Laying hens are descended from the junglefowl of Asia. They were first domesticated about 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, but have only been bred more intensively for specific egg production characteristics in the last 50 years. Wild junglefowl lay about 60 eggs per year. A typical commercial laying breed in the 1960s produced about 200 eggs per year and today will produce more than 300. During this time the way in which laying hens are kept has also changed dramatically.
All laying hens still behave in a very similar way to their wild ancestors, and they still have a strong desire to carry out their natural behaviours.
Important natural laying hen behaviours include the following:
Hens find a dry, dusty area (such as litter or fine soil) and encourage particles into their plumage by fluffing up their feathers, squatting on the ground and making tossing, rubbing and shaking movements with their body, wings and legs. This behaviour is very important for both the physical and mental wellbeing of the birds, and they can spend a lot of their time doing it each day. It helps to remove parasites, keep their skin and feathers in good condition, and keep their body temperature comfortable.
Hens like to roost on perches at night with their flockmates. In the wild this behaviour protects them from predators and also helps to conserve body heat.
Hens are inquisitive animals and like to explore their environment by, for example, pecking at interesting objects and scratching at the ground to unearth things in the soil.
Hens first examine different places to find a suitable nesting site, before building a nest from available materials. Having made a nest, other nesting behaviours include periods of sitting and standing, producing a pre-laying call, and ‘cackling’ vocalisations.
Comfort and grooming behaviours
These include feather ruffling, head scratching, body shaking, wing stretching and flapping.
When hens are not provided with access to something they need, such as a nest site or appropriate dust bathing material, they often vocalise more out of frustration, sometimes producing a specific vocalisation known as a ‘gakel-call’. Hens also vocalise to communicate with their flock mates, for socialising and warning.
Did you know?
Hens have earlobes - and the colour of the earlobe can determine the colour of the eggshell. Dark lobes usually mean a brown egg and lighter lobes can mean a white egg.