Predators, pests and diseases are not the only challenges a backyard flock owner will have to deal with. Sometimes the problems are originated in the flock itself, and solving them involves lots of creativity, ingenuity and even diplomacy.
Here are some examples of chicken behavioral issues we have dealt with over the years:
Egg-pecking and egg eating. Few things are more annoying than walking into your coop with the expectation of gathering some beautiful fresh eggs, only to encounter a spectacle of some piled-up shells and chickens with egg yolk on their beaks. Being omnivores, chickens love a nice fresh egg as much as we do, and once they get into the habit of eating their own eggs, it may be hard to cure.
This may sound obvious, but nice padded nesting-boxes are the first step in preventing cracked and broken eggs, which are a lot more likely to be eaten. Also make sure your chickens’ diet has plenty of calcium for strong shells.
Make a point of surveying your coop for eggs starting early in the morning, and every hour or so, until all eggs are laid and collected. The quicker you remove the eggs, and the more consistent you are about it, the sooner your chickens will lose the habit of eating them. I have found this method to be the most simple and effective in stopping egg-pecking practice, but it does take a few days of thorough commitment.
Placing dummy eggs in your coop may help deter the chickens as well, since pecking plastic gets old pretty soon. Some chicken keepers, for an extra measure, have even used hollowed empty egg shells filled with mustard or hot pepper to teach their birds a sharp lesson, but I personally have never tried this.
If there is one persistent egg-pecker in your flock, sometimes you will have no choice but to cull her (whether this means the stew pot or just giving her away to a petting zoo or something). Watch carefully and see which chicken it is, and once you are certain, remove her.
Aggression toward humans. In most cases, aggressive birds are roosters and, far from comical, this can actually turn pretty serious, especially if you have small children. Such behavior should be nipped in the bud; don’t ever let a rooster gain over you.
Chickens are birds with a strong hierarchical order, and often the rooster will view you and your family as fellow flock members, and try to challenge you for the position of the alpha rooster. Don’t let such a challenge go unmet; the first act of aggression on a rooster’s part should be answered, and promptly (broomsticks and water jets are useful here). Another effective treatment is taking a firm hold of a rooster and keeping him down until he is properly subdued. A persistently aggressive rooster, however, may be more trouble than he’s worth; some people have been dealing with aggressive roosters for ages, or else gave up on keeping a male in the flock entirely, due to the belief that “all roosters are aggressive”. This is totally untrue; rooster behavior depends very much on breed, temperament and early upbringing. We currently keep Brahma roosters, which have been hand-raised are very nice and friendly. Bottom line: if your rooster is too much trouble, replace him. You will most likely fare better.
Aggression toward other birds. As I have said before, chickens have a strong hierarchy, and the establishing of their pecking order involves a lot of, well, pecking. There are some limits to what is reasonable, however. We draw the line when we see blood, or when we notice a bird that is persistently bullied up to the point of being denied access to food, water and shelter.
Plentiful food and space can potentially solve a big part of excessive pecking, as the birds won’t have to compete for resources, and hens that are weaker in the hierarchy can simply walk away to a quiet corner where they won’t be bothered. Another method is to temporarily isolate the strongest-pecking chicken, and re-introduce her a few days later, which will shuffle the pecking order somewhat. If there is one bird that is persistently mean and aggressive, however, sometimes you will find that culling is your most reasonable option.
Allowances can sometimes be made for special circumstances; we once had two hens go broody and hatch chicks at once, and when of the chicks accidentally wandered away from his mother and to the other hen, she pecked him to death. As sad as that episode was, it served us to learn that some mother hens are very strongly protective of their chicks, and should be separated from the rest of the flock until their young ones are a little older.
Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna's books are on her Amazon.com Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna's Mother Earth News posts here.
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