Chicken Behaviour

This article is written by Pet Circle veterinarian, Dr Nicole Wynne BSc BVMS MANZCVS (Unusual Pets)

Anyone who has watched a group of chickens knows that they have lots of different behaviours, some obvious, and some subtle. Chickens are highly social animals, and they use different behaviours to communicate with the rest of the flock, human included! Some behaviours may not be used as communication, and can also be just part of normal chicken life, or things that contented, angry, or broody chickens might do. 

Read on for a quick guide on deciphering the great world of chickens.

Social Hierarchy

We all know about the pecking order, but there’s actually a lot to it! Chickens are able to recognise about 30 individuals, and primarily use individual head and neck characteristics to identify their group members. Chickens higher in the pecking order tend to harass chickens lower in the pecking order, and will often snag the best food, shade, and perches. However, a group of chickens with a stable pecking order tend to be peaceful, with arguments breaking out when new chickens are added, or when existing chickens develop illnesses or become older. 

Chickens maintain their place in the social hierarchy using several behaviours. 

Pecking is a common behaviour that can be used to warn lower-ranking chickens away from desirable resources. In an established flock, the higher-ranking chicken may not even have to resort to pecking. 

Another aggressive behaviour is the raising of the neck feathers, which often are used to instigate a fight. If one chicken doesn’t back down after this behaviour, it is likely to escalate into squawking and jumping at each other. 

Although fighting and squabbling can look alarming, it is important to allow chickens to perform these behaviours, as that is how they figure out the pecking order. Once they’ve figured it out, group dynamics often remain stable, but the occasional little disagreement over dust bath spots, coveted nest boxes, or treat might still happen.

Roosting and Perching

The drive to roost and perch above the ground is an instinctual behaviour in chickens, arising from their evolutionary past of having to avoid ground-based predators at night, when chickens are unable to see. Chickens will seek roosting spots above the ground once daylight starts to wane, and it is important to have more roosting spots or perches than the number of chickens to make sure that everyone gets to perch. 

Chickens should also have access to their perches during the daylight hours, as lower ranking members of the flock may use them to avoid a higher ranking chicken.


Chickens preen by using their beaks to realign the vanes of their feathers, and they also collect oil from the uropygial gland on their tails to spread over their feathers. They may also shake out their feathers before and after preening to realign the shafts, particularly after they’ve been picked up. They will also use their feet and nails to scratch. 

Dust bathing is another method of feather maintenance, where a chicken will nestle into a sandy spot, then ruffle the feathers while continuing to wriggle into the dust. They may repeat this behaviour a few times, then stand up and continue their preening session after a big ruffle to shake out excess dust and sand from their feathers.


While chickens can peck each other aggressively, pecking is also used for feeding and investigating, and usually, investigating if something can be eaten! The beaks of chickens are very sensitive, and they can determine if a small object is edible or not by pecking and manipulating it with their beaks. They will also peck at unknown objects to investigate them. 

Chickens instinctively know how to peck to investigate their environment, but they have to learn what is and isn’t edible via trial and error, as well as the hen showing her chicks what to look out for. 

Pecking is usually combined with head bobbing to allow the chicken to look at the object from different angles.

To get a good look at their investigative pecking behaviour, throw in a vegetable or fruit that they haven’t had before, and see their little chicken brains work it out! Providing novel food items is also a great way of providing environmental enrichment. As omnivores, chickens are constantly evaluating their environment for edible objects.  

Nesting and Laying Behaviours

Hens have a specific egg laying routine that they go through before laying each egg, but egg laying and nesting behaviour can differ greatly from breed to breed, with purpose-bred egg layers like ISA Browns having a very short and simple pre-laying routine, and broodier breeds like Silkies having a more complicated and longer pre-laying routine.

The first step of laying is often the hen seeking out a place to lay by making pre-laying calls, investigating her environment, and picking out which nest box she would like to lay in. Once she picks a nest box she likes, she will enter it and circle a few times, as well as sit down and get up until she is ready to lay. Most hens will lay from a crouching position. 

Once she’s laid the egg, she will stand up, inspect the egg, then cackle while she leaves it to join the rest of the flock. 

Broodiness is a specific nesting and laying behaviour that occurs once a hen has laid her full clutch of eggs and is ready to incubate them until they hatch. Many breeds that are bred for prolific egg laying are less broody. A trigger for broodiness can be increased daylight, as well as multiple eggs in nest boxes. A broody hen will sit on the eggs and fluff up until she looks like a ball of feathers, and she may fuss with the eggs, turning them and rearranging them. Broody hens also become very protective of their eggs, and will attempt to peck and attack anyone that comes near them. They will also prioritize incubating the eggs above all else, and some hens will do this to the point where they start to lose weight. As this is often an unwanted behaviour, especially if she is sitting on unfertilized eggs, it is important to collect eggs daily.



We all think about roosters when we hear crowing, and roosters will crow to establish the boundaries of their territory, and work out which roosters within crowing distance are stronger or weaker than them. However, hens can crow too, and it is usually the dominant hen that crows. 

A crowing hen can certainly be a nuisance, especially in metropolitan areas. A reshuffling of the hierarchy can be achieved by separating her from the flock for a few days, or introducing new chickens. However, crowing combined with the development of other rooster features like spurs might be an indication of a hormonal disorder.



Chickens make all sorts of funny noises, including deep clucks, curious higher pitched sounds, loud caws, and irritated cackles. The meanings of different types of noises can differ from individual to individual, and some breeds are more likely to make some noises than others. However, you’ll pick up the gist of what they’re saying just by watching your chickens interact with each other. Here’s some general guidelines about what different sounds mean:


Further Reading

Want to read more? Check out our other articles:

How to Start Chicken Keeping

Chicken Health and Parasite Prevention

Feeding Chickens

A Guide to Chicken Breeds

Backyard Chicken Guide

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