On pecking order, chicken society, and human intervention

Discussion in 'Chicken Behaviors and Egglaying' started by Noble Rooster, May 17, 2010.

  1. Noble Rooster

    Noble Rooster Chillin' With My Peeps

    Apr 28, 2009
    I have 6 year-old hens (I'll refer to them here by their rank in the pecking order). They have a coop that is 24 square feet and an attached run that is 18 square feet. The pecking order has pretty much been stable once they finished establishing it last year and aside from the occasional "reminder" peck/shoving a lower-ranked girl out of the way for treats, they've been very good with each other. Girl #1 is a very good flock leader and has no qualms about enforcing the rules firmly but not harshly (except where necessary, as described below).

    Over the past month or so, Girl #6 has been having a rough time of it. It started with Girl #2 gratuitously (to human eyes, anyway) leaping on and pecking her hard while I had them out free-ranging. Girl #1 would hear the squawking, come flying in and run Girl #2 off, sometimes with some pecks if Girl #2 had been especially aggressive to Girl #6. But sometimes Girl #2 would lie in wait and then go after Girl #6 again and have to be run off yet again. It was escalating and I had organized chicken jail for Girl #2 but then things settled down and the issue seemed to have passed without needing to put her in solitary. Over the past 10 days, Girls 2 - 5 seem to take turns harassing Girl #6 while we're out. (I have not noticed the behavior in their living quarters, but that doesn't mean it's not happening.) For example, Girl #3 will randomly peck her, then Girl #2 gets in on the act and Girl #1 runs them both off; or Girl #4 does the random pecking and Girl #5 joins in. If the scuffle lasts for more than 2 seconds Girl #1 flies in and kicks everyone's butts; the other day when Girl #2 had been especially vicious, Girl #1 grabbed her wattle and pulled hard. No blood was drawn but she made her point -- for the day, anyway. But if Girl #1 doesn't see/hear the bullying, it goes unpunished. A few times when it has happened in front of me I have disciplined the bully by "pecking" her shoulder with my hand and running her away from the group for a while. But in the absence of injury taking place I'm reluctant to intervene too much since I know they have their own social rules. Girl #6 has some bruises on her comb but otherwise no one has been seriously hurt -- yet. Sometimes she shows extreme reluctance to go back into the coop with everyone else, so she hangs out by herself with me for a while and gets some extra attention.

    In addition to the few times I've "pecked" a bully, I no longer give them treats when they're in a group circling like feathered sharks since treats just aggravate the issue. The behavior still goes on, though.

    Other facts, which may or may not be relevant: (1) Girl #2 is particularly snuggly and gets a fair amount of attention from me; Girl #6 also likes to snuggle but Girl #2 always gets snuggled before Girl #6. (2) Nothing else in their environment has changed, everyone is healthy, laying regularly, etc.

    So my questions are:
    1) Is some form of chicken jail appropriate here, but how since a bunch of them are getting in on the act? Girl #2 still seems to be the primary aggressor -- if I isolate her perhaps the others will stop?
    2) If chicken jail is appropriate, how do people usually structure it? What do you use for "jail," how much space, etc.? Is the isolated chicken in earshot of the others or taken completely away from them? How long do you isolate them? And does isolation also involve no extra human attention (i.e., no snuggling Girl #2 while she's in lockdown)?
    3) If I see the bullying take place in front of me and Girl #1 doesn't intervene, is it appropriate for me to do so?

    Thank you in advance for your help and thoughts!! Poor Girl #6 doesn't need this crap and I don't want anyone to get seriously hurt, which seems to be the way things might be heading!
  2. gritsar

    gritsar Cows, Chooks & Impys - OH MY!

    Nov 9, 2007
    SW Arkansas
    I would suggest chickie jail for #2, out of earshot and sight of the others if possible. Her jail cell should be as comfortable as you can make it, but definitely no loving from you for that bad girl. Feed and water her daily and that's it.
    I have a loner hen and unfortunately my rooster has never chosen to stick up for her; unless it evolves into a knock-down, drag-out hen fight, at which time he does break it up.
    Lilith does her own thing during the day, always on the fringes of the flock. It's been this way since they were chicks (they're 2 now) and since she doesn't get physically attacked to the point of injury, I just let her be.
    Sometimes I will find her trying to enter the coop at night, with the others inside the pop door pecking at her toes every time she tries to enter. When that happens, I scoop her up and carry her in, shooing the other hens away from the door as I do. Then I find Lilith a place on the roost, as far away from the others as possible.
    My mantra has always been if they aren't drawing blood, don't interfere. In your case however where there's an obvious aggressor, I would try chickie jail first.
    Last edited: May 17, 2010
  3. Noble Rooster

    Noble Rooster Chillin' With My Peeps

    Apr 28, 2009
    Thank you, Gritsar!
  4. sourland

    sourland Broody Magician Premium Member

    May 3, 2009
    New Jersey
    Solitary confinement for #2 for at least a week- long enough for flock dynamics to settle down and for her status to diminish. When you return her to the flock, turmoil will reign for a while, but instead of being the agressor, she should become the target. Hopefully her lowered status will improve her behavior.
  5. Noble Rooster

    Noble Rooster Chillin' With My Peeps

    Apr 28, 2009
    Thank you, Sourland.

    I thought you guys might appreciate this update. So I had organized chicken jail and was basically ready to start #2's solitary confinement (reluctantly since, aggression towards #6 aside, I love her spirit and hoped that this wouldn't mess with it). Well, I'm not sure if word about jail made it out to the coop, but I had them out free ranging and noticed that Girl #1 was schooling #2 on manners. She would run her away from the rest of the flock periodically (maybe to keep her on her toes), and if #2 even started to move near to where #6 was hunting for bugs, #1 would either growl (which stopped #2 in her tracks), run #2 off, or just quietly put herself between #2 and #6. With #2 being reminded how to be a polite member of flock society, the other girls didn't try to mess with #6. This behavior continued yesterday too and there has been a major drop in harassment of Girl #6 (who is quite relieved). It's been very interesting to watch since #1's supervision is much more active than before -- usually she would just react to aggression towards #6 but wouldn't pre-empt it. I'm so glad that they seem to be taking care of it in their own chicken way!
  6. nelgkel

    nelgkel Chillin' With My Peeps

    Apr 14, 2010
    [​IMG] awesome update!! awesome chicken!!
  7. fiberart57

    fiberart57 Chillin' With My Peeps

    May 31, 2009
    If you have a house of 24 sq feet and a run of 18 sq ft, that's only 42 sq feet total and that's not enough space for all those chickens. Do they get out to free range at all?

    The recommended spacing is 4 sq ft per bird in the house and 10 sq ft per bird in the run. This is the minimum and they do much better with more. I suspect that if they don't get more room to move around you will continue to have pecking problems no matter how many birds rotate in and out of jail.

    There's a great thread from last year on what's been learned about pecking and cannibalism that discusses this subject.

    There's also a reason why hatchery birds have their beaks cut off.

  8. crtrlovr

    crtrlovr Still chillin' with my peeps

    If it is AT ALL possible, I'd expand their living space and their outside space -- the more room they have to spread out and have space between them, the better. It may be that part of the problem is their proximity. I'm glad for the update; sounds like Hen #1 is doing a better job of intervention. (This thread is another reminder of why I adore my roos so much... [​IMG] )
  9. feathersnuggles

    feathersnuggles Chillin' With My Peeps

    Sep 4, 2009
    Quote:fiberart57 is absolutely correct about the space. The easiest way to add space is just free-range them. I do that right now, because even with 10 sq. feet available per bird, the aggression increases when they are locked up in the run. We're going to expand the run, this summer, adding another 20 sq. feet per hen - for a total of 30 sq. feet per bird. Another thing to think about is vertical space. If your run is high enough, you can add some roosts at different heights, which are great retreats for lower-order birds, when they need a quick way to get away from the bullies.
  10. Noble Rooster

    Noble Rooster Chillin' With My Peeps

    Apr 28, 2009
    Thank you, everyone, for your thoughts. They do free range for a few hours a day. Unfortunately their house can't really be added to but the outdoor space can.

BackYard Chickens is proudly sponsored by