The Hen House
Raising chickens at Root Cellar Farm is uncomplicated and enjoyable.
This is accomplished by giving them plenty of space, feed, water, and pulling any chickens with signs of injury away from the flock immediately.
It is the nature of chickens to peck at everything. From the moment a baby chick begins to peck through the eggshell into the world outside, the baby chick will forever forage and protect itself and its offspring in the same manner. Pecking or “eating” its way out of the shell is necessary to nourish the chick for the first day or two of its life outside the shell.
Watch baby chicks, they will peck everything in sight, including other baby chicks. This type of pecking is to be expected and not harmful. Pecking that draws blood or completely isolates a chicken from the flock however is another story. We have not experienced this because our flocks are managed naturally. At Root Cellar Farm, correcting the behavior of animals is handled quickly.
Why do chickens peck each other?
Stress, Injury, or Dominance
Stress: the chickens are stressed out. Why?
Animals, like humans, act out when they are under stress. Let’s look at what brings on stress in chickens. Put yourself in the place of an animal and with a little observation you will usually be able to recognize where the source of stress comes from. The most common sources are:
Crowded living environment, too many chickens in a given space.
Hunger, not getting an adequate amount of nutritionally balanced feed.
Dehydration, lack of water, or an injury to one chicken.
CAUSES OF STRESS
Hunger: Lack of, or improper feeding.
Hungry chickens become stressed and irritable just like people. If this goes on too often, or for too long, eventually when a cranky chicken pecks another chicken, blood will be drawn. NOT that a chicken intends to draw blood, but because the tender area around the comb or around the eyes may be easily scratched.
Any area scratched or bleeding is an injury. Chickens will smell blood and peck at the injured area. This level of stress is completely avoidable.
Chickens, in their daily adventures, can get injured to the point of bleeding in a number of ways. Keeping a close watch on a flock will make it possible for an injured chicken to be pulled out quickly. The chicken should be kept isolated until an injury heals up.
Crowding: Chickens need space.
Consider how chickens would spend the day if they were left to do as they please. Chickens would wander and taste everything in sight. They forage mainly in the early morning hours, rest in the afternoon, then forage again in the early evening before sundown.
Caged chickens must have adequate room and a clean environment. Is it not better to have 6 hens that lay eggs consistently than 12 hens that are poor layers?
Caged chickens require a different management system if they are to be healthy and live a long stress-free life.
The feeding system should mimic the life of a chicken living in a natural setting. They should be provided feed early at dawn, and have additional live foods like sprouts and vegetables throughout the day.
A clean area, free of all feed. This area is for the chickens to rest in throughout the day.
In the evening, a small amount of feed should be offered again. This may be in any form. Caged chickens must also be provided a grit either within the feed or in a separate container. Grit will replace tiny rocks or sand the chickens eat when grazing. The grit is necessary for proper digestion.
Live by “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. It is sad watching a chicken suffer, and difficult to cure an infection.
Dehydration in chickens will begin with the same symptoms as in humans. Chickens, however, have a small amount of body fluid and will dehydrate rapidly. Because of this, it is easy to miss the signs at the onset of dehydration. Irritability, agitation, and confusion are the first signs of dehydration. With chickens, all 3 of these signs may lead to pecking.
Caged chickens should have their water supply refreshed frequently throughout the day.
Laying hens need additional water if they are to live a long healthy life. When keeping fresh water just outside the nesting area, I have observed the hens lay an egg, leave the nest, and come immediately out to the fresh cool water.
Free range flocks must be provided with water. Closed automatic water containers will slow the evaporation caused by the heat and wind. These types of water containers are less likely to attract unwelcome predators.
Some dominance in chickens is normal and to be expected. There are leaders and followers, nice guys and pushy guys. Chickens in a natural environment are passive. Some breeds of chickens are more high strung than others. These breeds need more room when they are caged.
Here are 3 ways we have used to curb the problem of dominance in our flocks.
Hand feed when young. Taking time to hand feed your chickens makes all the difference. You become, in a way, the flock leader.
Hand feeding is fun! I take a small amount of scratch and scatter it around my feet. I kneel and properly pick up a chick. Putting a small amount of scratch in the other hand, I feed the chick. In a few days, the chicks will want to sit on my lap and eat out of my hand.
This accomplishes 2 important things. One - I am now the leader of the flock, and 2 - in an emergency, I can easily gather my hens picking them up if necessary.
NO roosts. Remove any roosts from your hen house.
Among people that raise chickens some believe it is unhealthy for chickens to roost. While I have not done much research on the subject, I have definitely seen a connection between the hierarchy of the roost, and the “Queen Bee” mentality in some chickens.
I removed the roost and the chickens began seeing, let’s say, eye to eye.
Cage the dominant chicken.Chicken "time out" has worked well for us when used properly.
Keeping a small wire cage handy works wonders for taming the aggressive hen. On occasion, a dominant chicken or an egg eating chicken has been placed on timeout. This must be done properly.
The chicken must be well fed and watered and there is no obvious reason for stress. Having the cage ready to go, I keep an eye on the dominate chicken. When the chicken acts aggressively towards other chickens, I pick up the aggressor immediately and place the chicken in the holding pen. The chicken is given food and water, and the cage remains in the hen house with the flock.
The hen is humbled quickly. I use my instincts. Depending on the situation, most likely 1 or 2 days on timeout corrects the disposition of a dominant hen. Roosters are a different case. A defensive rooster is a blessing in the free-range flock. The rooster will take on any varmint getting into the flock. Roosters that are aggressive to us, the caretakers, are eliminated.
Proper “time out” for dominate chickens keeps peace in the hen house.
The Hen House
NEVER enter a single chicken into a flock.
NEVER enter a wounded chicken into a flock.
These instructions are written for a single chicken. This also works with multiple chickens.
First: Make sure the new chicken is well fed.
Keep free feeds in the pen all day. Chickens are really miniature piggies in disguise, if there is feed in front of them they will eat themselves to sleep. They will be so busy checking out the dinner selection they will usually ignore the other chickens.
Next, take your most gentle hen from your flock in the morning before she has been fed. Place the gentle hen with the new chicken. YOU MUST WATCH THEM ALL DAY. As often as possible, toss treats into the 2 hens to eat at opposite ends of the pen (a few raisins, a little fresh - produce pumpkin, apple etc.). Never let them run out of feed, make it interesting for them toss in a wide variety of feed. Freshen the water throughout the day.
At dusk, house the 2 together. Chickens cannot see after dusk. It is the very best time to relocate any hen.
Repeat this for 2 days, then one at a time add a gentle hen. When you have a few additional hens together and all is well then place them all back into the flock AT DUSK. It must be at dusk while chickens do not see well and are resting.
IMPORTANT! The first day the small group has been placed back with the flock, keep all of the chickens busy with treats and never let them compete for food or water and things should be fine. If not, remove any dominant chicken and put them on time out.
If you keep a roost in the hen house or yard this may cause the hierarchy attitude in some chickens. Remove it for flock blending.
Like most animals, chickens that have enough to eat and plenty of room are not aggressive toward each other. If you find a chicken that is bleeding and being pecked, aggressively investigate the area for any possible cause of the initial injury.
We keep our flock at 30 - 60 hens. They free range daily and shelter in a 10 x 16-yard (chicken wire and roof), with an attached 10 x 12 Hen House at night. Visit, Part ~ 2 Shelters for more information.