Category Archives: pecking order

when the pecking order gets a little ugly

My chickens used to have their own blog, then that went away when I got sick, then they¬†sorta showed up on another blog, then mostly just got tweeted once in awhile through a really long year, and now they have their own blog again. Someone suggested they get their own twitter accounts, but they’re already so terribly spoiled, and what if one of them loses an iphone in the woods when she steps on a snake and jumps back in surprise? I can’t be trudging around the woods looking for dropped iphones because the neighbor will think I’m Bigfoot and start shooting at me. This paragraph is getting way out of hand.

If you’re a long time reader and have managed to follow all this, bless your heart. For newbies to the Quackerdome, here is where we’re at. This little flock is right around two years old now, from Cackle Hatchery because I wanted some rare breeds that Estes Hatchery doesn’t carry. This is our third flock since 2005, and it’s the first flock that we didn’t have a duck or two with, which I sort of regretted because having a duck in the flock is like having a natural shepherd while the chicks are still small, although later on the duck can cause all kinds of special problems because ducks, well, they aren’t chickens.

Skip to now. This was my first flock to go through a mite plague, which weirdly turned the pecking order upside down because Morgana, the gorgeous silver laced, caught the worst of it. Morgana never did like Amy, our wonky little blue egger, probably because she looks so different from the other hens. As Morgana’s looks and health changed, her status plummeted, and long story short, the only way she could keep any authority established at all was by staunchly defending Amy from vicious attacks by T’Pol, the Sussex.

I normally let the chickens out quite a lot, but an especially long and dreary winter and me falling real hard in the slush one week pretty much killed recess time. When spring finally surged, Amy’s hormones surged with it, and she spent a week terrorizing the others as a very surprising tyrant when her laying picked back up. T’Pol didn’t take kindly to that, and once Amy’s hormones calmed back down, took to flouncing her at every chance. Normally this irons itself out over a few days, but T’Pol went over some kind of edge and began driving Amy away from food and water and pinning her down so viciously that Morgana would have to jump in and start flogging T’Pol to make her stop. I’d love to have a rooster to break up hen fights, but neighbors with pitchforks trump rooster, so that makes me the big bad overlord when the time comes to intervene.

Letting the chickens out to roam usually helps sort things out, but the attacks happened even around the yard so often that poor little Amy took to hiding in the woods and not coming back out until nearly dark. When one hen isn’t allowed to eat or drink and gets beaten up to the point of limping and not wanting to come back to roost, you know death is lingering nearby and making bets. I’ve run into so many blogs about how people come back from vacation or work travel to find a chicken dead- well, if you’re not able to hang around and see the daily interaction changing, this is pretty much why. A little flock can be very amiable and you think everything is fine, but one turns and the next thing you know, it’s the zombie apocalypse. I’ve been through this before. It’s kind of like women going through severe PMS or menopause or something, only this is what it’s like going through hormone swings in chicken land.

I don’t think dog and cat people quite get the angst that chicken people go through. When it comes down to either giving away or killing a chicken to save lives because nothing else works and you’ve already jumped through so many hoops that you’re exhausted from all the extra work of separating, you find yourself so emotionally invested that you either commit all the way to ‘crazy chicken lady’ and just move into the henhouse (a woman really did that around my area) or say God and PETA forgive me but this can’t go on. And then you do something drastic to remove the disturbance, the flock settles back down, and you have peace again.

I probably could have kept intervening until things changed, but vacation looms and I don’t have the time. Drastic action seemed like our only choice. Previous vacations have gone very well, with an extra waterer and filling the hanging feeder up to the top. I’ve never had hens cannibalize eggs while we’re gone, and I honestly wouldn’t even care about that right now. We’ve been rotating six dozen eggs around the fridge for months. But I don’t want to deal with playing Clue when I get back- T’Pol did it with nunchucks under the roost- if there is anything I’ve learned around chickens, you can’t assume anything. Chickens can go Lord of the Flies and suddenly there is a group murder, but without webcams you never know. The last thing I want is a pen full of murderers. Kind of takes the sparkle out of pet chickens.

Fortunately, we know someone with pet banties, yes they’d take Amy when they come down for Easter, awesome. She’s sure to get more individual attention there, and won’t be the smallest any more. Amy was a real nut case around the other hens, but she was more tame alone with me, hanging around my feet, nearly eating out of my hand, but another chicken’s head popping in the door for a look-see unnerved her, and she’d get freaky again. If I’d raised her differently she might have been a really sweet pet. She was very easy to get into a box for the transfer, settled right down, even laid an egg while she was in there waiting. We let her out for a little while to eat and get a drink, and she stuffed herself full on raw burger, some bread, and a pile of hen scratch. She hadn’t eaten so good in many days because she was too busy ducking, dodging, and hiding.

That left the problem of Morgana. Pecking orders are fairly linear, you just go down the rank, but ours has been jumbled up lately. If T’Pol remained this vehement, it was possible she’d move on to another victim after Amy went away, and that victim, in chicken logic, was Morgana because she challenged T’Pol over Amy and was still in rough health. Morgana started out as our most beautiful chicken and a natural leader, but being savaged by mites over a couple of weeks left her permanently patchy and weak, signs that can trigger instinctual action against disease. If T’Pol was hellbent on a killing, Morgana was officially lowest on the totem pole with Amy gone. In weighing options, I’m more likely to side with the healthier chicken who is laying regularly, even if I’m not crazy about her temperament, and I finally made the hard choice of letting Morgana go. Mercy killing sucks. I grew up doing it on a farm, I don’t like it, but it beats coming home from vacation to a murder scene.

Chickens generally don’t mourn their mates disappearing. As with all birds, even though their brains are tiny, they are able to map and navigate large areas and remember quite a lot of detail. But also as with all birds, chickens are action-oriented athletes, continually moving around in the now. Amy and Morgana won’t be missed. Already this is the most laid back I’ve ever seen this flock. Crossing my feathers coming home from vacation doesn’t show me otherwise.