Why is it that chickens are the butt of so many jokes? Seriously though, they’re some of the most social creatures and love to play. But there is more to them than meets the eye when it comes to why they act the way they do, if they really have feelings, and even how to care for them.
Is it okay to have just one chicken? Pet owners sometimes have only one chicken, and while that may work well for humans, chickens naturally prefer to belong to a group – usually three or more chickens. Like us, they crave companionship, and as a result, may suffer from loneliness if they’re left alone.
Did you know that in 2004, chickens were the first bird to have their DNA sequenced? In this post, we’ll explore the chicken mentality, how to introduce new ones into the coop, and briefly touch on ways to protect them from disease and predators. Also, just for fun, we’ll throw in some cool “Did you know” chicken facts from Peta UK.
Is It Okay to Have Just One Chicken?
If you do have just one chicken, you should keep it in the house so it can interact with its adopted family. Also, find interesting things to keep them busy and toys for them to play with. For example, you can build a chicken tractor or buy a small ball for her to chase, even hang apples for him to peck.
Also, if you’re going to have a solo chicken, it’s best to get a hen as they tend to be more docile, and are not only quieter, but adapt more readily.
However, pullets tend to thrive more in a flock of fellow chickens. A chicken living a solitary existence will not flourish. Hence, if you can keep more than one chicken – they need partners, and you might enjoy another pet.
Did you know? Chickens are really social. They have a strict hierarchy and a “pecking order” as to who rules the yard. And they recognize human faces – especially the one who feeds them.
The Group Mentality of Chickens
In a group, the flock takes on assigned roles and meets each other physical and emotional needs. They dust-bathe together, sun together, and roost together. Pullets also like to eat, roam, and fuss together, and in time, many develop close relationships.
They also lay eggs together and raise their babies as a community, making for many a proverbial mother hen. Hens are even affected by each other’s behavior, and as soon as one starts laying eggs, the others begin doing the same. They may prefer privacy when sitting on eggs, but that’s the exception.
And, yes, they do have feelings, especially when a mother hen loses chicks. They have been known to call for their babies for days at a time and even try to take the chicks of other hens.
Did you know? Chickens are known to have pain receptors that enable them to feel pain and distress.
The Pecking Order of Things in the Yard
Chickens are also very complex creatures, as can be seen in how they interact with each other. Even their pecking order and how they determine social standing shows how intelligent they are and how much they need others around.
For example, if a lower-status chicken were ever to get out of line or forget their place, other higher-ranking ones would waste no time in reminding them where they belong. It’s because of this social standing that we know they seek to belong to something.
Did you know? Chickens have their own unique language and make over 20 different vocalizations.
What the Experts Say about Having Just One Chicken
Many experts believe it okay for a pet owner to have one chicken but not healthy for the chicken.
“Chickens’ emotional needs are met by relationships with other chickens, not by the relationships with chicken keepers,” says Rachel Hurd Anger of Hobby Farms.
Kassandra Smith of Backyard Chicken Coops agrees. “It’s recommended that if you want to keep chickens as family pets, that you have at least two, rather than having one lone chicken.”
Did you know? Chickens love to play and can spend a good part of their day running and jousting each other.
Do Chickens Get Lonely?
Without the social structure that a flock brings, chickens are prone to loneliness, which causes stress, affects their egg-laying ability, and can shorten their lifespan. Even when other chickens die, many farmers and pet owners believe they mourn.
According to Patrick of Scrumptious Silkies, he lost a hen to a predator, and she “was part of a clutch of only two.” The remaining hen not only looked for her companion in all their favorite spots, but she “often let out very sad sounds that [were] unmistakable for several days.”
He said when his rooster was lonely, it didn’t eat, wasn’t as active, and even withdrew from the flock. “I don’t know if they feel sadness, but they do seem to grieve the loss of a close companion.” Lonely chickens even tend to stand alone and eat less.
How can you tell a happy camper? Apart from laying eggs, the classic happy chicken is one that’s active, running around scratching in the grass, or laying out in the sun, and teasing each other. “They are capable of a range of emotions,” Patrick concludes, “they are communal and prefer to live in groups.”
Did you know? Hens “talk” or cluck to their chicks before they hatch. As the chicks grow inside the egg, they begin to respond, creating a bond even before birth.
What to Do When You Only Have One Chicken Left
Having just one chicken may be enough for you, and getting more might not be such an easy decision. How much space you have, what’s the primary reason you’re keeping chickens (as pets or egg production), and how often will they be allowed to roam around freely, are all questions that will determine how many chickens you should have.
Introducing New Chickens into the Mix
If you’ve added new pullets and roosters into your backyard before, then you know what to do. However, if it’s been too long or it’s your first time – adding new chickens to a situation can be a stressful and tedious process for all involved, including you.
As lovely as it is to have chickens and even the free egg gifts they bring, chickens can be territorial, aggressive, and vicious. They’ve been known to literally peck another chicken to death. And don’t let them see blood or wounds; it riles them up.
Did you know? The average chicken can live in your backyard for more than seven years if secured and well-taken care of.
- Quarantine new chickens first. Adults are more prone to disease than chicks, and if it’s infected, you want to know as soon as possible. Look for signs of mites, lice, fluid coming from their eyes, and scaly spots on their legs. The last thing you want is to infect the entire brood.
- While isolated, feed them supplements and minerals to boost their immune system. Underweight and weak chickens are susceptible to attack. They should be held separately for seven to 31 days. Also, be sure to thoroughly wash your hands and change clothing when tending to them just in case.
- Slow and smooth when introducing chickens. The worst thing you can do is put a new chicken in the existing flock too soon. It’s best to let the flock “see” the new one (but not touch them) for at least a week before they officially meet each other. Even placing them next to each other in different pens will yield better results.
- When the big day arrives. Let the new chickens out first to freely move around and then slowly let the existing coop join in. If they’re in a pen versus free-range, do the reverse. Put the new ones in first and then the flock. There will be some jostling at first – with the pecking order and all, but this is normal.
- If more trouble (than usual) ensues, remove them and try again the next day (for a few minutes). Repeat the process daily until the squabbling ceases. Who knew they’d be like toddlers, right? It will take 5-6 weeks to get them fully integrated into your backyard family.
Size Matters When It Comes to the Flock
Size matters in every aspect with chickens. It would help if you only incorporated new birds of similar size to an existing flock. Even placing certain bird species that are more mellow will work better than doing so with small, similar breeds.
As for chicks, if you’re introducing a new one from the outside, only do so when they’re big enough and can defend themselves. A few breeds are also more suitable for backyard chicken beginners.
- For example: the Rhode Island Red adopts quickly to flocks, and the Wyandotte had an easy-going disposition. The Ameraucana can tolerate different climates well, and the Orpington are easy to raise.
Did you know? Chickens have dreams and experience rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep.
Space Inside and Outside the Coop
Caring for chickens just as important as offering them companionship. They need space, and the size of that space matters.
- They like to spread their wings, and when conflict arises – as it inevitably does, they need space, then too.
- They also need room to race and play and “hunt” for bugs and insects, and the less space they have, the more frustrated and stressed out they’ll become.
- As for sleeping areas, it should be large and well-ventilated (with roofing and shade). They also need quiet nesting boxes (many suggest one box for every three hens).
Common Chicken Diseases You Should Know About
Backyard chickens are vulnerable to disease, and while some are curable, others will kill them outright, or you may need to put them down. Here’s what Rural Living Today says to watch out for and how to treat it.
- Fowl Pox: it’s not deadly, but it can last anywhere from two to six weeks and eradicate an entire flock. Look for white spots on their skin, comb sores, and mouth ulcers. It can be treated with vitamins A, D, and E, but it’s best to get them vaccinated to avoid the disease.
- Infectious Bronchitis: symptoms include decreased eating and drinking, eye discharge, and sluggishness. It spread quickly, and left untreated will kill all your chickens. Its best to have them vaccinated, but even this will not guarantee against infection.
- Infectious Coryza: Symptoms include a swollen face, discharge for the eyes, staggering, coughing, sneezing, and decrease eating and drinking. It can be treated with antibiotics, but if left too long, the chicken will have to be put down to avoid further contamination.
- Botulism: This disease progresses quickly and is deadly. It comes from contaminated water and food, and seasonal changes (during winter and summer) when temperatures are warm, and bacteria spread. Symptoms include tremors, weakness, and paralysis of the legs, and it’s best treated with antitoxins from your veterinarian.
- Avian Influenza: Also known as bird flu, it manifests with respiratory problems, swelling of the face, and diarrhea. There is no cure, so chickens must be put down to avoid further contagion. A complete disinfection of the coop is recommended.
- Pullorum: This is a viral disease that’s also spread through contact with contaminated birds and surfaces. Symptoms include sneezing, coughing, difficulty breathing, and a white paste on the back of chicks. Once again, there is no cure, and livestock must be removed and the coop wholly disinfected.
Protecting Chickens Against Natural Predators
Even if your chickens aren’t a food source, chances are other creatures will want to eat them. Their safety comes down to robust fencing and the design of your coops. You’ll have to be on the lookout for more than just dogs, too.
Raccoons, bobcats, and hawks are natural chicken predators. Here are the creatures experts say you should be wary of, as well.
- Foxes: these predators aren’t just sly, but they’re skilled at getting into your coop. They will stake out your backyard for weeks before striking and are as good as any dog in digging and any cat in climbing. Chances are none of your chickens will survive if a fox gets in the hen house.
- Coyotes: Mr. Chicken Stalker himself, they will find a way even when there doesn’t seem to be one. They don’t climb as much, but they sure can dig a tunnel to get to your flock. They, too, will stakeout before striking and will leave no chicken standing.
- Raccoons: Least you forget, these guys have opposable thumbs and can manipulate latches. It’s a good idea to secure your coop with more than just a door fastener just in case.
- Bears: They can gain easy access just by their sheer size and strength. More often, they are coming into suburban areas in search of food, and your coop is no exception, especially to a ravished bear.
They also like chicken feed, like a lot, so when you throw it out, make sure your trash is secured and locked up because your garbage is what will draw bears more so than chickens.
- Snakes: It’s even easier for them to slither into your coop looking for eggs and peeps. If you see regurgitated eggshells, snakeskin, or wet chicks, it’s too late. The best way to safeguard the coop is to find any access points and patch it up with chicken wire screening.
Also, check any gaps in doors and damaged weather-stripping, even rotting flooring and rooftops, as they can use the smallest of openings to get inside.
Did you know? Chickens can run up to 9 mph for short bursts, which keeps them safe from many a predator.
If I Keep A Chicken, Will I Get Salmonella?
Even though that chicken of yours may look clean, many chickens carry salmonella. To be safe, you should employ consistent healthy habits:
- Keep poultry away from where food is served or prepared
- Refrigerate eggs immediately after collecting
- Cook eggs well. Here are egg safety guidelines from the CDC.
- Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water
- Be mindful not to touch your face or eyes after handling your chicken.
You can have just one chicken, but since they are such social creatures, chickens do enjoy having companionship.
While you certainly can’t harm a chicken by keeping it on its own, for the healthiest and happiest chicken, you may want to think about bringing in some feathered friends to allow your chicken to live out its natural social behaviors.
No matter how many chickens you have, it’s just a fact of life that you’ll have to protect yourself and your family from salmonella by being vigilant about following safety guidelines. If you do that, no matter how many you add to the family, raising chickens is a worthwhile and fulfilling experience.