Can you keep a single chicken by itself?
Chickens are highly social animals. They evolved to live in flocks and are happiest when kept with other chickens.
There are very few circumstances in which it is ok to keep a chicken by itself. Of course, chickens do sometimes need to be isolated if they are sick or broody, but these short periods are very different to keeping only one chicken!
Do chickens get lonely?
Chickens probably don’t experience loneliness in the same way you or I would. But they do experience isolation.
In the wild, Red Jungle Fowl, the ancestors of chickens, live in small flocks. While they may spend time alone, they are always close enough to the flock to hear the rooster crow.
As prey animals, the presence of the flock is very important to chickens for safety and security. One study found isolation to decrease chicks’ foraging behaviour, presumably due to the increased vigilance required when alone.
Anyone who has spent time observing their chickens will know that chickens are very social. They have complex relationships, from BFFs, to frenemies and enemies. Chickens may even mourn the loss of a companion.
While some chickens are less interested in making friends, even these birds will roost with the flock at night and rarely stray out of calling distance. No matter their personality, chickens will experience distress if they are removed from the flock.
How does isolation affect chickens?
Scientists agree that chickens experience stress when they are isolated.
Isolation can lead to symptoms like:
- Feather picking
- Distress calls
- Decreased egg production
- Poor appetite and weight loss
- Failure to engage in normal behaviours such as foraging or dust bathing
- General poor health
- Increased susceptibility to parasites and disease
Young chicks are particularly affected by isolation. In fact, many scientific studies looking at the effects of stress use social isolation as the catalyst to cause stress! Isolation as a chick can affect long-term development including spatial memory and learning.
Can I get just one chicken?
You should never buy just one chicken.
Chickens need to be kept with others. If you can only keep one chicken, you should not get chickens at all. Instead, wait to get chickens until you can keep at least 2 chickens or, even better, 3.
Even if you already have a flock, it is best to buy at least 2 chickens at a time if you can. This means that the new bird isn’t alone during the quarantine period. Also, introducing multiple birds to the flock together is often easier, and less bloody, than introducing one bird alone.
Help! I just have one chick
Keeping a chick alone is even worse than keeping a single chicken! Chicks are especially distressed by being kept alone. Isolation as a chick can cause long-term behavioural changes and other issues.
Never buy just one chick to raise. Even if you have a flock for the chick to join when it is grown, you should always raise at least 2 chicks together.
Sometime if a hatch is poor, you can end up with just one chick. A single chick being raised by a mother hen is fine, but a single chick in a brooder is not ok. If you end up with just one chick, either give it to someone with similar-aged chicks or buy it a companion of a similar age as quickly as you can!
When should a chicken be kept alone?
Sometimes chickens need to be isolated from the flock for a short period. But there are measures you can take to ensure this isolation is as stress-free as possible for the chicken.
Sitting hens often isolate themselves from the flock. If you have a sitting hen, it is best to move her out of the main coop, but if you can keep her within sight of the rest of the flock, for example in a smaller coop within the run, she will feel more secure.
Broody hens can be put in a Broody Breaking Box to cure them of broodiness. Again, it is best if this cage is in the coop or run.
Sick and injured chickens
Sick and injured birds should always be isolated from the flock. It is easier to treat unwell chickens in a separate cage, and it prevents other chickens from picking on them. Injured birds can be kept in a hospital cage within the coop or run, but sick birds should be well away from the flock to stop the disease from spreading. Being within earshot of the flock is always preferable. Once the chicken is on the mend, provide opportunities to forage and dust bathe to help them cope with the isolation.
Chicks with spraddle leg should be separated from their hatch mates during treatment to avoid further injuries. But chicks are particularly stressed by isolation, so we like to provide a mate and keep them within earshot, or sight, of the other chicks.
New chickens can carry diseases and should always be quarantined well away from the chicken coop to protect the health of your flock. We recommend getting at least 2 chickens and quarantining them together, and providing plenty of boredom busters!
What to do when you lose your flock
Occasionally, a chicken keeper can be left with just one chicken. In most cases, if you are left with just one bird the best option is to get another chicken for company or rehome the bird with another flock. This is particularly true of younger chickens.
But sometimes, you may not be able to get another chicken or rehome. This is particularly true if your flock was lost in a disease outbreak and the surviving bird could be a carrier of the illness.
Also, chicken keepers occasionally choose not to replace their chickens as they age, and are eventually left with just one bird.
Factors influencing chicken loneliness
Sometimes, just occasionally, the kinder choice may be to keep just one chicken alone. But this depends on the following factors, as some chickens will cope better with loneliness than others:
1. The age of the bird
Chicks always need a companion. For younger birds, that are more adaptable, keeping them alone for many years seems unkind.
However, joining a new flock and having to find your place in the pecking order is very stressful for chickens. An older bird may find the transition more difficult than just staying in a familiar environment, even if that means they will be alone.
2. How humanised the chicken is
A chicken that is skittish and avoids people is less likely to cope with isolation than a chicken that is more like a pet, because for most lone chickens, people and pets become their replacement flock.
3. The chicken’s relationships
Some chickens bond so closely with people that they are ok if they lose their flock. We once adopted a hen called Penny, who was very much a pet. Penny’s owners gave her lots of attention, particularly after their other chickens died. Penny joined our flock, but she was much more interested in being petted and following us around than she ever was in the other chickens! Penny had the sort of relationship with people that meant she was ok when she was left without a flock.
Chickens can also develop close relationships with other animals, such as ducks and other poultry, dogs, pets and livestock. While these relationships shouldn’t replace a flock, some chickens, like Lady Bird in this New Yorker article, cope with living alone by finding a replacement flock of other animals.
Even chickens that have found a replacement flock may be stressed if they are expected to roost alone. Ensure your chicken has a place to roost with their “flock” at night.
4. The chicken’s personality
Each chicken has a unique personality, which will affect how well they cope with being alone.
For example, we have a chicken called Road Runner. She doesn’t like other birds much, and spends the day foraging alone. You only rarely see her with one of the other hens.
While Road Runner would no doubt be distressed if there were no other chickens, as she does roost with them, she has a personality that means she is more likely to cope with being alone than a chicken that utters a distress call as soon as they are out of sight of the others!
Should you keep a chicken alone?
If you get stuck with just one chicken, think carefully about whether it is likely to cope with being the only hen (or rooster), along with how much attention you can give it. If in doubt, seriously consider rehoming or getting another bird.
Never keep a single chick by itself. We also strongly recommend rehoming any bird younger than 2 or 3 years for most hybrids, and 5-7 years for most heritage breeds.
If you are keeping a chicken alone, look for signs of stress such as feather picking, decreased appetite, lethargy, decreased egg laying, distress calls, failure to engage in normal behaviours etc. If your chicken is showing signs of stress, the kindest thing to do is to rehome it or find it a friend!
Happy chicken keeping!
Rachael at Dine a Chook Australia