Have you gotten yourself a small flock of urban chickens, only to notice that some of the hens seem to be pecking and / or bullying each other? Welcome to what is the least endearing characteristic of the chicken!
Chickens will need to establish a pecking order - it is where the saying came from in the first place. The pecking order is complicated and the relationship between chickens in the flock is determined by their age, personality, persistence and assertiveness as well as her ability to put up with being hurt in a fight.
If you have got say six hens that all came from the same flock of young birds this will be a quick re-adjustment with hardly a ruffled feather or squawk. On the other hand if you have six birds from different sources and two of those were high up their own pecking order before you got them it is likely to be a lengthy tussle for power with shed feathers, much noise and injury. Barnevelders like these below are renowned for the placid disposition.
When you are stuck as the keeper watching what seems to be full blown warfare in your backyard it is very difficult, I have been there on several occasions. In my experience it is the ongoing squabbles that worry the owner of the chickens more than the birds.
Rest assured, this is normal chicken behaviour. While many people have a tendency to anthropomorphize any pets and animals we care for, it’s important to remember that chickens are not people, do not have the same emotions as people, and do not function by the same societal rules.
Chickens are flock animals and their behaviour is driven solely by instinct.
It is also rare that hens do any real damage beyond feather and comb pulling and jumping on each others head. For the most part a stare and a well aimed peck are enough to establish a position.
So unfortunately it is only the human part of the flock that see it as bullying, the chickens perceive it as necessary for order.
Diagnose the issue:
Pecking order fights are normally fleeting where as bullying is sustained.
Firstly you need to watch for a moment or two to check that:
1. The chickens are not hungry - this will make them bad tempered.
2. There not pulling the feathers and eating them - This indicated a protein or calcium deficiency.
3. They're not confined and bored - this leads to feather pulling especially from the rump and back.
4. That the chickens aren't just bullying a younger bird - sometimes it seems that they pick on one just for the fun of it and it can lead to serious injury or death.
5. A broody hen - These get bullied and are bad tempered as a rule. If you have a broody this disruption goes away when she has finished.
6. Is it a simple dominance fight or is it bullying, the two are very different. Dominance battles are to decide the place in the flock and are generally over inside 5 minutes but may take 30 or more in a few cases. Bullying is about hounding a hen that has already submitted. A bullied hen will often hide her head or try to squeeze her entire body in small gaps or under shelter and may get trapped which compounds the problem.
These are easily solved and not necessarily related to pecking order issues.
Hens can be more ferocious than cockerels when they fight. Pecking order fights are normally over in a flash but can be horrific to watch.
Has a chickens been injured, chickens will peck at blood and exposed feather roots and make the problem 10 times worse - confine an injured hen and treat. Keep her away from the others until she's all better. Try to keep them so they can still see each other. Confine the bullies in the coop and let the bullied hen free range in the garden. Let her sleep away from the others too - even if you have to resort to putting her in a cardboard box in the kitchen during the night.
How long will it take before peace returns to my flock?
Anywhere from 15 minutes to 3 weeks but please try not to be too upset by the whole thing. As long as there is no injuries or blood it will be fine.
There are 9 easy to do tips below to help things settle down quickly. As well as one not so easy and quick.
The pecking order in the backyard flock:
For a chicken the pecking order is important, it determines who gets the best perches, nests and who feeds first. The fight will go on till one hen submits.
If you have heard the term “pecking order” know that this is very accurate when it comes to chickens. If your flock is mixed-sex, there will be two pecking orders; the male one and the female one.
The male pecking order consists of the alpha rooster and the subordinate roosters. The alpha rooster is the rule make and will punish through pecking, chasing and attacking, any chicken (male or female) that does not bend to his will. The subordinate roosters then form their own pecking order.
The roosters are for the most part above the hens unless there are some very small, new, sick or injured roosters. Think of this as a general rule with a few exceptions!
The hens’ pecking order starts below the roosters with the alpha hen. This is almost always the case unless you have juvenile roosters, then they may be lower than the females until they grow up. Pecking, chasing, and attacking the other birds also enforces the hens’ pecking order. Below is two roosters sizing each other up. Contrary to what people think most chickens choose not to fight.
If you have a few roosters and a lot of hens (probably more than you will have in an urban backyard, but just as an example) the alpha rooster will have a group of favoured hens. Leftovers hens are then split up between the remaining roosters, based on the hierarchy.
The alpha rooster can mate with any hen of his choosing, whether they’re part of “his” group or not. The subordinate roosters will try to mate with any hen they can but will be punished if he is caught by the other rooster. Some hens may try to resist roosters that aren’t their flock boss, but the roosters may peck them and force them to mate—even if they are unwilling.
If you have a high rooster to hen ratio, your flock’s behaviour will become very aggressive. One alpha rooster may take all the hens and peck and attack the subordinate rooster for trying to mate with any of the hens. He will do this until the subordinate rooster stays outside the flock. As you can probably guess, this is not a recommended ratio.
Size is not important, bantams can be feisty and a chickens size is in it's head.
Even if you have no roosters at all and only have hens, you will still witness a complex pecking order. If your flock is all girls, one of the hens will act as a mock rooster. She will be more aggressive and enforce her will with even more vigour than a rooster would, which is when you will witness the pecking and chasing. If you have a good rooster, he would usually intervene at this point and break up the fight.
Throughout all of this, chickens are constantly fighting to get higher up the pecking order. They will challenge each other and either wins and moves up the pecking order or loses and is beaten down. They will also enforce the pecking order by pecking any subordinate that gets out of line.
What this essentially comes down to is this: chickens exist by survival of the fittest. Pecking and chasing injured or infirm chickens weed out the weaker members of the flock, who may be taking food from the stronger members. These chickens are essentially starved out of the flock to stop them from taking food. This may be jarring to us, but it is a natural and innate part of a chicken flock and how they govern their lives.
Can you stop the fighting, pecking and bullying?
Yes to some extent. Maybe not completely.
Try these simple methods to keep the peace in your backyard flock:
1. This is the first thing to try. When it is dark bend some really strong herbs in a blender like rosemary or sage and rub it all over all of the hens and the coop. Then put everyone to bed, you may have to manually put them on their perches and do not worry to much if one flaps down. Next sprinkle some sunflower seeds and a little split maize on the coop floor. When they wake up the next morning they will all smell the same and have feed to distract them. This is by far the easiest and most successful method I have used. It may need repeating 2 or three times.
1. Split the feed and water into two areas at least 8 foot apart. This takes away some of the proximity bad feelings around food and water time and means that the bullied hens are not competing for food and water.
2. Free range. More space and the ability to escape when picked on. A confined hen will soon succumb if bullied in an enclosed coop and may be killed.
3. Distractions like more perches or a swing, a hanging cabbage or broccoli or a pecking block will take their minds off strife.
4. Make sure they have a dust bath.
5. Identify the bully and separate her in a dog crate or something similar till things quiet down but this may just postpone the problem.
6. I had an old colleague who kept hens near me a few years ago who used to bully a bully hen until she submitted. He used to grab the hackle feathers and hold her on the ground for a minute or two with her legs held to the side so she couldn't kick. It worked for him and I have seen mixed results with this method. He was just making the most of his position as flock master and using the chickens own methods. Don't try it if you are not comfortable with it.
7. Get rid of the bully.
8. Get a rooster. If you can. They tend to keep the hens in order but it depends how many you have. More than a dozen is probably too many.
9. A water pistol. A few well aimed squirts at the bully just as she is going for the others may well do the trick. It will certainly distract her. I was amazed how well and quickly this worked.
10. pinless peepers. Stop the hens being able to see their target. Not sure I approve of this but if you are desperate give it a whirl. As its is interfering with their natural behaviour it may be illegal in Europe.
Raising your own chickens from young will be more peaceful.
Chickens are sociable creatures and in a few weeks you will be wondering what all the fuss was about.
Can you prevent the bullying:
Again to an extent you can. Buying your hens in a single group from a supplier where they have all been raised together will already have a pecking order and are likely to settle back in without even a scuffle. Hybrids are more likely to settle in together than heritage breeds.
Raising your flock from chicks is more likely to be peaceful.
If you buy six different chickens from 6 different places there will be alot of pecking order adjustment going on.
I have never had any luck with anti peck spray but some swear by it.
When should you intervene?
So when should you step in and separate the warring parties?
If there are any injuries or it continues for more than 1 day or one is going without feed or water.
Not all flock violence requires your intervention. Occasional scuffles are normal, but when it’s obvious that one hen has become an outlier and she’s being injured, she needs human help. It is rare that fight between hens go on for more than a few minutes or do any real damage so when it does this is when you need to step in and stop things.
Above: happy chickens in a mixed flock.
That said, it does happen that a well aimed peck draws blood from a comb. Chickens peck at blood repeatedly and it will get worse very quickly. Also pulled feathers bleed and some surprisingly large sores can be opened up with repeated pecking.
Sometimes the only solution for bullying is to remove the picked-on (and hen-pecked) hen and keep her separately - not ideal, but some people put some wire netting across the hut so she has her own space and the others cannot get to her. Hens will always pick on one which is a bit weaker, but if they get used to her being near, it will reduce the chasing round the garden. As far as they are concerned, if she is not with them during the day (and as they sleep at night and she is there is doesn’t count), she is not part of the flock and, therefore, will be chased away.
What happens to a bullied chicken?
Firstly stress, she will suffer mentally and be afraid.
Then there is the lack of food and water followed by loss of feathers if the stress is extreme.
When blood is drawn chickens can become cannibalistic.
She will likely stop laying and the rest of the flock may be disturbed as well.