Have you ever wondered what it is like to speak chicken and understand your flock? I am so thrilled to share with you what I have been working on for the past 7 years. With a background in science, I set out on my journey to learn all about chickens and how I could connect with my flock. I wanted to see their world through their eyes.
I’ve been giving a lot of thought this week to our beautiful country. The anniversary of September 11th was earlier this week. I was saddened to see so many of those images and stories that had been burnt into my mind resurface. There is so much palpable pain that still lingers on in the lives of so many. I also remember the one positive thing that came from the ashes, the melting pot we call America had never been so united. We came together as brothers and sisters. We showed a solid front and for a while, it seemed as though the good in everyone came shining through. Unfortunately, it was fleeting. Fifteen years later, I think to myself, how did we become so divided on so many issues these days? Like usual, this week, I looked to the flock for answers. I wanted them to share their wisdom.
Since getting started with chickens in 2010 we have always had Silkies. I selected this breed because of their gentleness, small size, ease of handling, and their undying desire to mother. The breed lived up to all of its promises and more. I have to say I love Silkies.
It’s hard to believe that in a blink of an eye, the babies are turning 18 weeks today.
I’ve spent sometime watching them all morph into a flock. Most of the girls are now all roosting side by side. No longer are the flocks separated on the far sides of the roosts when they sleep. Fifi, our Silkie, is no longer trying to control the little chickens’ moves. Most of the babies are now double Fifi’s size. These days we rarely get eggs. The old girls are definitely in henopause and seem happy to live out their sweet lives with the little ones. I think there is something about having multiple generations under one roof.
Sometimes, no matter what you do or how badly you want your flock to get along, it never comes to be. I can remember looking into the feed store brooder and seeing little sleeping patchwork quilts of day old Silver Laced Wyandottes. I had to have one. Which one did I pick? Well it wasn’t a sweet little sleeping one. It was the one that was awake, with boundless energy, running everywhere.
Day old Dottie Speckles was the boss of the brooder where she lived with Dolly and our two week old Silkies. Since I can remember, she has been boisterous, curious and loves pecking. Over time, as she grew, it became clear to me that she enjoyed pecking things more than the other chickens. I can recall, as she was moving up the pecking order, she decided to peck Dolly. Typically, chickens will assert their flock position with a quick peck to another bird’s neck and get on with their business. Poor Dolly, Dottie Speckles pecked at her repeatedly. Dolly cowered close to the ground and just froze. I had to intervene. I was uncertain that Dottie Speckles would stop. I often find her pecking at the Buff Orpington’s combs and now more recently Tilly. Lately, the Silkies are rarely pecked by her. They run from her. They live in fear of Dottie Speckles and with good reason. We have tried, treats, toys, pecking blocks and cabbages to no avail. With added room in the run and free ranging, nothing seemed to make a difference in the personality of Dottie Speckles.
I began to research dealing with this type of behavior late last Summer, when it really started to affect the flock. I searched for answers, read books, fellow blogs and many websites. It soon became clear to me that despite what I did, hens can be mean like roosters. I began to discuss the situation with fellow chicken friends and local farmers. Many suggested getting rid of her. I certainly wanted that to be my last resort. Unfortunately, I knew after yesterday that I needed to take action.
I had spoken with a dear friend who has raised chickens for over 45 years. She keeps a sweet little farm and B and B here on Cape Cod. She is always so supportive. She suggested that when I was ready, a change of scenery and a new flock might do Dottie Speckles some good. With a lump in my throat and a heavy heart, I knew yesterday that she was right. Late yesterday afternoon, in the sleet, I scooped up Dottie Speckles and placed her in a box with shavings.
My daughter and I drove across town to the farm. We dropped Dottie Speckles off. Later that evening, under the cover of darkness, my friend placed Dottie Speckles in a nesting box with one of her sleeping Silkies. Instantly, she told me that they snuggled together. Morning came and she sent me a picture of Dottie Speckles in her new home. Today, Dottie Speckles has been busy enjoying the sunshine and scratching in the run, getting acquainted with her new friends. She is currently residing with assorted hens and a rooster. For now, everyone seems to be getting along. I am curious to see if living with a rooster will make a difference. We will watch Dottie Speckles closely and see if a temporary flock change can break her feather plucking behavior. If so, we just might be able to bring her home later in the Spring.
This morning, Tilly and the flock gave off an entirely different vibe without Dottie Speckles. The Silkies were walking tall and intermingling with the bigger girls again. Everyone seemed happy and relieved. Their eyes are bright and their combs are a deep crimson red. When we rehomed Chocolate, the flock was sad for a few days. Today, this was not the case. There was a sense of peace.
These decisions are never easy. Despite best intentions and doing the best you can to meet all of your chicken’s foreseeable needs, sometimes chickens do not get along. Sometimes no matter what, roosters and hens can be mean. Sometimes, chickens develop bad habits such as pecking each other, eating eggs, laying outside the nesting boxes or pulling feathers. How much is behavioral and how much is genetic? I am hoping that things will improve with Dottie Speckles. We had to make a decision in the best interest of the entire flock. It was made out of love and carefully thought through. Sometimes the right decisions are never the easiest. Even though I knew it was coming, nothing quite ever seems to prepare the heart to deal with loss, even if it is over a chicken.
|In my new home|
Photo Credit: LS
Tilly has been our head hen for as long as we have had chickens. She is a wonderful leader. She is thoughtful, compassionate for the little ones and fair. When the girls free-range, she is careful never to wander too far from home. In the evenings, she remains outside until everyone is in the coop. Once she is satisfied that everyone is safe, she then retires for the evening. The only time when she is not perfect is when she hogs the treats. For that, I can’t blame her.
Our pecking order two weeks ago:
Dottie Speckles was introduced to our flock last March. She and Fifi are almost a year old. Both are laying eggs but other than that, could not be more opposite. Raised together, you would never imagine that Fifi is content at the bottom of the pecking order, while Dottie Speckles will not be content until she reaches the top.
A couple of weeks ago as I was giving the girls their late morning snacks, I noticed that there had been a scuffle between the Buff Orpingtons and Dottie Speckles. All three had injuries to their combs. The blood had dried and what occurred will always be a mystery. To me, except for the injuries, everyone seemed to be getting along and happy. Of course I was concerned, but I did not notice any differences in the way the chickens were behaving and their minor wounds were soon healed.
Yesterday, I caught a glimpse of Tilly. She was stretching up high to reach a treat and I noticed that patches of her neck feathers under the wattles were absent. She also had an exposed downy patch at the base of her tail. I took her out and held her. There was no blood, no mites and she seemed happy. I was stumped. I could only think that she was being picked on, but by who? Last night as I was falling asleep in bed, it dawned on me. Dottie Speckles was likely responsible. Two weeks ago, the fight between Oyster Cracker, Sunshine and her was most likely over pecking order. The only chicken now keeping Dottie Speckles from reaching the top is Tilly.
I was sad and I felt bad. Dottie Speckles is a true bully and she has worked hard to get to the top. Blood has been shed, feathers have been pecked and she struts around the coop. I am worried. I understand this is natural, but what will the flock be like with a bully at the helm? Tilly is such a graceful leader. Dottie Speckles is a reckless chicken. She pecks at the little ones when they are not even near her. I have come to determine that she is downright mean. I am worried. Apparently in the chicken world, there is only room at the top for one. I am definitely going to have to think this through.
Our Current Pecking order:
Photo Credit: Tilly’s Nest
Truthfully, I have not had much time with my girls since the rain started last week. We have had days on end of rain, which has made even the chickens a little frustrated. Thank goodness I covered their run with plastic. Today, however, I did have a moment to say good morning as the sky decided to give us a brief break.
As I was refilling the feeders and the waterers, I stopped to admire what lovely mini-chickens our 7 week old Silver Laced Wyandotte, Dottie Speckles, and our new 10 week old Black/Lavender Silkie Bantam, Fifi are becoming. Then I saw it. Dottie Speckles is now jockeying for her position in the pecking order.
I had seen her do this earlier and I feel she will be a very dominant bird in the flock. Today, she was challenging her own surrogate mother, Dolly. Dolly is the head of the Silkies. Sparring back and forth, I watched as Dolly puffed up her chest and then danced for a brief minute with Dolly. Eventually, she did step down and Dolly gave her a gentle pecking reminder on the back of the neck. After all, she is only 7 weeks! However, I would not be surprised, that as she grows, she will one day challenge Tilly.
It looks like our a new pecking order has finally established itself. Interestingly enough, all of the new girls are not at the bottom. Here is the line up how I see it:
Tilly remains head hen. I thought that she would stay there based on her personality. The original flock’s rankings really did not change much. Feathers is no longer at the bottom and Dolly has inserted herself into the original pecking order rankings. Interestingly, she is now Chocolate’s favorite. I wonder if her egg laying has something to do with the order as well?
Where does Chocolate sit in all of this? Well, I think he is in between Dolly and Sunshine. Although, roosters aren’t typically included in the pecking order. Tilly, Oyster Cracker and Sunshine still like to peck Chocolate on the back of the neck to remind him of his place. I wonder if he will ever gain their respect?
Well it has now been about a week since Dolly, Autumn and Meesha were introduced to the flock. The transition has been surprisingly smooth. They are quickly reestablishing a new pecking order. I think that Feathers is the happiest. She is no longer at the bottom of the order. She is even doing a little pecking herself. When I do notice the pecking, it is rather gentle, much like a reminder.
Chocolate is thrilled. He is no longer as bossy to the girls and he seems to be content. He now has seven girls to harrass at any given time. He has shown off his rooster dance to every girl. However, none seem the slightest bit interested. Instead, they just go about their business. As far as I know, he has not tried to hop on anyone’s back yet.
Tilly still is head hen. I’m glad. She is maternal-like to the new girls. It is nice to see. She will peck them now and then but it is usually to say, “Hey I’m standing here at the water. I will not move but you are welcome to stand next to me.”
We have also had 2 silkie eggs laid. I scooped another one out this morning. I think it is Dolly that is laying. I am hoping that she will influence the others to lay soon. They should start anyday now. It is really just a waiting game.
Finally, tomorrow night is the Barnstable Agricultural Commission meeting regarding rooster regulations for the town of Barnstable. I have done my best to rally together all the chicken owners that I know. We are sure to attend. I am thinking that I will mostly observe at first and try and gauge people’s postitions on the matter. Wish me luck!
THE FIRST SIX WEEKS
I think that you will be utterly amazed at the pace in which these adorable little chickens grow! Don’t blink because you will miss it! Take the time to enjoy them. They should start to develop a pecking order. Every flock has one. By watching your flock, you will be able to determine things such as; Who eats first? Who eats last? Who seems like an outsider? Who sleeps next to whom? Who plays together? Who is the smartest one? Who is the fastest? Your answers will help to determine their pecking order. The idea of a pecking order is hardwired into every chicken from days when they had to survive in the wild. Each chicken will have a role. These roles are fought for or settled on depending on how the chickens jockey for position. There is not much you can do to change it. Once a true order is established, it should not change. The only exception to this is if you add or subtract anyone from the flock. Of note, roosters are not part of the pecking order. Roosters are separate from the hens in this manner. If you have more than one rooster, there will be an alpha rooster and the other will be submissive to him. They may fight now and then and sometimes it is deadly. The rooster’s role is to be a protector of the flock and to fertilize eggs. If a predator attacks, it is the rooster that will sacrifice himself for the sake of the girls.