Why do chickens scratch the ground?

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: They all scratch the ground. This chicken behaviour is instinctive and seems to be rooted in a chicken's DNA. After all, 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 freely roam your gardens they will quickly uproot garden beds.

The question is, however, why do chickens scratch so much? 

Why do chickens scratch the ground?

1. To forage for food
2. For social interaction
3. To make a dust bath
4. 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 chickens will peck and scratch the ground to find tasty morsels. This is how the wild ancestors of chickens would have found food, by scratching with their feed and pecking. Chickens do this even if they have a feeder full of food. When chickens are foraging, they dine on plants, seeds and insects, such as snails and worms. As they are omnivores, chickens 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

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 your chickens might scratch at the ground by your feet. This may be a hello, it may also be an invitation to come and scratch.

Scratching for hygiene

Chicken dust bath

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, cleaning the chicken and helping to protect it against parasites such as lice and mites. After dust bathing, the chicken will preen itself to remove the dust and the feathers are also cleaned of dirt, oil and even parasites in the process. Parasites hate dust as it clogs their breathing, making a chicken's 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 in their "bath", flapping their feathers and wriggling in the dirt. Once the chicken is properly dusty, it will spend a long time cleaning its feathers and preening to remove the dust.

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.