With the increasing popularity of sustainable, organic, and cruelty-free food choices, farm-to-table dining, and locavore diets, raising chickens is one way to take control over your family’s food or earn income by supplying others. Raising chickens isn’t complicated, but there are some things you need to know in order to ensure you’re raising a happy, healthy flock.
Sleep is one important factor in your chickens’ happiness. The chickens in your coop are domesticated, but their instincts are rooted in the behaviors that helped them survive and thrive in the wild.
How much should chickens sleep? When happy, healthy, and left to their own devices, chickens will rise with the sun, be active through the daylight hours, and roost to sleep when the sun goes down.
It’s not uncommon to catch a hen taking a mid-day snooze, especially after feeding. However, it is important to pay attention to your chickens’ sleep patterns as they are good signs of the health and comfort of the flock. Sleep levels can indicate health problems that need your attention and they also have a significant influence on laying activity.
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Awake When the Rooster Crows
Chickens are social birds that do best in flocks. While it is possible to keep a single hen happy and healthy, most people keep at least two or three hens at a minimum. Not everybody who keeps chickens decides to keep a rooster. It’s common for flocks to be happy and healthy without one.
If you do decide to keep a rooster, you’ll quickly realize that while the majority of your flock are hens, it’s the rooster who gets all of the attention when it comes to sleeping habits—the flock’s and your own. That’s because their crowing is hard to miss, but it’s not a very reliable indicator of how things are going for your flock.
Because roosters and hens are so different, and because most people who keep chickens will be most concerned with the sleep habits of their hens, we’ll deal with the two separately and spend the majority of our time on hens.
You’ll quickly realize that most things having to do with the sleep habits of your flock make sense when you consider them in relation to their instincts and how those relate to the daily and seasonal patterns found in nature.
Even with that being said, sometimes things only make sense in hindsight – so we’ll go over the most common questions to help you be prepared.
The Big Picture
How much should a chicken sleep? It seems like a simple question with a simple answer, but like most simple questions there’s more to know about how much a chicken should sleep than “when it’s dark.” One way to get a handle on the big picture is to consider the question in relation to the “5 W’s.”
- Who: There are a couple of ‘who’ questions to answer. The first is pretty obvious – is the chicken a rooster or a hen? Their sleep patterns and habits are different, and it pays to know those differences. But there are also some breeds of chickens with sleep habits that are exceptions to the rules. For example, some breeds don’t like to roost and prefer to sleep on the ground or the floor – sometimes even in “piles” like puppies.
- What: What happens while chickens sleep? All animals need sleep to rest and recharge. Researchers have determined that, like humans, chickens go through phases of REM sleep, suggesting that they also dream. This would mean that sleep is not only important to chickens’ physical health but to their emotional well-being too.
- Where: Most chickens prefer to sleep roosted on the highest point available to them. This mirrors the behavior in nature that keeps them safest from predators while they are asleep and defenseless.
- When: Chickens will naturally regulate their sleeping-waking cycles to the amount of daylight. In parts of the world where days are longer in the summer and shorter in the winter, chickens will sleep less in the summer and more in the winter. It is also fairly common for birds that are very young or very old to take frequent naps during the day.
- Why: We’ve already noted that the reason why chickens sleep the way they do – and the amount they do – is due to their natural instincts. You might also wonder why, if you’re going to keep chickens, you should care how much they sleep. The short answer is that their sleep cycles have a direct effect on the number of eggs they lay.
Some Other Things to Consider
As with most things in nature, there are exceptions to every rule when it comes to chickens and their sleep habits. Knowing what these are can help you know the difference between a situation that is normal for your chickens and one that should have you concerned.
- Age: Peeps are like human babies, in that there is very little rhyme or reason to how and when they sleep. When caring for peeps, it’s important to look for signs of distress that indicate they are too hot or too cold, but if there are no signs of distress then don’t be alarmed if their sleep patterns are irregular. For mature chickens, it’s not uncommon to find them taking a nap during the day, and this shouldn’t cause you any alarm. The frequency of naps is higher for immature adult hens and for hens who are getting old.
- Size of Flock: When you think about chickens’ natural instincts, it just makes sense that they’re more likely to nap if there are other chickens around to keep an eye out for predators. You shouldn’t find the whole flock napping at the same time during the day, but expect to catch them taking turns at catching a few winks.
- Time of Year: As we’ll discuss below, you can extend a chicken’s day during the shorter days of winter using artificial light. At the same time, it’s worth noting that the artificial light might not be as effective as real sunlight at keeping chickens up and active. Don’t be surprised to find them roosting earlier during the winter, even if you use artificial light.
- Pests and Predators: It’s the rooster’s job to warn the flock when predators are near. That’s one reason why a rooster will crow in the night. But if your hens are making a ruckus during the night, that’s a good indication that pests are making them too uncomfortable to sleep or that there’s a predator around making them nervous.
What You Need to Know About Roosters
If you’re going to keep a rooster with your flock, you will need to decide if you are going to keep him inside the coop with the laying hens.
Doing so is necessary if you want fertilized eggs so that you can hatch your own peeps and increase the size of your flock. If you are hoping to avoid fertilized eggs, healthy hens will lay regardless of whether the rooster is kept inside the coop or not.
When kept inside the coop, the rooster should be given his own roost that is higher and sturdier than the chicken roost. This will not only maintain the “pecking order” of the flock but will also accommodate the rooster’s larger size and heavier weight.
Whether kept in the coop with the flock or kept separate, you’re going to know when your rooster awakens during the night. His crowing will make sure of that. Crowing at times other than dawn is normal for roosters and can be done for several reasons.
- Dawn is Approaching: Chickens’ eyes are more sensitive than human eyes. They can actually sense ultraviolet light. That means that your rooster can see that it is getting lighter before you can, which explains why some roosters start crowing an hour or more before the sun comes up. This actually has an important function for the flock. The rooster’s pre-dawn crowing helps to ward off night-time predators and begins to rouse the flock from its slumber.
- Artificial Lights: Is your chicken coop near a security light on a motion-sensor, or worse yet, close to a streetlight that remains on all night? Artificial light sources can confuse a rooster and lead to irregular crowing throughout the night.
- Threats: Remember, it’s the rooster’s job to keep his flock safe from predators and other threats. If your rooster is crowing throughout the night, he might be responding to a real threat, or something that he is mistaking for a threat.
- Personality: Roosters all have unique personalities. Crowing can be done to ward off threats, send messages, boast, or celebrate. Your rooster might be very vocal, or he might be the strong silent type. At the end of the day, the rooster might be the only one who knows why he’s crowing when he does.
What You Need to Know About Hens
As we mentioned previously, it’s much more common to find a coop with no roosters and all hens, than it is to find someone keeping roosters with no hens. Since almost everybody who keeps chickens is going to have hens, and most of those folks will have more than one – it’s important to know what to expect with regard to the flock’s daily routines.
We mentioned the “pecking order” in our discussion of roosters—and it’s important to know that it’s a real thing. The hens in your flock will establish a social hierarchy, and the hen at the top won’t answer to anybody but the rooster – if you have one.
If you’re raising hens because you want a plentiful supply of fresh eggs, then it’s important to make sure that the flock is happy and healthy. Setting up the coop so that everyone is cozy will not only prevent pests and give you clean eggs, it will also make sure that everyone gets plenty of quality sleep.
Creating an Ideal Environment for Your Chickens
The coop will be the most important part of your chickens’ habitat. It is also important to offer them some space to scratch, forage, and take dust baths, but the space where they roost and nest will do a lot to determine their well-being. So, what does a chicken coop need to have?
- Shelter: Your coop will need to protect the flock from wind, rain, and snow, so a roof with no leaks and walls that offer some insulation against cold temperatures are essential.
- Protection from Predators: Weasels, foxes, cats, dogs, hawks, owls —the list of predators that would love to make a meal of your hens is long. In addition to shelter from the elements, your coop should protect the flock from unwanted visitors in the middle of the night.
- Nesting Boxes: If you’re raising chickens because you want the eggs, then you definitely need to give your hens someplace to safely and comfortably lay.
- Roosting: The roost that you provide for your flock will be the most important part of the coop when it comes to making sure they get a good night’s rest.
With a few exceptions, chickens don’t feel comfortable sleeping on the ground or their nests. They prefer to roost together so that they can huddle for warmth and they typically like the highest point they can find.
Roosts should be a uniform height. Roosts of different heights will cause the chickens to compete for the best spot. Roosts should be wide enough for the chickens to sleep flat-footed. Chickens don’t like to clutch a perch when they sleep.
Roosts should not be above nesting boxes because chickens poop a lot while they sleep. Roosts should be positioned within the coop to make cleaning the coop as easy as possible.
It’s very important to keep the coop clean. If it smells so strongly of ammonia that you don’t enjoy being inside, just imagine how the chickens feel! Cleaning the coop will also help to prevent pests and parasites that will make your chickens uncomfortable or ill.
If you’ve set your flock up with a coop that covers all of these bases, whether you keep a rooster in the coop or not, and no matter how big or small the flock—you should have happy, healthy hens who provide you with a steady stream of fresh eggs.
As we said before, when that is the case, and the chickens are left to their own devices – hens will rise with the sun and go to bed when it gets dark. If that’s what you want them to do and it isn’t happening, then there are some troubleshooting tips that we’ll go over later.
But first, we should talk more about the use of artificial light to extend your flock’s day. Why would you want to? How should you do it if you decide to? Are there any downsides to doing it?
Using Artificial Light in Your Chicken Coop
You might be thinking to yourself: “Why do I even care how much my chickens sleep?” The most obvious answer is “eggs.” For chickens, winter is a time to rest and conserve energy—reproduction isn’t as high a priority. That means, when days get shorter and nights get longer, chickens sleep more and lay less.
If you consume all or most of the eggs that your flock lays, then a downturn in production at the onset of winter means fewer eggs will be supplied at exactly the time of year when homemade meals and holiday baking are likely to increase your demand.
If you’re farming eggs to sell them and supplement your income, then your business is going to slow down at exactly the time of year when your utility bills are going to go up, and holiday shopping is going to make a dent in your wallet.
Chickens need 14-15 hours of daylight every day to promote their highest levels of productivity in egg-laying. If you want them to be productive, and nature won’t supply the daylight, you can always use technology to supplement the amount of daylight you have.
Helping Mother Nature Out
If it takes 14-15 hours of daylight every day to keep your hens laying and you live in a part of the world that only gets eight or nine hours of daylight in December and January—you have two choices.
The first is to let nature take its course. Even during the darkest days of winter, a healthy flock won’t quit laying completely, but the rate will definitely be less when compared with what June and July got you used to. If you can ride out the winter months with fewer eggs, then you’ll know that spring and a return to higher productivity are just around the corner.
The other option is to use artificial light to turn those 8 and 9 hour days into 14 or 15 hour days. A single 12 watt light bulb on a timer will do the trick. Set the time to introduce a few hours of pre-dawn artificial light as the days grow shorter, and you should keep your flock on the laying pace that they were on all summer long.
Does It Hurt the Chickens?
There is a split among people who raise chickens when it comes to using artificial light. Some think that it is no problem to use artificial light to “trick” their chickens into laying at a relatively consistent rate all year long. Others argue against it – although their arguments seem to be ethical rather than medical.
The fact is that hens are born with all of the eggs that they’re ever going to lay. If you keep your hens producing at a higher rate through the winter, you’ll get to the end of their productive life earlier. If you let them ride out the winter on rest and relaxation, you’ll get the same number of eggs total, but the chicken will have a longer laying life.
With that being said, it is important to remember that chickens, like any animal, will burn more calories staying warm during the cold winter months. If you expect your hens to produce at summer rates, you need to do what you can to give them a warm, comfortable coop. You should also plan on feeding them additional calories to help them keep their energy and strength up.
Troubleshooting Chicken Sleep Issues
As we said earlier, if all the conditions are right for a happy, healthy flock, then a chicken sleeping too much, too little, or away from the roost can be a sign of a problem that you need to address.
If you’ve invested all of the time and effort that it takes to get your flock settled in and happily laying eggs for you, you won’t want to miss an early warning of a potential problem.
When the problem causing a change in your chickens’ sleep habits is a sign of a parasite, catching it early can make the problem easier to remedy. If the problem is a predator, you’ll want to shore up the coop – and maybe even go on the hunt – before you lose any of your feathered friends.
The following list of questions covers the most common issues we’ve encountered in relation to chickens’ sleep habits.
What if They Sleep in the Nesting Boxes?
This is one of the most common questions we run into. There are a number of potential causes ranging from “no big deal” to “serious.” Whether it is a single bird or the whole flock that refuses to roost, the underlying cause is typically pretty easy to identify, and the behavior easy to correct.
- Height: As we said earlier, chickens look for the highest roost they can find. If your nesting boxes are placed higher in the coop than the roost, the chickens will choose the nesting boxes every time.
- Mites: Sometimes, mites find places to hide-out during the day that keep them close to the roost. If sleeping on the roost means annoying pests, the chickens will sleep somewhere else to avoid them.
- Wrong Size: If the roost is too narrow or the wrong shape to be comfortable, the chickens won’t use it.
- Cleaning and Ventilation: Since the roost is where chickens sleep and chickens poop a lot when they sleep, their atmosphere over the roost might be worse than it is in other spots inside the coop. If the air is better in the nesting boxes, that’s where chickens will go.
- Injury: If a single bird won’t use the roost, it could be that they have injured their foot or feet.
- Age: Sometimes, it takes young chickens a while to get the hang of roosting. At the other end of the spectrum, sometimes older birds have trouble getting onto the roost.
- A Broody Hen: If you have a broody hen, she will refuse to leave her clutch of eggs except for the one time each day that she goes out to eat, drink, and relieve herself.
What if They Sleep on the Floor?
Some breeds, such as silkies, prefer to sleep on the ground or the floor of the coop. They may even sleep in a pile as puppies do.
What if They Don’t Sleep Enough?
So far as we know, there are no known cases of actual chicken insomnia. If it seems like your chickens are always awake, they’re probably just sleeping lightly enough that they hear you approaching and wake up because of it.
While it’s true that chickens will rise with the sun and sleep when it’s dark, they only actually need about eight hours of sleep each day to keep them healthy. If they’re getting more sleep than that, a lot of that sleep might be light dozing that leaves them alert enough to hear your approach.
What if They Sleep too Much?
There are a few reasons that a chicken could be – or at least, could appear to be – sleeping too much.
- A Broody Hen: If you have a broody hen, then she’ll always be on her clutch, and it won’t be uncommon to find that she appears to be dozing off.
- Coccidiosis: This is a very contagious parasitic disease that affects chickens. If one of your birds has it, it can quickly spread to the entire flock. Lethargy is one of the symptoms of Cocci. If you suspect one of your birds has it, separate them from the flock immediately while you evaluate the situation and try to nurse the bird back to health.
- Other Illnesses: If one of your chickens is lethargic or sleeping too much, there are a number of illnesses that could be affecting it.
- Old Age: As chickens age, they get tired, and like older people, they need more rest.
Calling It A Day
We told you that there was a lot more to know about chicken sleep than just saying that they sleep when it’s dark.
Hopefully, the information we’ve shared in this article will help you avoid any unnecessary anxiety over odd chicken behavior. At the same time, we hope the tips we’ve given you will help you spot any potential issues with your flock and identify solutions when you do.
Raising chickens isn’t just a great way to get fresh eggs. It can be a lot of fun too. When you keep chickens, it’s never nice to see a bird in distress. If you use the information we’ve provided, you should be able to enjoy spending time with a happy, healthy flock.