From keeping insect populations down (especially ticks) to providing us with a renewable food source, there are many reasons to keep chickens. You tend to them and take care of these fluffy yardbirds, but why are chickens soscared of you?
You easily scare your chickens because you are so much bigger than they are, and they don’t know your intentions. Their initial reaction to avoid danger is to run away. Never chase your chickens or allow others to do so, as it will condition them to be afraid when you approach them.
If you own chickens or are thinking about introducing them to your property, continue to read as we will go over why chickens are so easily frightened and what you can do to gain their trust.
Why Are Chickens Scared So Easily?
There are many reasons your chickens get a fright. Recognizing them is the first step to avoiding scaring them!
Chickens Are Intelligent
When most people think of intelligent animals, they may think immediately about primates such as chimps and gorillas, dolphins, or the wise old owl. Most people would never associate chickens with a level of intelligence.
Believe it or not, studies have concluded chickens are indeed pretty intelligent. The National Library of Medicine completed a study on the intelligence of chickens in their article; Thinking chickens: a review of cognition, emotion, and behavior in the domestic chicken. They say some chickens are as smart as some primates, have been shown to remember people, and have a complex society.
It’s this intelligence that makes chickens frightened of so many things. They know threats abound and they have to be on the constant lookout for them.
Chickens are Naturally Skittish
From the time chickens hatch from the egg, they are naturally skittish. They are small animals without many ways to defend themselves from the dangers of the big world. Anything bigger than them or more threatening will scare your chickens.
The only actual way a chicken has to protect itself from danger is to run away and hide. This ingrained nature has made chickens naturally skittish and predestined to run away from you.
Roosters, on the other hand, are often the protectors of the flock and may come at you with their spurs. Still, for most roosters, the immediate instinct is to run. Once cornered, though, even the most frightened rooster can become a threat, so be careful if you have them included in your flock.
This natural skittishness may cause your chickens to scatter if they are not used to being around you. Moving toward them, bending down, or walking after them can cause them to run.
Unlike dogs and cats, chickens don’t particularly enjoy being held and petted. Eventually, if you are successful in creating a bond with your chickens, they may let you hold them and stroke them. However, this is more because of a bond of trust than enjoying close contact.
Chickens are Prey Animals
What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word chicken? Could it be ‘nuggets’? Maybe fried, grilled, or noodle soup? If those were the first things people thought when they mentioned me, I’d be pretty terrified of everyone as well.
Chickens are prey animals. Any animals bigger than they are usually looking at chickens as a fat, fresh meal. Chickens know almost everything is out to eat them, so they plan to run from anything that appears threatening.
You are Much Bigger
Imagine you are the size of a chicken, only reaching a few inches off the ground. Then this towering giant is looming over you, staring at you, and reaching down to pick you up. Sounds like something out of a nightmare, doesn’t it?
People probably don’t realize how intimidating they look to smaller animals because most of us have grown up around cats and dogs. These pets are used to us and most don’t even think twice about letting us reach down to them or pick them up.
Chickens haven’t gotten to that level of comfort around humans yet.
Since you are a much bigger animal compared to a chicken, they immediately perceived you as a threat. It doesn’t matter that you feed and water them, unless you gain their trust, your chickens will continue to run away from you.
You many also be wearing a smell that chickens dislike. You can check out our full list of scents that chickens hate to make sure you aren’t wearing one!
Chickens Don’t Like Loud Noises
Their skittish nature and the fact everything under the sun wants to eat them means loud noises also frighten your yardbirds. Whether you’re laughing, calling to them, or shouting hello to the neighbor across the street, they will perceive these noises as threats and your chickens may take off.
Even something as innocent as a sneeze can send your chickens scattering to every corner of your yard. If you are approaching your chickens to get closer to them, you’ll have to use gentle voices and noises to keep from scaring them.
Thunder, loud automobiles, motorcycles, lawn equipment, or even distant gunshots can frighten your chickens. Have you heard them cackle and get upset inside the henhouse after a loud noise? It was probably because the noise startled them.
Chickens Don’t Like the Game of Chase
Chickens actually can remember experiences and people. If you bought your chickens from another farm or didn’t raise them from chicks, you don’t know if someone else has chased them before. They may assume everyone wants to chase them, so they naturally run away.
Growing up, I used to think it was great fun to chase chickens at my friends house when he had them. At the time, it was fun to hear the chickens squawk, warble and run away (but then shortly come back.) No wonder they stayed away!
Chickens will remember being chased by people and start associating people with that behavior. If you are trying to get your chickens to trust you and get closer, don’t chase them yourself, and don’t let others chase them when they see them!
Sudden Movements Are Threatening To Chickens
Sudden moves will also frighten chickens. This doesn’t have to be anything dramatic either. They could consider just turning your body or raising your arm a sudden movement.
A chicken’s danger meter is always set to red—high alert. Even the slightest jerky movements can be threatening to chickens. Bringing out the feed bag might have your flock clamoring around you, but one sudden move could have them running away.
Chickens Remember People And Don’t Trust strangers
Just like other animals such as dogs and cats, chickens can remember people. This can be a good thing and a bad thing. If someone that looks similar to you mistreated them, they may attribute you to that bad time in their life.
When I arrived at my grandparent’s, you could see the fear in their chicken’s eyes. Even though I hadn’t been there in a month or more, the chickens knew I wasn’t to be trusted. That’s why I said it’s best not to chase your chickens, or allow anyone else to.
Let’s say your chickens do finally trust you and come when you go outside or you call them. Whenever someone they don’t know shows up, they will naturally run away from the new threat. They know you, and possibly your immediate family, but if someone new comes around, they will be very standoffish toward the strangers.
6 Ways To Gain Your Chicken’s Trust
Now that we know that basically everything is a threat to chickens, and everything we do will probably frighten them, what can you do? I mean, they’re chickens. What did your siblings and/or friends call you when you were afraid of something… probably “Chicken!”
Depending on how long you’ve had your chickens, where they came from, and how much time you have dedicated to them, it may take a bit of time and patience to have them eating out of the palm of your hand. It can be done, though. Keep reading, we’ll let you know how to gain your chicken’s trust.
Start ‘Em Off Young
The best and easiest way to get your chickens to be less afraid of you is to give them attention when they are just chicks. Whether you are around them from the beginning when they hatch, or if you get them from a retailer, let them know you don’t mean them any harm.
Don’t get discouraged if the tiny chicks are initially terrified of you and run as far away from you as possible. Their instincts tell them to fear anything because everything wants to eat little chicks.
Start by getting down to their level. Don’t chase them or reach out for them, since it will only scare them more. Next, offer small treats for them so they associate you with goodies.
Freeze-dried mealworms are a great, natural treat for small chicks. If Momma chick is around, she’ll probably gobble them up too. These Non-GMO Dried Mealworms from Hatortempt are a wonderful (and bulk) training treat if you have many chickens!
Small chicks will eat many different fruits and vegetables as well. Soft fruits and vegetables like bananas, tomatoes, strawberries, and watermelon can be held in front of them while they peck away. Tougher fruits and vegetables such as cucumbers, squash, or apples will need to be chopped up into small, bite-size pieces.
Since we do not feed these items to them every day, they can be tempting treats to offer your animals to get them used to you. While you are down there feeding them, talk to them. Get the chicks used to your voice and soon they will start associating the sound of your voice with good things.
This is also a good time to refer to them by name if you plan on doing so. Keep giving your baby chicks delicious, nutritious treats, talk to them in a soothing, normal voice, and use their name; before long, those little fuzz balls will follow you everywhere.
Get Chickens To Come Close When They’re Grown
Baby chicks are some of the cutest animals on the planet—my opinion, of course, but who’s going to contradict me? Since they are so cute, everyone wants to be close to them. Their tiny, fuzzy, cotton ball looking bodies, the squeaky little peeps they make, bring out people’s need to touch, hold, and gently caress baby chicks.
All babies are cute, be it humans, puppies, cats, or chicks, they get all the attention. But it’s inevitable, as the babies grow up, the attention wanes. Maybe they just get more independent, you get busier, and don’t have the time to commit to them anymore.
All the time you spent in those early days getting the babies to become used to you will be wasted time. To make sure your chickens still come around you and don’t run away, you’ll have to continue with the attention as they grow older.
Sure, your chickens come around you for food. They have associated you with food, but if that’s all you do with them, they probably will not let you get too close to them.
Say you get some little chicks around Easter, you keep them inside for the first weeks or few months, but once they are near full-size they make too much of a mess to keep inside. Now they go outside or are kept in a pen for protection from wildlife, such as foxes, hawks, and snakes.
A quick note, take a look at our guide on keeping foxes away from chickens here.
If the only interactions they get from you now are to throw feed down for them, collect eggs, and scoop out the poop, the chickens will not hang around you much. To keep them from running away all the time, you’ll have to continue with extra time and attention.
Treats, Treats, and More Treats!
Whether you can start grooming your chickens when they are little, or you received them as full-grown chickens, treats are a great way to bribe them to get closer to you. At first, they might be skittish about getting too close to you, but as long as you don’t make sudden moves, get loud, and are down close to them, they will trust you.
These Grubblies – Healthier Than Mealworms for Chickens are a great, nutritious treat to offer you grown chickens if you didn’t want to give them the bulk mealworm option mentioned earlier. Chickens are omnivores, meaning they eat meat (insects and worms mostly) as well as fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables.
Chickens will help clear out ticks if they are a problem in your area. In fact, according to The National Library of Medicine, chickens can consume an average of 81 ticks in a feeding hour.
Chickens love fresh foods. You can even use kitchen scraps as treats such as vegetable and fruit peels, watermelon rinds, and cabbage leaves!
When you are tempting your chickens with treats, you’ll probably have to take it slow. Squat down, or even sit on the ground near them so you aren’t looming over them and looking all intimidating. Eventually, they will come closer.
While they are getting closer to you, resist the urge to reach out and grab them. This can cause them to get scared again and run away. As they get closer, possibly eating out of your hand, slowly reach out to touch them.
Continue to move slowly. Remember, no sudden movements or loud noises. Eventually, they will be comfortable enough with you touching them and petting them, especially if you constantly bribe them with tasty treats.
Keep on giving them plenty of fresh, nutritious treats on top of their normal feed and water and soon they will associate you with all the goodies.
If you’d like to learn more about the foods and veggies that chickens like, check out our article: 30 Incredible Facts About Chickens (And Things You Didn’t Know) which goes a bit more in-depth on the treats!
Get Eye Level with Baby Chicks
Another activity you can do to gain the chicken’s trust is to sit on the ground with them; be sure to watch out for chicken droppings down there! Getting down to their level will help them be less frightened of you.
If they are in a pen, this is a great exercise for you and the chickens. You may even want to bring a washable mat to sit on. Sit with them, talk to them, and feed them treats now and then. You want to appear as non-threatening as possible.
To make this time interesting for yourself as well as the chickens, you could bring some interactive toys for them. Try out something like this Chicken Vegetable Hanging Feeder Toy to keep the chickens and yourself entertained while chilling out with them.
Tell Your Chickens a Story (Seriously)
While you are sitting around amongst your flock, a great way to get them used to you and your voice is to read to them. Yes, bring a book and read it aloud to your chickens. They have been known to remember people and voices.
It’s something to do while you are sitting around waiting for them to get used to you, and a great time to catch up on your reading list. This helps the chickens associate your voice with calmness and comfort. Soon, they will trust you more.
When chickens are comfortable enough to sit down by you, they truly trust you. To take that to the next level, when your chickens gather around and nap while reading to them, you have reached the pinnacle of trust. They know sitting next to you will keep them safe enough to take a nap.
Keep Giving Them Attention
Now that you have all the chickens running up to greet you whenever making an appearance, give them some physical attention. Chickens are not accustomed to being held and their natural tendency will be to run away.
Once your chickens follow you around everywhere, even without treats, they let you touch them; they trust you. You can’t rush this step, because if you do, and the chickens are not ready, it will only delay progress.
Soon you will be able to hold your chickens in your arms if you follow these steps. But keep in mind they still retain their wild instincts and if something frightens them while in your arms, they will freak out and try to run away. If they try to get out of your arms, let them go. Don’t confine them.
Congratulations, you are now a chicken whisperer!
That’s A Wrap!
Chickens have plenty of reasons to be frightened of nearly everything and it shows in their behavior. They can fear simple things such as quick movements, loud noises, or people they have never seen before.
With plenty of treats, calm voices, and spending time with your chickens, you will eventually gain their trust. Don’t rush it and you will soon be rewarded with excitable chickens that rush to greet you whenever you come around.
Pollock, S.L., Stephen, C., Skuridina, N. et al. Raising Chickens in City Backyards: The Public Health Role. J Community Health 37, 734–742 (2012).
Webster, A.B. (2002). Behavior of Chickens. In: Bell, D.D., Weaver, W.D. (eds) Commercial Chicken Meat and Egg Production. Springer, Boston, MA.
Damerow, Gail. Guide to Raising Chickens. Storey Publishing, 2010.