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Monday, April 30, 2012

How I Artificially Re-engineered My Hens’ Pecking Order

By Michael Atkinson, Chicken Lover

A brazen daylight attack
One day while in my kitchen I heard a baby screaming. An awful, heart-wrenching sound… coming from my backyard. As I rushed outside I realized it was one of my hens.

Let me introduce them. Two Rhode Island Reds (Sammie-lane and Rose), one Golden Laced Wyandotte (Bobby Jo) and one Americana (Nikki). This was their pecking order – led by big, confident Sammie-lane who led with a gentle wing:

  1. Sammie-lane      2. Rose        3. Bobby Jo         4. Nikki
Back to our story. Bobby Jo was caught up in the curled end of the chicken wire fence, freaking out in a way that made me sick, sounding the alarm. I saw two Boston Terrier dogs in the process of eating Nikki. It was shocking. Feathers were everywhere, Sammie-lane was limping nearby and Rose had simply vanished.

I grabbed each dog. Up and away they went, flying high over the fence unceremoniously back to their yard with satisfying thuds – they were neighbor dogs and had dug under my fence.

 I rushed the remaining three hens to the veterinarian. The triage nurse quickly admitted them for emergency life-saving surgery. My incredulous wife mocked me bad (and was upset later at the bill) but my kids stood by me. We saved the hens’ lives. Over the next couple months we did our best to administer oral anti-biotics twice daily and rub anti-biotic cream on their wounds. Bobby-Jo got re-infected and had to go back for Surgery Part II. Nikki was severely depressed for a few weeks… instead of being her spry self, she’d slowly shuffle around dejectedly despite actually having the least wounds. I was worried sick they wouldn’t pull through but they all did. With consequences...

Chickens pecking chickens… and a new regime
We had found Rose hiding under discarded netting for the strawberry patch, reunited them all and soon I was shocked again: Sammie-lane was being severely pecked by the others. Her surgery shaved rump literally squirted blood as the others tried feeding on it. I put smelly black cream from the feed store on the wound but it didn’t do much. I then separated her: keeping the others in their fenced off area I let her roam the rest of the yard. She got lonely, it was sad.

Meanwhile over the next several weeks a New Fowl Order was established. Gone was Sammie-lane’s kind reign. Bobby Jo took over, and ruled with an Iron Claw. She cracked down on the other two brutally. It was senseless violence, shameful and ruthless. Realizing I was too emotionally immature of a human to let the chicken’s pecking order go its own way naturally, I staged an intervention.

Manipulating the pecking order
Step 1:
  • I isolated the bully Bobby Jo from the other two in a solitary A-frame coop for a few weeks. (I believed if I brought her back at a later time, it would be 2 vs 1 in the pecking order and she would lose status and I was correct.) I always made sure the groups of chickens were near/could see each other.
  • I also tried reintroducing Sammie-lane after a couple weeks, thinking she was healed enough. Nope. Nikki and Rose still went after here. Back to Isolation for Sammie-lane.

Step 2:
  • After almost a couple months I felt good about Sammie-lanes’ healing so I re-introduced her again. Feathers were growing in well and she looked much better. They all looked like they were going to survive! But I was still worried about the pecking order, and still had three separate groups of chickens. I reintroduced Sammie-lane with Nikki and Rose. Rose, having successfully hid from the dogs, had of course been the healthiest this whole time. Bright red comb and wattle, she was energetic and quite a contrast to the recovering three.
Soon as I put Sammie-lane back in, Rose attacked really aggressively. Poor Sammie-lane just melted. It broke my heart and made me mad. So I booted Rose in with Bobby Jo – misery loves company ladies! Nikki asserted dominance with Sammie-lane and I let it slide because she wasn’t cold-hearted cruel about it. Again I figured I’d eventually add Rose or Bobby Jo back in one at a time, they’d enter at the bottom of the pecking order, and I’d re-arrange Nikki later… exactly what happened.

Step 3: After a couple weeks, Bobby Jo got let out of the coop to rejoin Nikki and Sammie-lane. After staying long enough to ensure Bobby-Jo sinks to the bottom of the pecking order (the power of 2 vs 1), Nikki went in with Rose. Sammie-lane got good payback and Bobby Jo quickly sank back under her in the pecking order.

Step 4: Nikki came back, easily went back under Sammie-lane (and Bobby Jo), and then finally Rose was reintroduced as well. By this time Sammy-lane was flush red again in her comb and wattle, and strutting her stuff. All back to normal!
A happy ending
There are still remnants of the Pecking Order Wars of ‘11-12. Nikki and Sammie-lane are best of friends – I’ve never seen Sammie-lane so much as nip at her, and Nikki is always quick to hop up on the roost and get under Sammie-lane – her favorite bedtime routine.
Rose is deft at fitting in and avoiding problems. She hangs with Bobby Jo at nighttime a lot, but is frequently welcomed to join Nikki and Sammie-lane. Bobby Jo continues to pay for her reign of terror. Dumb as a rock and a social misfit, she often gets pecked and chased off. At times she sleeps alone. Lately the girls have been reuniting a lot at night like an old teen band getting together for reunion gigs. It warms my heart. They are happy and each lay eggs almost seven days a week. And most importantly, back to where they started in their original pecking order, after months of hard work and juggling isolations and social groups by their favorite meddling human…

 by Michael Atkinson


RiverBend Farm said...

Gotta love your art work! Glad you had it because it took me a while to figure out who was where and why. Glad everyone is doing well...but how are you?


The illustrations alone make this story simply gripping.

D V said...

Interesting - when my lead girl Wanda got her back broken by being on the wrong side of a horse hoof, my remaining girls just got depressed and kind of shut down for about 4 months. Once one of them got a bit bigger than the rest, that was when the order was restored. I'm glad I did not have to deal with the violence though. Glad you got it all worked out

Tomato Thymes said...

Wow what a story and you are very patient. Plus love the artwork!

Kim said...

I am so sorry this happened to your chickens but I have to say the artwork was awesome!

-Sydney- said...

It's funny how even chickens have their own distinct personalities. Love the story and I'll add my kudos to the artwork!

Michael Atkinson said...

Thanks everybody. Was fun doing silly art too! I was so anxious to tell people how I was able to meddle and completely re-arrange the pecking order. I'm glad I did it's been great since then. These chickens are SO good for my children and ridiculously entertaining.

My 18 month old really doesn't talk yet, but says "bok bok bok" (chicken clucking) a lot because he loves those chickens - Just rocked him to bed for an hour while we watched Youtube chicken videos together the whole time :) (I promise we have a very balanced and healthy life and he's not growing up as a bird-brain!)

JA said...

Thanks for the great story and love the artwork!
I have a similar situation with a couple of bullies terrorizing a dear little chicken we've name HP (hen pecked).
I am going to try your method as I just can't standby and watch HP suffer any longer.

Jen's Farmily said...

Ha! I found you blog through someone else's that I read and this story was interesting! I always hated when the chickens would pick on each other.

After we lost 90% of our flock last summer to different predators at different times, I noticed that the 4 remaining chickens got along extremely well afterwards. (I guess a near-death experience will do that for you)

Then when we got 24 more chicks, I was worried about them being picked on but it's been about 8 months or so now and everyone is still getting along really well. I hope that doesn't change b/c I don't think I could use your technique & separate 28 chickens!!

{Liana} said...

Very cool-- thanks for sharing! Their social order is simple, but it takes diligence & care to do what you did!

Will Flannigan said...

This was such an interesting blog post. Also, very nice job with the graphics and illustrations, those were great!

Karina said...

Oh my gosh, this was so clever and creative and entertaining. I don't even have chickens anymore and I still read it.

Kelly said...

I love the illustrations here!
good story too!

ChicagoMike said...

I have to say, I am curious about how you dealt with the neighbors. Why didn't they pay the bill for the chickens?

I have thought about getting chickens, but the neighbor pets make me a little anxious about it.

K Design said...

This is an awesome story!!! I have to try it with my bully hen. Thanks for the advice

Randy Beckey said...

Great true to life story I liked the creative way you put it together. Very interesting Thanks

Anonymous said...

Ingenious intervention!
Fabulous illustrations!
Great story!

Kim and Victoria said...

Very interesting! Great story. We have a hen who is getting picked on quite a bit, I may try some intervention.

Marlene K said...

I found your post as I was looking for an illustration to use in a lesson for teenagers about treating others kindly. Poor sad, crying Sammi-Lane! But her pic is perfect for my lesson--I hope you don't mind me using it with my group of girls. It is a powerful lesson we can learn from you and from chickens. Thank you for sharing your experience!

Annelisa Christensen said...

Can't believe I just sat through an exciting tale about...chickens! I was gripped along with all others. And, I have to agree, the drawings just completed the picture! Thanks for a morning laugh :-)