Chicken Pecking Order; Dealing With Aggressive Hens

We get a lot of questions about birds pecking at each other and what to do about it; when to intervene, when to let them work it out themselves. This week I thought I’d share a personal experience that might give you some ideas with your own flock.

In our part of the world, the majority of our chickens have completed their annual molt.

I love to see all my hens looking fresh and clean with those pretty new feathers. Good layers tend to molt quickly. Some of my hens are excellent layers, they are the ones that seemed to loose all their feathers overnight. They had large bald spots so a lot of skin was exposed.

The term “pecking order” comes from the way that chickens show who is boss and the order of submission from that point down. Within a flock there is always some squawking and fussing and a whole lot of pecking.

Wouldn’t you know it; my best layers are also towards the bottom of the pecking order? So here are my girls with lots of exposed skin and getting pecked at.

Chickens get a little wonky when they draw blood. It’s as if some instinct takes over and they can’t help themselves. If left unchecked, they can kill the wounded bird as they continue to peck at it.

The first time we noticed that one of the hens was wounded, we separated her from the other chickens and she spent some time in our chicken infirmary. By the way, our infirmary is a dog kennel.

One good thing about chickens is that their body temperature is high enough that infection is not typically a concern. Her wounds were not severe enough to warrant veterinary attention. She healed pretty quickly and was returned to the flock.

However, having been away for awhile, she lost her place in the pecking order and returned as the newbie, the object of everyone’s pecking. It wasn’t long before we had to bring her back out again to heal.

A few days later we had been gone for the day.

We came home and one of the children went to collect eggs only to find that one of our hens had been killed. She had a very large wound where some of the other chickens had pecked at her, it was awful. Enough said about that.

Within days there were 4 hens that had wounds from being pecked at. We knew we couldn’t put them all in the kennel so we had to take another approach.

We added to our flock last year and were confident that all this aggressive pecking was the work of some of the new hens. As we watched, we discovered which ones were causing most of the trouble.

Instead of removing the wounded chickens, we removed the aggressive ones.

There were three that seemed to be causing all the trouble. The three of them were placed in an adjoining run area where they spent about a month. We’re fortunate that the weather here is pretty mild because the area in which they were confined has no coop for protection from harsh weather.

After a month of separation, we’ve been returning them one at a time to the flock. I made sure they each had all their new feathers, knowing they would be the object of some pecking. You see, by taking them out of the flock, they lost their place in the pecking order and that was the goal.

We knew that they were pretty tough to begin with or they wouldn’t have ascended to the upper end of the pecking order.

We knew that they would get picked on when they returned, hopefully finding their new place in the pecking order closer to the bottom. We also purposely did not return them all at the same time; the three of them would have come back in like thugs and started causing trouble again.

So far, so good but we’re keeping a very close eye on things.

Although everyone is fully feathered again and the damage that can be done by pecking is minimal, we will continue to watch our troublemakers, they could very likely end up being culled from the flock.

And for those of you who asked, it is best to let your chickens work out the pecking order for themselves.

Intervene only when it is absolutely necessary and be ready to get creative when you need to.

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