When Chickens Attack: Lessons of a First Time Pullarius

A pullarius was a Roman who was in charge of keeping the sacred chickens and whose official duties usually involved strategic feeding to ensure favorable omens when the auguries needed to be read. While my chickens are certainly far from sacred, I can’t think of a better word to describe someone who cares for a flock of chickens! I am certainly a novice pullarius, and I have learned many lessons over the last week on how to better tend my chickens.

White Rock Post Attack
After getting cleaned up again the morning after the attack–it looked much worse.

The White Rock was a bloody mess, and it seemed to me as if her whole tush was a torn, bleeding, featherless mass of skin. When I found her in such a state, I knew enough that I needed to immediately remove her from the others so she wouldn’t be pecked to death. (Regrettably, chicken cannibalism is real and not hyperbole; perhaps chickens are more demonic than sacred). I did not, however, know what to do after I shoved her unceremoniously into the cat carrier and had a brief, tense phone call where I told Lee that he had to return home immediately. You don’t have to pass a chicken first aid course when you begin owning chickens, and I had no clue what to do with a bleeding chicken.

I quickly learned that the on-call emergency vet in the area does not treat chickens, and while Lee and I decided he should go buy some hydrogen peroxide to clean her wounds, I turned to Facebook and google to figure out what else we should do. Some kind fellow chicken keepers made some recommendations (dousing her with hydrogen peroxide and wonder dust), so we were clearly on the right track.

Our White Rock seemed so torn apart that we weren’t certain whether she would survive the night, but survive she did. She still looked like a bloody mess of flesh and bruises the next morning, but she chirped when I picked her up and strutted about the garage without obvious pain or discomfort. I went off to work, and Lee went to acquire some chicken veterinarian supplies. He ended up purchasing Rooster Booster Poultry Wound Spray, which we’ve sprayed on her tush three times a day and seems to have helped her.

Now that our White Rock’s angry mess of bleeding tissue has scabbed over and the ugly black bruises are fading around the edges, it’s time to learn some lessons from this debacle.

     (1) I’m an inexperienced idiot.

In my frantic research on why my chickens attacked each other, I came across this excellent blog post: Chicken Feather Loss and Cannibalism. Some of the reasons clearly don’t apply, like broodiness and molting, but others definitely could, like (A) Overcrowding, (B) Boredom, and (C) Stress.

     (A) My chickens may be overcrowded.

Our chicken coop has an outdoor run and seems incredibly generous in size for the number of chickens we own, yet it still might not be enough. Although we exceed the mandated requirements under city code by far, the blog (and others I have found) recommend a minimum of four square feet per chicken in the coop and ten square feet in the run per chicken—if the chickens are also allowed some time to free range and forage naturally through the yard. At seven chickens, each chicken has 5.29 square feet in the coop and 11.85 square feet I the run; that’s well above minimum requirements, except my chickens are confined to that run 24/7.

I have not let our chickens into the yard because I do not believe our measly chain link fence will contain the chickens, and I am not particularly interested in chasing my chickens down the street. I have read about clipping chicken wings, and we could allow them occasional forays into the backyard if we were to clip their wings. I doubt, however, it would be a daily occurrence since I think it would be irresponsible to leave the chickens outside when we were away from the house. As an alternative, we could extend the run by several feet to give them more space to explore and be chickens.

     (B) My chickens might be bored.

Being confined to their coop—even a large one—could also mean that my chickens are bored. My chickens have a jungle gym with a tire, several branches, and a bucket. They have a ladder roost in the coop. They are not entirely without diversions, but it’s still plausible that they need a little more stimulation. Some of my favorite recommendations to alleviate boredom include: sticking a whole pumpkin in the run, hanging a cabbage on a string in the coop, and making a chicken crack bottle. I imagine that I’ll be adopting several of these recommendations, especially in the winter when the chickens spend more time in their coops and are feeling the winter blues.

I did, however, also learn that I’ve been relying too heavily on our chickens as composters. We have read and heard anecdotally about how much chickens love most things that you can compost, and we’ve been giving our chickens a fair amount of scraps from our kitchen. Although our chickens race to the coop door with obvious hope and enthusiasm whenever we step outside, apparently only 5% of their diet should come from treats, even strawberry tops and bell pepper seeds. So not only should we not be relying on treats as a form of entertainment, but we might also be making our chickens overweight and causing nutritional imbalances that could make them more likely to peck each other.

     (C) I may have seriously stressed my chickens out.

Our baby chickens have largely spent the last couple of weeks cowering together in the coop, but Lee and I have occasionally supervised visitations to the outdoor run so they could get fresh air and we could determine if the adult chickens had stopped tormenting the younger ones or if bullying were bad enough to warrant a chicken’s trip to the isolation ward. More often than not, the Buff Orpington picked on the White Rock. This last time we supervised such a trip, the Buff terrorized the younger chick and like a pro-wrestler, she slammed her to the ground and attacked; it felt clear that it was time to pen her. Except we screwed up twice: (1) we set up the dog kennel inside the run and decided to move her later because we were both tired and didn’t want to fix it, and (2) we left the chickens in the run with the Barred Rock. Chickens can be stressed by changes in their coop/run (like a giant dog kennel, their BFF locked up in it, and five frantic teenagers that can’t make it back inside the coop). Stress increases the frequency with which a chicken will peck other chickens.

We screwed up, but we are also bound to screw up. We can only take these moments to learn and grow from those mistakes so we can make different ones to learn from next time! Which brings me to my last two (and much shorter lessons).

     (2) We need an emergency chicken care medical kit.

I’d like to be more prepared next time, and I’m absolutely positive that we will have to treat our chickens for something or another in the future.

     (3) I don’t think I can eat something that I worried would die.

While I have no qualms about eating the Buff, the Barred Rock, or that cranky red Rainbow Layer that bit me the other day when I tried to pick her up, the White Rock is different now. I’ve worried about her pain and her wounds and whether she would die. Two weeks ago, I hadn’t held her carefully and hoped she would live through the night. Maybe I’ll change my mind later, or maybe she’s not as out of the woods as we believe and hope. Or maybe, quite possibly, our White Rock will get a blessing out of this fracas that the other chickens won’t: a name. If she does, we’re leaning toward Fortunata.

White Rock in Sick Bay
The White Rock in her sick-bay isolation ward.
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