Forest garden dynamics 2 - Monogamy, familiy groups, power struggles & gangs

I have probably mentioned this before but it is worth repeating, that our birds created their own group dynamic within our garden. I do understand that this is initially based on the positioning of the hen houses/chicken coops. Therefore, it could be argued that we had a hand in the dynamic but that won't wash because one flock is centred around the bay tree, which certainly was not of our choosing. 

We also did not create the territorial boundaries, we may have planted hedges and erected rose arches, gateways, enfilades and trellis but the birds decided where the frontiers were. Our garden is walled and hedged but all our chickens can fly, some spectacularly well, so why don't they leave?

Poultry in a forest garden - Social Niceties

From top clockwise, an Ardenner couple sunbathing; Father, mother and 'teenage' chicks dustbathing; Polish father and mother with two of their own chicks (and two from eggs added to their nest by hens from the same hen house), preening.

As witnessed above, another interesting facet of forest garden poultry is a tendency towards monogamy, even I might add family life. This is something very prevalent and obvious amongst our fantails, with whom the chickens share the forest garden space. Some pigeon pairs even live within the hen houses and I've seen my Polish cockerel (right) successfully rescue one of the latter and fight off the falcon that was attacking it. How much behaviour is learned from observation? Certainly my original group of all white re-homed fantails, who had lived in an aviary and were fed a pure grain diet, learned about eating vegetables and foraging for weeds from a self-assured blue male I brought back from an exhibition!

How does family grouping and living in couples affect the dynamics of the flock?

Interestingly, as my flock has over time and generations become more and more used to forest living, they still seem to have retained some sort of cohesive group. They have territories and each small flock has both dominant male and female individuals. These latter however do change, as witness  the hen house below,

The pictures talk of a take-over, but the older bird (left) a latent frizzle Sebright cross, Pheasant Fox, when deposed, broke away and formed an independent splinter group with his own coterie of followers. However, many of these birds retained their allegiance to their old hen house and thus, in part to the new dominant male(s), Rupert and his brother Spike. Furthermore all of these males over time have formed friendships and pairs with individual hens. So it would seem that living in small flocks of 10 to 20 individuals will still allow for both dominant individuals and smaller, defined groups of either pairs, families or small coteries of both or either sexes. I certainly have what I would class as hens and cockerels who are friends. On the down side I can from time to time get what I would identify as gangs. This particular element can emerge when I have young cockerels born into the flock and coming up to maturity. Their bad behaviour, is I believe rooted in the way in which some of the older males want to retain the ancien régime and remain as head of a group of females rather than as a couple. This means there are no partners for the younger males and they thus behave in a rather thuggish way towards broody hens and young females. Usually this is a rite of passage problem and will be dealt with by the older hens, dominant cockerel or in some cases by me. The worst scenario is when the older cockerels seem to regress and instead of sorting the problem decide to join in. This is when I need to act and quickly, instigating staggered feeding times, time-out for trouble makers or eventually removing the individual all together. However, usually everything does return to harmony.

There's been an awful lot for me to observe and learn from this. It is not the work of a moment but something I have studied over fifteen years, seeing our flock and forest grow alongside each other. It has been a fascinating study and it is still developing. I hope you have enjoyed sharing the journey with me and will join me again for Part Three and a film showing you the behaviour of my crowing Chocolatine.

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

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