to read it

Depressed Body Language

When your chickens are sad or not feeling well, they will exhibit more lethargic behaviors. Beware of the chicken that doesn’t look busy. There is probably something wrong. These chickens carry their head low, and don’t have the vibrant personality you see in healthy, happy chickens. 

They may be slow moving, and do not take care of themselves well. They could be dirty and have sparser feathering. The other chickens may sense that something is wrong, and prey on this chicken’s weakness, pecking at it and enforcing their dominance over the already pitiful bird. 

Overly Aggressive Behavior

In addition to lethargic behaviors, overly aggressive behaviors can also indicate that chickens feel stressed. In another article we learned that the chicken pecking order is natural and unavoidable, but overly aggressive chickens may be feeling more mean spirited than normal because of scarcity. 

To reduce chicken stress and aggression, make sure they have an abundance of everything: free access to food, water, sunlight, and space. When you reduce the need to compete for basic needs, chickens settle down and are kinder to each other. Click here for other potential solutions to your pecking order problems. 

Chickens Sing Sad Songs, Too

We’ve learned that chickens are capable of other more complex emotions than just happy and sad. They can also feel fear, alarm, possessiveness, and caution. They have their own ways of communicating these emotions to their flock and actively alert each other if something is not right. 

Hearing these sounds in your flock periodically is totally normal, but if you notice an uptick in these kinds of noises it means that your birds feel unsafe, stressed, or unhappy. You’ll want to figure out how to help them relax. 

  1. Kuh-kuh-kuh-kuh-KACK!  This is the predator alert. Chickens make this sound to let their flock mates know to take cover and protect themselves from incoming danger. 
  2. Startled Squawk: This means a chicken is suddenly hurt. Perhaps it was pecked, or got its foot stuck in the fence. If you hear this sound from a distance, go check on your chickens and make sure the injury is not serious. 
  3. A loud shriek: If this is made in conjunction with a chicken looking up at the sky, it means the chicken has spotted a predator in the air. All the chickens in the flock will dart for cover to avoid being scooped up from above! 
  4. Hiss: When chickens give a “hiss” it is a warning sound to get out of their way. Perhaps they want a bug that another chicken has or perhaps the chicken wants a path cleared for her. Whatever the case, this is a mean, territorial sound. If you hear it too much in your coop it could mean your birds are feeling stressed for space and resources. 

Final Thoughts

We barely scratched the surface of chicken behavior today, but armed with these basic tools you are already more prepared to read your chickens’ behaviors and body language. Use this as a tool to get your chickens what they need.
Once you develop the skill of behavioral observation, you’ll be amazed what your chickens are telling you! Watch this Youtube video and get inspired by how well some people can predict their flock’s needs just by observing body language and behaviors.

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