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

Solutions then and now

Chickens at the kitchen door
The first thing I did (and still do today), was to instigate  'time-out', I firmly believe in this procedure for both the perpetrator and victim in cases of bullying and stress and that they should be kept apart for at least some hours of the day. Most importantly this should include the key periods when stress levels can become elevated, so, if you have them, set feeding times and the hour before they go to roost. When you finally decide to regroup them as a flock, you may have to make yourself the dominant 'bird', so as to ensure that the victim gets well-fed. You can do this either by policing the food plates or more easily getting her/him out first thing in the morning. At night you may have to physically arrange everyone on the perch. Not only does this help the 'stressed-out' but also the 'stressor' as it puts you firmly above him or her in the pecking order. 

I would not under any circumstances put either bird in a cage within view of the other or any other member of the flock. In fact I would cut out the idea of cages altogether. A cage to a hen is what it would be to us and just furthers the idea of division and difference in status. If you do not have the room to move birds about then try to find a friend to take one of the birds for a day or so. If the worst comes to the worst, although if you have a homestead this probably means no big deal, bring your bird inside your house.

Organic Mottled Cochin Rooster

Giving a bird some tlc, at any difficult part of its life not only boosts its confidence but helps it when it returns into the flock. You have by allowing it into your domain, given it a little edge, a bond between you. Hastings (left) had a dreadful fight with his brother over a hen and the time we spent just calming him down and giving him a big hug probably did just as much for his stress levels as the electrolyte and wound treatment achieved.

Polish crested in the hen house
Pallet wood perch for hen house with hensI made sure of it then and it is a rule I have followed ever since, that at night everyone can perch at the same height. I always construct my perches to be at one level and  ensure everyone is positioned on them. I now instinctively know who will not get on with whom and which hen or cockerel can act as an intermediary. Again, I think of my chickens as individuals, hens have off days, particularly if broody, relationships with others are fluid and thus can change. Any chicken who is broody or maybe through age or injury can not/or just won't perch is given a cardboard box. This box has seemingly some significance in hen house shibboleths, it seems to stand for a separate entity within the house. Whereas, sitting on the floor or perching on a lower level than the rest signifies lower station.

Birds are very much a cohesive group at night, they preen and chatter and presumably 'chill out ' from the tensions of the day. The cockerels flap and crow together in the morning so any indication that one bird has more height advantage i.e. status, than the dominant hen and cockerel, can begin to cause problems and therefore result in stress. Sneezy the Silver Sebright hen, perched left, is in fact dominant!

Physical Fights, Flock and Family Feuds, Stress, Problems and Solutions

Chamois Polish Crested and Frizzled Roosters

The worst fights with resultant elevated stress levels I have witnessed in my flock have been duels between brothers over a single hen. The rest of the altercations between cockerels have been purely ritualistic and with no actual physical contact.  In 14 years these brotherly feuds have happened 3 times and have always ended in blood and tears or rather tears to the wattles. Although we have normally been able to sort these out by implementing the above strategies, I was once obliged, in the case of three brothers, to finally give one away and interestingly he became the dominant cockerel in that new flock. Mostly however, time out, tlc and staggered feeding and supervised perching times works. In addition letting one of the duellists out early in the morning amongst  the hens also allows him to meet other partners and often solves the problem.

Hens laying in nestboxes
Similarly, I have hens who fight over nest boxes. In the old hen house,  we had a three compartment nest box, which Dorothy and the Ardenners squabbled over now and again but not with any real elevated stress levels. However, these two Polish x Ardenner sisters got into such a fit of pique with each other over the middle box, that I took the partitions out. Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best!

Food, in particular insect and invertebrate protein and the competition for it can sometimes cause conflict and stress. So siting a compost bin within each territory and regularly having digging sessions within the same, really helps sort this out. The requirement for the amino acid methionine has a direct effect on the nervous system and something we need to provide for. Hen fights over food can be nasty affairs, with hens pulling feathers and pecking at each other. Making adequate provision for a whole raft of foodstuffs but in particular wild protein and greenery seems to me to be of tantamount importance. This is never more pressing than when a hen has chickens, lack of protein for the babies just adds to the stress. Luckily and for reasons only they could tell you, my four flocks allow passe-partout in all territories for mothers with chicks and even later in their development, there is some leeway allowed when these same chicks leave the nest. 

Territorial boundaries, the siting and design of hen houses and how they affect the nervous systems of the flock, predator stress and forest gardening solutions will all be dealt with in the next post.

Organically raised hen and her chicks

If you enjoyed this article and found it found it useful, feel free to share, comment and ask questions. All the best and thanks for dropping by,

© 2014 Sue Cross

No comments:

Post a Comment