Whenever I go away, be it for a week or a weekend, I always experience a slight hesitation about returning home. Not because I don’t miss my family—I do! But with four sons and a husband left to their own devices, I tend to worry about what shape I’ll find the house in upon my return. You may therefore understand my worry when I returned home after my three-week road trip across America with my youngest son, Bryce.
Surprisingly, the house was in perfect shape. No laundry awaited washing or folding. No dishes awaited washing. Furniture, floors, everything was in tip-top shape. Even the cats were groomed and fed. I breathed a sigh of relief that all was well and didn’t require a week of dedicated cleaning (or repair).
That relief vanished when I went to lock up our flocks for the night. All of our birds were alive. They had food, water, grit and shell, and their litter was fresh (a little too fresh, but I’ll let that slide). With minimal difficulty, I locked up both groups of Ancona ducks and our Ameraucanas, then headed over to close up the Silkie/Orpington coop. Fortunately, the girls were fine. Butters Orpington was settled into a nestbox for the night, with Natalya Silkie tucked underneath her.
And then there was Tiny Orpington, on the floor of the coop, motionless.
I immediately panicked. Tiny—Thomas, Jr., or TJ, but nicknamed Tiny because he is a dwarf—had been the picture of health when I’d left in mid August. Here he was, for all appearances, dead. I gingerly reached out a hand to feel if he were breathing … and Tiny immediately roused, rather grumpily and noisily. He gave me the ol’ stenkey, then settled himself back down to sleep.
Once again, relief flooded through me. And once again, it was only momentary. What the heck was Tiny doing sleeping on the floor?
He always occupies the leftmost spot on the roost, closest to the ventilation window. He’d never in his life had issues perching. As a baby chick, he had been the first of his rooster brothers to figure out how to use the perch in the brooder. When, as a cockerel, I’d moved him into his coop, he had almost instantly leapt up to the perch, where he could have a great view of all the hens he’d now be guarding (or, quite possibly, to escape from the hens).
He’d never been ill. He’d never been injured. Yet here he was, snuggling down in the fresh litter for the night.
Perplexed, I left him alone, locked up his coop and headed back to the house. I asked my family about Tiny’s odd behavior. My older teen, Jaeson, nodded. “Oh yeah! I meant to tell you. Tiny’s been sleeping on the ground for about a week.” I promise I did not put my sons through an Inquisition, but I did learn that there’d been no predators, the weather had been constantly temperate, no injury had been noted on any bird, and the feeder and waterer had been vigilantly maintained at full.
In short, no outside factor was causing Tiny to bed down on the ground.
The next day, I caught him as he exited the coop and brought him over to our examination table. He balefully glared at me while I thoroughly examined his feet, his legs and pretty much every other part of his body. I searched for a physical cause that might have initiated this bedtime ritual.
I spent a good half hour just observing him in his run, watching how he interacted with the hens and with his environment.
There was nothing amiss at all there, just as there had been nothing wrong with him that I could detect. I even waited semi-patiently for him to poop so I could examine his droppings for any telltale signs like worms, blood or mucus. Nothing.
Tiny seemed hale and hearty. So it was time to contact the poultry scientists and veterinarians I know to get their thoughts on Tiny’s behavior.
As it turns out, there are various reasons that a chicken—male or female—might stop perching. Here are the top four culprits.
Bumblefoot (or Pododermatitis) is an inflammatory condition in the soft tissues of a chicken’s foot. This affliction can range from a minor change in skin texture to a very noticeable limp and crippling deformity. Caught early enough, bumblefoot is easily treated with antibiotics and frequent coop cleaning.
Severe cases of bumblefoot can affect the bone, resulting in the death of tissue, bone and possibly the bird. Bumblefoot develops very quickly and could have set in while I was away. It would definitely have interfered with Tiny’s ability to perch.
A thorough examination of his feet, however, showed not even the slightest change in skin texture and no inflammation.
Read more: What is bumblefoot, and what should you do to prevent (or treat) it?
Scratching keeps chickens active all day, but it also serves a second purpose: the repetitive clawing at the ground naturally trims the birds’ talons, keeping the claws at a functional length. Like human fingernails, chicken talons continue to grow throughout a bird’s life.
When birds become inactive—either by choice, by confinement, or by inclement winter weather—their talons can grow overly long, possibly even curling over the tops of the toes. Overgrown talons can inhibit movement. Even simple motions like walking and scratching become difficult or impossible.
Overgrown talons would definitely impede a chicken’s ability to perch, as this involves a rooster wrapping toes around the roost. When I checked Tiny’s feet, however, I saw that his talons were their usual size.
Read more: Check out these tips for caring for the nails of you aging hens!
Although the skin on a chicken’s foot seems tough and impervious, it can be pierced by needle-sharp objects such as roost splinters, nettles and thorns. An embedded splinter can cause pain and swelling. If not removed, infection and abscess can occur, requiring medical treatment.
Tiny was strolling, trotting and hopping around his run without any indication of a sore foot, however. And visual inspection uncovered nothing noticeably embedded there.
Just like humans, chickens can suffer from arthritis. While human arthritis is most commonly caused by injury and by the wear and tear of age, arthritis in chickens is caused by a reovirus infection.
Affected birds suffer from inflammation of the leg joints and/or tendons. They present as lame, have swollen joints, and experience difficulty with walking, scratching and other forms of mobility. Because of the swelling in the toe joints, perching would be extremely difficult for a bird afflicted with viral arthritis. Tiny, however, showed no signs of joint swelling or hampered mobility.
Tiny’s refusal to perch stymied me. He was the picture of perfect poultry health, fluidly active and doting yet protective of his hens. I tried lifting him onto his coop’s perch, feeling his feet to make sure the little rooster had gripped the roost. Each time, he squawked angrily at me, then settled himself on the roost, only to purposely hop back down moments later.
One night, after struggling to get him to perch, I peeked through one of the coop’s vents to watch what my rooster would do next. After a minute or so, Tiny jumped off the roost, then softly vocalized to his hens as he settled himself in his new favorite sleeping spot. To my surprise, a couple of the girls went over and snuggled up to him!
Tiny’s flock consists of Silkies too small to hop up to the roost and blind Butters, who perched until she could no longer see. Tiny wasn’t being difficult, nor was he suffering from some malady. He was choosing to sleep on his coop’s floor to be closer to his hens.
I returned to my house, proud of my responsible little rooster and relieved to know that, come winter, Tiny wouldn’t shiver alone on that coop perch.