Chickens are naturally gregarious animals, living together in a flock with a complex social order.
Chickens gather every evening at dusk to settle in for the night, sleeping near each other keeps them warm. If a chicken is by itself for a few weeks it will be fine, but after a while many chickens who are kept alone seem to get lonely and depressed. They become lethargic, or start pacing and manically pecking at random objects.
Do chickens get lonely?
As humans, we cannot crawl inside a chicken’s brain to decide if they have an emotional feeling of loneliness. But we can tell by their behavior that they are happy or satisfied with their life.
Stress behaviors to look out for are:
- Decreased foraging (happy hens will wander around and scratch at the ground looking for bugs
- Increased vocalization (chickens get pretty noisy when laying eggs, or looking for their chicken friends, a lone chicken who doesn’t stop calling out is looking for companionship.)
- Pacing back and forth (this is not a normal chicken behavior and is caused by stress)
If you have one chicken and it is not exhibiting any of these behaviors, it is fine to keep it by itself.
Is it OK to have just one chicken?
In general, it is not a good idea to keep just one chicken because it is against their nature. Chickens thrive in a flock. However, some people keep one chicken as a pet. The difference between keeping a chicken as a pet vs. a farm animal is the amount of attention and interaction you provide for the bird.
Anecdotal stories of people who have kept one chicken that was full of life and happy, all have a common theme, the chicken was near their person. Many of these stories include people actually letting the chicken into their homes, sometimes just as night for warmth, but also sometimes in the house.
These birds are happy because the human interaction is replacing the social relationship and structure that other chickens would provide.
What to do when you only have 1 chicken left?
Pretend you are a chicken. No, you don’t have to peck the ground or cluck, you just have to keep the hen close to you and provide the social interaction that the chicken craves.
There are a few situations where you may need to keep a single hen. Sometimes you are left with the last chicken of the flock and you are not planning to get more chickens. Older hens don’t lay as many eggs, and some are rather set in their ways. It can be difficult to re-home an ornery old hen. Other times you may simply be very attached to the bird, which you raised from a chick, and want to take care of her in her old age.
If you have an older hen, you can try to keep them without getting more chickens. Just be aware of the behaviours that will let you know your girl is not happy. You can try to remedy those behaviors by spending more time with her, or moving her closer to the house. If she is still pacing, calling out, and not happily scratching at the ground, then it is time to either get her a few friends or find her a new home.
What if local regulations only allow you to have one chicken?
Some urban settings have strict regulations about how many chickens you can own per square feet of property. It could be that you are only allowed one chicken, but you really want one, either as a friendly companion pet, or for the nutritious eggs one hen can provide.
If you are looking to own just one chicken, it is best to raise her on her own. Young chicks will bond with each other, and they will also bond with you, if you hold them a lot. So instead of adopting an older hen who is used to the company of others, get a little chick who will be used to your company and bond with you as if you are her flock. This is your best chance of having an adult hen who will be happy on her own. Just keep in mind that to keep her happy you will need to spend more time with her and treat her like a pet.
Can chickens die of loneliness?
There is no evidence that chickens can die of loneliness. However, if they are very stressed, which can be caused by being alone, it can shorten their life span and decrease egg production. Like all animals, if they are highly stressed, they are not thriving. This is why it is important to change a hens’ living conditions any time they show signs of stress.
Being social animals, chickens thrive with the complex social relationships of groups. While it is possible to keep one chicken, it is not generally advisable. If you find yourself in a situation where you have one chicken remember that the bird still needs to have social connections, and you will need to treat the hen as a pet, spending a lot of time with her, keeping her nearby, and doting on her. If a chicken is used to bird companions, even this may not be enough to keep her happy, watch for signs of stress and re-home if needed.