Stress in Organic Chickens - When? Why? Whom? Identification, causes and those most at risk.

Stress comes for all sorts of reasons to an organic flock and if not treated within 24 hours there is a good possibility, if it's a bad attack, that it can be fatal. Over the years I have dealt with stress triggers such as,  predator attack, problems in laying, loss of status, fights, bullying and overheating but if like us you are living in the Northern Hemisphere, then, at the moment, your most likely problem and cause will be the cold.

"Now what do we do?" Cochin brothers in adversity.
This is such an important and complex topic, it can't possibly be dealt with in a single post. I truly believe, from all I've experienced, that stress lies at the very heart of most if not all the health and behaviour problems encountered within the organic flock. In this first post I will look at the identification of stress, its underlying causes and how to identify those birds most at risk.

The first time I encountered stress in a bird was on bringing home a new Ardenner cockerel from an exhibition. He was young, only just in full colour and my eight year old niece, who was staying with us at the time, attracted to him as a lovely gentle bird, named him Dark Cloud. We were very careful to keep him cool on the way home, as it was a hot May day. Unbeknownst to us, as he had not been on show, he had been kept in the breeder's car throughout the morning. On arrival, although he seemed rather nonplussed, which was not unexpected, he appeared to be fine. However, after an hour he suddenly started to eat and drink rather manically and after another half hour or so, he was unsteady on his legs. The next morning he was dead and we were all very upset. When I rang the breeder and told him what had happened and explained the symptoms he recognised it immediately for what it was, heat stress brought on by the morning spent in his car.  That was ten years ago and having sworn at the time to find out all I could on the subject, despite predator attack, serial broodiness, extremes of cold and heat, difficulty in laying and general internecine battles amongst both hens and cockerels, I've always been able to treat this condition.

How do I know if my bird is suffering from stress?

This is Ruffles, a calmer and more phlegmatic Ardenner you could hardly find, he is the son of Raffles the cockerel I was given as a replacement for Dark Cloud.

Here's Sneezy our 8 year old Silver Sebright she looks a picture of tranquillity  but she suffered from one of the worst cases of stress, due to predator attack, I have ever had to deal with. It was easy to diagnose because it came on so quickly after the event and with dramatic symptoms including complete paralysis down one side.

This is Squarky, a Sebright Frizzle cross, showing distinct signs of cold stress. I know him well enough to see the signs but even at first glance you can tell he is not at his best, in fact he even looks miserable!

In my experience, the symptoms of stress have two ways of manifesting themselves, there is a severe form, which appears quickly and dramatically after a given event and is therefore easily diagnosable. Then there is a more measured build up of stress, in which the time or even exact nature of the trigger may not be obvious. In this latter case, knowing your bird's normal behaviour and comportment are the key to early and successful diagnosis. For, if allowed to go unchecked, this latter case may possibly develop into a severe stress condition and may like the former, prove fatal.  

Perhaps literature and country lore has been correct in associating cockerels with pride and position. They seem to suffer much worse than hens from stress brought on by more psychological reasons, such as loss of status and the aftermath of a fight. However, if you don't have a cockerel in your flock, you will probably have a hen who takes on the mantle of both cockerel and dominant hen, in her case therefore, stress caused by loss of status may be equally as dramatic.

Harmony within a flock is something we all strive for but each group's dynamic and its rules are often complex and unfathomable. We have three hen houses within our garden, all with a dominant hen and dominant cockerel(s) (we have three sets of brothers). Although I have some understanding of where the territorial boundaries have been drawn, certain groups seem to have passe-partout. There are also bands of 'marauders' leading ritual skirmishes which result in nothing but mutual bravado. The occasions on which tension and stress have occurred has often been by our intervention, such as our removal and eating of a cockerel, thereby causing a power vacuum and serious conflict.

So what should you be looking for

Severe stress  Comprising, sudden loss of motor function after the event, loss of balance, complete inability to move, lying on the ground, prone with legs often sticking out the back, complete or partial loss of 'voice', inability to focus, bewilderment and in extreme cases, paralysis.

Stress build up This in my experience follows a pattern in which, your hen or cockerel stops talking, eats erratically and voraciously, drinks incessantly, stands huddled with feathers fluffed, stops eating altogether, gasps when breathing, loses balance, can no longer stand. This is why at the start of this post, I mentioned that knowing your hen is key, Squeaky and Sneezy are very 'chatty' birds, the minute they stop talking, I start taking notice.

Proviso  In the case of specific stress particular in laying hens, I would be again noticing a progression; comprising, an occurrence of soft-shelled eggs, the hen experiencing difficulty walking and constantly stretching one of her legs out at the back as she walks. In extreme cases, I would expect, difficulty in standing, 'rubbery legs', sitting down constantly and if untreated, a  progression to difficulty in breathing, gasping and a change in colour of crest and face.

Identifying those most at risk

You would think this would be the most stressful job in the flock, but the mother hen and resultant chicks are often the most carefully guarded, respected and often feared, group of all.

Poultry when left to their own devices, given enough space and food, have a fine understanding of continuance. I do wonder if this very capability of the hen to cope with so many beaks to feed is also why, unlike her male counterpart, she seems far less prone to the forms of stress engendered by loss of status.

 However, broody hens can sometimes get themselves into a vicious circle of stress by becoming so intent on being broody that they forget to eat and drink. It's a good idea if your hen goes broody, even if you are not putting eggs under her but just letting her 'practice', to make sure that, she is getting off the nest at least once a day.

The most likely candidates for stress are the young and old and their lower rating in the pecking order, may thus be key in depriving them of necessary nutrients and trace elements. Stress and nutrient depletion make for a vicious circle, thus stress caused by jostling for a place, or inherent in the loss of a long-held position, may serve to deplete the system even further and engender yet more stress. Young pullets and cockerels are also more prone to chasing and being chased, something again which increases levels of stress. To add to their problems, the young and old are also often less well-feathered and thus more likely to become susceptible to heat and cold stress.  Amongst my own flock most susceptible to cold stress, are my older birds, in particular the light-feathered breeds I crossed with my light feathered Frizzle. Yet again, mea culpa, in my craze to get a Frizzle line going, when I rehomed an old Frizzle hen, who suddenly started to lay I didn't think of the consequences of old age....but that's another story...

Next Up - Simple, organic emergency treatment for stress and how to administer it without stressing out yourself or your bird. Follow this  LINK

If you have enjoyed this post, please share it and do feel free to comment, ask questions a relate your own experience with stress in your flock. Thanks for dropping by and hope to see you again, Sue

©2013 Sue Cross


  1. Such a beautiful site and photos Sue! Thanks for the link on the organic chickens group on facebook. Looking forward to reading the next post.

    Are we able to subscribe to get updates by email?

    Sue from the Organic Chickens Group on Facebook

    1. Hi Sue,

      Thanks for your comment, I really appreciate the feedback and so happy you like the site. I have just posted the next piece on stress and will post the link up on the Organic Chickens Group. However, if you'd like to, you can join my blog and get updates by pressing the 'follow this blog' button up on the top right-hand side of the page.

      All the very best from France, Sue

  2. Great post, and very beautiful pictures!
    Leigh from Natural Chicken Keeping

    1. Hi Leigh,

      Thanks for your comment. It's great to get feedback. I checked out your site at Natural Chicken Keeping and subscribed, lots of great photos, interesting discussion and posts.

      Best wishes from France, Sue

  3. Hi! I'd love to quote you in an article for this publication. . Any additional comments on trauma and chickens would be great too! Please let me know on

    1. I am so sorry but I have only just this minute found your comment. I needed to check something I had already written, as I am writing another piece on stress and found your comment and request. I am probably too late but will send you an email this evening. All the very best and again, so sorry! Sue

  4. If this thread is still active, please could you contact me? Ive had a strange situation with my cockerels, I think it's stress related, and all my hens are fine, but I've just lost my 3rd cockerel in two months. This one I actually thought was a hen until two weeks ago. I think they were all bullied in turn by another cockerel I had which was a bantam cross ( the ones that died were all bantams). I'm worried about my hens now. Im certain it wasn't anything like NCD or Marek's. There was no difficulty breathing until today. There was intermittent loss of movement, floppy and shaky head, and blueing of the comb. In the last one there was literally bluing of comb one night, dead in the morning. In the one before that, no sign at all. They all lived with the larger cockerel, seemed happy enough, but thinking back didn't get a look in with the hens. Thank you for your wonderful posts as they gave me hope in my BEAUTIFUL Zebede es ability to recover. I've kept birds a looong time, always treated them as naturally as possible, and the eldest I've buried so far was 15, also a bantam cross.

    1. Hi Julie,
      So sorry about your situation, it is awful losing birds and I agree, it sounds to me like stress. I don't know why, may be it's the 'man flu' syndrome but I always find cockerels are less able to cope with stress than hens. I also think it is because status is so important in the flock and the cockerels seem to take it particularly hard when they lose face and or place in the hierarchy. As I've posted here, ad nauseam, I don't think it is possible for humans to understand the exact nature of what we call 'the pecking order'. It is so complex and fluid but that is not to say we can't try to do something about an individual situation. The first thing I have to ask is were you OK with getting electrolyte into the cockerels or did you not have a chance before you lost them? Usually the simple sugar and water or raw apple cider vinegar and water works but that loss of movement you describe and the floppy head, strikes me as being possibly a stroke and/or advanced stress. For that I would want to administer turmeric for curcumin and a very little grated Brazil nut for selenium, both these are for the return of nervous and motor function and to start to repair potential neurone damage. I did this with my 9 year old Silver Sebright wnen she became paralysed after witnessing a predator attack on a fantail pigeon directly in front of her. As you are no doubt aware stress will actually flush the body of specific nutrients, so it is important to get the birds back up eating asap after they have come out of the initial stress attack. Unfortunately with bad stress one of the immediate post behaviours, I have witnessed with cockerels, is binge eating and drinking. I am sure that the bird knows it needs to eat and get those nutrients back but I would want to be providing the best possible diet at that time and certainly would not want a bird to be gobbling up grain. Coconut oil is a fat which acts like carbohydrate and can be used immediately, so is a great energy boost. Also Vitamin C is lost through stress and I would also be upping the B complex vitamins through food, if possible at this time of year, wild invertebrates but a hard boiled egg would be a good all round food and added to some green leafy veg you will cover the whole range of B complex. You may also want to think about transdermal sprays for specific nutrient losses due to stress, such as magnesium oil, which you can easily make up yourself from magnesium chloride flakes and water. I usually spray this on under the wing. You have jogged my memory, in that I haven't yet written up the next part of the stress articles which was about nutritional support for stress so maybe I ought to do this!

      I would be also using diet as a preventative for your 'at risk' cockerels or hens, e.g., the older and younger ones, also any that are still in the moult. This is another important issue, are any of your cockerels coming out of moult and have they lost their sickle feathers? This I find is like a red flag for a dominant cockerel to attack or bully. I would also be thinking about aromatherapy for specific birds too. I drop of lavadula angustifolia, for example, just dropped on the feathers on the back, it has worked wonders for any of my birds with layer stress and also with a young cockerel who got into a state over being bullied. However, you may have to alter the flock dynamics and remove your aggressive cockerel for some 'time out' or alternatively split the flock, if you can, so that your other males get some time with some of the hens. However, you will have to do this under supervision as the problem is that in removing a dominant male you will cause a power vacuum and it could cause your other males or some of your more dominant hens to make a bid for power over the whole flock. It is very complicated!! However, if you do everything in stages and give yourself a time to try this when you can be with the flock then you will be there to cope with any problems. ..cont

    2. ..cont
      My other idea for stress would also be fluctuations in temperature, which will bring on stressful conditions in a flock of poultry and if you've got bullying going on as well then this will aggravate all your birds' stress levels. We are having fluctuations in temperatures here in Normandie at the moment which certainly are trying the patience of my flock! Stress will also bring on heart conditions, including heart attack, problems with the gut and thus the immune system, in fact I always think of stress as the main problem in organic and natural flocks.

      The other problem you could have which may cause stress in the whole flock and result in aggressive behaviour in your dominant cockerel, is a predator you don't yet know about. I lost a Cochin to stress over a rat, which I didn't even know was living in one of the outbuildings where he was roosting until it killed some of my quail but by then it had caused heart attack in my Cochin.

      For a final idea you might also think about amino acid deficiency, particularly l-methionine (again from wild invertebrate or egg) in your dominant cockerel, just a simple deficiency like this can cause overtly aggressive and nervous behaviours.

      Again I am really sorry for your losses and hope this has been of use. Do get back to me if you think I can help but going out observing your flock and doing some preventative nutritional support for the whole flock should be a good start. All the very best, Sue