Why do chickens scratch the ground?
If you have ever watched a flock of chickens interact outside of a hen house, you will notice a common characteristic that they all have in common. They all scratch the ground. This chicken bahaviour is instinctive and seems to be rooted in a chickens DNA, afterall how would a chick who has no other contact with hens know to scratch ground?
Chickens love to scratch. So much so, that if you were to let your chickens to freely roam your gardens they will quickly wear away your turf and uproot garden beds.
The question however is, why do they scratch so much?
1. To forage for food
2. For social interaction
3. To make a dust bath
4. Scratching to build a comfortable nest
Scratching to Forage
Backyard chickens love to forage. This is an essential yet innate chicken behaviour, once necessary for chickens to survive. Foraging is where they will peck and scratch the ground to find tasty morsels, and they will do this even if they have a feeder full of food. When they are foraging hens will dine on insects such as snails and worms, weeds and seeds. As they are omnivores, they will peck and eat just about anything, enjoying both plant and animal matter.
Not only does foraging expand a chickens diet, it is also helps to keep their behaviour in check.
Scratching the ground is a social behaviour don't you know?
While it's not an activity I'd recommend when you are introducing yourself to people, for chickens scratching is form of bonding. When chickens are comfortable with one another they will scratch at the ground.
In fact, once they become relaxed in your presence, rather than run away they will scratch at the ground by your feet. This may be a hello, it may also be an invitation to come and scratch also.
Scratching for hygiene
Unlike humans, in order for a chicken to get a good clean they need to get dirty and very dusty. This is called a dust bath. The dust has a purpose, helping to protect them against parasites such as lice and mites. Parasites hate dust as it clogs their breathing pathways and pores making a chickens feathers quite uninhabitable.
To take a dust bath, a chicken will scratch out a hen-sized depression in the ground or garden. They will then sit into their "bath" flapping their feathers and wriggling among the dirt
Scratching out a comfortable nest
Even though your hens may have a perfectly comfortable nest inside they will still feel the urge to build themselves a nest outside. To do this, they will scratch the ground or garden until they have made the spot comfortable enough to rest in.
You will also find that they will scratch inside their nesting boxes, kicking away their bedding until they have created a comfortable place to sleep.