Chickens are known for their distinctive chicken scratching sound, which may catch your attention as soon as you meet them.
Pecking at the ground in front of them, before stepping on top of it and scratching the surface below. Scratching with their legs tucked under their bodies, rather than extending a leg out in front of them, means they can’t see the ground, so they don’t bother looking down at it.
You may also want to read about the best bedding for the chicken coop.
Chicken scratching, why do they do it?
Chickens scratch the ground for many reasons, including exploring subterranean food sources, taking dust baths, preparing to build their nests, and interacting socially. Chickens’ nails can be kept short through regular scratching.
Despite its apparent simplicity, chicken scratching behavior plays a crucial role in the animal’s health and social life. It’s one of the defining characteristics that defines a chicken. Being in tune with your chickens’ scratching behavior can even strengthen your relationship with them.
Foraging by scratching
Chickens have a natural tendency to scratch the ground. I get my day-old chicks from a local hatchery, and the first thing they do when I put them in their brooder is climb up onto the food container and start scratching around in it. They perform this behavior even if they have never seen another chicken perform it.
Similarly, hens that have been rescued from battery cages are known to scratch the ground as one of their first acts of freedom.
Chicken scratching is an innate behavior in chickens because it was crucial for the survival of their wild ancestors. The majority of the insects and seeds that fed these birds could be found in the top few centimeters of soil. All it took was a little chicken scratching to uncover this tasty morsel. Even in modern times, it is common for free-range chickens (and their wild relatives, the jungle fowl), to go out and forage for food.
Preparing a dust bath requires some vigorous scratching
Scratching the ground also helps in getting ready for a dust bath. A dust bath is an important part of a chicken’s routine for maintaining healthy feathers and warding off external parasites like mites and lice. A chicken will take a dust bath by rolling around in the dirt, rubbing various parts of his body on the dirt, and then scattering the dirt all over himself. My rooster, Champ, takes a romp in the dust every once in a while.
Chickens prefer to dust bathe in loose dirt, where they can scratch around a bit before covering themselves head to toe. Chickens will scratch around on hard ground to create their own loose dirt (or other sediment-sized medium) for bathing if they can’t find any. It may take them several hours, or even several days, to find the ideal spot for their dust bath.
To prepare a nest by scratching
Chickens will scratch the ground when they are either settling into a nest they have just made or constructing one. When nesting in the wild, they will dig a hole and smooth it out until it’s just right (often lining it with grass and feathers).
To prepare to lay an egg, hens will often scratch around in the nest boxes of the coop. During the laying process, some of the hens will get up multiple times to scratch the bedding.
The birds do this so that the nesting material is at a convenient height for them, and so that their eggs (and any other eggs in the nest box) will be in a position for incubation directly beneath their bodies. Even if they have no intention of caring for the eggs after they are laid, this behavior persists.
Even roosters exhibit chicken scratching behaviors near nests. For the first time, I saw this with my very own chickens. My rooster, Perly, would hop in and out of the nest boxes, making the same noises he uses to call the hens over to food, as the pullets neared the age of lay. A frequent visitor to the nest boxes, he was often found scratching around and eventually assuming the egg-laying position. It appeared that he was trying to demonstrate to the females that he had discovered an ideal nesting site.
Chickens scratch to communicate and form strong bonds
Chickens scratch for many reasons, including social interaction and bonding, but this is rarely considered. Chickens have a very strong social structure. If you’ve ever watched a flock closely, you know that the chickens spend the day ambling around in small groups while making low clucking noises and seemingly conversing with one another.
They groom, relax, and scratch one another all at the same time. All of these pursuits are not only good for the chickens’ health, but also serve as enjoyable opportunities for interaction. It only takes one hen to start a dust bathing trend. One boastful person can set off a cascade of imitators.
Some of the most important ways chickens interact and form strong bonds with one another are the ones listed above. By engaging in these rituals together every day, chickens develop close bonds. Some of them even show distress if one of their flock mates is taken away, demonstrating strong preferences for the other individuals with whom they engage in these activities.
Scratching and other routine interactions among the flock are crucial for social development and maintenance.
Scratching as a means of connecting with and getting to know people
When chickens get used to spending time with humans, they will begin to scratch, preen, rest, and bathe near (or even on top of) their human caretakers. Your chickens will begin to exhibit this behavior in ever-closer proximity to you as they get to know, like, and trust you. Last but not least, many people will do them next to you, practically within touching distance.
Don’t wear shorts, they’ll hurt the chickens if they scratch at your pants while they crawl around on your lap. Some of the chickens you befriend will undoubtedly start following you around and would rather do their chicken things in your presence than with other chickens.
The roosters that are friendly to me scratch vigorously and make calls that sound like they’re asking for food as soon as they see or hear me. If I’m sitting down, they’ll do this to me and then sit by my side and scratch. Additionally, when I walk away, they start scratching and calling very dramatically, as if to say, “Come back and spend some time with me—we can scratch and forage together!”