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How Do Chickens Sleep?

Ever wonder how a chicken sleeps? We know how a cat sleeps, as they seem to do it all the time. We know how dogs sleep – hopefully somewhere that’s NOT in our way. But it isn’t very often that chickens are caught napping. Even people who are around chickens on a daily basis will tell you they’ve rarely seen an adult chicken asleep. So how do chickens sleep?

There are three main ways that chickens will sleep – on a perch, in a ball or stretched out. Chickens are most vulnerable when they’re sleeping, so it’s very important that you understand and encourage your birds to sleep in a way that will keep them safe.

On A Perch

The vast majority of the time, you will want your birds sleeping on a perch. The type of perch best suited for the chicken will vary from expert to expert more than it does from breed to breed. Some people will use actual branches for their birds while others argue that a 2 by 4 piece of lumber with the wide side up is the best choice. Both ways have their advantages, but the underlying rule is: chickens are safest when they are up off of the ground and in a coop built to withstand predators.

Why is this so important?

For two reasons. First, chickens pass a lot of the food that they acquired during the day as they sleep at night. When they are up in the air, then this waste falls away from them. If they are somewhere else, say a nesting box or on the ground, then the waste could stick to them causing health issues.

The second reason why they need to be up on a perch is because of predators. Chickens do not see well in the dark. If a predator finds them on the ground, the bird will have very little chance. If they are on a perch that is well off of the ground and away from the wall, then predators such as a raccoon or possum will have a difficult time reaching them.

In A Ball

Another familiar posture for a sleeping chicken curled up in a ball. Chicks do this automatically and almost always pressed up against their brother and sister hatchlings. This is completely acceptable as it the best way for chicks who haven’t developed feathers to stay warm. Waste is still a problem, but staying warm is more important.

Generally, it is not a good idea for adult birds to sleep on a surface in a ball – for reasons mentioned above – with two exceptions.

1) Mama hen is nesting. In this situation, being in a cozy ball on the nest, as opposed to up high and on a perch, is exactly what you want. Not only does this provide heat for the chicks, but protection and nurturing. Like a lot of creatures, the lives of the chicks are completely and totally dependent on Mama’s care. She will have to show them everything; including where to find food and water. So the bond formed when they are close to her is crucial.

2) Meat birds; aka, the bird raised specifically for the freezer.

There are many breeds of chickens available to the backyard farmer. And while the selection of breeds is broad, you can generally lump these breeds into just a few classes. One of these classes is the meat bird and this class of chicken is one that should never be up off the ground.

A perfect example of a meat bird is the Cornish X. This bird has been bred to grow really fast and really big – at the cost of everything else.

When you look at a Cornish X you could easily come to the conclusion that there is something very wrong with this chicken. This starts with the fact that the bird doesn’t have enough feathers to cover all of its skin, giving it a sort of diseased look. But the feathers aren’t the reason why this bird should always be on the ground. It’s because of their legs.

With it’s rapid growth and heavy weight, the Cornish X is prone to a host of health issues, most notably broken bones. Even a short hop down from a perch only 12 inches high could leave you with a bird that has a broken leg. For this reason, meat birds should always stay on the ground.

Stretched Out

See a chicken in this posture and your first instinct might be to think it’s dead. But do yourself a favor and poke it with a stick or something before you try and pick it up. Otherwise, it could be quite a dramatic experience for both you and the chicken when the bird wakes up.

I experienced this with a Cornish X. It looked to me like the bird was in the middle of stretching when it fell over on its side. From its beak to its claws, the bird was reaching as far as its form would let it. Adding to the ghastly scene was the fact that the bird still had its beak in the feeder.

Believing the bird was dead, I reached down and put my hands around it. About this time, an eye popped open on the bird, followed instantly by a loud BAWK and a not so manly scream from me.

For those of you familiar with the small and limited space of a chicken tractor, you can probably imagine the site of a grown man and about 20 chickens all freaking out at the same time. There were feathers everywhere!

When Do Chickens Sleep?

Because of their poor vision in the dark, chickens are less active at night. In a natural setting of sunrise and sunset, the birds will quickly fall into a routine of sleeping at night.

What’s unique about chickens though, is that it doesn’t seem to matter how short the night is. Where we live in the northern hemisphere, sunset can move by four hours. Imagine losing four hours of sleep. It would certainly have an impact on a person’s behavior, but I’ve never noticed it bothering the birds.

Do Chickens Sleep With Their Eyes Closed?

Chickens do have eye lids and like us they do close them at night. As mentioned above, chickens’ do not see well in the dark. And if you can’t see something coming, then it would be very easy for some stray twig or branch to poke you in the eye leaving permanent damage. This would be very bad for a creature built for spotting and eating the smallest of bugs.

These eyelids also help protect them from the colder weather. Remember, moisture freezes at 32 degrees. If chickens were to leave their eyes open all the time, then freezing temperatures would quickly render them blind.

How Do I Get My Chicken To Use The Perch?

For chickens, roosting on a perch is instinctive, but sometimes they have to be shown.

Our first batch of chickens did not want to perch. They were used to sleeping on the floor of the brooder (a pen for chicks). So when I moved them to their permanent home they continued the routine that they knew. It was so frustrating for me to watch them jump excitedly from perch to perch during the day, but then drop down to the floor of the coop as soon as it got dark.

For three days in a row, I went out after dark and physically put them all on a perch. And let me tell you, if you don’t move fast enough, someone that you just put on a perch, is going to jump back down to join their friends.

After those first nights of moving the birds, a few of the chickens took a liking to the concept of sleeping up high and moved up on their own. And once they started, other birds quickly took notice and started perching up high as well. There was one stubborn chicken, however, dedicated to the idea of sleeping on the floor. Fortunately, by the end of the week, it had finally given up and moved up with her friends for safer sleeping.

Lesson to be learned: put a small perch in the brooder when the chicks are young. Since I’ve started doing that, I’ve had almost no issues with chickens wanting to sleep on the floor of the coop.

How To Get Chickens To Return To The Coop At Night

When moving from the brooder to the coop, I always leave the chickens in the coop (with food and water) for a least a day, sometimes two. This might seem harsh to leave them in a small area, but by doing so, the birds are associating the coop with safety.

Remember, up to this point, they have lived their entire lives with almost no stimulation. Taking them outside is going to send their natural curiosity into overdrive. A coop with a view is a great way to ease them into their outside world while providing them with a sense of home.

Once this is established, you should have very few issues with them returning to the coop at night.

A word of warning though, if your chickens suddenly decide they don’t want to go into the coop, then you would be wise to go and investigate. A change in the flocks behavior could indicate the presence of a predator hiding inside. And some of these predators, like the weasel, can be quite small, so be very thorough when searching.