How the Hen House Turns: Trouble With Chickens

How the Hen House Turns
Trouble With Chickens
Column by Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.

I hate to admit it, but domestic birds have some questionable social … uh … tendencies that are less than attractive. Take, for example, the serious pecking order incidents that erupted amongst the Hen House gang years ago.

Peeky’s broods had grown into handsome black and white roosters. All were fine until they started crowing. We knew we couldn’t keep them. There’s a reasonable ordinance in town that prohibits roosters. Some male chickens have no regard for neighbors who like to sleep past 4 or 5 a.m.

Unfortunately, our daughters had named the young roosters. Fortunately (we thought) they proceeded to fight and bloody each other; it made the decision easier. Their fate was written in their bad habits. Chickens can’t leave bloody wounds alone, so they were doomed. However, their executioner and his daughters came up crying at their demise. And they were tough eating.

Any bleeding wound experienced by the Hen House gang needed to be treated A.S.A.P. I had to isolate one chicken to save her from abuse that wounded her. She was a lovely black and white araucana, but no one liked her, especially turkey, a.k.a. Little Bear.

Little Bear favored the golden brown chickens, feathered to match her, and chased the araucana away from food, water and nests. Once she was injured, the other chickens added to the abuse, and soon Arcy was in danger. She quit laying and lost feathers, so I isolated her in one section of the pen and gave her special attention. It took several months, but she recovered her good looks and began laying again.

A few years ago, when I raised two chickens in the house one cold spring, they became imprinted on me. The Rhode Island Red would come and sit on my lap when I appeared on the outdoor bench, and eventually Gwendolyn, the americauna would join us. Later, after Red died of an egg-bound trauma, Gwendolyn was far more eager to cuddle. I wonder if she felt like an odd man out.

She was not abused by turkey or the geese or ducks; the pecking order didn’t seem to translate between species. But she rarely flocked with the larger birds, as they did with each other. It had been ferocious between chickens, even extended to strange youngsters.

Gwendolyn has a bare spot on her neck where no feathers grow. That is where, as a young chick, another chicken took a vicious swipe at her, leaping up to attack as I held her in my hand. If I hadn’t startled and pulled away in time, the blow would have been lethal. Why attack a young of your own species? It doesn’t make sense to me, from a biological or rational viewpoint.

For the same reason, I suppose, turkey would not accept chicks—in fact she attacked them—when I tried to introduce them after only two weeks of her setting on a nest. I guess timing is everything in the bird world. Turkey had been a great mother when chicks were introduced, but only after the prescribed four weeks of setting.

There are some behaviors that we can relate to in animals and birds, some that are all too recognizable, and some that we can’t relate to at all.