I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. ~ Thoreau

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Pecking Order & The Politics of Being a Chicken

If you have never owned chickens you are missing a critical lesson in animal behavior and an interesting and amusing pet. We were thoroughly discouraged by almost everyone we knew when we decide to invest in a flock of laying hens. We were told chickens were dirty, smelly, stupid and generally just more trouble than they are worth. I am here to tell you that those things (excluding the dirty, they do not control where they relieve themselves) are untrue.

I think the smelly/dirty part comes from people who grew up keeping too many chickens in too close of quarters. We have six chickens in a large coop with a sizable roosting area and yard. During the day the chickens free range in our back yard. The smell although somewhat barn like inside the coop is neither offensive nor atrocious. They just smell like animals. I can tell you this they smell a site better than our dog (or us) after four days on the trail.

As for stupid they most certainly are not. I am not nominating them for awards in science or literature anytime soon but they are definitely smart enough to figure out who likes them, from where their food comes, where they go to sleep at night, who is in charge and, most importantly, that cute behavior will get you rewarded with special treats from the kitchen! They also establish a distinct, but fluctuating, social hierarchy that is not unlike junior high school girls and includes not only other chickens but family pets of other species and human family members also.

When we began our chicken keeping endeavor, you probably remember, we started out with four Black Jersey Giant hatchlings. Now I will admit those poor little peeps were dumb. They were terrified of everything and adorably clumsy to boot. They grew into gangly pre-teens that awkwardly tripped over each other and their own feet. They would flap their way out of the box only to find themselves lost somewhere in the nether world between the box and the bathtub wall, peeping their little hearts out in pure terror.

They did not seem to gain much intelligence as we moved them from the bathtub to the coop. In fact they seemed to get slightly dumber as it took days on end to teach them how to use the ramp to get up into their sleeping area every night. We would have to climb into the pen and chase them round and round until we caught them and put them one by one up the ramp and into the coop. This was an especially comical routine because for every two chicks we put up one would fall back through the hole only to be chased all over again. After several nights of this they finally realized they could move up and down between the upstairs and yard of the coop, then their new sisters moved in.

My four little petrified BJGs were immediately cowed by their bigger (fully grown) Rhode Island Red sisters that moved in. Mama and Helga, the two RIRs Fred and I adopted from my aunt, immediately ruled the roost. Mama as the oldest and most established laying hen was large and in charge. Helga deferred only to Mama and Stacy-chicken, Miranda-chicken, Gina-chicken and Autumn-chicken lived in abject terror of both of them and pretty much everything else that went bump in the night (or day).

The BJGs had been relegated to the upstairs of the coop where temperatures reached well above one-hundred degrees, I am sure. I was forced to make multiple trips out every day to switch their water for cooler and to make sure that none of their little panting selves had killed over from heat stroke. They would only come down into the yard for brief moments and then only coaxed by me climbing in the coop and sitting in a chair hand feeding them raisins while they huddled underneath my seat like some kind of giant plastic mother hen. As soon as I left the yard they rushed back into the upstairs to pant and huddle some more.

Mama and Helga for their part were mad as, pardon the expression, old wet hens and meaner than rattle snakes. They did not like me, they hated the dog and they terrorized the little half grown pullets, pecking them and pulling their feathers out as they ran past in heart stopping horror. I was about half sick to my stomach and considered returning my aunt’s two birds on several occasions. But we stuck it out and my how the worm has turned.

Eventually, after keeping them in the coop all together for about a week, we decided that it was time to let them out to free-range. We had not planned on letting our original four out for another several weeks but the RIRs my aunt gave us had been used to foraging and were doubly unhappy to find themselves prisoners in a strange land with four unpleasantly nervous new compatriots. We figured if we were going to have any success at all it would hinge on the chicken’s happiness.

We let them all out and that seemed to ease tensions enormously. They only exception to this was bed time. We placed two large roosts inside the coop but only Helga would perch. Mama slept in the nesting box (and still does) and the four BJGs slept huddled in fright by the door to the yard. Every time they would get up and cross the coop Mama or Helga would give them a sound pecking and send them scurrying back to the pile. There was plenty of room on the roost and frankly even half grown they were of equal stature to their new sisters, it was just their own cowardly natures that kept them from claiming a spot on the perch. But nature has a way of working things out; they do not call it a “pecking order” without reason.

I knew that chickens had to establish this chain of command and so I sat back and tried to relax. We are diligent chicken keepers and I knew no one would starve or not have enough to drink so I tried to stay calm as Mama and Helga basically bullied and tormented Stacy-chicken, Miranda-chicken, Gina-chicken and Autumn-chicken. I would give them pep talks as I sat on the porch telling them that they were big girls and to stand up for themselves. Well I must have been a little too convincing.

They BJGs are now much larger than the RIRs and as the weeks progressed they seemed to begin to realize this, at least as it pertained to Helga. Fred and I began to notice at first that Helga no longer chased them around the yard squawking at the top of her lungs. Then one day, as I was standing on the porch throwing stale bread crumbs to the girls I watched as Gina-chicken (the smallest of the BJGs) ran up and snatched a piece of bread from Helga’s mouth. I looked on, mouth agape, expecting a trip to the emergency vet when Helga pecked her eyes out. Instead Helga put her head down and scratched away looking for some other snack.

I thought it had to be a fluke, Helga was my back yard bully. She was the kid who waited in the playground after school to shake down the others for their lunch money! But it was not. As time wore on I watched Helga slip from high and mighty (second in command only to Mama) to low man on the totem pole. All of the BJGs would take her snacks or run at her like they wanted to flog her. Poor Helga. As I went out, to shut them in the coop one night, I shone the flashlight in only to discover all of the BJGs on the high roost, Mama in the nest box and poor Helga relegated to the low roost all alone.

Ok, I am always going to root for the underdog. I do not know why, something in my DNA is hardwired to go straight for the most pitiful rescue in the bunch. Helga has quickly moved into first place in my heart. I sit on the porch and talk to her and hand feed her special treats I sneak out in my pockets. In return she sits beside me and croons and clucks and generally seems pretty content to eat from my hand where the others cannot steal her goodies.

Mama, mysteriously, has remained in her queenly domain as head of household. This is so strange to me because she is the smallest of all six, even smaller than Helga. But old girl is in charge and don’t you forget it. They are all terrified of her and I really do not know why. I guess it just goes to prove attitude can carry you far in this world. If you believe it you can make it happen. Mama believes she is in charge, she carries herself like she is in charge and so therefore she is in charge. Women with low self-esteem could learn a lot from a chicken coop.

Although at the moment Helga gets special treatment because she has slipped to the bottom of the pecking order you should not feel too sorry for her. Remember, although she may at the bottom of the chicken list they all still consider themselves to be far above our dog Louie on the food chain. Not one of them is afraid now to walk up to him and peck him on the toes or steal bites of his food. Poor Louie, sixty pound sissy!

Thank you for reading,
Much love,


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