Can fighting get too serious in chicks?

debp

Chirping
6 Years
Nov 20, 2013
210
14
86
Durango, Colorado
I seem to have 3 new questions/problems a day! Sorry for all the insecurity, but if its not one thing it is another.

Four of my 10 New Hampshire chicks (2.5 weeks old) are pretty clearly cockerels, which is fine with me, except I'm starting to worry about their fighting. I wasn't at all worried, as I haven't seen blood, but today, as I watched, one got hurt during a fight. He held his wing like it was broken and peeped in alarm/pain. But, then I put a treat of wet food in, and pretty soon I couldn't tell which one it was that was hurt, and now hours later, I see no evidence of harm.

I have an 8 ' X 2' brooder box - not as big as I'd like for 24 birds, but it seems like enough room for now. Generally the birds are not showing a lot of aggression. But, these 2 (and maybe it involves all 4, but usually 2 at a time) jump up on each other just like a cock fight. Is this something I need to worry about. It will be hard, because I have nothing extra available to separate these birds. I was going to keep them in the brooder until they feathered, which is probably another week and a half or so.
 

chooks4life

Crowing
6 Years
Apr 8, 2013
4,905
655
296
Australia
Fighting and killing is not gender specific behavior. It doesn't mean they're males.

Normal fighting does not involve damage and death among babies. The first thing to do is ascertain whether you think the fighting is excessively aggressive or not.

Are both participants equally aggressive?

Does the dominant one, or the winner, allow the other to retreat without continuing to attack it once it's no longer offering a challenge?

Does the fight or attack continue once one of them is crying in pain?

Normal fights among babies are good natured, very sportsmanlike so to speak, and cease when one participant doesn't want to play any longer or shows pain.

Fighting among babies that results in damage, or more correctly hyper-aggressive chick attacks, commonly get too serious and results in maiming and deaths when the chicks doing the fighting are not actually playfighting but are attempting cannibalizing and bullying. We've bred those traits into them so if they're damaging one another you can assume it's not natural and is likely to degenerate into worse if you do not put a stop to it. It's a good sign of the dominant program in their brains being skewed into being strongly violent. Some chickens are like that, some aren't. Just like some humans are murderers and some aren't, to use a bit of a crude analogy.

If you have a litter of puppies, and one of them starts eating the others, you wouldn't think that's natural; if you have sheep, and one of the lambs starts breaking the bones of the others, you know that's not natural too; I use those as examples of how natural playfighting/sparring among baby animals does not involve injury or death except in random, rare accidents or species specific cases like cuckoos killing other chicks. With chickens, babies killing babies is not natural but rather something we bred into them.

Animals that have social structures and naturally live in social environments, (as chickens as a species do, being family birds in the wild), have behavioral mechanisms by which they control conflict. They can submit and indicate this with their body language. This is where a normal bird leaves off the fight and lets the submissive one retreat. This is also where an abnormal bird continues to attack and hounds the loser mercilessly, and this sort of behavior tends to accelerate until they have killed the submissive one.

These social behavior-language mechanisms and instincts also enable them to know when they're hurting one another, and when another one doesn't want to fight or challenge them, and it's only the abnormal birds that continue to harm.

Normal sparring between mentally balanced and instinctive adults, male or female, does not involve killing, harming, or even any bloodshed, in the majority of cases. They, like most other animals, prefer to avoid excess waste of energy and risk of sustaining damage when able.

Birds bred from many generations of cage backgrounds with high population densities and not much if anything in the way of natural stimulation are those most common to exhibit cannibalism and neuroses and extreme violence. It has become a trait of many breeds, particularly high production ones usually used for intensive farming and raised in mass hatcheries of a certain setup and management style. Since your birds are not Gamefowl, it's probably safe to assume you have some behaviorally/instinctively messed up individuals there which are fairly likely to be problem birds as adults, and breed it on.

Some of the methods used to control this include red lighting, debeaking, spectacles, separation, etc.

Personally I use culling as control because stopping the behavior does not remove it. That takes several generations of breeding to do and they can be terrible wastes of time, money etc. in the meanwhile.

Some people add toys, or things to interact with like dirt to scratch in, to distract them some hang CDs on strings to distract them too. This would be particularly applicable with mutual antagonists. In the case of bullying, this may help, but nothing fixes bullying like culling. Culling can mean rehoming, not killing, all it really means is that you don't persist with that animal in your flock.

Regarding cannibalism, other options are more applicable. Adding more protein to the feed is one, though chickens not inclined to cannibalism can starve to death without resorting to it whereas chickens inclined to cannibalism don't need to even be hungry to exhibit it; in fact some will even start harming other chicks before their victims have even hatched completely, ripping into the parts they can reach and dragging them from their eggs. It's not natural, it's a trait adapted to mass cage environments, where hens who disembowel others will still be bred if they produce enough eggs per month. It can be manageable but I personally don't bother, but, each to their own. Management rather than culling is why this trait has become a feature of some breeds in the first place. Training can work in limited cases but the trait resurfaces in the next generations even if the parent is not exhibiting it any longer so I don't bother with that anymore.

Best wishes with them.
 
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chooks4life

Crowing
6 Years
Apr 8, 2013
4,905
655
296
Australia
Should add --- it would probably help if you were able to give them more space. Different breeds, and different strains and family lines and individuals of those breeds, have different tolerances for crowding. With some, no amount of acreage is enough if they have to share it with a even few other 'non-family' birds, with others, a few square feet per bird is enough. With severe dyed-in-the-wool bullies and cannibals nothing but strong control methods will work --- but yours don't sound that severe.

But, having said that, only time will tell. I haven't seen them so I can't really offer more than general advice; some traits are subtle but serious warning signs and it takes a fair bit of experience to tell. It can sound odd to cull a bird for exhibiting a certain body language trait too often or in the wrong circumstances but their body language merely illustrates what they are thinking and the longer you keep birds the more you see they rarely change their mentalities, and they're quite strongly heritable for the most part.

It would probably also help a lot if you can get them used to scratching in dirt, out in runs on grass, etc. Introducing dirt bit by bit into brooders is one way some people start to develop their resistance to coccidiosis. Babies raised under their mothers on dirt from day one are naturally inoculated so to speak but if they do get an overload it's because the farmer isn't looking after the soil and the chicken's diet correctly. If you do want to introduce dirt, you should look into what form of coccidiosis treatment you want to employ. They will get cocci sooner or later, generally speaking, and the sooner they begin building resistance, the better. Their immune systems don't get strong if they're being overprotected.

(Liming the soil and adding raw garlic to the diet are how I control the cocci issue; many will tell you it won't work "because of a lack of scientific studies" --- but it hasn't failed me yet, I've never lost a bird to cocci or had them get sick from it, despite raising many hundreds of birds free range and without chemicals; also, there are plenty of scientific studies on garlic's uses to control and cure diseases and parasite issues, but being non-mainstream and rather unpopular has had its impact on public perception of the topic. The antibiotic, anti disease and anti parasite effects (etc) of garlic spurred the initial scientific research into developing sulfur family drugs for the same purposes in the first place; it's been known to work for thousands of years, and many vets and doctors support it, though some prefer chemicals. Each to their own. Nevertheless, organic and natural therapies and husbandry methods can and do work, even on commercial scales, if you've done enough research into how to make it work. But it is more time consuming and takes more money on average, and learning natural alternatives is more complicated than just reading the labels and administering chemicals or other artificial treatments).

Best wishes.
 

rc4u

Songster
6 Years
Feb 3, 2014
331
31
139
she said it right .."MORE SPACE" I have been using 8x9 brooder and the fights always are small and friendly..when I used small space at beginning it was pecking and more order...I will never go back to small brooders as they just cause problems and hinder faster development in flying and growth..
 

debp

Chirping
6 Years
Nov 20, 2013
210
14
86
Durango, Colorado
Thank you so much for the detailed reply!! I do not see signs of bullying right now. When the bird showed distress the other combatant disappeared, did not continue the fight. But, I've noticed that at least one of my NH roos is now quite quiet and submissive - hopefully not hurt - seems to behave normally otherwise. The others continue to spar. I have not witnessed any continual harrassment of another bird yet. I am pretty sure I can tell the males from the females among the New Hampshires- they are feathering in very differently - males more slowly and darker than females. Their legs are huge for their age. But, should I see a bully emerge, I can see the merit in your philosophy. If there is anyone who has seen chicks grow out of excessively aggressive behavior, I'd love to hear from you, too.

I have a coop ready that would suffice for daytime - it has been in the 60s. I took 4 of the most bold roos out there today for a spin in the coop. That intimidated them and they were very respectful of each other and behaved quite timidly in the space. It made me think it may be a bit soon for the move. And it wasn't easy catching them and getting them in a box - back and forth. I can't imagine doing it daily with 25 chicks. My chicks are not yet 1/2 feathered. I would like to move the whole flock out as soon as it is reasonable, but right now, they are doing do nicely at night under the heat plate - quiet from dark until daybreak. But, I will watch their behavior and make the move with a heat lamp, if I think they are getting too aggressive/bored.

Thanks so much for all the info you supplied.
 

chooks4life

Crowing
6 Years
Apr 8, 2013
4,905
655
296
Australia
Thank you so much for the detailed reply!! I do not see signs of bullying right now. When the bird showed distress the other combatant disappeared, did not continue the fight. But, I've noticed that at least one of my NH roos is now quite quiet and submissive - hopefully not hurt - seems to behave normally otherwise. The others continue to spar. I have not witnessed any continual harrassment of another bird yet. I am pretty sure I can tell the males from the females among the New Hampshires- they are feathering in very differently - males more slowly and darker than females. Their legs are huge for their age. But, should I see a bully emerge, I can see the merit in your philosophy. If there is anyone who has seen chicks grow out of excessively aggressive behavior, I'd love to hear from you, too.

Sounds alright then, hopefully all will be well.

As for chicks growing out of aggressive behavior, if you put a stop to it one way or another they can indeed do that, though it may resurface at the most inconvenient times like when traveling them. But silencing the expression of the behavioral trait does not immediately do away with its genetic propensity to be passed on to the offspring, if it is genetic in basis, and most of these traits are.

So it can take around 5 generations minimum, 7 on average, to totally breed the traits out, even if the birds are not enabled to act on them within their lifetimes. I personally couldn't see the merit in spending the time to retrain and control such troublemakers for that many generations to come, so I culled, but there's people out there who are willing to put in the time to restore a strain/breed to having well balanced average animals, from previously badly managed strains represented on average by neurotic and violent animals.

It's certainly not impossible at all, after all, we bred these traits in and if they're not outright lethal we can breed them out again. It's just time consuming and violent birds can be such a drain on finances and the productivity of, to say nothing of enjoyment of, one's flock.

Plenty of people allow their animals to become a stressful burden on them because they don't realize there are 'good' and 'bad' animals, not all behavior they exhibit is natural or has a justification, and just because they do it doesn't mean it's natural or good for them or their flock or their species. Never mind their owners.

I have a coop ready that would suffice for daytime - it has been in the 60s. I took 4 of the most bold roos out there today for a spin in the coop. That intimidated them and they were very respectful of each other and behaved quite timidly in the space. It made me think it may be a bit soon for the move. And it wasn't easy catching them and getting them in a box - back and forth. I can't imagine doing it daily with 25 chicks. My chicks are not yet 1/2 feathered. I would like to move the whole flock out as soon as it is reasonable, but right now, they are doing do nicely at night under the heat plate - quiet from dark until daybreak. But, I will watch their behavior and make the move with a heat lamp, if I think they are getting too aggressive/bored.

Thanks so much for all the info you supplied.

Best wishes with them.
 

debp

Chirping
6 Years
Nov 20, 2013
210
14
86
Durango, Colorado
Today I observed a new behavior that I don't know what to make of. One of my NH pullets (pretty sure, its a pullet) spends all her time lightly pecking food from the beaks of the others when they get their wet mash treat. The other birds don't seem upset and sometimes peck her beak back, and she doesn't pick on any one bird, but she seems obsessed with this beak pecking, at least when their is mash. I picked her up (which I rarely do, so it kind of surprised her) and within a minute of putting her back down, she was at it again, but seemed to stop when I took the wet food away. Is this an aggressive, recessive or neurotic behavior?
 

chooks4life

Crowing
6 Years
Apr 8, 2013
4,905
655
296
Australia
Today I observed a new behavior that I don't know what to make of. One of my NH pullets (pretty sure, its a pullet) spends all her time lightly pecking food from the beaks of the others when they get their wet mash treat. The other birds don't seem upset and sometimes peck her beak back, and she doesn't pick on any one bird, but she seems obsessed with this beak pecking, at least when their is mash. I picked her up (which I rarely do, so it kind of surprised her) and within a minute of putting her back down, she was at it again, but seemed to stop when I took the wet food away. Is this an aggressive, recessive or neurotic behavior?
This one I think you can safely not worry about. It is a very natural instinct to take food from another's beak. If they had their mother/s, they'd be doing that. Even chicks with mothers take food from one another's beaks and 'tidy' one another's faces when there is food all over them. :)

If she starts hurting the others that's different but otherwise, this is one pretty normal and harmless behavior.

Best wishes.
 

debp

Chirping
6 Years
Nov 20, 2013
210
14
86
Durango, Colorado
Thank you for the reply and information. I just found it funny that I've only noticed the one doing it, and she's really into it.
 

chooks4life

Crowing
6 Years
Apr 8, 2013
4,905
655
296
Australia
Thank you for the reply and information. I just found it funny that I've only noticed the one doing it, and she's really into it.
Yes, things aren't unilateral on average. Chances are that one came from a background that more recently included birds who were allowed to brood and rear chicks with the mother hens. The others may come from a totally henless recent heritage.

We breed paternal and maternal instincts out, which is fairly common knowledge, but it's not so common knowledge that we also breed filial instincts out as well. There are plenty of chicks who totally lack any instinct regarding mothers or fathers. If they are hatched under a hen they will fail to respond to her, and abandon her. They are totally independent and have no use for a mother. Most people find this out the hard way when they buy hatchery eggs and put them under a broody hen, only for their little premade family to fail to be a family.

Instincts are a lot more malleable than we're usually taught, they're highly dependent on the lifestyles of the most recent 5 to 7 generations. But things can change far faster than that. Epigenetics is a fascinating field and explains a lot of what we see in our birds, and is the reason why we have so many breeds established in such a short time frame, historically speaking. It's often independent of DNA.

Best wishes.
 
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