Stress in organic chickens - Part Three - Power Games - strategies to prevent and stop stress

In the following two part article I explore the problem of stress triggers from dominant birds. This includes general hen house arguments, from romance to food fights and delving back into the past as well using present events to share my opinions, analyses and solutions.

At the initial stage in a conflict or situation, if you can find find the reason for stress, then you can start to implement some strategies for prevention as well as cure. In my experience stress is not only a problem in itself but can cause, malabsorption and depletion of nutrients, depression, suppression of the immune system and can easily, if untreated, lead to serious illness and death.

Ardenner hens - rare breed Belgium bantams (silver duckwing)

Right from the start of our chicken keeping adventure, here in our garden in France, I was made aware of how much stress could be engendered by situation, environment, behaviour and relationships. It was in fact a mirror of the human condition. From that first happy day when we were presented with Poulie and Chicklette, I realised that we were going to be in for a bumpy ride. The first year taught me so much about hens, life here then was a lot simpler, no internet, no house renovation, just gardening and observing and learning valuable lessons for the future.

Changing group dynamics can be a recipe for stress

Butter wouldn't melt in their mouths but Chicklette, above right, quickly began to dominate this tiny flock of two, even going so far as to crow. When I added another hen, Big Dorothy a standard-sized Wyandotte cross, Chicklette became even bossier, preventing Dorothy from perching, keeping her away from oyster shell and causing difficulties at feeding time. Poulie was much more pragmatic about Chicklette's dominion, she got quietly on with her life, however in so doing, this left Dorothy open to the full force of Chicklette. My initial feeling was that, as I was introducing another hen to two sisters, there would be difficulties.  What I wasn't expecting to happen, particularly with such a large hen as Dorothy, was how quickly she began to show in her behaviour and  demeanour 'learned submissiveness' when around both the Ardenners.

A word of caution....

Cochins and friends eating chickweed

Flock dynamics are a vexed question for humans, I've been watching my birds for years and the conclusions I have come to about them is as follows:
- that they are so complex and fluid that they are beyond human understanding
- that interference can create a power vacuum and lead to worse problems. 
- that humans can really mess things up!

Therefore if you are not sure, always deal with the victim first and let the flock decide who the dominant birds should be. Things often sort themselves out and in most satisfactory ways. 

Hen with frizzled rooster and chicks

Here Squeeky, recovered from a bad bout of stress due to cold and loss of status as dominant cockerel, has not only bonded with Bubble to create a mini fiefdom but is already on the way to creating a new flock. All I did was treat him for an emergency stress attack and give him some time-out in the house and front garden, where he met up with Bubble. To intervene in the benign minor power struggle, which is still apparent some 2 years later, between a frizzled Cochin and three Polish brothers would have meant endless problems. The flock decided on this action themselves, they actually stood round and watched as Squeaky and one of the Polish carried out a ritual fight, after which they all seemed to agree that he was deposed. Since then we have had a coalition of some sort and Squeaky has just got on with his life, in the full knowledge that no one was big enough to take his place!

Dominant cockerel


Dominant hens in flocks without cockerels  and vice-versa

Gardening with chickens
I however, was well aware that my main problem with Chicklette and Dorothy was one of overweening dominance within a trio of hens. Once I began to expand the flock and include a cockerel or two, things began to get even better for Dorothy (front) and Chicklette calmed down to the level of just dominant hen. A lone dominant hen, from all I have observed in my flocks, will take on the mantle of dominant cockerel too. In doing this she makes herself a superpower, with the potential to cause permanent stress within the flock. Witnessing the power struggles of our neighbours' poultry, where they often have  separate single sex flocks of 14 to 20 'meat' cockerels, the same holds good where there are no hens, nor dominant hen. 

It is very true, as Lord Acton famously remarked, that 'power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely'. However, before this happened with my three French hens, there were things I could do to alleviate the situation.

What if I can't have/don't want a cockerel in my flock?

Shadow boxing rooster
No flock is ever the same, sometimes you can get the mix just right even without the addition of a cockerel. My first pair of pullets had come from a flock with both a dominant hen and cockerel. I inferred that, left to their own devices as a pair, they had just created their own version of this rule. It would be interesting to observe if a flock made up entirely of hens, who from hatch had never known of a cockerel, develops the same problems. I do know that people who have flocks of hens but with a well-balanced dominant hen have found that a challenge to her rule and take-over by another hen, can have similar results to mine. Therefore, maybe supreme dominance in birds it is a mixture of nature and nurture and/or personality traits. Whatever the situation all is not lost even without the possibility of a cockerel. 

In the next article I will share some of the ideas I implemented for Dorothy, Chicklette and Pouldini and which I still use to this day.

to be continued...

© 2014 Sue Cross

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