If you have ever tried to catch a chicken, then you know just how challenging this can be. Not only can the feathered evaders dart quickly back and forth, but just when you think that you’ve got them cornered, they fly away in a heat-jolting cacophony of squawks and wing flaps. It’s not fun if you’re the one trying catch the bird (though, admittedly, it can be incredibly amusing to watch your neighbor try).
With understanding the considerable difficulties of retrieving wayward birds, it’s only logical to be worried the minute they’re free. However, I can tell you as someone who has raised predominately free-range flocks, there is hope.
Providing the bird is capable, any chicken that associates the coop with safety will almost always return to the coop without prompting.As with anything, there are a few exceptions for this, but as a general rule, when it gets dark you can rest assured that your birds will come back.
And chickens returning back to the coop isn’t a very new concept. Just think of how old the following phrase is; ‘the chicken has come home to roost.’
What Time Do Chickens Go Back To The Coop?
Chickens have a rough go of things. They are fairly vulnerable animals, having little in the way of defensive capabilities. Also, they have bad proportions; meaning their bodies are too fat and their wings too small to be any good for flying long distances. Today’s domesticated breeds have it even worse as they often go docile when captured – making a predator’s job even easier.
But if all this wasn’t bad enough, chickens have very poor night vision. Consequently, when it starts to get dark, a chicken will have an innate drive to find a place of safety. And the darker it gets, the more pressing this need becomes. If you’ve done your job as a flock owner, then your birds will know exactly where this place of safety is.
We have found that our chickens generally start moving towards the coop about 30 minutes before sunset. They don’t act as if they’re in any real hurry to go to bed, but the more the sun goes down, the closer they get to the door of their coop.
Of course, it’s not uncommon for one bird to want to stay up. Right now, we have one Orpington (we call her Ethel) that will routinely try to roost on top of the coop. She knows where she’s supposed to go. But sometimes, it’s just real hard to go to bed.
Training Chickens To Go In The Coop
Considering a chicken’s limited level of intelligence, you might think it difficult to train a chicken to do anything. For a dog, it might be as simple as a voice command, but chickens are not on the same level as a dog – and that’s part of what makes them so fun to work with!
Chickens learn a lot by observing other chickens. If you can utilize this concept, then you can train chickens, as you only need one to get it right. The other chickens will quickly follow suit once a positive reward is observed from the intended action.
For example, we had a late batch of 14 chicks this summer. And with the summer temperatures being hot, we were able to move them from the brooder to the outdoor coop much sooner than usual. I was very happy with this as it makes my life easier (normally).
However, there was a small catch. My two helpers were going to be away on a short vacation leaving me to manage things on my own. Initially, this wasn’t that big of a deal as the new chicks were going to spend some time inside the coop before I let them out to explore their new world.
But…Murphy’s Law had different plans.
Things started going wrong the very next afternoon when I went out to check on the chicks. Opening the door, to throw in some treats, a couple of the chicks got excited and bolted towards me, in order to be first for the tasty snack. When I saw this excited motion, I quickly tossed in the treat…which bounced off the closest chicken’s chest and on to the ground. And seeing the treat on the ground, the whole flock poured out of the coop!
And there was no way to put them all back! This whole ordeal was over in seconds and I stood there shaking my head, knowing what would be in store come sunset.
Using the lumber from my freshly vacated ‘Perfect Brooder’, I made a ‘V’ channel that would direct the chicks toward the door of the coop.
Then as the sun began to go down, I went out with a broom and gently ‘shooshed’ them out from under the tree where they were bedded down. With careful maneuvering, I herded them into the ‘V’ channel and then waited a bit.
Sure enough, one of them saw the opening and walked up the ramp and into the coop.
And with chickens learning by observing other chickens, almost half of my flock followed her example. (The other half, I had to place in by hand, which for the record was NOT easy).
All in all, it took me three nights with the ‘V’ channel before the entire flock had observed and understood the process. After which, I didn’t have to worry about it again.
How To Get Chickens To Use A New Coop
This whole debacle with having to herd chicks into the coop at night, could have been avoided if I had been able to follow my normal routine. But when that treat fell out of the coop and onto the ground, then my routine was broken. Consequently, a new, and much more laborious effort was required.
Personally, I recommend doing things the easy way.
The best way to get a chicken to use a new coop is by providing a prolonged first exposure to the coop.
In other words, when you move your new birds into their permanent home, leave them inside for two to three days before letting them out. There will be a LOT of new things to look at when they leave the brooder for the first time. If you can establish the coop as their new place of safety, then this impression will stay with them.
### Important Note ###
It goes without saying, but make sure that your flock has adequate room to move around, and a reliable source of food and water while you confine/acclimate them to their new home.
Why Do Chickens Stop Going Into The Coop?
It isn’t very often that I have problems with a chicken that doesn’t want to go into the coop at night. But each bird has its own personality. Some birds will be the first in every night, while others like to wait till the last minute. This is especially true during fall, where the days just keep getting shorter.
In the off chance that one chicken decides to boycott night time, I don’t worry too much about it. However, if more than one member of your flock decides not to go into the coop, then you need to investigate, immediately.
The primary reason that a chicken will not return to the coop at night is because something notable is overriding their innate fear of the dark. This can be from something simple, such as conflict amongst the flock or it can be from a predator that is hiding within the coop. Both of these problems are something that you will have to address.
Should I Make My Chickens Go In The Coop At Night?
This is a question that is easily answered and that answer is a resounding YES! You should absolutely make your flock go into the coop at night!
With a chicken’s poor night vision and limited abilities for self-defense, your flock will be at a considerable risk without the protection of a coop. It is absolutely imperative that you take steps to isolate your birds from the considerable amount of wildlife that is out to eat them.
And let me tell you from my personal experience, when wildlife knows that there is food just on the other side of that chicken wire, they will work very hard to try and get to it. Consequently, you really need to be on your ‘A’ game when fortifying your chicken coop. Otherwise, you may come out some morning, only to find a bloody mess of feathers where your happy chickens used to be.
If you are wanting to let your birds have a little ‘outside’ fun, but are worried that they won’t return, then take heart. If they know that the coop is a place of safety, then you have a VERY GOOD chance of them returning.
Chickens like to feel safe. And even though our flocks tend to be free-range for most of their day, even still, they will spend most of that time underneath a bush or a pine tree. So while they definitely enjoy being able to roam, they still are driven by a need to feel safe.
It’s been our observation that, once a new flock finally is allowed out of the coop for their first time, they will still hang around very close – as they associate the coop with safety. It’s only after they feel confident, that they start to wander…a little farther… and a little father each day.