With chickens being a bird, you might think this to be a pretty straight forward question. But today’s domesticated breed is a long ways from their original ancestors. The wildness of yesterday has been largely replaced with size, plumage and egg production.
So are those old instincts still alive?
We have found that chickens left to their own means, may or may not roost in a tree – it completely depends on the bird’s personality. What is still instinctive for chickens, however, is the desire to be safe when it gets dark. These birds have very poor night vision and as a result, need to be ‘in bed’ before the sun completely goes down.
Should I Let My Chicken Roost Outside At Night?
My sleep this past summer was regularly interrupted by the antics of nighttime feathered fliers. For whatever reason, owls have been perching on the peak of our house, directly over my bed. And I can tell you, they are not quiet, even when they’re just walking back forth across the shingles. But if losing sleep wasn’t bad enough, I’m left to clean up a regular barrage of poo and leftovers from the noisy offender’s dinner. Everything from headless robins to rabbit hind legs end up on my back patio like some sort of midnight ‘fowl’ party gone bad.
With that for perspective, I can say with confidence, chickens should NEVER be allowed to roost outside at night. The list of predators that will kill a chicken is quite lengthy. And seeing that these birds are quite vulnerable with their poor nighttime vision, it is more than prudent to confine them in a place of safety rather than leave them to the outdoors.
It’s true that certain breeds of chicken are more inclined to try and sleep outside at night. And it should be noted that a fully grown and healthy chicken generally has the means to endure the elements. However, they do not have the means to withstand predators…but then, neither did their ancestors.
What Is The Best Roost For A Chicken?
This is another one of those questions that is sure to get you kicked off the Christmas Card list if you have the ‘wrong’ opinion. There are those who swear by lumber from the mill, while others believe in using a real branch. As to which one is ultimately the best…I’ll leave that up for you to decide. But here are some general rules regarding a proper roost for your chickens to perch on.
The best roosting bar for a chicken to roost on will be made of wood and have an adequate roughness for their claws to grip.
The reason the roosting bar should be made of wood is primarily because of cold weather. When temperatures get down below freezing, metal surfaces can quickly become problematic for your chicken’s feet. If you’ve ever gotten your tongue stuck on a frozen piece of metal, then you’ll understand exactly what I’m talking about. The fleshy surface of your bird’s feet could freeze to the metal causing them injury.
Plastic, such as PVC material, might seem like a good option as it is cheap and easily cleaned. However, PVC pipe can be very slippery and you run the risk of injury to your flock from slipping.
While wood does have the characteristic of absorbing fluids – such as chicken poo – it still remains the best material for your chickens to roost on as it will not cling to their skin and is rough enough for the birds to grip.
How High Should A Chicken Roost Be Off The Ground?
To comprehend what makes an adequate height for a roosting bar, you need to understand why a chicken will roost on it in the first place.
A chicken will roost up high in order to be out of reach from ground predators. Consequently, the proper height for a roosting bar will depend on the predators you are trying thwart.
For example, if you have a number of raccoons in the area, then a minimum three foot distance from the ground should be adequate to keep your flock out of reach. However, this three feet will not be sufficient against an animal such as the fox, which can jump fairly high.
Our flocks roosting bars are only 18 inches from the floor of the coop. However, our coop is completely wrapped in hardware cloth. With the half inch holes in this metal material being too small to allow any predator access, it really doesn’t matter for us how close the roosting bar is to the floor.
### Important Note ###
I should also mention that our chicken coop stands on legs that are roughly waist high. This was done as we do have a number of raccoons in our area. And knowing just how clever they can be at gaining access to things, we raised the housing part of the coop to be out of reach of these problem predators. The thinking is, if a predator can’t reach anything, they will be more inclined to give up and move on.
Will Chickens Roost On A 2×4?
The trend right now for backyard farmers, is to make the roosting bar out of a 2×4 – with the widest part being horizontal. This is thought to be especially helpful to chickens in colder climate as they can cover their entire foot when they sit (with their feathers), as opposed to having their toes hang out and exposed to the elements.
But for the record, a chicken will absolutely roost on a 2×4…and a 2×2, 2×6 or any other board that strikes their fancy. You have to remember, this is an animal that routinely claws through cow pies in search of bugs to eat. So presentation isn’t nearly as important to a chicken as just a dry place to sit.
We have both, 2×4’s and 2×2’s in our chicken coop and I have never noticed the birds to have a preference when it comes to roosting. They will crowd around the spots closest to the screen windows, but it doesn’t seem to matter if that spot has a 2×4 or a 2×2 by it.
### Personal Thoughts ###
I get what people are saying when they recommend using the wider 2×4 for roosting. It would make sense that this would be helpful in keeping the bird’s feet warm in colder weather. However, I must admit I have reservations when recommending this as the birds are unable to really get a grip on things. With the smaller 2×2, I can look in and see both the front claws and the back claw as they hold the perch. Personally, I would think this would be a lot more secure than simply resting on a small 4 inch surface.
Perhaps in time, I will come to a decision regarding the matter. But until then, I’ll provide both and watch to find an answer.
Can Chickens Sleep On The Ground?
Chicks reared by a mama hen will spend a good portion of their time nuzzling into her feathers in order to stay warm as she sits on the nest. Consequently, it should be no surprise that quite often an adolescents first instinct is to sleep on the ground, as this is what they’ve always done.
However, aside from a brooding hen or nesting chicks, a chicken should never sleep on the ground. Not only does this put them at risk from predators, but chickens will defecate quite a bit during the night. Hygienically speaking, sleeping on the ground would be bad for them as the waste would stick to their bodies. Being up off the ground allows for good separation.
How To Get Chickens To Sleep On A Roost
One of the more trickier things about raising chickens is moving them from the brooder to their permanent coop outside. Generally, the adolescent birds are pretty excited by all of the new stimulation, being able to see the big outdoors for the first time; albeit from the safety of the coop. Our birds will spend their first few days hopping and fluttering around inside their new home – becoming accustomed to things and hopefully associating the coop as a place of safety (this makes it easier to get them back inside after you’ve released them).
Like our Garage Brooder, our coop has roosting bars for them to perch on. So it is no surprise to us when they hop up on one to check it out. What is surprising, however, is how many times they will hop back down at night in order to sleep on the floor.
From our experience, it’s not uncommon for a flock of entirely new birds to struggle with this. They’ve spent all of their lives up till now, snuggling up to each other on the floor of their brooder. Consequently, this is what they know.
But, should there be one or more experienced older birds for the youngsters to observe, or if one of the new birds simply figures out that nighttime is meant for roosting up high, then the rest of the flock will quickly follow suit. Chickens learn by observing other chickens, so once they see the roost being used at night, they will be quick to do the same.
For our birds, it usually takes about three days for the entire flock of new birds to get the hang of it – much less if there is an older bird to observe. After this, I never have to worry about them sleeping on the floor as they simply prefer sitting on the roost.