Why do chickens bully and how can I help?
There can be several underlying factors in cases of bullying amongst your hens but first and foremost, it’s important to remember that establishing a social hierarchy is instinctive, so some jostling for pole position is natural. Known as the pecking order , hens instinctively ‘bicker’ until a leader, deputy and subordinates find their positions within the flock and food, bedding and space are apportioned according to each hen’s place. The name ‘pecking order’ refers to the fact that chickens will literally peck at each other in order to gain personal space – make no mistake, our girls may be adorable, but their survival instinct means they’re natural bullies. Once established, social structure within a flock will remain stable until it is disrupted. Other possible causes of bullying could include introducing a new hen or hens; stress; boredom; overcrowding or illness.
How to deal with a chicken bully
If you’re introducing new hens to your flock, the pecking order will be shaken up and therefore it’s best to prepare for a little Hijinx from your girls. The good news is, there are plenty of things you can do to help. The golden rule is to NEVER introduce a lone bird. There is strength in numbers, so introducing a group – we suggest a minimum of three hens – will help to minimise bullying. You’ll find more information on merging flocks successfully here.
Check your flock regularly for illness or injury. Hens are very good at sensing weakness and their ‘survival of the fittest’ instinct will kick in – meaning the injured bird could become the subject of some unwanted attention. If there are any symptoms of illness, remove the infected bird until she has recovered. In the case of injury, separate her from the flock but wherever possible, keep her within the coop or run, so she doesn’t lose her place in the pecking order.
As always, space is key to keep your hens harmonious. Overcrowding can easily lead to problems, and squished up hens will quickly lose their tempers with each other. As a rule of thumb, 2 metres or more per bird is the ideal to aim for.
Ensure you have enough to keep your chickens amused particularly in the long winter months, when they are likely to spend much more time indoors and not free-ranging. From placing perches at different heights to full blown jungle gyms, physical enrichment is a must to keep hens busy. Sprinkle some treats about the place and let them go on a treasure hunt, install a hen swing (yes, really!) or pop a bale of straw into their run. They’ll happily scratch away for hours!
Every chicken owner knows that hens love their food – so hanging treat dispensers, balls or even veg such as cabbage or sweet potatoes will be sure to keep them happy. Just make sure you take it straight from shop to coop, avoiding your kitchen as it is illegal to feed scraps or any food to your hens from a non-vegan kitchen. For more information, please see our page on feeding hens.
Audio and visual stimulation is also important in keeping hen boredom at bay. A simple trick to provide a visual treat is to hang some CDs around their space – they absolutely love shiny things! Equally, they love their reflections, so adding a mirror or two will create more movement and therefore more to keep them amused.
Finally, one of our favourite tips – pop the radio on! Hens will be comforted by the sound of voices and even more relaxed if you fancy playing them a spot of classical music!
Should I remove a hen?
Whilst it’s tempting to remove the victim in an instance of bullying, doing so will mean that she loses her place in the pecking order which will ultimately make things worse in the short term. If she is being prevented from eating and drinking by the dominant bird, then by all means, do allow her space to refuel for about 15 minutes around 3-4 times a day.
Penning the bully separately for a short time should help to give the rest of the flock some peace and hopefully lessen her confidence and dominant streak a little. Of course, make sure she has enough food and water and don’t separate her for more than a day or so. If more than one hen is causing a problem, try removing the whole flock and allowing the victim to settle into the coop herself.
How can I reintroduce her to the flock?
If you have temporarily removed a vulnerable hen, try placing a bird of similar size to her in isolation with her and then reintroduce them both. The instinct to bully will be much weaker in you are reintroducing them in groups. Distraction techniques as you place the hens back in the coop can also help – a simple change up of their environment or some new hanging vegetables may just be enough to keep the bullies from noticing the returnees.
If you have chosen to remove the dominant hen or hens, chances are her time away from the flock will have altered the pecking order enough that she has to start again from scratch.
What’s the best way to reintroduce a hen to the flock?
Every situation is different but housing the antagonist in sight of the victim for a week or so – but separated to avoid contact – is a good starting point. Introduce them in a neutral space, with distractions such as feed or enrichment. This usually helps to acclimatise them both – although be aware that some hens take longer than others. We recommend spending time with your chickens during this process, so you can intervene if necessary. A simple clapping of your hands to distract them if there is more than the usual chest bumping or ‘handbags at dawn’ stuff should suffice.