Chickens terrified of dried sunflower head

On her Green Frieda blog, Audrey writes that her chickens, which are not easily frightened (even by dogs and cats) are terrified by a dried sunflower head she placed in their pen. She thought the hens would enjoy picking the seeds out. Instead, they hid in their coop, refusing to come out until the fear-inducing object was removed.
200911241107When I entered the chicken run with the sunflower, Peggy immediately flipped out. She started squawking and flapping and jumping back and forth across the coop. Tina joined in, but with less gusto, as if she wasn't entirely sure what was happening, but trusted Peggy that it was serious. Eventually, both hens scrambled their way into the coop to hide. I was a bit confused about what the problem was, and, honestly, I was late for work. So, I figured I'd just put the sunflower head up as planned and the chickens would eventually calm down and come outside to have their treat. I had also scattered some carrot peels, which they love, in the run, so I figured they would venture out for those for sure.

The following morning, when I went down to let the chickens out for their morning free range, it was clear Peggy and Tina had not left the coop since I last saw them. The carrot peels were untouched, their feeder still had food in it and there they were, huddled together inside the coop. Now, my chickens are extremely food motivated and there is no food inside the coop (just water). They spent a whole day inside, not eating their feed, which they love, or the carrot peels, which they really love, because they didn't want to risk walking past the dreaded sunflower head. That is how afraid they are of this inanimate object.

Any idea why chickens would be so frightened of a sunflower head?

Terror in the Coop


  1. Well, at first glance I thought it was a flattened armadillo so I can see how the poultry would have been confused.

  2. Note that the decapitated sunflower is both squamous and rugose. Obviously your avian friends share some some latent, primal memory of the terrible Mi-Go tribe — a memory passed down from dinosaur ancestors no doubt.

    1. @BillGlover

      It is also noticeably Cyclopean. These chickens clearly know their place in this vast, uncaring cosmos.

  3. At very first glance (before reading the headline), the flower looked kind of like a wasp’s nest. That is the only thing I can think of offhand

  4. I suspect the sunflower patterns are similar to a snake skin. The birds identified the object as a coiled snake and that was that.

    See if they have the same response to a plastic snake.

    1. I doubt they’d think it was a snake. I’ve seen chickens make short work of coral snakes and huge alligator lizards in socal. Totally un-intimidated by reptiles. I’d go with wasps nest for sure.

  5. Now if we could only find something that did that to [spammers] [Republicans] [Big Content] [evangelicals] [Obama]!

    (Just plug in whatever works for you. You’re welcome.)

  6. Sometimes animals are just afraid of things for no reason we’d find sane. For example, my cat is completely terrified of a pullout tray on my desk and refuses to come anywhere near it, presumably out of fear that it could open up and swallow her whole at any given moment. So really, who knows?

  7. i’d guess wasp or bees nest too. that’s what i initially thought it was after glancing at the pic before i looked closely and read the article

  8. My chickens couldn’t care less about wasps. They will eat them if they can get them on the ground. They’ll also eat Jerusalem crickets, tiny snakes, all sorts of stuff that normally gross me out.

    To me, this looks like the mouth of a predator – a dog or a bobcat. Chickens normally don’t see wasps nests (they’re too high up). But they do see dogs and other predators with big mouths and lots of teeth.

  9. The wasp or beehive idea seems likely to me. Another option is a coiled snake. The pattern of the seeds is vaguely reminiscent of a reptile’s scale pattern.

  10. I thought the pattern looked like scales.. perhaps a bult in fear of snakes or reptiles? – tho, I like the eye theory too.

  11. Chickens really hate Sunflowers, as shown here:

    But I think your chickens need to buck-up and face their fears. Show them this video to bolster their courage.

  12. Egyptian sun-god Ra was sometimes represented by a Falcon headed figure. Chicken’s wisely fear falcons. Easy to see why they could hold it in superstitious dread.

  13. At first, quick glance, without reading the title, I thought it looked like a big, angry, flared out Guinea Hen with its’ head turned back and away. There’s a good amount of them that wander my neighborhood. I mean, they’re not angry though :) In any case, a pretty mysterious looking object if you couldn’t have someone explain to you that it’s a sunflower head.

  14. it may not be anything to do with how it LOOKS, but rather something else about it, like some kind of odor or allergy or something– like DEET is to bugs. Was the sunflower sprayed or treated with anything? If you remove the seeds and offer them to the chickens do they eat them or avoid them? If you place it inside a burlap sack do they still avoid it?

    1. “Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in the world.”
      — Werner Herzog

      In this case, though, I’m going to go with thinking it’s a wasp nest. Entirely different things, being fine with eating free-flying wasps and being willing to poke around a nest. Their predator-defense instincts don’t get seriously aggressive until you’re close.

  15. I have kept pet parrots (lovebirds, parakeets) for ages, over a decade, and found this a common reaction to something new. Birds seem to be extremely cautious of anything new and novel, which is understandable given how easily they can be hurt or killed. When I put in a treat stick in the cage, if it’s been longer than a few weeks since the last one, the birds WILL NOT TOUCH IT, no matter how voraciously the devoured the last one. It usually takes 2 days to a week for them to acclimatize to something new in the cages.

    So I’d say they’re just seeing something they don’t recognize at all, and being understandably cautious. had it been left there for more than a day it probably would have been forgotten.

  16. Oh, and further on the subject, the quickest thing to do would have been to pretend to eat some of the food yourself. That doesn’t work all the time but has occasionally gotten my birds to try something new. After all, they trust her judgement with the various other animals to not fear them..

  17. No definite answers. But birds see into the UV range, and sunflowers produce UV-activated anthocyanins. I’m not sure whether they would still be active in a dried, dead sunflower head. But it’s possible that what to us looks like a brown, dead husk looks like a glowing evil eye to birds.

  18. Thanks for posting about my sunflower mystery, Mark. My first guess was owl head, and there are a lot of other excellent theories in the comments. I don’t think my chickens have ever seen a wasps nest, but that doesn’t seem like something they’d be afraid of. Or perhaps it’s the snakeskin pattern… or maybe they are just weird.

  19. Although it does look like a wasp nest, what does that even have to do with chickens? I doubt that chickens (or any bird of any kind) would have any reason to be scared of a wasp nest. It doesn’t have the same threat (or even a remote threat) as an owl, a rat, a snake, etc…

    Animals get freaked out at random things for completely random reasons. Sometimes it’s something’s shape, color, size, texture, etc…

    I have two parrots, and one day they’ll be terrified of a random thing, and then be fine with it tomorrow. Or they’ll be fine with something seemingly dangerous (like a friend’s terrier that wants to kill them) but be completely terrified of something innocent, like a paper cup.

    I realize that parrots aren’t chickens, but my point is that animals’ logic isn’t necessarily similar to our logic.

  20. It looks like an eye… I’d do a test. Cut out a piece of white poster board the exact same size as that dried sunflower head and then make a dark circle in the middle of it the same size as the one in the sunflower. See what happens.

  21. Maybe it was the smell of the sunflower that freaked them out. The ruckus started as soon as she walked in with it and chickens have an acute sense of smell.

  22. I had some volunteer sunflowers in my chicken yard, it was quite fun to watch the hens leap up to peck at the seeds in the lower blossoms, bouncing up and down like feathery superballs. Chickens are weird. Novelty plus some instinctive visual cue probably accounts for the sunflower fear, but I would be interested to know what happens if you break it in half, place it in a different orientation (flat on the ground instead of hovering above), or maybe just shake a bunch of the seeds out. This is an opportunity for Science.

    For the record, I am thinking a wasp nest would be seen by most chickens as a buffet, they are relatively protected from stings and very effective insectivores. Novelty, however, is frightening – when I brought in a new hen house, two of the hens retreated to a corner of the yard and yelled at it for hours. A couple of days later, they were laying eggs in it.

  23. Oddly enough, I currently have chickens at home with a dried sunflower head in their run. They don’t care. I suspect Audrey’s chickens have been pushed to paranoid fear by Fox. Or a fox. Whichever.

  24. Could it be the fact that it’s upside down that bothers them? Were they afraid of it in any other orientation?

  25. After having spent a lot of time with chickens, I have come to the conclusion that they are pretty smart. But maybe I’m letting the fact that I adore them cloud my judgment.

  26. I honestly think that they believe it looks like a distorted chicken – brooding hen minus head – and its a pre-programmed ‘uncanny valley’ cognitive response. for context

    and try looking at this photo:

    with your palm over the head, and see if there is not a resemblence between quasi-round, flattened, form, and feather-patterns, of hen, and the sunflower head.

  27. I wondered about Sunflowers too. As large and beautiful as they are, they’d have to be advertising to every bird in the sky “Come here! Seeds!” but since they aren’t a fruit plant, their fruit is their seed… Now, maybe birds swallow enough that some pass through, but I’d think a bird that could crack the seed would chew it to a pulp.

    From feeding birds outside, I can say they are absolutely voracious for sunflower seeds and pretty much will try to eat anything left for them.

    Don’t know if anyone here has read about “Sacred Geometry” or the “Golden Mean” but sunflowers do have a Fibonacci spiral built into them in their seed placement.

  28. Starlings have a similar fear. I placed a sunflower head near my birdfeeder (which was filled with sunflowers seeds!) and they never touched it, even after I let the feeder run out.

  29. Okay, here is my theory. Bear in mind I raise ducks, not chickens, but I think that this applies to both of them.

    Animals who are “prey” have eyes on both sides of their heads, including many birds, horses, cows, etc. Animals who have eyes on the sides of their heads (instead of the front like we human predators) have different brains than we do. Their eyes work independently of one another.

    Since they are prey, they are scared of most anything that is new in their environment. They’ve never seen a dead sunflower before, they don’t know what it is, and they have no idea what it might do to them. It has no connotation in their normal food routine, and it doesn’t look like anything they may have seen before, so their first assumption is that it is dangerous.

    Now, since their eyes work independently of one another, a chicken has to get used to something new with both of its eyes. I know that sounds weird, but I’m sure anyone who has ever owned horses knows about this. A horse might get accustomed to a red rubber ball being in its pasture, on the right side of where it walks, so it sees the ball with its right eye. If you move the ball so that it is on the horse’s left, seen with the left eye, the horse may be terrified of the red ball because IT HAS NEVER BEEN THERE BEFORE OMIGOD WHAT IS THAT I BET IT WILL EAT MY LEGS.

    My ducks are very much the same. Anything new is HORRIFYING!!!! For example, the other night I went out to collect eggs in a grey sweatshirt. I usually wear a white and red checked farmcoat. Because I was solid grey OMIGOD IT’S COMING INTO THE HOUSE AND SURELY WILL MURDER US was the reaction I got, whereas when I’m in my normal farm coat, they still run away from me, but not in the “WE ARE GOING TO DIE” manner that they exhibit when they are terrified.

  30. i wonder if it’s the smell sunflowers emit? I grow about 30 russian mammouths each year and regular old birds can’t get enough of them. Strange chickens!

  31. It is obviously reminiscent of a Chickenemone, ancient underwater predator which scares their racial memories of the time when all chickens were aquatic. You know, that’s the origin of the term Chicken of the Sea.

    My Dad used to have a parrot that was terrified of a leathery old stuffed toad (about 6″ long & 3.5″ tall) that he brought back from Costa Rica. Go figure.

  32. Looks like the boots of the famed Ely the Louisiana butcher. Famed for his extremely bad eyesight, couldn’t tell a turkey from a chicken.

    And we’re that close to Thanksgiving.

  33. In Japan they have balloons painted with something like a target pattern, these are called bird scarers. I’ve also seen people saying that hanging CDs do the same thing.
    The proposed theory was that it was like a giant eye.

  34. Ahahahhaha!! this story and the comments made my day brighter:o) And brought back memories of my blue budgie who behaved pretty moronic sometimes…and other times was a fluffy bundle of cuddley turqoise

  35. It is an obvious anchorpoint for an interdimensional multiuniversal time rift, something that coincidencally can only be seen by non flyig birds (as they deided not tofly due to their logical deduction in approx. 10^2×5 years BC, that flying was not actually all it was cracked up to be.) The time rift is a serious and affecting thing to penguins, seals and chickens most predominantly. Luckily, as was descovered in the late eightee hundreds (but went ignored due to the public interest in wristwatches) that time rifts were the source and embodiment of attention deficite disorder, and though highly advanced, tired quickly of the same scene, and consiquently went to sleep. Unfortunatley for chickens, penguins and seals the rifts look the same when they sleep as when they are on a terrorizing rampage to feed their urges for the souls of chickens.

    To be noted: Time rifts rarley get to enjoy empathetic company, and are most usually seen lounging (when not rampaging or sleeping) with the fictional character Baron Semidai (true spelling unknown since 1993) from the Bond series, as made popular by lead actor Sean Connory (true spelling reently changed from Zardos)

  36. hi mark — i have chickens — they get scared of specific shapes and colours.

    they don’t like large circular objects — seriously. they don’t like large white objects. a white paper plate — maybe cause a bit of concern; a medium-sized white trash bin — they will go running and flapping.

    i also had sunflower heads in the garden this fall — i took them into the chicken run. they went ran and hid under the coop — but when i put it on the ground, they were ok with it. (and i pulled some seeds out to show them how the sunflower “works” — “see, it’s FOOD silly birds”). they ate all the seeds out, and, over time, i put three more huge sunflowers in there — all of which frightened them until they were on the ground.

    they are not afraid of my raking around them – they don’t like it, but they don’t freak out. i can enter the run with no regard for them, start moving the rake vigorously and they are wary but not freaking. if i carry in huge handfuls of straw for bedding, they don’t care much. but if i carry in a white bucket full of scratch, it’s all “bok-bok-bok-run-for-your-life-2012-omg”.

    AND — when the fresh sunflower heads went into the run, the hens were less wary — thus my take is that you’re dealing with the light colour AND the round shape AND the scale of the object. it all adds up to chicken heebeejeebees.

  37. My dog who is very beautiful is terrified of grates. If we are walking along and she sees a grate she will lunge to the other side of me even if we are in traffic. Sometimes she won’t move an inch without being dragged if it’s even towards a grate. She thinks they are going to attack her.

  38. I thought it was the ass-end of a chicken that had run into the wall at high speed.

    I think I watch too many cartoons.

  39. Here is my possible predator look-alike suggestion: an owl’s face. Assuming Peggy has seen and felt threatened by an owl.

    I thought the “terribly unfamiliar object” and the “uncanny valley” suggestions were very good.

  40. I agree with the wasp/bees nest idea. I bet it would be easy enough to scientifically determine if this was inherited behavior or not. When you think about it, a single wasp sting might be enough to overwhelm a chicken and outright kill it. Which case those chickens who cowered away from the nest would be genetically favored.

  41. The dried sunflower reminds me of a Great Grey Owl’s face.

    I know they’re big enough to prey on small dogs. Were I a chicken, I’d be afraid of them.

  42. I’m reminded of Stewie opening a dirty magazine, getting a gander, then throwing it down and blasting it repeatedly with a shotgun.

  43. I was under the impression that all birds were afraid of round objects? At several farm equipment stores around here they sell similar round, inflatable objects with concentric circle patterns to scare off birds who would otherwise pilfer crops.

  44. Q.:Why did the chicken cross the road?


  45. I saw a giant, obviously mummified chicken head. Someone else mentioned it looked like a dead bird, and a few others said a wasp’s nest. If I was a foot tall I wouldn’t go near that thing, either.

  46. I think they get antsy because they are kept in a rather confined space. I’m sure you take care of them, and it is a very nice space. But there is no room to run away from this new object, so they don’t want to engage it.

    I kept chickens for several years when I lived out west. At times I had as many as sixty birds, a jolly collection of dominiques, ameracaunas, wyandottes (wonderful birds, wyandottes) and a lot of different banties. Most of the birds were female, but about a half dozen (mostly banties) were roosters. There were some birds that were more curious than others, some braver, but eventually EVERYTHING and everyone got explored. They even cornered a big old bull snake and harassed him until I had to move the poor fellow to keep down the racket.

    They’d approach new things in exploratory groups, and if they had reason to run, they had two fenced acres in which to retreat. There were even a few trees with low branches and some good sized bushes and in a pinch, many would fly a bit.

    Chickens aren’t chicken and they aren’t as silly and stupid as folks would have you believe. They have complex and engaging social lives and they have evolved for a roaming life of foraging. Even baby chicks are walking and scratching in no time at all.

    So my hypothesis is that your gals had no place to escape, so they weren’t taking any chances. Quite sensible. My gals would have polished that sunflower head off in no time at all.

  47. My guess is that from a distance it’s matching the chicken brains’ low-level pattern-matching to an eye, due to the dark center and circular white area around it. Instinctive avoidance response to a predator gaze triggers, and they go into freak-out. Same way we can tell when someone’s looking at us, even from an angle that puts it in our extreme peripheral vision – it’s down in pretty low-level neural circuitry.

  48. our of all the suggestions above, snake skin is the only thing I can match it to.

    The trick is: don’t think of it as a coiled snake, think of it as a small loop of large python hanging over the edge of the wall. Then even I could be fooled a little.

  49. Some good theories already on why the chickens are afraid of it, but I don’t think we’ll ever know. My hens think sunflower heads are the best things in the world.

  50. I used to own five Budgies, and although I can’t say that they’re anything like chickens, I do have experience with how the little dudes behave. Generally when I introduced a new toy or a seed thingy, they would immediately flee in terror of the object in question.
    I found that sometimes the object was more easily accepted if I poked at it with my finger to let them know that it wasn’t a dangerous thing, until they got curious/bold enough to inspect it themselves.

  51. I have this problem with my big green parrot (yellow naped amazon). Eyeball-shaped objects and corn on the cob-shaped objects terrify him. Some kinda avian hardwiring.

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