Chickens coming home to roost

A reader of our chicken advice column has a question about her chickens coming home to roost:

Listen Lissa,

We have a flock of three so far (more in the brooder) who get along great, and have been in the same roomy coop with plenty of roosts since they were chicks.

They're about 17 weeks now.  Out of the blue, the second hen in the pecking order, (Joules a barred rock), was not in the coop with the other two when we went out to close their door around 8 pm. The others were very quiet.  We looked all over with flashlights and called for her but no sounds.  The next morning we found Joules in the big fir tree near the coop.  They all have roosted in this tree before during the day but it's not their favorite place.  Now, every evening, I watch the flock do their routine of ambling and snacking on the way to the coop, walking up the ramp, and then all three going in.  About 30 seconds later, I see Joules walk back out. Joules walks back and forth, and calls to the head hen, Roxie (a barred rock also). Joules eyes the fir tree and either hops the fence or walks along the fence out the gate to roost up in the tree.  She's done this every evening for four days now, despite being taken out and placed back in the coop by us.

Nothing we know has changed in the coop or backyard. I'm just wondering why she'd rather roost in a tree by herself, where it's not as safe, rather than with her flock in a clean dry coop.  Also wondering if we're going to have to pluck her out of the tree every single evening.

~Tree topper

Well, Tree Topper, of course there's no way for me to know for sure what's going on, but let me suggest three possibilities that may affect your chickens coming home to roost.
First, some breeds---especially bantams---prefer to roost in trees at night rather than in a coop. You don't mention whether or not your hens are barred rock bantams; that said, barred plymouth rock large fowl are not especially known for preferring to roost in trees. However, as you doubtless know, your pet hens are all individuals and they may have individual preferences and quirks. Even if this is the case, though---that your barred rock hen Joules just happens to prefer roosting in a tree for her own reasons---it's still not a good idea to let her. You're right that she's much safer inside, and you have to look out for her best interests, even when she may want something different.
If carrying her back into the coop every night isn't working to encourage her to develop better, safer, habits, then you might try closing the door immediately, as soon as she goes into the coop. This will mean you'll have to be watching and ready to go when you see your chickens coming home to roost... as soon as you see Joules go inside, shut the door, because she'll be back out in only 30 seconds! It's possible that closing the door before she comes back out will teach her how to settle safely to roost in the coop on her own, and to develop that good habit again. Failing that, you can try keeping them inside the coop for a few days until Joules re-learns where to roost. Make sure to do this in mild weather; you don't want to have them shut inside the coop on days where it will get too hot inside!

Another possibility is that Joules gets nervous in the dark coop in the evening.  It sounds silly, but sometimes young birds who have been raised beneath a heat lamp can actually be afraid of the dark: a heat lamp that's on 24-7 produces light as well as heat, and so the darkness might just be alien to her. Joules might simply find it more comfortable outside where it's a little brighter for longer, or where she has moonlight (or street lights, depending on where you live). So, you might try putting a little tap light inside the coop, and turn it on before bedtime. When they're settled on the roost, you can go turn it out. A small solar light will slowly dim and go out on its own. (Generally, you don't want to abruptly turn the lights out on your birds in the evening, because it can be difficult for them to safely roost when the lights go out suddenly. Do make sure they're safely roosting before turning the light out, or make sure to use a light that dims slowly.)


Lastly, it's possible Joules is being accosted by something in the coop that you're not seeing. For instance, a few years ago, I was having a similar issue. While my girls weren't roosting in trees, several decided to roost on a stone wall beside the coop. I couldn't figure it out at first. What I eventually discovered was that they were suffering from mites; some mites emerge and feed chiefly in the evening, just when you see your chickens coming home to roost. Joules's rejection of the coop may be reaction to an "attack" that isn't immediately obvious to you. Read more about mites---and how to treat your girls---on our website.

Please write back and let us know how these suggestions work out for you! I hope the advice helps. Do my readers have any other suggestions?

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9 years ago

My girls do the same thing! Four sleep inside and now 4 head to the coop roof every night. I can lure them inside if I get out treats before the sun goes down, but if it is already dark, I have to pick them up and move them.

9 years ago

I have an Ameracauna who refuses to sleep in the coop. She has for 4 years now. She doesn't roost in a tree, however, she roosts on top of the coop. Like a watch-dog. She only goes in when the weather is very bad.

I had a Japanese Bantam that tried tree-roosting, but after she hopped the fence once I had to trim her wings, and that took care of that. She's now happily roosting in a safer place.

9 years ago

The first thing I thought of was mites, as mentioned in the article. However, I was reminded of having read a reprint book on chicken housing that was published in the 1920s. The author investigated the question of what kind of housing do chickens themselves prefer. He did some experiments, and found that the chickens he worked with preferred roosting in trees to any kind of coop design he came up with, unless the weather was really stormy. He inferred through his work that chickens really appreciate good ventilation, which was an idea which was accepted at the time. I have kept my own chickens first in a commercial small, three sided coop, then moved the whole thing inside a 10 x 10 covered dog run. The birds had a choice between sleeping inside the "coop" which was left open, or a higher pole perch about 4 feet off the ground. Most of them, most of the time, preferred the higher, open air perch. One heavy breed probably couldn't fly well enough to get up the perch. The others who used the coop only did so in winter weather.

Nancy Crocker
9 years ago

Chickens are descended from jungle fowl, and the ones who roosted the highest were the ones that lived to reproduce. Once in a while a domestic chicken will seem to remember its past history and decide to take to the trees. (Bantams, usually being closer to their ancestors, will do it most often.)
Make sure your coop has a high perch for roosting and make it accessible to your birds via hopping up a "ladder" of staggered perches.
Then, clip their wings!
My Ameracaunas were absolutely determined to sleep in a tree, regardless of the weather, and they gradually convinced my other hens to join them. I finally resorted to these measures and it was totally successful. Now they are all content to sleep in their safe, dry coop as long as they can be near the roof.
Their feathers grew back a long time ago but they are still behaving themselves.

9 years ago

Also if you take too long letting them out in the morning they will prefer to stay out all night and avoid being trapped inside too long in the morning. I've also noticed that when it got really hot here they didn't want to go in, preferring the cool of the outdoor evening.

Stevee Salazar
9 years ago

That would make a good blog entry: Wings, to trim or not to trim.
I personally don't believe in wing trimming as it is one of the only defences that a chicken has against a predator. I think sometimes humans have to change everything and don't trust mother nature.I'm sure plenty of people disagree and maybe some think like me... chickens should be able to escape danger if they can... especially if they free range.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
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