When chickens find conditions not to their liking in their coop, they may well look for other accommodations. Credit: Julia bayly / BDN

Few things can get on a homesteader’s last nerve more than a stubborn chicken committed to doing the exact opposite of what its owner wants.

This is especially problematic when the chicken is acting against its own best interest, such as refusing to be tucked safely into its coop for the night.  

Chickens are creatures of habit, so if they are trained from an early age to roost in a coop for the night, they will naturally put themselves to bed there when the sun goes down. If they suddenly stop doing that, they probably have a good reason.

“It’s given that chickens seek comfort,” according to Richard Brzozowski, University of Maine Cooperative Extension educator. “Roosting and finding a suitable roost in the evening is a natural behavior.”

That said, Brzozowski added that there are a variety of reasons chickens may decide to not return to their coop at night. When that happens, it’s up to the homesteader to figure out why, fix the situation and convince their birds to go back to their coop.

That’s what Julianne Boucher is trying to do now that her southern Maine chicken flock has decided to roost in a tree next to their coop at night.

“I cut some branches, and turned on their light in the coop for the fall and enticed them into the coop with treats,” Boucher said. “It worked for four days and now they are back in the tree and I can’t get them back in the coop.”

Boucher is worried her leghorn chickens will get frostbite as the nights get colder or could fall victim to a predator. She is ready to get a pole saw and start cutting the higher branches from the tree to deprive her leghorns of the perch.

Before Boucher starts cutting more branches — which may only encourage the chickens to roost even higher up in the tree — Brzozowski said she needs to figure out why they are avoiding their coop in the first place.

The three most common reasons he said chickens won’t go in their coop are that they feel threatened inside of it, they no longer like the roost in the coop or they just want to be outside.

“There could be a wild animal or domestic animal that frequents the coop,” Brzozowski said. “The poultry keeper ought to inspect the [coop] for possible culprits.”

The coop needs to be checked for any entry points a predator could use, including tunnels through the floor, windows or ventilation openings. Brzozowski also suggested installing a motion activated camera to catch a predator in action.

Any number of things can create unsatisfactory coop conditions, he said. Chickens are uncomfortable in coops that are drafty, damp, musty or dirty. They also don’t like uninvited roommates and if there are rodents using the coop for shelter, the chickens may abandon it. An infestation of mites, fleas or other parasites can also drive them out.

They may also not like the height of their perches and even find the diameter, shape and placements of those perches not to their liking.

At the same time, no matter how nice and clean the coop may be, the great outdoors may be even more comfortable.

“Because nighttime conditions have been fairly pleasant, the chickens may have found another place to roost,” Brzozowski said.

Boucher said she has thoroughly inspected her chicken coop for evidence of rodent or predator activity, given it a thorough cleaning and added fresh straw. They are still boycotting it.

“One way to convince the chickens to get into the house each evening is to offer a bit of scratch feed or a treat each evening inside just before dusk,” according to Brzozowski. “They will develop a habit or routine to seek this treat [and] after a while, they’ll enter on their own.”  

Ringing a bell or rattling a can or bucket while offering scratch feed or the treat before dusk will teach them to come at the sound, he said.

Ultimately, the coming Maine winter may do what Boucher can’t.

“The colder nights will likely lead them back into the house,” Brzozowski said.

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.