Of all the behaviors innate to chickens, scratching the ground is one of the most obvious. Almost as soon as they hatch and are able to walk around, chickens will scratch and peck at the ground.
Why do chickens scratch the ground? Typically, it comes down to five main reasons; they are foraging for food, digging a hole to make a dust bath, making a nest, interacting socially, or possibly trying to dig an escape hole!
Let’s take a closer look at these reasons and see if you can better understand your feathered friends:
5 Reasons Why Chickens Scratch the Ground
They're Foraging for Food
Chickens love to forage, and they spend most of their days doing so. On a basic level, it’s an innate behavior that has helped chickens survive in the wild for thousands of years.
Not many backyard chickens rely on finding bugs, edible plants, and other bits to eat as we provide commercial feeds. But chickens still love to forage.
My chickens will literally run around chasing each other clucking away with excitement. Combined with being a protein-rich snack, it’s a win-win.
They're Digging a Hole for a Bath
Naturally, this often comes as a surprise to new owners, but chickens clean themselves by rolling around in loose dirt.
This process is called taking a dust bath.
Chickens aren’t the only animals that do it. Most birds take dust baths, as do chinchillas, cats and dogs to some extent, pigs, and bison to name a few.
It sounds counterintuitive at first, rolling around in the dirt to get clean. But this is how chickens get all the bits of dirt and debris out of their feathers and plumage.
They aren’t able to take a bath in water, and it wouldn’t do the job even if they could. So, shaking loose dirt through their feathers then preening the
It's a Form of Social Interaction
Chickens are social animals, especially when looking at their internal hierarchy and how they interact with one another.
They move around in flocks, help each other find bits of food, huddle together, roost together, bathe together, and of course, scratch around together.
If you pay close attention, you’ll likely notice some little interactions that show you they’re paying attention to one another.
Things like scratching in similar areas to double-check for food and picking up bits of dirt other chickens have checked and tossed away. As well as working together to dig deeper holes.
If your chickens are not patrolling your yard and scratching at the ground, that’s when something unusual is going on.
They're Trying to Escape Under a Fence!
Chickens are also intelligent and crafty birds. If you spot them digging and scratching at the same area that happens to be near the perimeter of their pen, they might be trying to escape.
This happens a lot. This doesn’t mean they’re unhappy or not enjoying their living quarters, sometimes they are just curious as to what’s on the other side of their fence.
The last thing you want is your chickens escaping when you’re not looking. Just do a double-check that you’ve buried their fencing deep enough and they won’t be able to dig an escape tunnel.
They're Building a Nest
But on occasion, a chicken will build a little nest area outside to sit or lay in during the day. Who can blame them, right? Sometimes you just want a nice comfy spot in the sun to relax.
Related - Here’s where and why chickens build nests.
Why Do Chickens Scratch Their Beaks on the Ground?
Most of a chicken’s scratching and digging actions are done with their feet. Chickens have very tough, sharp claws and are able to dig holes through some very tough surfaces.
They will also use their beaks on occasion, however, but this doesn’t always mean they are just trying to loosen up the surface and dig.
Typically, chickens rub or scratch their beaks on the ground for the following reasons:
- To clean it - They use their beaks to pick up and eat all sorts of messy foods, sometimes they just need to give it a good wipe and clean it off.
- To sharpen it - Chicken’s beaks continue to grow throughout their lives. Their beaks do a lot of work, they need to shape, sharpen, and make adjustments to keep it in top working order. They do this by scratching it on a hard surface.
- Social/mating reasons - Just as chickens scratch with their feet as a social activity, they also scratch the ground and dig with their beaks for social reasons. It’s also believed they are able to leave a scent by doing this which helps attract mates.
How Do I Stop My Chickens From Digging?
If you don’t like your chickens digging holes in your yard, the bad news is that chickens need to dig.
As I’ve explained, digging is completely normal and innate behavior that comes as naturally to chickens as walking and eating.
You shouldn’t try to discourage it, honestly. They need to forage, need their dust baths, and need to be happy doing what comes naturally to them.
If they’re digging up plants you care about or making a mess around the perimeter of their pen, then that’s a little different.
You should fence off important plants. Some people use spices and other strong scents to try and repel chickens, but honestly. It’s not that reliable.
Next time you’re watching your chickens and you see them scratching the ground, you now know what they’re up to.
They’re most likely scratching for little insects, bugs, and other morsels. Or, they’re creating a dust bath, a nest, and the other things I explained above.
In short, it’s just chickens being chickens!
Image credits - Photo by Andre Tan on Unsplash