Recently, I was casually scrolling through Amazon, like we all do, and came across this.
I’ve seen chicken swings in the past and even tried to make one once for my first group of hens. But at that time they were over a year old and more interested in searching for bugs than swinging from the trees. However, I now have two groups of young birds that I knew would enjoy this, so 1-click purchase it was and two days later they arrived. The birds I had in mind for this treat were:
the Wild Things, a flock of nine straight run (mixed sex) birds of Olive Egger and Ameraucana breeding about 15 weeks old,
and my baby Marans, a flock of eight straight run birds, 6 Black Copper Marans, one Splash Maran, and one Olive Egger about 11 weeks old.
Both of these groups are especially social, fun loving birds and I thought if any of my birds were going to take to the swing, it would be these. And I was not disappointed. Check this out!
This video was taken a day after I hung the swings up for them and every time I go out now someone is on the swing. This makes me ridiculously happy to watch them swinging and enjoying themselves. They all learned quickly to rock their weight back and forth to keep their momentum going.
Supplying animals with objects to satisfy behavioral drives is called environmental enrichment. You may have heard this term while at the zoo, aquarium, aviary, or even a dog kennel. It is a huge concern in situations where normally free animals are kept in captivity or are raised using conventional farming methods. This is a huge conversation that takes place frequently and we have seen major industry changes as a result of these conversations because, as two of my favorite people say, “when you know better, you do better.”
There are lots of drives that need to be satisfied: social, emotional, physical. These enrichment activities need to provide animals with positive experiences for expressing their innate behaviors. The more the animal has the opportunity to express their normal drives, the less stressful their environment and interactions (with us and others of their species) become. Driving by a coop on the really loud lawn mower isn’t such a big deal, if the birds have satisfied all of their other innate drives. However, if they don’t have physical, social or emotional outlets, then the small stress of the lawn mower, just became a life altering experience and the induction of long term stress. Stress, as we know, negatively affects EVERYTHING. A bird that is stressed won’t eat as much. Won’t drink as much. Uses excess energy overreacting to everything rather than conserving energy for a really important event like escaping a predator. And, the part that is really important to producers, they grow and perform poorly and have reduce immune responses to pathogens (El-Lethey et al., 2003; Kaiser et al., 2009; Hoerr, 2010).
These developing chicks need things to stimulate their innate drives, like getting up high to sleep. If you have ever observed a flock of free range chickens you will notice that around dusk, they take to the trees to roost for the night (check out the photo of the Wild Things I included earlier in this post, this photo was taken at their bedtime and they are roosting in the tree outside of their coop). This prevents predation by animals that hunt at night and chickens have special anatomy that allow them to hang on to that branch while asleep. So they can rest and be safe at the same time. We introduce roosts or perches early on in the chicks lives so they know how to use the perch.
I once raised a group of chicks without a perch and it took them months, once they were in a coop and not the brooder, to start roosting. Ever since then I put perches in every brooder so the chicks learn to use them early on. I risk going anthropomorphic (another topic for another day, you are spared for now) with this next thought, but follow me: Imagine how stressful that was for those birds. Everything inside them told them they needed to get up high, they didn’t know why (or were even able to consider why) but they weren’t able to follow through with that drive. Can you imagine being incredibly nervous, maybe not knowing why you’re nervous, and not being able to move? We all move a little when we are nervous. While I certainly didn’t do it intentionally, they had to have some level of internal confusion as to why they couldn’t do this thing that they knew they needed to do to survive. That led to stress. Safety is one of those primal, hind brain needs that must be met before anything else can happen, if it isn’t met, there isn’t much room in anyone’s brain for much else.
So why the swing? The simple answer is development. These are young birds and while the saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” should not be taken as strict truth, it is true that younger animals learn more quickly and more willingly than older ones. When animals are young we have the unique opportunity to show them what life is all about, set up how we want them to behave, and set boundaries for them. When we house chickens, we give them a variety of enrichment. The hens have a secluded, safe place to lay their eggs. The flooring or bedding we provide satisfies foraging and grooming needs (dust bath, anyone?). Similarly aged animals are housed together and new animals are not continually added to the established group to allow for good social interactions, consistent flock hierarchy, and play. Perches, at various heights, are added to coops for roosting. Daily turnout encourages foraging and grooming behaviors, as well as seeking behaviors, or exploring new things. Ask Derek, he’ll tell you my birds have no qualms about exploring the property and claiming things as their own. The swing adds a level of play. The benefits of including environmental enrichment in our chicken’s housing can affect all body systems. See below the list I put together while researching for this blog topic. If you want a really cool read, check out this review article from Poultry Science: https://doi.org/10.3382/ps/pey319. I mean, I think it’s cool.
When laying pullets were housed with environmental enrichment (pecking stones, pecking blocks, and lucerne bales) had less feather plucking and damage than those lacking environmental enrichment (Leibers et al., 2019).
Free range housing with straw as bedding improved brain plasticity in adult hens compared to those raised in conventional cages and small littered floor pens (Campbell et al., 2019).
Playing music with similar harmonies to that of nature improves auditory stimulation and development in chicks. Playing chicks sounds of a hen calling to her chicks improved feed conversion (how well the chick converted the feed it was eating into body mass) and body weight and reduced their stress response (Patzke et al., 2009).
A common issues with laying hens is poor skeletal integrity due to lack of movement in conventional caged housing and depletion of calcium through long duration of egg production (Whitehead and Fleming, 2000; Whitehead, 2004). Strengthening the skeletal system can be done with the use of perches (so long as the hen can navigate the perches safely (i.e. have been introduced to them from a young age)). Several people report improved bone strength and bone volume with the inclusion of perches. Perches also satisfy a behavioral drive of the bird (Hughes and Wilson, 1993; Barnett et al., 1997, Moinard et al., 1998, Weeks and Nicol, 2006). Perching behaviors begin as early as the second week of life in chicks (Kozak et al., 2016) and show that the earlier perches are introduced, the earlier those chicks will start using the perches for roosting at night (Heikkilä et al., 2006). This behavior then continues, with increasing height of the perches, as the bird ages (Kozak et al., 2016). The use of perches improves bone loading (stimulation of new bone cell development) and bone mineral content (Enneking et al., 2012). There may even be a benefit to using swinging or flexible perches to improve balance and coordination later in life (LeBlanc et al., 2016).
Hens housed in cages furnished with environmental enrichment compared to conventional cages had increased antibody production and higher innate immune responses when exposed to stress in the form of social remixing (adding new birds into an established flock; Matur et al., 2015).
While it is known that early handling reduces fear of handlers later in life, the type of housing that the chick is reared in affects how they handle fear in life. Those chicks raised in aviary type housing from 5 to 16 weeks of age exhibited reduced fear response at 21 weeks of age than those kept in conventional cages (Brantsæter et al., 2016a,b).
Pecking is a common behavior for chickens to partake in and in an environment where they are free range they spend a considerable amount of time pecking the ground for food. In indoor floor pens with litter, the amount of time spent pecking the ground for foraging is reduced. Foraging is such an important behavioral drive in chickens and can be improved with free range or different bedding types. With a reduction in pecking for foraging, this pecking behavior can be re-directed to other birds in the flock, damaging feather, causing injury and even mortality. As with perches, the earlier foraging can be introduced to the chicks the better. There are so many options to encourage appropriate pecking behavior if your chickens can’t be out to forage frequently enough, including hay bales, hanging CD’s, toy balls, pecking blocks, and my personal favorite (and soon to be tested!) musical instruments such as xylophones (Tahamtani et al., 2016b).
So here is what the Wild Things coop looks like, as my birds age, I find that they are less interested in some forms of enrichment so I remove them and give them more room for the things they want to do, mainly perch and forage.
They have a place to climb (which they use as a launch pad to get into their tree), a place to swing, plenty of area to forage, treats, and natural perches placed at different heights (Derek, the dogs, and I went on a perch hunting adventure a few weeks ago). Since they roost outside of their coop, they are uncontainable and free range all over the place all day long. Or maybe they are containable and I just don’t want to because when they see me all nine of them run to me like I am their long lost best friend. It’s really a toss-up, but they definitely free range all the time because one of those two things. Either way, because of all their environmental enrichment they are on their way to being very well developed, healthy birds!
J.L. Barnett, P.C. Glatz, E.A. Newman, G.M. Cronin Effects of modifying layer cages with perches on stress physiology, plumage, pecking and bone strength of hens. Aust. J. Exp. Agric., 37 (1997), pp. 523-529
M. Brantsæter, J. Nordgreen, T.B. Rodenburg, F.M. Tahamtani, A. Popova, A.M. Janczak Exposure to increased environmental complexity during rearing reduces fearfulness and increases use of three-dimensional space in laying hens (Gallus gallus domesticus). Front. Vet. Sci., 3 (2016), p. 14
M. Brantsæter, F.M. Tahamtani, R.O. Moe, T.B. Hansen, R. Orritt, C. Nicol, A.M. Janczak Rearing laying hens in aviaries reduces fearfulness following transfer to furnished cages. Front. Vet. Sci., 3 (2016), p. 13
H. El-Lethey, B. Huber-Eicher, T.W. Jungi Exploration of stress-induced immunosuppression in chickens reveals both stress-resistant and stress-susceptible antigen responses. Vet. Immunol. Immunopathol., 96 (2003), pp. 91-101
S.A. Enneking, H.W. Cheng, K.Y. Jefferson-Moore, M.E. Einstein, D.A. Rubin, P.Y. Hester Early access to perches in caged White Leghorn pullets. Poult. Sci., 91 (2012), pp. 2114-2120
M. Heikkilä, A. Wichman, S. Gunnarsson, A. Valros Development of perching behaviour in chicks reared in enriched environment. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., 99 (2006), pp. 145-156
F.J. Hoerr Clinical aspects of immunosuppression in poultry. Avian Dis., 54 (2010), pp. 2-15
B.O. Hughes, S. Wilson Comparison of bone volume and strength as measures of skeletal integrity in caged laying hens with access to perches. Res. Vet. Sci., 54 (1993), pp. 202-206
P. Kaiser, Z. Wu, L. Rothwell, M. Fife, M. Gibson, T.Y. Poh, A. Shini, W. Bryden, S. Shini Prospects for understanding immune-endocrine interactions in the chicken. Gen. Comp. Endocrinol., 163 (2009), pp. 83-91
M. Kozak, B. Tobalske, C. Martins, S. Bowley, H. Wuerbel, A. Harlander-Matauschek Use of space by domestic chicks housed in complex aviaries. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., 181 (2016), pp. 115-121
S. LeBlanc, B. Tobalske, M. Quinton, D. Springthorpe, B. Szkotnicki, H. Wuerbel, A. Harlander-Matauschek Physical health problems and environmental challenges influence balancing behaviour in laying hens. PLoS One, 11 (2016), p. e0153477
C.J. Leibers, A. Schwarzer, M. Erhard, P. Schmidt, and H. Louton The influence of environmental enrichment and stocking density on the plumage and health conditions of laying hen pullets. Poult. Sci., 98 (2019), pp 2474-2488, https://doi.org/10.3382/ps/pez024.
E. Matur, E. Eraslan, I. Akyazi, E. Ergul Ekiz, H. Eseceli, M. Keten, K. Metiner, D. Aktaran Bala The effect of furnished cages on the immune response of laying hens under social stress. Poult. Sci., 94 (2015), pp. 2853-2862
C. Moinard, J.P. Morisse, J.M. Faure Effect of cage area, cage height and perches on feather condition, bone breakage and mortality of laying hens. Br. Poult. Sci., 39 (1998), pp. 198-202
N. Patzke, S. Ocklenburg, F.J. van der Staay, O. Güntürkün, M. Manns Consequences of different housing conditions on brain morphology in laying hens. J. Chem. Neuroanat., 37 (2009), pp. 141-148
F.M. Tahamtani, M. Brantsæter, J. Nordgreen, E. Sandberg, T.B. Hansen, A. Nødtvedt, T.B. Rodenburg, R.O. Moe, A.M. Janczak Effects of litter provision during early rearing and environmental enrichment during the production phase on feather pecking and feather damage in laying hens. Poult. Sci., 95 (2016), pp. 2747-2756
C.A. Weeks, C.J. Nicol Behavioural needs, priorities and preferences of laying hens. Worlds Poult. Sci. J., 62 (2006), pp. 296-307
C.C. Whitehead Overview of bone biology in the egg-laying hen. Poult. Sci., 83 (2004), pp. 193-199
C.C. Whitehead, R.H. Fleming Osteoporosis in cage layers. Poult. Sci., 79 (2000), pp. 1033-1041