by Rebecca Nickols
Photos by author
Photos by author
Some chickens are just meaner than others … I was hoping that my Buff Orpingtons would welcome my new chicks without too much of a fuss. Actually, one of my two older hens, Henrietta, is the perfect example of a courteous, well-behaved chicken. The other one, however, is just down right mean!
Why do chickens exhibit this behavior anyway? I don’t think she’s the top hen in the coop; she follows Henrietta’s lead in everything. Perhaps she’s afraid that when the new girls get a little older, she’ll move down in the pecking order and lose her spot on the roost. Maybe she’s just mad that there’s a larger flock now–and she has no intention of sharing my garden!
Here’s what took place the first time the little chicks were allowed to explore the yard and discovered the vegetable garden …
In this first photo, as Henrietta politely introduces herself to the new chicks, my problem hen puts her head down and charges with full force …
Next, in a split second she reaches the girls and without any warning …
… She launches her pecking attack!
The introduction of new members to the flock is only one circumstance that will produce this destructive behavior. Boredom, confinement, overcrowding, a shortage of food/water and poor nutrition can also lead to pecking and feather plucking.
Here are the steps I’ve taken to gradually introduce the little girls to the flock.
- First I placed the new chicken tractor next to the run and let the chicks play in there during the day. This allowed the flock to see each other, but without any physical contact. The older hens clucked, strutted and ruffled their feathers in front of the chicks in some sort of intimidation attempt. Now that it’s warm enough at night and the chicks are fully feathered, the young flock is using the tractor as their temporary coop.
- The first time I did allow them to forage in the yard together (supervised), I waited until the chicks were old enough (and big enough) to get away or even fight back if necessary.
- I occasionally put them in the coop/run together for short periods. After the initial fuss, they seem to calm down and only glare at each other … as long as the youngsters stay at a distance and mind their own business.
- As I have a temporary coop for the young chicks, I’m going to let them spend most of the summer foraging outside together and then about the time that the young birds will start laying, I’ll move them to the coop. The first time the chicks spend the night with the older hens, I’ll wait until dark (when chickens have poor vision), then I’ll place them in the coop on a separate roosting bar. This is a technique I’ve read about that’s worked with other chicken keepers. Supposedly their night vision is so poor that they don’t realize the newcomers are there until morning. Also, their memories are so short that when they wake up and find them in the coop, they think that they’ve been part of the flock all along!
To combat boredom and avoid the undesirable “pecking,” chickens need jobs (or at least entertainment) and adequate space. There are a lot of varied recommendations as to the correct amount of space to allow for each bird. In the ideal situation, a confined flock should have 5-8 square feet per chicken inside the coop and 8-12 square feet in an enclosed run. Now that my Border Collies and my five yard cats have accepted the chickens as part of the family, my flock forages around my house and gardens during the day. The only destructive behavior I’ve observed lately is their new found fondness of the Bok Choy in my vegetable garden. They now have their favorite spots in the yard … where the juiciest bugs are and the best spot for a dust bath. During the winter, I kept my flock busy by treating them with Forage Cakes hung from suet feeders in the coop and run. Community Chicken blogger, Jennifer Burcke, invented a cool “Boredom Buster” toy for her flock this spring.
Adequate nutrition with a continual food/water supply available is essential to the well-being of a flock. Feathers are high in protein and feather plucking can be a symptom of a protein deficiency. If the flock is free-range, then their protein requirements are probably met by all the organic bugs and worms they’re eating. A confined flock needs a layer feed that will meet all their nutritional needs and perhaps an added a protein supplement if you notice an increase in aggressive behavior. More than one feeder can help those chickens lower on the pecking order if the dominant hens hoard and defend the food supply.
Finally, if the pecking becomes severe to the point of a badly injured bird, the sight of blood will only cause the flock to peck at the wounded bird more. Removing the chicken from the rest of the flock until it’s healed is necessary, but when she returns she’ll be at the bottom of the social order. So, be prepared: the cycle might start again. With luck, if their living conditions and nutritional needs are met the problem will resolve once the pecking order is established and every chicken knows and accepts who rules the roost.
It will be interesting to see how the social order plays out in my little flock. My Barred Plymouth Rock, Cleopatra, has already assumed the role of the lead chick of the younger three. Henrietta may be forced to lose some of her politeness if she wants to maintain her rank in the coop. As for her human family, she doesn’t have to worry … She’s everyone’s favorite!
To see what else is happening on our Southwest Missouri property, visit …the garden-roof coop.