Chickens Are Jerks

When I’m holding a baby chicken, I forget in the euphoric rush of delight that the downy fluffball will inevitably grow up into a jerk. Chickens can’t help it: they’re hard-wired to have a pecking order. This pecking order allows the strongest of the flock to have the best access to food and the choice spot to roost, along with other perks. In an established flock, the pecking order is more or less stagnant with few changes to the hierarchy. As a suburban chicken keeper though, my flock is changing every year as I introduce new baby chicks or remove the older hens from the laying population, thus creating a need for a new pecking order.

Most chickens have also been selectively bred to eliminate any mothering instinct. If you can get a chicken to brood her own eggs, some new mothers will attack and kill their young the moment they hatch. Were it not for the miracles of science and incubators, we might not have many chickens or eggs to eat! This selective breeding coupled with the instinct to have a clear hierarchy means that introducing baby chickens is a perilous affair. The adult birds will mercilessly terrorize the baby chickens (or so it seems to me, their previous caretaker). The pecking and cowering is difficult to watch because of our own biological instincts; my own instinct screams jerks! whenever I see a defenseless or weaker creature getting picked on, especially when I raised that creature myself.

To minimize the terror and the bullying, most chicken keepers will allow the adult chickens to scope out the babies via the playpen method. This method allows the chickens to see each other because the babies are placed in an enclosure, like a kennel, with the adults outside. This playpen protects the babies while allowing everyone to become acquainted. This year, I utilized the playpen method by allowing Fortunata out of her solitary coop to wander the yard while the baby chickens partied inside it. The adults were territorial on their side of the coop, but the baby chickens were indifferent to them and mostly just excited by the novelty of dirt and sunlight. (Fortunata has her own solitary suite because she had been bullied badly, almost to the point of being killed, by two of this year’s crock-pot dinners.)

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The day I put the baby chickens in the coop:  the  buff cochin ended up separated from the others and picked on. This was her cowering in a corner until I put her back into the coop with the other baby chicks.

After almost a week of treating Fortunata’s separate coop as a day playpen, it was time to integrate my solitary, old, and new flocks. I would’ve preferred to have given the chicks more time, but I didn’t have any more to offer. I put Fortunata and the four baby chicks into the coop. The results were heartbreaking. The chickens ganged up on the babies immediately, and they hid in the coop day in and day out, squealing in terror whenever one of the adults entered the coop for food. I did not like this, but I could accept it. No chick was bloody or maimed, and the situation would improve as the babies grew bigger.

I could not, however, accept Fortunata’s worse fate. The persecution that had caused me to separate her initially continued unabated. Once one of the chickens started attacking her, the other two would join immediately as well. I tried to let them work it out because I do not want Fortunata to spend the rest of her life in her own lonely coop. Chickens are social creatures. After a week, though, Fortunata’s comb was covered in scabs, and the back of her head was a mess of fresh and scabbed wounds too. She stood panting on the rungs in the coop, clearly distressed and afraid to eat or drink water.

I believe that Fortunata has been bullied so relentlessly because she’s the only white chicken in the flock and she’s half blind. Chickens tend to pick on other chickens that look different (which is why adding just one crested or feather-footed bird to a flock can potentially be problematic). The other chickens picked on her before she became half blind. In fact, the chickens could have potentially caused her to be half blind, though I have no evidence of that. Either way, Fortunata is different and easy to sneak up on. She’s also a sweet, silly chicken and my pet, which makes the assaults on her even more difficult to witness. She has effectively been in the playpen alongside the main coop for the last year. No amount of time is going to abate the attacks by the other chickens.

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Fortunata with Ianigena and the other chicks.

Fortunata got along fine with the baby chickens though, and they learned that she wasn’t a complete jerkface who wanted to terrorize them into submission via pecking. If I can keep Fortunata in the same coop with the baby chickens until the other three adults end up in the crock pot, I believe that she would be fine. She would always be the bottom chicken in the pecking order, but she would not have to spend her life alone either. She would finally be part of a flock. When I add baby chickens next year, they will be afraid of her initially because of her size and then just accept her as part of the status quo. To do make this happen, I have to keep her in the main coop with the baby chickens.

My solution was to evict the top and bottom chickens to her old coop. Fortunata’s suite is really too small to remove all three adult chickens, but it’s perfectly adequate for two of them. Although the top chicken (a black sex link) instigated some of the bullying behavior, Scissorbeak (my genetically deformed rainbow layer) had been the bottom chicken for so long that she was determined to have subordinates. Of all the chickens, she started the most fights with the babies and with Fortunata. In the hierarchical world of chickens, such behavior makes sense. From the outside, well, chickens are jerks. These two chickens, although in an insufficient space, still get along well because they know which is boss.

The second black sex link remained in the large coop, and though fewer attacks have occurred, Fortunata is still afraid to leave the coop. The baby chickens are finally starting to make forays into the run, but sometimes those ventures result in terrified squawks and rushing back to the relative safety of the coop. Still, Fortunata’s scabs have started to heal in the week that I’ve rearranged the living situation, and I’m not in any hurry to reintroduce the evicted chickens back into the run. At some point, when the babies are all grown up, I may try to integrate everyone again, but I’d much prefer to see Fortunata strut her stuff with other chickens.

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