That’s the fate of my suburban chickens. And if you keep backyard chickens in the city or a suburban subdivision, lifetime confinement probably is a reality for your flock, too.
Many municipal ordinances and homeowners’ association rules prohibit free-ranging chickens. Even without such legal limitations, concerns about the neighbors’ dogs or other urban hazards may make it impractical or even dangerous to let your birds roam free. If free-ranging isn’t an option for your suburban chickens, an enclosed outdoor pen or run may be as good as it gets.
While many birds are perfectly happy in confinement, provided all of their basic needs for food, water, shelter, and protection from predators are met, life may get a little dull inside the chicken pen. Boredom may lead to bad behavior, like pecking, egg eating, or even cannibalism. Prevent this bad behavior by providing some diversions for your chickens.
How to entertain your suburban chickens
The good news is that it doesn’t take much to entertain chickens. Some of the best entertainment you can provide are your own daily interactions with your flock. And when you can’t be there, anything that promotes natural chicken behaviors like scratching, pecking, perching, and socializing with one another will do.
Chicken diversions need not cost you anything. Many chicken toys can be made using things you have on hand. If you try something and the chickens ignore it, try something else. In fact, it’s good to change things up in the pen from time to time for maximum entertainment value.
Here are a few ideas to make life more interesting for your suburban chickens.
1. Treat dispensers
It may not surprise you to learn that chickens love toys that dispense treats. A favorite toy of my chickens is a simple yellow ball with small holes at either end. I fill the ball with scratching grains and put it in the pen, and it becomes a game for the chickens to peck at it and kick it around the pen to release the scratch.
Or you can make a similar toy by poking holes in a clean plastic soda bottle, filling it with scratch, and replacing the cap.
Note: A toy that dispenses scratch is best used during periods of cooler weather because digesting scratch raises a chicken’s body temperature. I recommend removing your scratch dispenser toy on hot days to avoid putting extra stress on your chickens.
2. Fresh greens
Chickens love edible greens like lettuce, carrot tops, beet greens, and cabbage. By providing green treats, you not only are giving them something to do, you are giving them a nutritional boost that will benefit their egg production, flavor, and yolk color.
You can provide green treats in a variety of interesting ways. Place a pile of greens in the pen for the chickens to dig through. If the floor of the pen is muddy, place the greens in a hanging wire basket, suet feeder (make sure to first disinfect any feeder that has been exposed to wild birds), or this wire treat ball made especially for chickens (affiliate link):
We seem to expand our garden every year, using a sod cutter to take out more and more of the lawn. A couple years ago, I got the brilliant idea to lay the strips of sod in the chicken pen. Not only do the birds enjoy grazing on the grass, they love to dig for worms and grubs. (And they find plenty; we maintain a chemical-free lawn that sustains a huge population of earthworms.) After a week or so when the grass dies, I remove it from the pen to the compost pile.
Note: Do not give chickens grass or sod that has been treated with pesticide or fertilizer.
It’s been my observation that chickens hate piles. At least mine want to flatten any pile they see. So if you want to keep your chickens entertained for a while, simply give them a pile of something to level – wood chips, straw, or whatever you happen to use as litter in the pen. In fact, save yourself the work of spreading new litter. Dump it out in a big pile and let the chickens spread it for you.
Chickens love to jump up on things. Give them some places to perch at various heights – hay bales, logs, and old wooden ladders or sawhorses all make great perches.
Note: Avoid metal or plastic; it’s harder on the chickens’ feet.
For my chickens, I constructed a “jungle gym” in one corner of the pen using three sturdy tree branches. The younger chickens, especially, love to hop up and down between the different levels.
6. Large vegetables
If you have a vegetable garden, you probably have come across a cucumber or zucchini that you had missed until it was roughly the size of a baseball bat. No need to throw those overgrown vegetables on the compost pile. Simply cut them in half lengthwise and give them to the chickens. They love to pick out the seeds and flesh, leaving only a hollowed-out shell behind.
Overripe melons also are a big hit with chickens.
7. Dust baths
All girls like a spa day, my chickens included. A good dust bath not only provides entertainment for the chickens (and you, as you watch them roll around in it), it is important to the chickens’ overall well-being. Dust baths are how chickens clean themselves and stay parasite-free.
If left to its own devices, a chicken will make its own dust bath by a digging shallow hole in the dirt, and then lie in the hole and kick the loose dirt all over itself. Because my chicken pen has a concrete floor under all of that straw, there are no holes to be dug. So I made my girls a dust bath using a three gallon plastic pan feeder that I filled with sand, food-grade diatomaceous earth, organic potting soil, and fine wood shavings. I keep the dust bath under the coop so it stays nice and dry for them to bath whenever they want to, which is almost every day.
Items I used to make a dust bath (affiliate links):
Note: Use diatomaceous earth sparingly and mix it with the sand first (it’s best to wear a mask when doing so) to minimize inhalation of the fine dust particles, which can cause respiratory irritation to you and the chickens.
A dust bath also can be made using an old tire, children’s sandbox, or any other large, shallow receptacle.
8. Old jack-o-lanterns
Chickens are intrigued by anything new in the pen. After Halloween is over each year, I set the jack-o-lantern in the pen and watch with amusement as the chickens cautiously approach to check out the “new guy.”
The possibilities really are endless when it comes to entertaining your suburban chickens. Just make sure that you don’t provide anything that could be harmful to the birds. And if you use food as a diversion, ensure that the chickens first get their fill of layer feed for the proper nutritional balance and be mindful that you aren’t overfeeding them.
What are some of your favorite ways to entertain your chickens? Please share your ideas in the comments section below.