Todays’ article tackles one of the least endearing qualities of our beloved hens – bullying.
It is more than establishing the ‘pecking order’- it is systematically picking on one or two hens for no apparent reason.
Bullying can be limited to feather plucking or it can escalate into full blown warfare with the receiving hen being severely injured or possibly killed.
In this article we will cover what the usual causes of bullying are, how to stop them pecking each other and finally what to do when you need to intervene.
The Pecking Order
This is just a brief rehash of the pecking order to refresh your memory. If you want to get more in depth information please see our article on the pecking order.
The pecking order is a complex relationship structure within the flock. A birds’ place within the flock is determined by several things – age, ambition, personality etc.
A hen who wishes to rise to the top will be assertive with her flock mates ensuring dominance over them first. When she is integrated to the flock she will initially be at the bottom, but she will challenge the more timid hens and rise through the ranks accordingly.
When viewed from the outside, this behavior can seem like bullying, but this particular behavior has gainful purpose and is usually short-lived. It will stop when one of the antagonists gives way.
Bullying is a sustained behavior which really has no purpose other than to intimidate or harm another hen.
Let’s look at some of the usual causes of bullying now.
Usual Causes of Bullying
There are four main causes for bullying to erupt:
Chickens love routine and anything that changes their routine can lead to stress. The major stressors are new members in the flock, death of a flock mate, change of feed, new accommodations and a host of other minor things.
Usually they deal with stress by going off lay for a few days, being quieter than usual, but on occasion the stress can trigger one hen to act out of character and become aggressive to a flock mate(s).
Winter-time is the usual time for boredom aggression. They can’t/won’t go out in the weather and they have little to do, so feather picking starts.
If it stayed as a minor thing with occasional picking that would be acceptable, but it can escalate into a frenzy of picking by several hens.
The victim is usually terrified to go anywhere near the bully girl(s) and may hide for most of the day. She will likely be frightened to go into the coop at night also.
They may keep her from eating and drinking so it is important to have more than one feeding station available so that she can eat in peace.
Also make sure to read our chicken winter boredom busters to avoid this type of problem.
Chickens know intuitively when one of their own is sick. In the wild a sick chicken would be driven from the flock as she becomes a liability for the rest of the chickens.
This can happen in our domestic hens too. They will pluck at her, driving her away from the flock.
Probably the number one cause of bullying. Many chicken folks are guilty of impulse buying or over hatching thinking one or two more birds won’t hurt.
In good weather with free ranging that may hold true, but in winter – not so much.
Remember, each large bird requires 4sq. ft/bird in the coop and 8sq.ft/bird in the run. If there is tight quarters it’s a given that mischief will break out.
Think about how you would like spending the winter with your family in one room all the time. As much as you may love your family – nerves will get frayed and tempers may flare.
Read how much room do chickens need for more help.
Now we know what the usual causes of bullying are, let’s look at how to prevent it.
How to Stop ‘Bully’ Hens
If you notice some minor anti-social stuff going on, try to figure out why it’s happening.
Have there been recent stressors for them? Is there anything you can do to change or help them?
Winter boredom can be partially alleviated with fun things for them to do – cabbage tetherball, treats such as melon, zucchini or cucumber to peck at, flock blocks or handfuls of scratch for them to eat.
Can you entice them to go out each day even for a brief spell? Sometimes a shoveled area with straw or hay thrown down is enough to get them outside for a bit.
I will often throw some fresh straw and scratch into the coop and let them do their thing – it gives them something to take their minds away from anti-social habits.
If you suspect one of the ladies may be unwell, give her a good check over. If you feel the need, you can isolate her in ‘sick bay’, but in doing so you may make her problems worse.
Re-integrating her could become a real problem for you and her. I will do everything I can to avoid separating her from the flock because it can cause issues further down the road. Obviously if she is being severely picked on she will need to be isolated for her own safety.
If you are planning on chicks in early spring, she may have to go in with them for a successful integration.
The only real solution to overcrowding is either to thin the flock or expand the room they have somehow. If it’s possible to move some of the hens to separate quarters that would be ideal. I would move the hens that are lower on the pecking order so they can have a break from the bully girls.
This will also re-set the pecking order in both camps, so for a brief period you may see some squabbling as they get settled in their new positions. It is not ideal, but may save some of the lower hens from a miserable winter.
Extra Steps to Stop ‘Bully’ Hens
Bully Hen Diversion Techniques
We have already mentioned some diversion therapies above, but what happens if you see the bullying happening in front of you?
I have used a water pistol in the past. A well- aimed squirt to the offender as she pecks at her flock-mate can stop her in her tracks. This repeated over time will stop the behavior, but you will need to spend a lot of time with them to observe and deal with these behaviors.
Another trick that has been used successfully is the ‘pebble can’. Get an old tin can, fill it about 1/3 full with pebbles and tape shut. Make sure it is well taped!
When you witness bad behavior, shake the can vigorously. The hens will all stop what they are doing to see what the hideous noise is!
This gives the victim time to move and also stops the bully hen by distracting her. I haven’t used this one so I can’t say how successful it is, but it sounds like a good idea.
Upping your game
So Ms. Bossy has not taken the hint – what now?
There is a product out there called ‘pinless peepers’. They are something like sunshades for chickens… with a subtle difference; they cannot see what is in front of them!
These ‘glasses’ stop the chicken from seeing what is directly in front of her. She can see to the sides, can do the normal things chickens do except pick feathers!
Many folks have used them and have been delighted at the results. You can buy a pack of six for around $15.00.
Some companies recommend that you use a special pair of pliers to apply them, but others state that soaking them in warm water or leaving them in the sun for a while makes them malleable enough to apply.
The peepers fit into each nare of the beak and are held in place by the beak.
Last Resort: Jail!
The ultimate punishment – chicken jail! If your aggressive hen will not be reformed gently, she needs to do some hard time.
A separate cage away from the ladies but somewhere they can see each other is perfect. How much time will depend on the offender – some take the hint and can be returned to the flock after a couple of days, but others may be determined to not be reformed.
This exercise resets the pecking order. Life goes on without her in the flock and everyone adjusts accordingly, so when she is returned to them she has to start all over again from the bottom up.
The average ‘jail sentence’ is 3-7 days but some will need more time in the ‘clink’.
Every once in a great while, I hear of a hen that refused to be reformed and ended up being given away. This really is the last chance for her – perhaps being in a new flock intimidates them enough to make them behave; I don’t know I have never had to do this.
We have given you some options here to stop your feathered bully from plucking her flock mates naked!
As we mentioned space is all important. Provide enough space, darkened hiding spots, boxes etc. so the victim can find a peaceful place to sit. Also ensure there are sufficient feeding and drinking stations for the ladies.
The pinless peepers certainly sound effective, are painless and seem to be relatively easy to apply – they may be a great solution for you.
We hope that your girls will live in peace and harmony together and you won’t have to resort to any of these tactics, but at least you now have some ideas of what is available should you need it.
Have you ever had a bully hen – how did you manage her? We would love to hear about your solutions in the comments section below…