TL;DR : Chickens have a pecking order / hierarchy, if you don’t want chaos, there are some steps to take in certain cases.
This post’s name is a bit weird, I’ll admit it, yet this is actually what I felt I was right about at some points of this blog post. This kinda sounds like a Game of Thrones for fowl doesn’t it?
Well you should know that chickens usually (or at least in the wild) live in groups of around twenty individuals. They are pretty gregarious creatures. Usually a rooster supervises his flock of females and chicks. You don’t need a rooster to have eggs, though you do need one if you expect to get chicks. Living in town we didn’t get a rooster, to avoid all-out war with our neighbours, and to preserve our own sleep as well.
We got our two first chickens in spring (yup spring chickens) and after they’d settled into their new home we decided to get two other ones. Our two fisrt hens were classic French red hens. We then got a Marans and a white Sussex a few months later. Obviously they needed time to get to know each other. Introducing new animals to an existing flock can cause some issues sometimes. There are ways to smooth over the transition.
Introducing new individuals to your existing flock
We read up on the best ways of introducing new chicken into an already existing group. We were already prepared for some trouble because we’ve had cats all our lives so we knew that introducing an individual into an already existing household can sometimes be tough.
Of course we found lots of different points of view. We even found one lady that insisted that to stop your hens from being broody you had to do something very peculiar. You need to dip their behinds into cold water and then take them for a ride in your car for exactly 30 minutes. Still confused about that one and I don’t think we’ll ever try it out.
The approach we followed was to keep the chickens separated (in two different parts of the garden), so that they could not see each other until nightfall. Once it was dark we delicately put all of them together on the same perch and let them work it out. Some people recommend that you keep your chickens in the dark like this for the next 24 hours as well. We let them out in the morning and never encountered any big issues.
For the first few days, we did however have to help the two new hens understand where they were supposed to sleep at night. In fact, we usually found them under the chicken coop once it got dark.
It’s important to note that you should never introduce a hen into a flock all by herself. You should always get at least two new hens, otherwise the newcomer will be all alone against a whole flock.
The pecking order
Somewhat surprisingly for most people, chickens groups have relatively complex social structures, with an established hierarchy, which is described as the Pecking Order. The dominant hen gets to eat first and will peck at her rivals if they get out of line. Basically the pecking order is about who gets to call dibs on the best food, on the best sleeping spot, etc. For this reason you should always make sure you feed your animals in large enough quantities because the lowest ranking ones might not get enough to eat otherwise. Usually, the top of the pile is the dominant rooster that gets all the girls, and crows his privilege to the world every morning around sunrise and sometimes much earlier… Did you know that the pecking order even exists for chicks? It starts to establish itself around the sixth week.
What should you do with a bully?
It’s rare that you’ll have a hen who is a bully and despite having everything that she needs, goes after the other hens with an unrelenting viciousness. If this does happen, try to remove her from the flock for a few days. Put her somewhere where the others cannot see her or hear her. After a few days re-introduce her to the group. She will now be near the bottom of the pecking order and she should not go back to her aggressive ways. If she does, get rid of her or it might traumatize the whole group.
Monitor changes in the pecking order
There are times when the pecking order gets upset. This may happen if the dominant hen dies or if a hen becomes ill. In case of illness sometimes the others will go after the sick individual. Chickens recognize each other by their combs, and a change in its color will set them off. If all of a sudden your flock hierarchy has changed, you might want to check out your hens’ health! If a chicken does become wounded, the red blood will make her a target of the entire flock. If it’s open and bloody, remove her from the group until healed. (This is the kind of thing that happens in many animal species. I had a group of mice when I was a student and they would just keep picking at scabs until blood was shed, over and over again. Rodents also tend to be organized with a pecking order.)
For us, the pecking order quickly established itself. We had two red hens, one Marans hen (which is definitely not a pure breed because she just lays normal eggs) and one white Sussex hen. Obviously the largest one (the white one who arrived at the same time as the black one) quickly took on the leadership position. They stayed in pairs (from order of arrival) mostly for the first couple of months though they got along fine.
Today we only have threes hens left, but they get along perfectly. It’s important for a pecking order to establish in your flock because this reduces stress. Once a hen knows its place it will usually easily fall in place. You just have to make sure that the chicken that is the lowest in the pecking order doesn’t get too much trouble from the others. Getting pecked once in a while during feeding is normal but if they start plucking out their feathers or bleeding then you have a problem. Having a rooster will usually help because he should stop your dominant hen from attacking newcomers. You can also try to stop this kind of behaviour yourself by picking up and setting aside the chicken attacking each time. It will get the message but this means you might have to spend a lot of time checking their behaviour at first. If like us, you’re at the office during the day, this might be a problem.