Forest garden dynamics 1 - Crowing hens and why we may be keeping chickens incorrectly

'A whistling woman, crowing hen are neither fit for God nor men' Old Scottish proverb
'Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely ' Lord Acton (1834–1902)
Well much to my chagrin I've never been able to whistle but just recently I've acquired a hen who can crow beautifully! Maybe acquired is not quite the correct verb to use, she's been with us for many a year, Chocolatine, a Polish cross who has already featured as the main player in my film 'Why do hens go broody?' (film still below)  I'll post it at the end of this piece just to show you what she looks like on a reasonably normal day. 

broody hen

I thought it would be a good starting point from which to discuss group dynamics and the issues which may arise when keeping several flocks of birds within a forest garden environment. It may also be useful to people with single sex flocks who may be experiencing difficulties with  super-dominant/omnipotent birds. I shall also look at the strategies I have used when confronted with various issues, such as bullying and learned helplessness. I'm taking actual examples of specific hens and cockerels in my flocks, so I'm going to split this article into three parts, otherwise it would become unwieldy and unreadable!

The Backstory

Firstly however, I must just state that, from my observation, the nature of flock dynamics is so complex and fluid that I don't think a mere human brain could ever totally get to grips with it. Many thousands of years ago, man took an essentially wild male bird from its roost in the trees, in order to carry out a form of 'sport' known as cock fighting. Even that was subject to human modification, for if you've ever seen two male birds fight, it is, a subtle blend of ritual, theatre, mesmerism and often courtship, in most cases with no physical contact.  Over time the female was also taken to provide eggs for food and placed in an environment, housed and fed to suit the keeper rather than the kept. Fast forward to  World War One and the glimmerings of industrial agriculture, where draconian dictates housed poultry in ever diminishing space and stripped them of so much of their natural behaviours that I'm amazed they retain even a vestige of their ancestry. It is a testament to these birds' physical and mental strength that you can put a battery hen out in a field and watch her peel back that year of servitude the minute she scratches the earth.

Frizzled Golden Polish Crested Rooster
The Crested Polish was originally brought to Britain by the Romans. A champion forager, great layer, independent character, who could survive the coldest of Winters. It was amongst the first of so many of what are now called rare or heritage breeds to be side-lined almost to extinction in the 1950s. This, in favour of the fair-weather, docile Italian Leghorn who could lay like a machine and seemingly manage to just exist in the confines of the caged battery system. Spike above, is a golden, crested and bearded, black-laced, frizzled Polish, the frizzled gene also seems to impact on the personality of the bird. In most of our chicken coops the frizzled birds, male and female, are dominant.

hen and chickens with cockerel in the backgroundI remember my father saying to me and on so many occasions, that farming was a totally unnatural business but I have in my own and very small way tried to bring something of the jungle back to my birds. However, as Gertrude Jekyll wrote with reference to wilderness gardening, it is so much harder to create a natural environment than a formal one. This problem lies at the very heart of how birds actually live and what we as humans really understand by that. We've so much bent poultry to our own will and needs and I am sure, funded research to support the premiss, that I'm convinced that what we really need to do is to throw everything out and start again.

Organic free range chickens in a forest garden

Over the years of observing my poultry I've come to the conclusion that large flocks of single sex birds usually hens living with one cockerel is not the way to go. My poultry live in a group yes, but they live in small groups and within those they can quite happily exist in couples, as friends and family units.

hen coming out of a heavy moultI now want to show you what Chocolatine looks like normally or rather, when broody and quite vocal. Broodiness and subsequent motherhood seems to me, crucial to a hen as a stepping off point towards being dominant within her individual flock. As you will see at the end of this series, with Chocolatine, this process went much further. Her main problem however was with timing, for if you want to be dominant you have to look the part, unfortunately Chocolatine was well into a heavy moult by the time her chance came. She's looking a lot better today, less ragged around the edges but still keeping a low profile! I also perhaps thought that you might not believe it was the same hen when you saw her later at the end of the series.

Now if you'd like to sit back and watch the film, where I will try to answer the question - why do hens go broody?

Part Two, Family groups, monogamy, friendships, power struggles and gangs can be found through this live link here

Buff crested and bearded Polish rooster cockerel

Thanks for dropping by and if you have enjoyed this piece and found it useful think about sharing it and also may be about joining this blog. Please also feel free to ask questions or make comments in the section below.
All the very best,

©  Sue Cross 2015


  1. Very interesting ideas you have, about putting the jungle back into the birds. My thinking is similar, and I've done a lot of reading on the nature of jungle fowl, the domestic chicken's wild relative. You are right, in the truly wild state (i.e., not the feral chickens in Hawaii, for example), they live in very small groups. I've written about this in one of my own posts called Creating a Chicken Habitat. Don't want to drop links on other people's blogs, but if you want to read it, it's easy to find on my blog. Anyway, I love your thinking and your quest to understand the true nature of chickens.

    1. Hi there Janet, thanks for your kind comments, much appreciated. I have just started reading through your blog posts and am finding them interesting and insightful. The feral chicken v the truly wild is a most telling argument as it is already beginning to inform on research papers. Given that the Scottish wild salmon is also under threat from cross-breeding with farmed escapees, it would be interesting to come-back in another hundred years and see if the migratory behaviour of the wild fish has been thrown into doubt. Actually the coturnix quail is the most hard done to, I am having a huge problem sorting out my quasi-wild quail environment, as I am still not sure of the true role of the male in sitting and brooding. Still it makes for a very interesting observational study, so who am I to complain. All the very best from sunny Normandie, Sue

  2. Hi Sue, i love your work and i have a problem: i have two cockerels and 20 hens, one is dominant and the other is afraid of him. The younger one tries to mate hens without their will and so he plucks their feathers. How do i stop this?
    Much love from Serbia!!

    1. Hi there and thanks so much for your kind comments. Your problem is very interesting because it involves several aspects of quite natural behaviour, which can be resolved but it will depend on your 'set up' as to how this is achieved. So for example, are all your chickens in one enclosed space, like a run, or are they free-ranging? If they are enclosed, do you have the possibility to create another area for the younger cockerel and say a few of the hens? Your younger bird is showing typical stress behaviour, he is not paired with any of your hens because he is being kept from doing this by your older bird who has been used to being in top position. I actually believe in the breeding season, a free-ranging cockerel will naturally pair off with one particular hen and thus there is less of a problem but at this time of year your older rooster is seeing all the hens as his own mates. Thus your younger bird is just being an opportunist, he has come to maturity out of season, when none of the hens are probably wanting to accept his attentions and so he is acting badly and approaching hens who are not interested in him, that is nervous behaviour and it is therefore also aggressive. You can actually, if you need to keep all your poultry together, stop the cockerel from injuring the hens by making 'saddles' or coats for them. You can see the pattern I use here the ones for hens are the simple single layer fabric, I show a blue denim one made from old jeans, you just need something strong which will protect the hen's back So this is an immediate fix to protect the hens but it does not sort out the rest of your problem. Funnily enough some of this nervous aggressive behaviour can be dealt with via food. A bird at a lower level in the pecking order, like your young cockerel, is probably getting a lot less foraged protein than the rest of the flock, he may be so obsessed with chasing hens that he may not even be scratching for food and also at this time of year there will be a lot less to go around. Just upping his protein levels, maybe feed him on his own, a little hard boiled egg, will give him enough amino-acid such as l-methionine and vitamin B12 both of which have a direct effect on the nervous system, in fact lack of l-methionine will directly cause aggressive behaviour in poultry. This will help although what he is showing is natural behaviour just at the wrong time of year! Your hens also will have been used to just one male so they too will resent him, actually in our garden the hens would fight off this sort of young suitor! He would be pecked and have his feathers pulled but I have hens who are used to being around many males, so they are more confident in dealing with them. Even so, my younger hens and broody hens in the Spring can get trouble from the younger males jostling for position in the flock. Flock dynamics are very fluid and I believe impossible for humans to understand, if you older male goes into a moult, for example and loses his plumage, particularly tail feathers, chances are your younger male could become dominant. You really have enough hens to split up into two flocks that can co-exist quite happily but again if they are all together in one enclosed area, this may be the problem. So let me know how your flock is set up and if none of these ideas I have come up with will work then may be I can think of alternatives. All the very best and much love from France, Sue

    2. Hi Sue, just to give you the update. So i have been letting my chickens out on an open field a lot and actually the younger cockerel did make a bond with a few adventurous hens. I also separated him during the feeding time so he gained some weight and regrown his tail feathers. Thank you so much for your advice, it has been very helpful!