It’s not something that non-chicken owners are likely to know but chickens can suddenly fluff up and appear to be bigger and slightly softer than they usually are (at least to our eyes) and this can be a worrying phenomenon when you see your chicken fluff up for the first time?
Chicken fluff up for many different reasons, they can do it in moments of terror to add some bulk and perhaps deter an attacker. They fluff up when they are broody as part of the whole set of changes that go with that particular aspect of their lives. They might be cold and/or sleepy.
They may also be sick and it’s important to determine what’s going on before you decide to treat your chicken. So, is it something to worry about or can you safely ignore it? Here’s what you need to know.
Some Chicken’s Breed Are Naturally Fluffy
Before you decide that your chicken is fluffed up, it’s best to think about what breed they are. It’s very common for chicken owners to think that their chicken is fluffed up, when, in fact, it’s perfectly normal because it’s just a bigger, fluffier breed than the rest of the flock.
So, while it’s absolutely fine to run a mixed breed flock – it’s a good idea to be familiar with what the adult bird looks like in each breed that you keep. Bantams in particular can appear to be fluffed up when compared to other birds when they’re just chilling and enjoying a normal day in the sun.
Is The Chicken Fluffed Up With Stress/Fear?
Chickens and human beings have quite a lot in common and one surprising aspect is that we’re both capable of becoming very fearful and/or stressed. We also react to fear in a similar way.
The initial moment of any kind of stressful or frightening instance is taken up by the most classic neurological impulse of them all “fight or flight”. This tends to be rather more literal in chickens than in people who cannot fly, mind you.
What happens is that the moment the stress is introduce into the environment, the chicken’s adrenal glands dump a ton of adrenalin into the chicken’s bloodstream. Thus, in turn, allows the body to release lots of sugar (in the form of glucose) into the blood too.
Sugar is an energy source, and this provides the chicken with the facility to either run away, fly away or charge at their enemy.
At the same time, it also gives them some energy to fluff up – this makes them appear to be bigger and more dangerous than they actually are (think puffer fish in the ocean which use a similar technique) and this is meant to drive any immediate source of danger away or, at the very least, make it think twice about having chicken for dinner.
This means that if you see a chicken suddenly fluff up, you should go to investigate immediately, it might be absolutely nothing but it might also mean that a predator has arrived on the scene and is licking its lips at the thought of feasting on your feathered chums.
While a fluffed-up chicken may not scare it off, the presence of a human being almost certainly will. (Though if you live in an area with coyotes, tread cautiously).
If you wanted to test a chicken for stress, and as far as we are aware, there is no testing laboratory in the world offering such a facility at this moment (but who knows what the future will bring? People really do love their pets, right?) but if you did want to – you would test it for the presence of a hormone called cortisone in their blood.
High levels of cortisone, again exactly as with human beings, are an absolute marker that the chicken is stressed. Stress can persist and if it does, cortisone levels remain high. The bird may also remain fluffed-up (though it may not too) – unfortunately, cortisone burns the body’s energy at a much higher rate than normal, and this is tiring.
The long-term presence of stress can damage the chicken’s heart, metabolism and digestion too.
Finally, if the stress isn’t dealt with – the chicken will move on to a state of total exhaustion, if the chicken reaches this state, then there’s a very good chance that it will collapse and die – however, you ought to have responded to their stress long before they reach this stage.
There are other signs of chicken stress to go along with “fluffed-up” and these are often more permanent and easier to identify too. The most obvious of these is going to be an interruption in egg laying, unhappy, fearful chickens (rather like human beings) are not keen to bring new life into a miserable world.
You may also find them acting jittery, struggling to sleep, falling asleep at odd times, becoming irritable, etc. in short stress affects chickens rather like it affects human beings.
There are 6 likely causes of stress to a chicken and the quicker you deal with the cause, the faster that your bird will return to normal:
- Environmental stress – this might be too much noise going on locally, too much light (or too little) or wind, rain, cold, ventilation, heat, etc.
- Nutritional stress – a lack of nutrients in the food, a lack of access to the food (particularly if the bird is being bullied), changes in food
- Physical stress – the bird was recently caught by you or someone else in a bit of a chase, the bird has recently undergone medical treatment that was a little unpleasant, the bird has been transported somewhere
- Physiological stress – yes, chickens have to deal with puberty too and rapid growth and the onset of sexual maturity can be truly problematic
- Psychological stress – fear – anything from predators to children can trigger this
- Social stress – maybe you have overcrowding going on in the coop? The wrong rooster to hen ratio, maybe? Your flock is full of different species and size of bird making the pecking order hard to determine?
Fortunately, the cure for stress is amongst the simplest of cures for any condition affecting an animal and, hopefully at least, it won’t be too expensive. You just need to either reduce or remove the source of stress.
If the chicken is too hot, provide a fan. It it’s not eating enough – make sure it does. And so on… and while we appreciate that sources of stress are not always easy to diagnose, if you spend enough time keeping an eye on your chickens, sooner or later, you’ll work it out.
Does a Chicken Fluff Up When Broody?
Broodiness is an absolutely normal condition in chickens and in the wild, it’s a very important state – it’s when a chicken feels safe and happy and ready to hatch her eggs. Unfortunately, in chickens that you keep for eggs, this is a state that isn’t particularly useful to you.
If you don’t even have a rooster around, a broody hen may still end up sat in a nesting box waiting for the eggs that will never hatch to hatch. Chickens aren’t biologists and, as such, they aren’t capable of working out that their eggs have no babies in them.
It’s fair to say that while all chickens are able to become broody (because without it, there would be no maternal instinct and in the wild, no new generations of children) those from certain breeds (particularly Silkies and Cochins) are very prone to becoming broody.
So, what are the signs of a broody chicken?
Fortunately, a broody chicken is very easy to spot because of all the behavioral changes that it will undergo:
- The biggest warning sign is if a chicken takes up residence in their nesting box – this is a clear indication that she wants to hatch eggs
- She will also get all “fluffed-up” this is to make herself looking bigger and more intimidating while she protects the babies that she wants to have
- She will become aggressive – she may growl or otherwise vocally abuse you if you try to move her, she may also try to peck you if you dislodge her from the nesting box, so wear gloves if you think your chicken is broody
- She will instantly return to the nesting box after being removed – chickens aren’t good at getting hints given by people and pulling her off the eggs, from her point of view, is a temporary inconvenience, nothing more
- She may start to rip out her chest feathers and use these in the nest
What can you do about this broodiness if it happens?
- You can just leave her to get on with it. Broodiness doesn’t last forever. If the chicken is left for about 3 weeks then she will simply come to an end of the broody period and will give up on sitting on the eggs (this is nature’s way of telling her they aren’t going to turn into baby chickens).
- It’s important that if you go with this strategy that you help her get out of the nesting box for at least long enough to eat and drink though or she will starve – this will need to be handled daily and we’d recommend wearing gloves.
- Mostly, broody hens are fine with the company of other chickens but, occasionally, they can get a bit aggressive with other birds too and in these circumstances, you may need to move her into a separate nesting box – gloves are not optional for such a relocation, she will peck like a crazy chicken during this process.
- You can buy some pre-fertilized eggs to pop under your chicken. If she’s going to sit on eggs and you’re a few chickens short of having a full flock, why not let the broody chicken fulfill her mothering instinct? This way is easier and cheaper than investing in an incubator for hatching too. Your chicken will teach the chicks how to be chickens too when they arrive – so need to isolate the chicks, either. Get some tips from the people you buy the eggs from on the best way to play your part in the process.
- You can dip the bottom half of the chicken in a bucket of cold water. No, this isn’t Guantanamo for chickens. A broody chicken sees a big increase in body temperature, dipping her in a bucket of cold water drops the temperature and, in theory, it can stop the broodiness (but only do this in summer – see our article on why chickens getting wet can be a bad idea for why). If that doesn’t work, try sitting her on a bag of frozen peas in the nesting box – which will do the same thing but also make her less inclined to stay in the nesting box.
Is Your Chicken Cold And/Or Sleepy?
One thing that can trigger a bout of fluffed-up chicken(s) is when they get up in the morning, particularly, if it’s in the middle of the winter. The give away here is that they often stand on one leg when they’re in this state.
Don’t worry about this too much. It won’t last long and in an hour or so the bird or birds ought to be running about as normal. If it goes on any longer, however, it’s probably time to get a little more concerned.
If your chickens are cold at night you will need to be careful that they aren’t piling on top of each other as this can be dangerous, please read our article Chickens Piling On Top Of Each Other – What’s Going On?
Is Your Chicken Sick?
Finally, if your chicken has fluffed up and is hunched over then it’s quite possible that your chicken is sick and that you need to either treat the problem or take your chicken to the vet.
We’ve written a fairly comprehensive article on the different common illnesses in chickens and their symptoms here and it’s worth going through in detail and working out exactly what is wrong with your chicken because you want to make sure that the chicken is given the right treatment as, in many cases, the wrong treatment may make your chicken sicker or worse.
You should be aware, also, that some conditions in chickens can be hyper-contagious, so, if you ever suspect that you have a sick bird in your flock, your very first action even before diagnosis of the problem should be to isolate the chicken until you can work out what’s wrong.
Try not to isolate birds for more than a day or so, though, as if it goes much longer, when they are returned to the flock, they will need to start back at the bottom of the pecking order which can be very distressing for them.
Why is my chicken all fluffed up? Is she sick? Not necessarily, as you’ve seen your chicken has other reasons to fluff up and they don’t all mean that she is feeling under the weather. The most likely explanation for a fluffed-up chicken is that they are broody and this should be easy to determine as your chicken is likely to be staying very close to the nesting box.
It’s an outside chance that it’s a reaction to stress or the outright fear of a predator that’s present, so don’t be afraid to immediately investigate the circumstances if your bird suddenly fluffs up, you may be saving her life or that of your entire flock, for that matter. It’s only when you’ve exhausted these two possibilities that you may need to consider that they are sick and seek treatment for them.