Forest garden dynamics 3 - dominance, omnipotence, single sex flocks, learned helplessness

My crowing hen, Chocolatine has been biding her time in her takeover bid for her hen house. It was instigated sadly, by the death of one of my elderly (in chicken terms) Polish cockerel brothers last year.

Dominance in Single Sex Groups - Power Vacuums

Two half Polish hens laying eggs together
As with our other hen houses, in Chocolatine's coop, instead of a dominant male there had been dominant brothers. Now with only the one dominant cockerel, the hens seemed slightly perturbed, as if there existed a vacuum of sorts. It was further complicated by the fact that this house had these two dominant hens, half Polish/Ardenner sisters, who had ruled quite benignly in tandem with Stanislas and Rufus. The hens occasionally bickered amongst themselves but were close enough to share a nest box! Both now made a bid for power.

Chamois white-laced Polish hens cockerels and friend
The above were however, not the only contenders, since Rufus had gone, several of the hens started little skirmishes between each other. I believe this is what incited Chocolatine to exhibit dominant male behaviour  in the lowered-wing 'encircling dance', as I call it. You will see this happen twice with two different hens in the film below. I took my cue from Stanisilas, in that he took 'plenty of no notice' and carried on eating his breakfast.  Real hen fights can be quite devastatingly violent, there is no ritual or theatre about them, they are so extreme that whenever I see one and if a cockerel doesn't intervene quickly then I do. I instantly separate the hens and warn them off each other.  A cockerel would do this ritualistically, by jumping over the heads of both hens, it's a shot across the bows and usually calms things down. This is different to the way a dominant male will stop other males fighting, when he physically breaks it up with his whole body. The hen fights, as filmed, were ritualistic, which made me realise why Stanislas wasn't bothered. It also made me aware that several of the hens were now adopting ritual male dominant behaviour, possibly because they too were looking to become super dominant.

'Super dominance' - Omnipotence

Silver Sebright hen

Super dominance is something I call a hen or cockerel when they take over the role of both dominant hen and dominant cockerel. I've experienced this on several occasions. Firstly when I started with poultry here and my flock comprised just three hens. This time too my dominant hen began to crow. It happened again on another occasion when I removed my tiny silver Sebright from the main flock in the garden, where she was constantly picking fights. At the front of the house, with only a couple of hens for company, she became so super dominant she was actually attacking neighbouring cats.

Gold black-laced  Polish bantam hen
Young mottled Polish rooster  A similar situation arose with Bungle, our gold Polish hen, she too like Sneezy is a loner and although living in the forest garden has spent some time at the front of the house and has taken up a dominant position. She also began to crow at this point. Now she is once again back in the forest garden, she can still be quite aggressive over food and territory. She exhibits dominant behaviour within the outbuilding where she sleeps. This 'flock' is a purely female group, which includes broody hens, mothers and chicks which are particularly hard to dominate. Furthermore, broody hens and mothers with chicks can become extremely dominant themselves, mainly, I think, because they are revered by the flock, who have a great sense of continuance. Bungle, at the moment is being courted by a young Polish cockerel, Ringo Bingo. My strategy in this case is to observe them, particularly at feeding time in the morning (food and courtship often go together) and make sure she isn't being picked on and stressed by this jaunty suitor.

Learned helplessness

My first hens, two Ardenner bantams and a Dorothy
This is the antithesis of the super dominant hen or cockerel. The victim actually makes the situation worse, through no fault of her/his own but because the weight of stress becomes so much that she/he begins to exhibit a servile manner. The bird seems  constantly in retreat even when not threatened and is afraid even to eat, speak or preen along with the rest of the flock. For every super dominant bird there is at least one victim and it becomes worse in a small group, where there is no other allegiances to be made. As I related above, my first two hens, Ardenner sisters, systematically dominated the third hen I was given when I started my flock. They pushed her off the perch, tried to stop her eating oyster shell and even chased her from the nest boxes. She in turn began to exhibit learned helplessness, even though, as you can see, she was much larger than the Ardenners and could actually have stood her ground. I shielded her from as much stress as possible by organising and rearranging the nest boxes, roost/perch and oyster shell. Her actual status got better but didn't totally improve despite the fact that the flock expanded with more hens and even with the addition of two cockerels. It was only, however, when she became broody and hatched some eggs  that she finally achieved full status in the flock

Conclusions and Solutions

I have seen male single sex flocks at my neighbours and they are not ideal. These are 'industrial' battery chicks sold to 'grow on', so it may be that the weight of stress they have suffered as chicks has had something to do with this. They exhibit a fragmented group at best and there is always a deal of bullying that occurs. We usually get to see the denoument of that in the Summer as they achieve 'teenage' and thus start to crow. This because we are looking after them whilst our neighbour's are awayon holiday and we usually end up having to separate the super dominant males.

Frizzled and non-frizzled hens sunbathingWith single sex female flocks, I know some people sail through with no problems and it probably depends on the space they are kept in and also the cohesion of the group and the expectation of the individuals. As older or stressed birds have been deposed, the effect upon them can be painful to see and my idea would always be to give them some time out and see if they can make a comeback. After all if a system has worked for years why change it and especially if the problem is only a temporary one. Old age in itself is not really a concern, Stanislas for example was in his eighth year. With a single sex group of hens, the dominant bird will have a wide range of skills and strategies garnered over time. There is also the possibility with several coops and small flocks that an individual who feels pressured may change groups and find harmony. I have several hens and cockerels who have changed hen houses, one just today in fact!

In my experience a flock in a forest garden can create its own group dynamic and often a lot better than I could envisage. I'm certain it is because they actually understand what they are doing and the process seems to my eyes so fluid and amorphous that maybe it is only through a collective group memory of how they once lived, that it can be achieved.

Tolbunt Polish Hen - Professor Hermann

It is only when things get out of hand, with individuals being threatened with aggression or stress that I ever take it upon myself to intervene and the best way I have found to do this, is by removal of the individual and the bolstering up of the victim(s). Happily though as time has gone on, the forest garden itself, like Egdon Heath has taken on a personality of its own and imbued the flock with equilibrium and hopeful harmony.

and now if you would like to, sit back and watch the film:

Polish Chick in a festive crown
It you have enjoyed this film and blog and found it interesting then please think about subscribing, sharing it and/or commenting. Please also feel free to ask questions.

May I take this opportunity to thank all of you who have subscribed both to the blog and/or to my youtube channel. Thanks also to the people who have read/watched and also those of you who have taken time to comment. I really appreciate it.

All the very best for Christmas, have a happy and peaceful holiday and hope to see you in the New Year.

Sue xxx

©  Sue Cross 2015


  1. I had a single sex group of hens where one lady started to crow and show extreme dominance, you've given me some really interesting stuff to consider!

    1. Hi there, I am very sorry I only just found your comment and I am so happy you found my article interesting. I did have a small single sex flock when I started out with chickens and had the crowing hen phenomenon emerge, even in a flock of three. Also, last year, I did have to keep Bungle, my Polish bantam, away from some of my flock because she was getting a little aggressive, she is more a 'people' hen. However, I didn't want her to be on her own, so put her out front with a few other older hens and within a week or so, she had become super dominant and started to crow too! The whole subject of hierarchy fascinates me but I think all the ramifications of it will never be known to humankind. It seems just so fluid and so complex that I don't think we will ever fully understand it. I'm writing at the moment a whole series on the comparisons and contrasts between true Jungle fowl and our Forest Garden birds and have been lucky enough to find 4 academic field studies on the former which have helped me no end... to think up even more questions...but I found a few answers too!! All the very best for 2017, Sue

  2. what breed is the white spotted hen below "LEARNED HELPLESSNESS?"
    shes so pretty!

    1. Hi Nerida and thanks for your question. That is our lovely Dorothy, she was from my neighbour who had Silver laced Wyandottes and what they call 'general domestic' breeds which come in plain black, red and white and also grey speckled/cuckoo. Somehow this produced Dorothy and you really can't see from the photo but the spots were actually hearts! She didn't have the total Wyandotte face, which I was quite happy about, as here in France for some reason, Wyandottes tend to look angry all the time! I could certainly see though from her why they were called the American Sebright, though with Dorothy this was pretty speckled plumage rather than laced feathers. There is supposed to be Cochin genetics in the Wyandotte breed and I had another beautiful speckled bird turn up with definite Cochin attributes, she is called Mille-feuilles and you can see her in this film around 2.50, being very protective and bossy about her chick. Again she has the heart shapes but not so well defined as Dorothy, so I think perhaps it is when I added the Cochins to my flock that the Dorothy patterning came out again! I do actually have Hutt's 'The Genetics of the Fowl', which explains in detail how these feather patterns occur but it is so complicated and I can't even remember that they had 'hearts' included in it!! Sir John Sebright actually once said, albeit about pigeons, that: 'he would produce any given feather in three years, but it would take him six years to obtain head and beak.’ So I'm thinking Dorothy could be one of a kind! If you can find a copy, take a look at F.B. Hutt's book and the chapter on feathers, it is fascinating, though, I only dip into it now and again, before needing a rest! All the very best for 2017, Sue