Chickens are extremely social animals and live in flocks. Within those flocks, there is a definite hierarchy or pecking order, that is established and maintained. The top chicken is the alpha chicken, and the others fall in line based on their ranking within the flock.
The pecking order is not set in stone, however, and can be disrupted if one chicken starts to bully the others. This can cause tension and conflict within the flock, which can lead to serious injuries.
So, how can you stop chicken bullying and maintain the pecking order? Here are a few tips:
- Make sure the alpha chicken is strong and confident. The alpha chicken needs to be able to stand up to any bullies that may try to take its place.
- Keep the flock size small. A large flock can be more difficult to manage and can lead to more bullying.
- Separate bullies from the rest of the flock. If a bully is causing problems, it’s best to separate it from the other chickens. This will help reduce the tension in the flock and minimize injuries.
- Provide plenty of food and water. Chickens need plenty of food and water to stay healthy and strong. This will help reduce the chances of bullying happening in the first place.
Read on to find out more about how to stop chicken bullying.
What Is Bullying Behavior In Chickens
Bullying in chickens can be described best as the persistent and consistent harming of an individual chicken or a group of chickens by a single chicken or another group.
Bullying Takes Various Forms
Bullying can involve preventing the victim from accessing food or water, confining it to a small space in the run, and not allowing it to interact with the flock.
It can escalate to a violent pecking attack where the bully will repeatedly attack and pluck out the victim’s feathers. This can draw blood, and if it does, the attacking birds may, smelling blood, even kill the victim in an instinctive drive to ensure the flock’s survival.
Creating A Pecking Order Is Different From Bullying
Bullying is very different from establishing the pecking order in a flock. The most robust birds will forcefully prove their dominance over the weaker birds and illustrate it by getting to eat first and thus establish a natural hierarchy which is essential for the long-term success of the flock.
A dominant chicken is essential to establishing a healthy pecking order, but that dominance should not be confused with bullying.
The Signs Of Chicken Bullying To Look Out For
You can’t watch your chickens twenty-four hours a day, so you may not see the bullying activity itself, but you will undoubtedly pick up the tell-tale signs on the bullied birds:
- Loss of feathers, often on the neck or the bottom of the bird, and possibly signs of blood
- Weight loss of certain birds in the flock
- A victimized bird will probably reduce or even stop laying activity
- Birds cowering away from the flock
Once you have learned that bullying is taking place, the next step is to keep watch to find out who the bully or bullies are. You’ll hopefully then be able to work out why it’s happening and take steps to eradicate the problem.
The Causes Of Bullying In Chicken Flocks
Fortunately, a lot of chicken-rearing folk have had experience with bullying in their fowl runs and have shared information on how to sort out the problem. There are very few cases where remedies have failed to work once the causes have been proved.
Boredom is one of the commonest causes of bullying. Lack of entertainment and stimulation results in bored chickens, which can lead to aggression. Particularly in winter, when the flock is more likely to spend time under cover and in close company with other chickens, this can lead to anti-social behavior and bullying.
2. Overcrowding Is A Trigger For Bullying Chickens
Every chicken needs run space, and the recommended amount to keep an average-sized bird happy is four square feet in the coop and at least double that in the run (eight to ten square feet). Free-range chickens need twelve square feet of space to prevent over-grazing and aggression between individual birds.
3. Sick Birds Become Targets of Bullies
If a chicken is weaker than others in the flock or becomes sick, it may become a target for the stronger birds, who have an innate desire to drop the weak for the good of the flock.
4. Stress Can Cause Bullying Behavior
Stress in the flock can cause a drop in egg production and a change in behavior, including an increase in bullying. Several factors can be the cause of stress:
- The presence of potential predators near the run, even the friendly family dog running around in the area
- The introduction of new birds into the run
- Shortage of food and water
- A change in the routine of the flock
5. Lack of socialization
When chicks are not properly socialized, they may become anxious and stressed in the flock. This can lead to them picking on other chickens.
6. Poor nutrition
Chickens that are not well-nourished are more likely to become bullies. Make sure your chickens have a balanced diet and access to plenty of food and water.
7. Some Breeds Are More Prone To Be Bullies
Even with all the other factors being perfect, some chicken breeds are naturally more aggressive than others and tend to use bullying behavior to dominate. Leghorns, English Game, and Plymouth Rock are three breeds with this kind of temperament, while Orpingtons, Silkies, and Polish Breeds tend to be the least aggressive.
Even within the more passive breeds, some individual birds may be particularly prone to bullying behavior, while the opposite may be found in aggressive breeds. So, you may, for example, find a meek and mild Leghorn who is never guilty of bullying and an obstreperous Orpington who bullies any and every chicken in the flock.
Roosters Are Not Prone To Bullying
You may think that roosters gain control of a flock by bullying, but they are no more prone to this behavior than a hen. The rooster has to assert his position as leader of the flock as his main role is to protect the group, which he does by watching for predators, sending out warnings to the flock with loud cries, and even attacking the predators if necessary. He also forages for food for the flock and, of course, mates with the hens in the flock to fertilize the eggs they produce.
A flock can have more than one rooster and in fact, there may be hens higher up the pecking order. So it’s not necessarily the male that dominates in the chicken run!
Which Chickens Are Targetted By Bullies?
As with any group of animals, chickens have an instinct that drives them to eliminate the weakest member in order to ensure their own survival. That is why chickens who are in any way deficient, whether due to illness, birth defects, or injury, will become targets of the stronger members and will be bullied to the extent that they may become outcasts or even die.
New chickens introduced to the existing flock may cause stress within the group. And while it may be seen as part of the pecking order competition, there may be bullying of the new members as well, involving more sustained attacks.
How To Stop Chicken Bullying Before It Begins
Because some of your chickens may be born bullies, it might not be possible to totally avoid the incidence of bullying in your backyard run. But there are specific steps you can take to pre-empt the worst elements of this kind of behavior.
Provide plenty of space
Avoid overcrowding in the run, and if possible, allow your chickens the opportunity to range freely for at least a couple of hours each day. The more your chickens are separated from each other by a few feet, the less they will fight.
Keep your groups rotating
If it’s not possible to increase the size of the chicken run as your flock increases in size, try releasing a group of hens at a time to range freely outside of the run, and change that group throughout the day. That is one way to avoid boredom, but it also means that there are fewer chickens in the run at any one time during the day.
Avoid the risk of boredom
Avoid boredom by ensuring an ample supply of entertaining toys and activities – hanging fruit and treat balls, chunks of squash and fruit on the ground, covered in grass or even dry leaves in autumn, ample places to explore, and swings on which to exercise. Hanging shiny objects such as mirrors or old CDs will keep your chickens entertained for hours.
Introduce new birds one by one rather than in a group
Any change in the routine, pecking order, or space availability can cause stress among the birds, so rather do things gradually. New birds have to establish themselves in the flock, and they may be pretty aggressive in doing so. If they aren’t readily accepted, there may be an opportunity for the bullies in the flock to make their integration difficult.
Remove sick or injured birds as soon as possible and keep them in isolation to avoid being bullied.
There’s a natural instinct in any animal group to eradicate weak or ill members to ensure the survival of the group, and so it’s essential to isolate the sick hen as soon as possible. Of course, isolation doesn’t only prevent bullying but is also done in order to avoid the spread of the illness.
Ensure ample food and water
Food is the primary factor affecting a chicken’s mood. Plenty of it, and they are happy; too little, and you can bet on a bit of bullying and aggression. Try distributing the feeding- and water stations around the entire pen to avoid crowding and challenges to the pecking order.
How To Stop Chickens From Bullying When They Have Started
Let’s look how to stop chickens from bullying before it results in loss of production and possibly the death of the victim.
Available online, these blinkers allow the chicken to see everywhere but straight in front. So, she can forage for food and move freely around the run but can’t attack another hen. The peepers are fitted to the nostrils of the chicken with pins (not quite sure why they’re called pinless!} but are not cruel in any way and are reportedly very effective.
Noisy rattles and water pistols will distract the bully, and if you are prepared to police the run, this will work to stop bullying, but it’s very time-consuming to sit and wait for the bully to reveal herself so that you can spring into action.
Isolate the Victim
Isolating the victim of bullying by placing her in a separate cage will give her time to recover from any injury or illness. Unfortunately, this is only a temporary solution as chickens are naturally sociable and need to be part of the flock. It will stop the bullying but might make it difficult for the victim to keep her place in the pecking order when she returns to the flock.
A variation of this solution is to keep the bullies and the rest of the flock in the run and allow the victim to roam freely outside the run, foraging, feeding, and enjoying the space. This will elevate her status in the pecking order when she returns and lowers that of the rest of the flock.
If new chickens getting bullied, they are probably low on the pecking order, and isolating them means they will probably be even lower when put back in the run. So, if you’re sure that they are being bullied rather than being put in their place in the pecking order, try and use one of the other methods to stop the bully in her tracks. Alternatively, isolate them for a very limited period at a time to disrupt the bullying, and watch to see if that is effective.
Isolate the Bully
Isolating the bully is the last resort, but it might be necessary if nothing else has worked. Ensure that the isolated bird can be seen by the others and can also see them. By doing this, the bully is seen to be demoted in the pecking order and will hopefully not be intimidating other birds. Restrict the isolation to a maximum of five or six days. The bully can then be reintroduced to the flock but needs to be watched.
What To Do With A Bully That Won’t Respond To Isolation
Further bullying behavior by a chicken will require another similar period of isolation, but if it continues, then something more drastic needs to be done.
- Repeat the isolation process once or twice. What may happen is that the flock will reorganize the pecking order, and the bully will be demoted on her return. She will then find herself less able to intimidate others by being aggressive.
- The pinless peepers we mentioned earlier could work very well if fitted to a particular bully for a longer time. Being unable to see directly in front will stop her from pulling out any other chicken’s feathers, and the bullying should stop.
- Removing her permanently is the last resort if the bully has been subjected to all the possible remedies and solutions and continues to intimidate and injure other birds. Some chickens just seem to be bullies by nature, cause havoc in the flock, and need to be removed. Putting a bully chicken into a different flock means she has to fit into an established pecking order and a different dynamic, which hopefully will curb her behavior. If you have a violent bully and she has not improved it is probably best to send her to the pot.
Does All Bullying Require Action?
Bullying is highly destructive and can result in loss of egg production, injury, and even death of the victims. However, when the cause of the bullying is temporary, it may not be necessary to take any action to stop it.
An example is the bullying of broody hens by other members of the flock. When hens become broody, they instinctively want to sit on eggs to produce chicks and sometimes even steal eggs to do so.
Brooding can be very disruptive and with no value to the flock or the farmer if the eggs are not fertilized. Brooding can be ended by removing the eggs or the nesting box and keeping the broody hen out of the isolated places she prefers.
Broody hens will protect the nest from interference by the rest of the flock, but at the same time, will become the targets of bullying. There’s not much one can do about this, and as soon as the broody period ends, so will the bullying.
Bullying in the chicken run can be really destructive, but it is one of those problems of chicken-rearing which is largely avoidable. By supplying optimum space, ample nutrition, and plenty of entertainment, stress will be significantly reduced, and a happy, secure flock is one where bullying has no place.
How long to isolate a bully chicken?
The maximum time for isolation should be five to six days.
What if the bully chicken doesn’t respond to isolation?
If the bullying behavior continues, further periods of isolation may be necessary. If that doesn’t work, pinless peepers can be fitted to the bully chicken to prevent her from seeing and injuring other birds. The last resort is to remove the bully chicken from the flock permanently.
Why do hens fight?
There are usually 3 main reasons that result in hens being bullied these are:
- Ill hen
- General flock hierarchy (this usually happens when you first get your hens)
David Cameron is a passionate chicken enthusiast. Growing up, he always wanted to be a veterinarian and loved animals. After graduating from veterinary school, David spent over 40 years as an equine veterinarian. He and his wife retired a few years ago and moved to North Carolina. Here, David’s love of chickens grew even more – he now has 7 chickens and 6 quail. If you have any questions about chickens, feel free to reach out.