After 18 mths of keeping a small flock of chickens for the first time, I've spent hundreds of hours observing their movements, behaviors, personalities. I've come to the conclusion that they really struggle with depth perception. In my coop (6'x8' with 6ft tall walls, and a peaked ceiling) I installed multiple roosts, different sizes and shapes and heights. I have 3 generations of standard size chickens now (all hatched here) and they ALL prefer the flat 2x4 roost, and they want to go to the highest roost they can find. I even found one pullet clinging like a bat, to the 1-1/2" wide top rail of the wall where the gable wall meets the main wall. They get up there by a combination of jumping and fluttering and walking up a short ramp.
But THEN.... they can't figure out how to get back down in the morning. I've installed a variety of ramps over the year to try and solve this problem but I don't have enough length to do a single ramp that's not too steep so I've ended up with several short ones, with a switchback and landing pads at the ends. I've observed that chickens don't do switchbacks and can't figure out a complex pattern of walk to the end of the roost, go down the ramp, turn 90 or 180 degrees and go down the next ramp, jump 6" down to the next roost, etc. (it helps when I guide them the first couple times but as soon as they see someone else below them they panic and just want to follow the other girl. They're confused and don't remember the pattern) They're even afraid of jumping down 10" to the next roost - 6 inches is about the max they will jump down. So they fret and fuss and finally just jump down from 3-6 feet high and land with a thud on the wood floor. I've also observed outside when they're climbing around on big woodpiles or furniture, they just don't know how to navigate "step downs". At least outside they can fly down but the coop is too small to get any wing lift.
Geometry is not my thing and I'm trying to decide how to remedy this problem, especially as I increase the #birds taking up space in the coop and competing to get out the door in the morning. I wanted to share this with others designing their coops, but also this worries me because as they get heavier they might injure their legs and I wonder if this is what could cause bumblefoot? The obvious of course, is just not provide high roosts but I thought I could avoid conflict by giving them multiple heights. Besides, I enjoy a challenge and chicken sociology has become my thing :)
We've had chickens before, and I'm going to get chickens again in a couple of years, so my take on it is as follows:
It's not a lack of depth perception that's the problem, it's chicken's survival/navigation mode.
Chickens are dinosaurs that evolved to live in forests. They like to roost high because it gets them away from the ground where the night-time predators prowl. Perches equate to branches in a tree. Climbing to higher and higher perches is the same as climbing to higher and higher branches. Not being able to see out is mentally equated to not being able to be seen. The problem with that is that as you go higher in a tree, the number of small twigs tends to increase, making the "flapping of wings" a tricky proposition. A chicken that can't flap it's wings in clear space will fall like a brick if it slips on the way down. That's why they don't like climbing down — limited flap room results in an increased chance of injury... and an injured bird is a dead bird.
I noticed years ago with our chickens that in the morning they would happily 'aim for' something that looks like a 'break in the foliage' (aka, an exit — brighter on the outside than on the inside). We had a big coop with perches rising up from one side like bleachers to the middle, and the other half being open for humans to access, and the external wall of that bottom area being open to the run. The chickens would climb up to the top perch, stay there all night, then simply fly/flutter down the open half towards the well-lit exit on the opposite wall. None ever got injured as far as I'm aware. The top perch was about 1.8m off the ground.
Most coop designs I see have the perches get higher and higher towards a back wall. This makes sense for humans, but not for chickens, as it doesn't 'work like a tree'. If you design your coop and perches so the chickens can 'hop their way up' to the tallest perch, then 'fly/flutter down' towards a well-lit and obvious exit in the morning — through an open space clear of obstructions — then I think the chickens will do fine.
Thanks Tim - you've accurately described (more eloquently) what I've observed. My problem is not enough space for them to "fly" down - they just jump from 4-6 feet high and THUD. It's the landing that worries me. I know they don't like steps. So I'm still playing around with how to centralize and simplify my ramps into a single with minimal turns. (and discovering that Trigonometry is my actual weakness - haha) I'm also thinking whole hay bales around the space to soften the blow, and hang "poop gutters" about 6" under each roost for easy cleaning.
Have you considered punching a hole out of the side of your coop so that the chickens can walk along the top roost to the side wall, go through the hole, navigate a gentle bend out onto a ledge, and then be able to fly down from the ledge into the run?
Breaks in the 'foliage' don't have to be below the perches — they can be off to the side ('off the end of the branch'). So long as there is no direct line-of-sight to the outside world from the perch itself, the chickens should still feel secure.
Clip off their main wing feathers on one side only, back to the tip of the "meat". A regular pair of scissors works well. Tuck the bird under one arm and use one hand to cut and the other to hold. We always do it first thing in the morning. We stand by the door to the run and pitch them outside as the clipping is done. With only one wing cut, it unbalances them so they can't fly. It stops them from getting over garden fences. It may also stop them from roosting up so high in coop.
As for depth perception, they have little. Their eyes are on either side of their heads. It's a great arrangement to see a wide field of view to avoid attacks by predators. The way they see is entirely different from the way humans/bears/cats/raccoons/wolves see. That is helpful to know when herding them. If you want them to go left, you fully extend your arm to the right. Then they "think" another person (predator) is over there. So they move left. To go right, extend left arm and hand. Then as you herd them move somewhat slowly and you can make them walk where ever you want. If you try to herd them too fast, they generally just freak and scatter everywhere.
Creating sustainable life, beauty & food (with lots of kids and fun)
Herding chickens is easy. If I have the feedpail and shake it and do 'chook chook chook' they will slowly follow me anywhere hoping I have some wheat bread ripped up in there. A small amount of stale wheat bread is a rare treat they LOVE. I have someone I farmsit for and I have taught them the darker haired woman with the feed pail doing that means really good things in that pail. I sit for a few weeks every other month and they remember that long...
Edit, Wing trim I do the first four flight on both wings. They can't get lift then. For farmsitter she had one really flighty wild white one, good egg layer but if it could get out it would, then do everything but run back in a wide open ten foot door, even when it was wide open and door in her path, she'd run around the door heading outwards. I'd have to catch her in the coop with the hatches closed to trim her.
Perch rack at 45 degree angle with about a horizontal foot between the rungs and six inch vertical rise, seemed to work (about 13 1/2" between rungs when building it flat) for them hopping up and down. And bottom rung at about a foot off floor and top one at about 5' vertical always worked.
Tim is right about the depth perception and the reason that they fly to the highest point that they can, protection. The rafters in my coops were a favorite place for my chickens that had enough wing strength to reach until I put chicken wire across them. And you're right about them landing hard, it can cause bumble foot.
I may be misunderstanding your perch design, but it doesn't sound like you have one continuous ramp that goes from the top to the floor. In my coops the highest perch board runs across the sides and the back of the coop about 5 1/2 feet high and 18" from the wall. The next highest is 2 feet lower and another 36 " away from the walls and the last perch is another 2 feet lower and 54" from the wall. Basically it's a stair step approach where no one is directly above anyone else, which results in crap covered chickens. Where the boards meet in the corners I attach a walk plank that meets the top perch, comes down and attaches to the next two perches and finally meets the floor. Because each tier of perches is slightly farther out than the one above it, this ramp descends at about a 45 degree angle. I also put thin strips of wood across the ramp to facilitate footing. The chickens on the lowest perch usually hop down, but the others follow a fairly orderly pattern when descend. I will try and get a picture of it attached in a few days. You're right also about chickens not remembering patterns easily, it takes them a while to figure stuff out. They key is that it's one continuous ramp all the way to the floor, no switch backs. If all perches lead to the down ramp, they'll figure it out.
What fascinating info and great ideas everyone! Since I last posted I completely reworked the coop. One reason I was worried is that I've introduced 2 new generations this summer and the new kids are nervous, figuring out where they can perch and completely confused trying to get out in the morning.
Yes, the coop length is just under 8 feet long so to get from 6 feet high to the ground requires a very steep pitch (more than 45 degrees I think). So I created some larger landing areas in the corners and did a ramp with a single switch back. They did better this morning but still not ideal because the entrance to the ramp is on one side where the old birds roost so the new kids waited until long after everyone was gone before coming down. That's okay but when I read Tim's suggestion to take the ramp outside I thought "duuuh!" Brilliant. Of course my coop is exactly wrong - my door is in the middle of the long side so there's no fluttering room. But I can put a hinged door at the top roost (central to both generations) for access to a ramp outside! Yay!
I trimmed my older bird's wings last year and it was very effective to keep them off my 6 foot high fence but I kinda want to spoil them and let them use the height in the coop. I'm going for as natural a lifestyle as I can achieve for them. I enjoy watching the young ones flutter across the yard so I'll wait until they try to escape before trimming theirs.
To add pictures (and be sure they are jpeg and under 2mb in size!)... type your message then... under the text box there are two tabs. One is darker and says 'options'. Click the lighter colored one called 'attachments'. It will give you a grey box and button for you to hit the button, search and find on your computer, the picture file you want to download. Once you have that chosen, you can type in a short description that will display below the picture once posted. If you want to add more pctures, select 'add another file' below that, and repeat. You won't be able to see them in preview but. Submit, and wait for it to finish loading. Voila. Your own illustrated post. Can't wait to see your pictures.
Thanks Deb! Easy Peasy! when I tried before it asked me for a URL, and I read someone else's instructions that I needed to have my pics on a third party website so I gave up - too much to keep track of. You're a peach.
It might be next week before I redo the ramp. It's stinkin' hot and humid here so I'm mostly staying in with my sewing machine this week :)