Home Chickens for Beginners 6 Reasons Why Chickens Shake or Scratch Their Heads

6 Reasons Why Chickens Shake or Scratch Their Heads

by Jamelyn

Nearly every day I will see one of my chickens shake her head or scratch it with one of her feet. I had a difficult time finding a concise list of reasons why chickens do this and whether I should be concerned. After considerable research, I have found several reasons why chickens do this behavior.

Chickens will engage in head shaking or head scratching if there is some type of irritation in their nose, ear, or throat. Many times the cause is benign and resolves itself. If no obvious reason is determined or the behavior continues, consultation should be made with a veterinarian.

Keep reading to see my list of 6 reasons why chickens will shake or scratch their heads.

1. Break Up Food

When food pieces are too large to eat in one bite, chickens will shake their heads with the food in their beak to help break up the food. If the food is still too big, they might hit it on the ground or take off running with the food.

Food running is funny to watch because it looks like the chickens are playing football. When my chickens were just a few weeks old I would watch them do this behavior. Running with the large piece of food is supposed to help break up the food into smaller pieces. The other chickens will attack the food and steal it from the chicken who first found the treat. All this running and tackling helps to break up large pieces of food.

I watched one of my chickens the other night after she found a beetle in the yard. She grabbed it in her beak and did an incredible head shake, followed by hitting the bug on the ground. It broke up into smaller pieces and she was able to eat it without any of the other chickens realizing what she had found.

2. Food Stuck in Throat

If the food is not broken up in small enough pieces before the chicken swallows, the food can get stuck in the throat. Usually, a chicken is able to dislodge the food by shaking its head or drinking some water. Sometimes a chicken will squawk loudly or stretch its neck as another way to dislodge the food.

Sometimes chickens will eat too fast which can cause the food to not be properly broken up before they try to swallow. This happens with my chickens when they are first let out of the coop in the morning and haven’t eaten since the day before or when I bring them treats that they especially love.

I picked some grass weeds the other day because I knew my chickens liked to peck at the grass when they free range. I threw the grass blades into their run in whole pieces and walked off to let them enjoy the snack. A few minutes later, Steven and I heard a horrible sounding squawk coming from the chicken run. We ran over to find one of the chickens squawking, shaking her head, and stretching her neck. We determined that the chicken had eaten some of the grass and it either tickled her throat or didn’t get swallowed correctly. I immediately removed the rest of the grass from the run.

The next day, I did some research and found that blades of grass are difficult for chickens to digest and should be avoided. The blades of grass can get caught up with other food in their digestive tract and can lead to problems. Chickens peck at the grass when free ranging but they are eating much smaller pieces that the entire blade.

To avoid food getting stuck in your chicken’s throat, it’s best to feed them food that would be natural in their diet if they were wild chickens. In general, chickens enjoy the same fruits and vegetables as people, with a particular preference for juicy, fleshy foods like peaches, watermelons, berries, and tomatoes. They also enjoy greens like lettuce, Swiss chard, and leaves from sweet potato plants. Chickens require protein for their feathers, so they will also eat many of the insects and bugs found in your backyard. I wrote a post about The Natural Diet of Chickens were I go into this topic in more detail and I discuss how the diets of chickens has evolved as they have transitioned from living in jungles to being domesticated and living alongside humans.

3. Water Up Their Nose

When chickens drink, they gather water into their mouths and tip their heads upward to let the water go down their throat. They have tongues but they are so little they are not able to effectively push water down a chicken’s throat, so they use gravity in their favor to pull the water down their esophagus.

A chicken’s nose is located on the beak so when their head tilts upward to swallow, it’s entirely possible for water to drip down into their nose. I see this happen occasionally with my chickens and they might shake their heads, scratch their face, or sometimes even sneeze. Sneezing in a chicken can be caused by several reasons, most of which are easily explainable and do not mean there is a health issue. If you notice that your chickens are sneezing, I suggest reading this post about 8 Reasons Why Chickens Sneeze.

The chicken’s nose is the thin slit where their beak attaches to their wattle.  This chicken’s ear is slightly below and behind the eye with the small patch of feathers.

My chickens have two types of waterers:

  1. a 5 gallon bucket with water nipples attached (to see my set-up, I have a quick description and photo here)
  2. a clear plastic tote filled with water

The waterer with the nipples is cleaner since it’s enclosed and the chickens can’t get into the water. The other waterer has to be changed at least once a day and during the summer it gets changed more frequently since the chickens will roost on the edge and dirt, feed, and poop will invariably end up in the water. Of course, my chickens prefer drinking out of the plastic tote. This is probably because they are able to get more water at a time and it’s more natural for chickens to drink from a puddle or body of water, rather than a nipple.

When my chickens drink out of the tote, they will dip their entire beaks into the water, sometimes also dipping their combs and wattles too. Allowing chickens to drink from a tote is especially helpful in hot weather as a chicken uses their comb and wattle to cool themself, like a radiator. (To find out more ways chickens keep cool, check out my post on How Chickens Cool Themselves.)

The chickens will gather water in their mouths and then lift their heads upward to swallow water.

4. Sign of Nervousness

Chickens are like people in the way they each have their own personalities. Some chickens are more nervous than others and would have a Type A personality if they were human.

Sometimes a chicken will shake its head if something is making it nervous or fearful. I don’t have any roosters, but they will evidently shake their head while staring down the person or object that is causing the fear, while backing away from it. This makes sense because head shaking fluffs out a chicken’s neck feathers so if they are trying to look intimidating, while also being scared, this is a good tactic.

If your chicken is shaking its head, check to see if there’s anything usual in its environment that could be causing the chicken to be nervous. Chickens have amazing eyesight so stop and take a look around. It could be a hawk flying overhead or a feral cat looking at the chickens through the slats in the fence from the alley that is making your chickens nervous.

5. Itchy Ears or Mites

A chickens ears are located on the side of their heads, below and behind their eyes. It can be difficult to distinguish a chicken’s ears since they don’t have external ears, like humans, cats, and dogs. Their ears are more internal and the ear holes are covered by tiny feathers, which allow sound to travel into the ear. Chickens have around 20 vocalizations so hearing is an important sense for chickens.

If a chicken has been too vigorous with its dust bath, dirt and other particles can enter the ear and cause discomfort leading to head shaking. Chickens will scratch their ears with one leg while trying to maintain balance with the other. It is funny to watch my chickens try to do this balancing act while roosting on the edge of the plastic tote for their water.

In some cases, the itchy ears are more than just some dirt from bathing. Mites are common among chickens and can be drawn to a chicken’s ears, eyes, or skin. Treating a chicken’s dust bath area with diatomaceous earth (DE) is helpful in reducing parasites. Some old time farmers will also add a sprinkle of food grade DE to the chicken feed to eliminate parasites that can get in a chickens mouth, throat, and esophagus. Check the chicken coop and nesting boxes frequently for signs of insects.

Chickens can also get ear infections that result in head scratching. These infections can be from bacteria or fungi; however, this is not super common. If you suspect your chicken might have an ear infection, call your local veterinarian to get their opinion.

6. Respiratory Disease

Sometimes the reason why a chicken will repeatedly shake their head is due to an issue with their respiratory system, including various diseases that affect the respiratory system or even parasites in the windpipe or other part of the respiratory system.

There is a type of worm that will burrow in a chicken’s respiratory system and will cause a chicken to repeatedly yawn or gasp for air. This gasping, or gaping, for air is the reason why this worm is called a gapeworm. This post will not cover detailed information about gapeworms, but it is interesting to note that some old time farmers prevent this parasite by adding small amounts of food grade diatomaceous earth (DE) to the the chicken feed.

Incessant yawning, which sometimes includes neck stretching and head shaking, can be an early sign of respiratory disease in chickens. Chickens have sensitive respiratory systems so the best way to prevent illness is to ensure your chickens have sufficient ventilation at all times. If you are concerned that your chicken might have respiratory disease, call your local veterinarian to get their opinion.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Benjamin Franklin

Preventing respiratory disease and parasites, including gapeworm, is first achieved through good management of your flock. Yes, there are medications to treat both of these conditions, but they should be used as a last resort as some parasites can become resistant to medication. There is also a withdrawal time when using medication for your chickens. This is the amount of time that the drug has been approved for use in poultry before the drug no longer shows up in the eggs, which is a major concern if you are eating their eggs.

Good management of your flock includes:

  • Proper ventilation in the coop at all times. This includes ventilating the coop at night and also in inclement weather. The number one most important aspect of a chicken coop is proper ventilation. Chickens have a high respiration rate compared to humans and other animals. Because of this, they need proper ventilation to ensure they are breathing clean air that is not full of moisture or fine dust particles.
  • Good chicken coop housekeeping, including changing the bedding as necessary. A build-up of manure in the chicken coop can lead to a strong ammonia smell which is harmful to a chicken’s sensitive respiratory system. Flies are also attracted to manure, so utilize methods of natural pest control to decrease their population.
  • Plenty of fresh water! Make sure their water is changed every single day if you use a waterer that the chickens can get dirty. If you use a waterer with nipples, make sure they work and are not clogged. Chickens prefer water at about 55 degrees F, so make sure the water is cool during the summer. Check the water during the winter to make sure it has not frozen.
  • Provide fresh feed that is free from poop. Chicken feed starts to go stale the moment the grains are crushed during production, so it should be fed to chickens with a month after purchasing the feed. Depending on your feeder situation, the chickens can roost on top of the feeder and poop in the feed or kick bedding into the feed. I feed my chickens from a tube feeder that hangs from the run about “shoulder height” to the chickens (about the same height as where their wing joins their body). I wrote another post, When to Feed Your Backyard Chickens, that has information on feeding chickens, including different types of feeders and ways to maximize nutrition.

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