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Here’s What It Means When Chickens Lay on Their Sides

Chickens can be quirky critters; each has their own unique personality and behaviors, but how can you tell if an odd behavior, such as laying on its side, is normal (albeit weird) or a sign of something more serious? What does it mean when one or more members of your flock decide to spread their wings and take this horizontal position on the ground instead of their typical squat?

The most likely explanation for a chicken laying on its side that it’s either sun or dust bathing, both of which are safe and normal behaviors. Chickens will often sun or dust bathe for relaxation and their various health benefits. However, there are instances where a sideways laying chicken might indicate something isn’t quite right. 

In this article, we’ll answer all your burning questions regarding why chickens will occasionally flop to their sides and lay there for extended periods. As you read, you’ll learn how this behavior can be beneficial for your chicken and some signs that might indicate they aren’t on their side for normal reasons.

Why Do Chickens Sunbathe?

It isn’t uncommon for new chicken owners to walk outside and find one or more of their chickens has decided to lay on its side for no apparent reason. At first glance, this position might be unnerving, especially if your chicken appears motionless with their eyes closed. Rest assured; this is all normal!

Chickens will typically lay on their sides to help further expose their wings and underside to the sun. This is overtly done because the sun will heat stones or a patch of ground that your chicken enjoys laying on for warmth.

For the most part, chickens sunbathe purely because it feels good or because they need help regulating their body temperature, but there are alternative health-related reasons they do this as well.

Like humans and many other animals, chickens need their daily dose of vitamin D to be healthy. In fact, it’s recommended that chickens receive between 3,000 – 5,000 IU/kg of Vitamin D daily (source).

While this figure can change slightly depending on factors such as your chicken’s age and overall health, the fact remains that all chickens need consistent vitamin D, and the easiest way to get it is by generating it themselves with a little help from the sun.

As a result, you’ll likely find your chickens laying on their side in a nice sunny spot, likely on a warm stone or concrete slab, as they enjoy the ray’s comfortable heat and get their much-needed vitamin D. Fluffing up, spreading out their wings, and laying on their side merely allows them to expose more of their body for faster, relaxing results.

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How Long Should You Let Your Chickens Sunbathe?

Any chicken owner who lives in a particularly warm region might be reluctant to let their chickens lay around in the blazing heat all day, and understandably so.

  • Body temperature regulation is extremely important for a chicken’s health, and this can be difficult for those that are overweight, old, or have underlying conditions inhibiting this ability.
  • As a result, some owners might have difficult discerning normal sunbathing from a chicken in distress from heat exhaustion.
  • You also don’t want to allow your chickens to bathe in the sun to the point that they experience sunburn or other health issues but cooping them up away from sunlight isn’t the solution either.

Luckily, your chicken will instinctively know when it is overheating and should stop sunbathing. In terms of acquiring vitamin D, your chicken only needs about 15-30 minutes in the sun to be healthy, but there are supplements you can also give them if outdoor temperatures aren’t safe enough for them to wander around.

The biggest factor here is providing your chickens with ample sources of clean water and shade, so they can go out and sunbathe as they please and then retreat to shelter when they’re done.

Here’s a quick video of a chicken sunbathing to give you an idea of what it looks like:

Why Do Chickens Dustbathe?

There is one more reason why your chickens might be laying on their side in the sun, but usually they will opt to dustbathe to solve this issue before relying on the sun.

Dustbathing is another normal behavior for chickens to help keep them clean. But, if you find your chicken is oddly laying on its side where it dustbathes, the usual explanation is that they are trying to remove unpleasant mites, lice, or other irritating parasites.

The heat from sunbathing can also help chickens remove nasty parasites, but the action of dustbathing is usually more effective.

This is one of the many reasons why chickens need to take dust baths regularly, is it is beneficial for their hygiene as well as their overall health.

So, next time you notice one or more of your chickens seems to be laying around a bit longer than usual in their dust bath, give them a quick once over for signs of these parasites, as this sideways position might indicate they’re harboring some unwanted guests.  

When Is A Chicken Laying On Its Side Abnormal?

As we’ve stated throughout this article, witnessing your chicken laying on its side is almost always a sign that it is sun or dustbathing and, therefore, normal. However, there are some red flags you’ll want to look out for that could indicate they are laying this way for abnormal reasons.

A chicken laying on its side could indicate a health issue if:

  • They are laying in an illogical location for sun or dust bathing
  • It has been in this position for several hours
  • It is showing clear signs of distress or inability to move from the position

Obviously, if you notice your chicken is laying on its side but it isn’t inside a dust bath or a warm location (sun is not shining there and/or the material they are laying on is cold) then you’ll want to take a closer look at the situation because they clearly aren’t laying this way for the normal reasons.

While it can be difficult to constantly survey your chickens, another sign you’ll want to keep an eye out for is how long your chicken has been laying like this.

Most chickens don’t spend dust bathe for more than 15-20 minutes (source). They might hang around a little after they’re clean, but if you see one chicken in the dust bath for over an hour, then something probably isn’t right.

Comparatively, they’ll likely sunbathe for an hour or more if the temperature is tolerable, but if you notice a chicken hasn’t moved from a sunbathing spot in 2-3 hours, especially if the sun is no longer shining there, you’ll want to check up on them.

Lastly, if you notice your chicken is clearly showing signs of distress, such as heat exhaustion, or doesn’t appear capable of moving, then immediate action is necessary.

Final Thoughts

Chickens laying on their side is a normal behavior owners should encourage, as it likely means they are sun or dustbathing and trying to keep warm, get some vitamin D, and remove parasites along with several other health benefits.

Just try to keep a wary eye on them so you can pick out any red flags that might indicate they aren’t on their sides for the right reasons.

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