Disturbing hen behavior, strange flock dynamics - please help.

Discussion in 'Chicken Behaviors and Egglaying' started by littledog, Aug 11, 2014.

  1. littledog

    littledog Out Of The Brooder

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    Hi folks, I need some help figuring out what is going on and what to do about it. Sorry in advance for the length, but I have to give some background first:

    We started with 2 hens who got along well, Molly the boss hen/best layer and Lucy the little hen, also a good layer. They lived in peace and harmony, and layed lots of eggs. In early Spring, we got 3 chicks, and when they were 2 months old we got a rooster who was the same age. We put the 3 pullets and baby rooster together (after proper quarantine) with a divider in the run so the 4 youngsters could get acquainted with the 2 adults, but eat and roost separately. The 3 pullets and baby rooster got along great, Molly the boss hen was not a big fan of the rooster but she tolerated him as long as he let her be boss, and Lucy the little hen was unconcerned. After 2 weeks we took out the divider, but left the little coop in the run so the youngsters could hide there if needed. We let them out to free range on weekends. Everybody still got along fine, occasionally Molly would chase at rooster, but never peck or really attack.

    Soon they were all roosting together in the big coop, the 3 pullets started laying eggs and became hens, and baby rooster grew tail feathers, started crowing and mating the hens, and became Ragnar Lothbroek (extra cookies if you watch Vikings:)) Ragnar was never very aggressive with the hens - he jumps on them to mate, but never grabs or pecks. He always defers to the hens when there are extra treats, he even sits on the eggs occasionally.

    A week ago, Molly the boss hen/best layer, had a horrible wound on the back of her neck. She's currently hospitalized in the chick house in our laundry room, and recovering very well, thanks to all the wonderful information on wound treatment I learned here!

    We never saw what happened, and at first we were guessing - maybe Ragnar did it. Did he finally decide to fight her for the right to be boss? Did she refuse to mate with him, so he grabbed her by the neck? He has never shown any aggression towards the hens or us, but maybe he needed to assert his new roosterness?

    But now, after observing the flock for a week without Molly there, we're thinking we might have judged Ragnar unfairly, and the culprit might be Natalie, the young barred-rock hen who just started laying. She follows Ragnar around constantly, and pulls feathers out of his neck. She never shows aggression when she does this, just stares at his neck for a second, then grabs a feather. Then does it again. And again. She never stops, she is relentless! Poor Ragnar never retaliates, he tries to do his duty to mate all the hens and protect them while free-ranging, but we can tell he's really bugged by her. His poor neck is so plucked, he is starting to look like a turkey. And the other hens are tired of having no peace, they are constantly getting out of the way and hiding, while Natalie chases Ragnar around the coop to pluck his feathers. Natalie never picks on any of the other hens. We're still not sure if she is the one who pecked Molly's neck to a bloody pulp, but the other hens would never do that and Ragnar comes across as a good citizen of the flock.

    All of you more experienced flock-meisters, can you tell me if I'm wrong? If not, why Natalie is doing this? Maybe she wants to be flock-boss, and she's trying to take down her superiors, one-by-one. Maybe she's lacking something in her nutrition that makes her attracted to feathers (except she doesn't eat them, they're scattered all over the run.) Maybe she is a sociopathic hen who is mentally disturbed?!

    Natalie's a beautiful hen who's turning out to be a good layer, and I'd prefer to keep her, but the eggs she lays are not worth the discord in my coop. I'll cull her if that's what it takes to keep peace in my flock. Please tell me about all your experiences with your pecky hens, and what you think I should do.
     
  2. The Yakima Kid

    The Yakima Kid Cirque des Poulets

    One common suggestion will be lack of space. Others will suggest boredom. You can try feeding her a little yogurt for about three days and see if the increase in protein in salt changes her behavior, and you can try putting a swing in the run, and hanging a shiny pie pan or two.

    All too often it isn't clear why it happens. You may need to rehome or eat her. I don't know what breeds the others are; but I know in my own backyard I have a feather puller that I need to make a decision about - I've put it off because no one is naked or bleeding yet.
     
  3. chooks4life

    chooks4life Overrun With Chickens

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  4. The Yakima Kid

    The Yakima Kid Cirque des Poulets

    Everything you wrote is true. Which is why I need to make a decision about our one Dominique girl who has taken to feather pulling.

    The heritability is why I won't have a white Leghorn on the place.
     
  5. The Yakima Kid

    The Yakima Kid Cirque des Poulets

    Chooks4Life is absolutely correct on vent picking. A vent picker will disembowel another hen and kill her.

    Another thing is that I have used beak trimming on birds with bad habits. I take a very small piece off the top beak only. It will grow back. The idea is to take the tip off so they can't peck or get a good grip on the other birds skin. A very sharp toenail clipper suffices.

    Some biddies give up after discovering that they are firing blanks; others may need retrims. Some need to be kept trimmed throughout their entire lives. You weigh the damage she can do versus the suffering she undergoes from being trimmed. The suffering of her victims should always have priority, and she might make a fine dish of chicken and dumplings.

    Whatever you do, do NOT permit her to reproduce.

    I'm afraid I'm a gutless wimp - I didn't want to get into heritability because although cannibalism and feather picking are highly heritable, there is a malignant chorus of those who refuse to believe this and attack anyone who acknowledges the problem, and I just didn't want an argument.
     
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  6. chooks4life

    chooks4life Overrun With Chickens

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    X2 on the beak trimming... It's not the same thing as debeaking. I've had hens I bought in who had been debeaked until they had nothing beyond the nostrils, it's cruel. Beak trimming is not the same thing.

    I've trimmed beaks, using nail-clippers, to break the learned habit of egg eating; once they lose that sharp nerveless edge from the top of the upper beak, they've got too little hard tip to use to apply force without hurting themselves --- much like when you cut a fingernail slightly too close and it doesn't bleed or hurt by itself, but has a dull pain when you try to pinch something hard with it.

    Unlike true debeaking it will of course grow back. In the meantime they eat, drink, preen normally, it's not harmful, basically like clipping your dogs' claws or your own nails isn't harmful unless you cut too deep.

    I didn't suggest that before, because I didn't think it would necessarily stop her picking feathers, but it might. It will stop her picking flesh if she gets past the feathers, though... If you want to try to rehab, not cull, that can be a tool you can use to control her habit.

    Best wishes.
     
  7. littledog

    littledog Out Of The Brooder

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    Thanks to both of you, Yakima and Chooks, I've learned a lot from you both. Tonight we sequestered Natalie to another pen from the rest of the flock, and put a hood over Ragnar's neck ( made out of a childrens' sock, and will do the same for Molly once she's healthy enough to go back out to the run) Once Molly, with her hood, is healed enough to go back into the coop, we'll assess if Natalie deserves to go back in the coop with the others, but if she still picks and pecks on her friends, we'll eat her. And definitely not raise her eggs.
    Sorry for that - we've had other barred-rock hens in the past who were very nice hens and good layers, but I guess when we get chicks from a hatchery it's kind of like a puppy mill - they're purebred, but that means nothing when it comes to their temperament.
     
  8. The Yakima Kid

    The Yakima Kid Cirque des Poulets

    Some hatchery chicks are actually excellent as utility birds; and even some breeder strains have nasty individuals.
     
  9. chooks4life

    chooks4life Overrun With Chickens

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    Sounds like you're doing all you can do.

    Again X2 on what Yakima Kid said, it's always the family line not the breed, no matter what trait you're talking about; some traits just crop up more often among family lines raised under certain environmental situations, i.e. neurotic and aggressive behavior being far more common among intensively caged and socially disordered/isolated birds.

    People often tend to overgeneralize i.e. 'all Buff Orps are good mothers' or 'all Leghorns are too noisy' (I've probably said the last one myself, or something close to it)... But again it's just family line. Some of those rates of occurrence can be very high though, so high you can end up giving up on the breed sometimes.

    Best wishes.
     
  10. littledog

    littledog Out Of The Brooder

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    Thanks, that's good to keep in mind.
     

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