By Kimberly Willis, Robert T. Ludlow

Watching a flock of chickens can be as entertaining as watching teenagers at the mall. Chickens have very complex social interactions and a host of interesting behaviors. And like most domesticated animals, chickens prefer to be kept in groups. A group of chickens is called a flock.

Knowing a little about chicken behavior is crucial to keeping chickens. Hopefully, knowing a little bit about chicken behavior may sway you if you’re sitting on the fence about whether to raise chickens. Raising chickens is a fun hobby, even if you’re raising them for serious meat or egg production. When the power goes out, you can go back to the times of your forefathers: Sit out on the porch and watch the chickens instead of TV.

Sleeping chickens

When chickens sleep, they really sleep. Total darkness makes chickens go into a kind of stupor. They’re an easy mark for predators at this point; they don’t defend themselves or try to escape.

If you need to catch a chicken, go out with a flashlight a couple hours after darkness has fallen, and you should have no problem, providing you know where they roost. Chickens also sit still through rain or snow if they go to sleep in an unprotected place.

Because they’re vulnerable when they sleep, chickens prefer to roost (perch) as high off the ground as they can when sleeping. The more “street-savvy” birds also pick a spot with overhead protection from the weather and owls.

Chickens like to roost in the same spot every night, so when they’re used to roosting in your chicken coop, they’ll try to go back home at nightfall even if they’ve managed to escape that day or are allowed to roam.

Socializing behaviors

With chickens, it’s all about family. If you don’t provide chickens with companions, they will soon make you part of the family. But chickens have very special and firm rules for all family or flock members. Chickens in the wild form small flocks, with 12 to 15 birds being the largest flock. Each wild flock has one rooster.

Ranking begins from the moment chicks hatch or whenever chickens are put together. Hens have their own ranking system, separate from the roosters. Every member of the flock soon knows its place, although some squabbling and downright battles may ensue during the ranking process. Small flocks make chicken life easier. In large flocks of 25 or more chickens and more than one rooster, fighting may periodically resume as both hens and roosters try to maintain the “pecking order.”

The dominant hen eats first, gets to pick where she wants to roost or lay eggs, and is allowed to take choice morsels from the lesser-ranked hens. The second-ranked hen bows to none but the first, and so on. In small, well-managed flocks with enough space, the hens are generally calm and orderly as they go about their daily business.

Roosters establish a ranking system, too, if there’s more than one in a flock. A group of young roosters without hens will fight, but generally an uneasy truce based on rank will become established. Roosters in the presence of hens fight much more intensely, and the fight may end in death for one of the roosters.

If more than one rooster survives in a mixed-sex flock, he becomes a hanger-on — always staying at the edge of the flock and keeping a low profile.

If you have a lot of hens and a lot of space, such as in a free-range situation, each rooster may establish his own separate flock and pretty much ignore the other rooster except for occasional spats. How aggressive a rooster is depends on both the breed and the individuals within a breed. When a rooster becomes aggressive toward humans, the best option is the soup pot.

A rooster always dominates the hens in his care. Sorry, no women’s lib in the chicken world. He gets what he wants when he wants it. And what he doesn’t want is a lot of squabbling among his flock. When he’s eating, all the hens can eat with him, and no one is allowed to pull rank. If squabbling among hens gets intense at other times, he may step in and resolve the problem.

A rooster can be much smaller and younger than the hens in the flock, but as long as he’s mature, he’s the ruler of the coop. But it’s not all about terrorizing the ladies. The rooster is also their protector and guide, as well as their lover. He stands guard over them as they feed, shows them choice things to eat (usually letting them have the first bites), and even guides them to good nesting spots.

Roosters tend to have a favorite hen — usually, but not always, the dominant hen in the flock — but they treat all their ladies pretty well. They may mate more frequently with the favorite, but all hens get some attention.

Romance between roosters and hens

Roosters have a rather limited courtship ritual, compared to some birds, and the amount of “romancing” varies among individuals, too.

When a rooster wants to mate with a hen, he usually approaches her in a kind of tiptoelike walk and may strut around her a few times. Usually a hen approached this way crouches down and moves her tail to one side as a sign of submission.

The rooster jumps on the hen’s back, holds on to the back of her neck with his beak, and rapidly thrusts his cloaca against hers a few times. He then dismounts, fluffs his feathers, and walks away. Boastful crowing may also take place soon after mating, although crowing is not reserved just for mating. The hen stands up, fluffs her feathers, and walks away as well. Both may preen their feathers for a few minutes after mating.

A young rooster may mate several hens within a few minutes of each other, but usually mating is spread out throughout the day. A rooster may mate a hen even if he’s infertile: Fertility drops as roosters age, and cold weather also causes a drop in fertility.

The celibate hen — living without a rooster

Hens don’t need a rooster to complete their lives — or even to lay eggs, for that matter. A hen is hatched with all the eggs she’s ever going to have, and she’ll lay those eggs for as long as the hen lives (or until she’s out of eggs), whether a rooster is around or not.

The number of eggs a hen lays over her lifetime varies by breed and the individual. After the third year of life, though, a hen lays very few eggs.

Of course, without a rooster, no babies will be hatched from those eggs, but the eggs that you eat for breakfast don’t need to be fertilized to be laid. Hormones control the egg cycle whether a rooster is present or not. And fertilized eggs don’t taste differently — nor are they more nutritious — than unfertilized eggs.

Is a hen happier with a rooster around? She probably is because it fits the more natural family lifestyle of chickens. But hens are pretty self-sufficient, and if they’ve never known life with a rooster, they really don’t know what they’re missing.

Bath time for chickens

Another interesting behavior of chickens is their bathing habits. They hate getting wet, but they sure do love a dust bath. Wherever the coop has loose soil — or even loose litter — on the floor, you will find chickens bathing.

Chickens scratch out a body-sized depression in the soil and lie in it, throwing the soil from the hole into their fluffed-out feathers and then shaking to remove it. They seem very happy when doing this, so it must feel good. In nature, this habit helps to control parasites.

In the garden or lawn, these dust-bath bowls can be quite damaging, but you can’t do much about it except put up a fence. If your chickens are confined all the time, they’ll really appreciate a box of sand to bathe in.