If you're new to chickens, one of the first things you'll notice is the characteristic scratching on the ground. It's really adorable to watch, as you can see in the video below:
They usually peck at the ground in front of them first, then step over that spot and scratch the surface below. They do not look at the ground while scratching; they can't really see it because they scratch with their legs tucked under their bodies instead of extending one leg to scratch in front of them.
So why do chickens scratch the ground?Chickens scratch the ground to search for food below the surface, for preparing sand baths, nest arrangement, and social interaction. Scratching also helps keep chickens' nails short.
Scratching behavior, seemingly so simple, actually plays a complex role in a chicken's health and social life. It's one of the fundamental behaviors that makes a chicken a chicken. A good understanding of your chickens' scratching behavior can even help you bond with them!
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itch to forage
Scratching the ground is an innate behavior of chickens. Whenever I bring in day old chicks from a local hatchery, the first thing they do when I put them in the brooder is climb into the food bin and scratch it. They do it before they even see another chicken doing it.
Similarly, one of the first things rescued battery hens will do when allowed to venture outdoors is scratch the ground, despite never having witnessed this behavior.
Scratching is instinctive in chickens because it was essential for the survival of their non-domestic ancestors. Most of what these birds ate, such as insects and seeds, was found just below the surface of the soil. Scratching was the means to unearth this larva. Free-range chickens (and their wild brethren, the jungle fowl) still enjoy this feeding practice today.
Scraping to prepare the powder bath
Another important purpose of scratching the floor is the preparation of the dust bath. The dust bath is the hen's way of keeping its feathers in good condition and protecting itself from external parasites such as mites and lice. dirt, rub body parts in the dirt, and throw dirt on themselves. Pictured is my cock, Champ, enjoying a dust bath.
Chickens often opt for dust baths in loose soil and may do some scratching before settling in for the full-body dirt treat. However, if loose soil (or other sediment-sized media) is not available, chickens will scratch hard soil until they have scratched enough loose soil for bathing. This can take several hours, and they may run intermittently for several days to get the dust bath just right.
Scratching to build the nest
Chicks also exhibit scratching behavior when building or taking up residence in a nest. If they build a nest outside, they will scratch the ground until they find a comfortable place to lie down (often covering it with grass and feathers).
They also often scratch the nest boxes in the chicken coop before laying an egg. Some of them will get up several times during the laying process to scratch the bed some more.
The purpose of this behavior is to place the nesting material in a position that is comfortable for them and that will also keep their eggs (and any other eggs that are in the nest) under their bodies in the ideal position to hatch. They exhibit this behavior while laying eggs, even if they have no intention of incubating the eggs.
In fact, even roosters exhibit scratching behaviors at nest sites. I first witnessed this with my first flock of chickens. As the chicks began to approach laying age, one of my roosters, Perly, would go in and out of the nests making the same sounds he makes when she calls the hens to feed. She scratched the nests and lay down in the egg-laying position. It seemed like she was trying to show the girls that she had found a nice place to snuggle up.
Scratching for social interaction and bonding with other chickens.
An often overlooked purpose for scratching behavior in chickens is social interaction and bonding. Chickens are very social animals. If you've ever stopped to really observe a flock, they move together in groups throughout the day, clucking softly and apparently talking to each other.
They groom together, shower together, lounge together, and yes, scratch together. All these activities are not only necessary for the health of the chickens, but are also social activities. If one chicken starts taking a dust bath, others will come to join her. If one starts to fix itself, a pack will follow suit.
These activities are some of the main ways that chickens interact and bond. Chickens form strong bonds during these daily presentations. They show strong preferences for the other individuals they engage in these activities with, with some displaying distress behavior if one of their packmates is eliminated.
Relationships are built and maintained through participation in scratching and other daily herd behaviors.
Scratching for social interaction and bonding with humans.
Chickens will also begin to perform these behaviors (scratching, grooming, resting, bathing) next to (or even on top of) human keepers who spend a lot of time with them. Trust yourself, you will find them implementing these behaviors closer and closer to you. Eventually, many will do it right next to you, close enough for you to touch.
I even have several chickens that like to climb on my lap and scratch my pants (don't wear shorts, it hurts!). they prefer to perform their behaviors in their neighborhood than with other chickens.
I have also found that roosters that like me scratch vigorously and make food calls as soon as they see me or hear my voice. If I'm sitting they will come up to me with this behavior and keep scratching my side. They also scratch and call very dramatically when I'm gone, as if to say, "Come back and spend time with me, we can scratch and forage together!"
You put your right foot in, you put your right foot in... and you scratch the floor!
Joseph Barber, MD, of the University of Pennsylvania, notes that chickens generally scratch the ground with their right foot first, then alternate feet. He thinks this might actually have a practical purpose. The right foot is controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain, and in chickens, the left hemisphere is superior in discerning objects, such as distinguishing food from dirt or stones.
Doctor Barber thinks that if the right foot scratches the food, then the right eye should see it first and better help the chicken to immediately recognize it as a tasty treat.
What happens if a chicken can't scratch the floor?
Chickens reared in battery cages cannot practice their natural scratching behavior. The cages are too small and filled with too many chickens so there is not enough scratching space. Most battery operations do not have bedding on the cage floor and therefore the hens do not have any scratching material.
Chickens that cannot scratch tend to pluck their feathers and also peck and bite their cage mates. Plucking occurs when chickens pluck the feathers of other chickens (and sometimes themselves), which can be very painful.
Cannibalism is usually the result when chickens start pecking and biting each other. Chickens are attracted to blood, so once one is injured, the others may eat its meat, which can lead to serious injury or death.
Another problem for chickens that cannot scratch is that they cannot keep their toenails short. Many battery hens have toenails so long that they curl under their feet. Such long nails make it difficult, if not impossible, to walk. Unfortunately, battery hens don't have enough room to roam in their cages anyway.
The poor treatment of factory-raised chickens (and what I've described here is just the tip of the iceberg) is the main reason I started raising my own chickens. I have bought supermarket eggs my whole life and finally decided that I couldn't take that system anymore. I brought home my first flock of chickens and never looked back. May they scratch happily all their days. May yours too!
You may also be interested in:
Do chickens feel pain when laying eggs?
Holding a Chicken Upside Down: Is It Safe?
Holding Girls Behind Your Back: Cute or Cruel?
Appleby, Michael and others. Poultry Behavior and Welfare: Boston: CABI Publishing, 2004.
Barber, Jose, ed. The chicken: a natural history. Princeton: Fourth Publication, 2017.
Nicol, Christine J. The behavioral biology of chickens. Boston: CABI, 2015.