Pecking and scratching the ground is an innate chicken behavior, even seen with newly hatched baby chicks. It is essential for a chickens health and well-being to have the ability to peck and scratch the ground.
1. Chickens Peck and Scratch the Ground to Forage for Food
A chicken instinctively knows there is food in the ground and that if it pecks and scratches at the surface it can find a food source. Long ago, this is how a chickens ancestors found food. With this innate behavior, a chicken will still peck and scratch the ground even if it has a full crop.
A chicken will not only peck and scratch the ground for plants and grass, but it will also forage for insects, worms, snails, seeds and tiny rocks. They need the tiny rocks to aid in the digestion of the food that they consume.
Chickens do not have teeth and the tiny rocks help to break down food in their gizzard or muscular part of its stomach. These tiny rocks or “grit” help to break down the grain and fibers into more easily digestible particles.
When a chicken pecks and scratches the ground it is not only eating plants and grasses, but also insects, worms, snails and seeds.
2. Chickens Will Scratch and Peck at the Ground to Dig a Hole to Dust Bathe.
Have you ever seen a chicken take a dust bath? It is surely a sight to see. The first time I saw a chicken rolling around in the dirt, I thought something was wrong with it!
Chickens will scratch and peck at the ground until they form a nice hole that they can fit inside. They will proceed to roll around in it, fling up dirt or sand with their feet, until they are covered from head to tail in it. It removes excess oils, kills parasites and cleans their feathers.
This is absolutely hilarious to watch them do!
When a chicken takes a “dust bath,” it is the equivalent to a human taking a shower. When a chicken covers its feathers in dirt, it is actually cleaning itself all the way down to its skin, suffocating any parasites such as mites and lice at the same time.
After a chicken is finished taking a dust bath, it will get up and shake off all of the excess dirt and sand. Stand clear when they do this! It’s kind of like a dog shaking off after getting out of the water.
It isn’t unusual to see a group of chickens dust bathing together. Taking a dust bath and sun bathing is a social event for chickens!
3. A Messy Chicken Wipes Its Beak to Clean Its Face
A chicken will peck at the ground and wipe its beak back and forth in the dirt to clean its face. This is especially seen after consuming foods such as yogurt, moistened grains or other soft foods. The messier the food, the more you will see them wipe their beaks back and forth in the dirt.
Chickens like to keep clean and if there is food, dirt, poop, etc on their face, they will wipe their beaks back and forth in the dirt to clean themselves.
My chickens get really messy when I feed them yogurt. They get it all over their face and in between bites they are constantly wiping their beaks back and forth in the dirt to clean themselves off.
4. Chickens Scratch the Ground to File Their Nails
When a chicken scratches the ground, it is not only looking for food, but it is also filing its nails. A chicken that does not have access to scratch the ground will grow very long nails. Toe nails that get too long can cause a problem, especially while curling their toes during roosting.
Factory farmed chickens that live in cages would have very long nails if they lived long enough. Unfortunately, they only live an average of 42 days.
Battery cage chickens that are not allowed to scratch and peck often result to feather picking both themselves or others and cannibalism.
Sometimes older or sick hens do not scratch the ground. If this is the case, you may have to trim their toe nails yourself.
5. Pecking the Ground is How a Chicken Sharpens and Trims Its Beak
A chicken needs access to dirt and rocks so it can peck at the ground to sharpen and trim its beak, otherwise it will continue to grow and interfere with their quality of life. The beak is used for pecking, preening and eating and should be well maintained.
It is important for a chicken to have a well filed and sharpened beak for pecking, eating and preening purposes. If the upper beak grows too long, it can have difficulty eating and keeping clean.
Chickens also use their beaks to establish pecking order within the flock, so it is important to have a healthy beak.
Roosters need a sharp beak to use to hold on while mounting a hen during mating.
6. Chickens Peck and Scratch the Ground to Communicate With the Rest of the Flock
Chickens are extremely social animals and are almost always seen scratching and pecking the ground together. If one chicken starts pecking and scratching at the ground, others will come join in. It is how chickens form close bonds with others in the flock.
This goes the same with dust bathing, preening, eating, etc.
Chickens will form bonds with each other through pecking and scratching activities. Some chickens even show preferences to “hang out” with certain flock members over others and will show distress if that flock member is no longer there.
7. Chickens Scratch to Make a Nest
Even though a hen has a nest box to lay her eggs, she can often be seen scratching the ground and making a comfortable spot to nestle into. She will do this sometimes just to rest, but for some hens to lay an egg.
Hens will also scratch and turn about in the nesting boxes to make a nice nest. I have seen mine do this for close to an hour, before finally settling down. She will do this until she gets the nest “just right” before laying her egg.
For more information on the proper number, size, height, location and laying material available for your nesting boxes, read my article, Simple Guide to Setting Up the Best Hen Nesting Boxes.
8. A Chicken Likes to Peck and Scratch to Stay Cool
During hot weather, a chicken will scratch and peck at the ground to form a nice hole and lay inside of it to cool its body. A chicken will make the hole just big enough that the largest surface area of its body comes in contact with the ground, allowing the most cooling to occur. Pretty Smart!
9. Chickens Scratch the Ground for Human Interaction
Chickens can recognize up to 30 different faces, including humans. If you hang out with your chickens enough, they will begin to notice you as one of their flock. The more they trust you, the closer they will carry out their innate chicken behavior, such as pecking and scratching the ground!
What Happens If a Chicken is Unable to Scratch the Ground?
A chicken that is unable to scratch the ground is not able to carry out innate chicken behavior, necessary for its health and well-being. They are prone to developing long beaks and nails, are unable to clean themselves properly or feed themselves efficiently and are a social outcast in a flock.
This is often seen in battery cage chickens that are held in small wire cages, given just barely enough room to turn around. These cages have wire bottoms, not allowing them the ability to scratch or peck any substrate.
Another frequent behavior of chickens that are not given access to peck and scratch the ground is feather plucking of not only their own feathers, but of other chickens as well. This frequently leads to cannibalism.
Chickens that are not given the ability to peck and scratch the ground will immediately begin to do so if put in an environment that allows it.
How Do I Get My Chickens to Stop Digging Holes?
Digging holes for a chicken is instinctual behavior. They will dig holes to dust bathe, killing off parasites. They also dig holes to nestle into in order to cool off. You can stop a chicken from digging holes by providing an area where they CAN carry out this innate behavior.
Provide an area where your chickens can dig inside your chicken run. If you allow your chickens to free range in your yard and want to deter them from digging in your garden area, then you should provide an area out in your garden area too.
Steps to Making a Chicken Digging Area:
|Steps to Making a Chicken Digging Area|
|1||FIND A LARGE TIRE, CRATE OR USE|
CINDER BLOCKS AS A PERIMETER
|2||PLACE ONE IN CHICKEN RUN AND|
ONE OUT IN YOUR GARDEN AREA
(TO DETER GARDEN DIGGING)
|3||FILL IT WITH SUBSTRATE; FINE DIRT, SAND, WOOD ASH|
|4||ADD DIATOMACEOUS EARTH TO KILL PARASITES|
|5||ADD FRESH HERBS TO ENTICE THEM TO USE IT.|
DRIED MINT, LAVENDER AND ROSEMARY ARE
For more beneficial ways you can use herbs around your chickens, read my article, 5 Important Ways To Use Herbs Around Your Chickens.
CONCLUSION: 9 Interesting Reasons Chickens Will Peck and Scratch the Ground
Chickens come into the world with certain innate chicken behaviors, including pecking and scratching the ground. A long time ago, chickens had to peck and scratch the ground in order to survive.
A chicken does not need to be taught to scratch the ground to find food or to peck and scratch to file its beak and toe nails. Chickens also instinctively know to dust bathe to remove pesky parasites and to cool off during hot weather.
Chickens need to peck and scratch the ground for their health and well-being. Help them out by providing areas that they can carry out these innate behaviors.