Chickens gave us the definition of stress -- running around like a chicken with its head cut off. They worry about being chased and eaten, where to find food and water and why Rocky the Rooster is now spending so much time with Lucy Leghorn. Signs of stress include refusal to eat, illness, feather picking, lack of egg production, sudden weight loss, lethargy and aggressive or fearful behaviour. Healthy birds can handle a little stress, but too much can put them at risk of becoming sick.
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Environment and Living Areas
Extreme temperatures are very stressful to chickens, but healthy birds can make it through subzero nights or scorching hot days. Always have food and water available before your flock retires for the night, so they can fill up to brave the cold. Provide shade and plenty of water on hot days. Overcrowding and unclean conditions also contribute to stress. Fear is a major stressor; chickens are prey, and the presence of dogs, raccoons, hawks and other predators keep them in fight-or-flight mode, which eventually weakens the bird.
Changes in Diet
Stress management and good nutrition go hand in hand. Poorly fed birds are more susceptible to stress, disease and malnourishment. Feed poultry good quality feed with the proper protein content for their sex and age: 20 to 23 per cent protein from 0 to 8 weeks, 14 per cent from 8 to 20 weeks, 16 per cent for laying hens and 20 per cent for roosters, if they're servicing hens daily. Adding organic apple cider vinegar to poultry water has been shown to help reduce stress in chickens.
Breeding and Laying
When a pullet reaches maturity, laying her first egg is very stressful. Be sure laying hens have quiet, private, safe areas for laying. Breeding can also cause stress, as particularly randy roosters are rarely gentle, and can injure hens with their claws and beaks while mating. Hen aprons can be purchased to protect your hens' backs. Rare breeds and chickens that are bred for show tend to be more susceptible to illness and stress.
Pecking Order and the Social Bird
Chickens are social, and will die if they cannot see other chickens. They establish a pecking order with the strongest on top and the weakest on the bottom. Being the bottom chicken means living a stressful life, as it will be last to eat, be pushed aside when treats are given, and may be forced to sleep away from the flock. New additions to your flock need to be introduced slowly to prevent attacks. An ill or injured bird may also be attacked, so isolate any bird that appears listless or ill for evaluation.
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