Chicken Behaviour

Pullet Egg

Pullet eggs are just the most adorable little things ever. Perfectly formed, just a much smaller version.

A pullet is a female chicken less than a year old, depending on breed she will begin to lay her first eggs from 20 – 22 weeks of age while larger breeds such as Brahmas and Orpingtons will lay from 30 weeks onwards. Hybrid chickens are often sold as point of lay (POL) from 16 weeks onwards.

Our Brahma x Buff Orpington laid her very first egg on 12th March.

A pullet egg usually contains a small yolk but sometimes when they start laying for the first time the yolk is missing, these eggs are known as wind eggs or fairy eggs as I like to call them. Pullet eggs will gradually increase in size.

Our young Brahma x Buff Orpington began laying recently. Somehow I’ve managed to make her egg look a fair size in the photo above (perhaps I have tiny hands!), it’s very small really. Our pure breed Brahmas should begin laying in the next few weeks, they’re a slow maturing breed being fully grown at 18 months old. We have some lovely photos of them on our Instagram https://www.instagram.com/thegardensmallholder/

Chicken Behaviour

How to Integrate New Chickens to a Flock

integrating chickens

There’s no going back once you’ve caught the chicken keeping bug. Apart from the obvious reason why people decide to keep them, chickens are great company in the garden, fun to watch and seriously addictive. With so many breeds and pretty colours to choose from (don’t forget the many rescue hens needing homes too), it’s so tempting to bring home a couple more. However, adding new chickens to a flock isn’t easy, if it were I’d probably have way too many. If that’s even possible.

garden,hens
A harmonious group of hens in our garden smallholding, pecking order established. Each hen knows, understands and accepts her position within the flock.

You see, chickens operate a strict hierarchy known as the ‘pecking order’, at least one hen will be in charge and she’ll be the most dominant hen in the flock. I call this position ‘top hen’. As lovely as chickens are they can appear to be cruel to each other at times and this behaviour is clearly displayed when adding new birds to a flock. It can be upsetting for the chicken keeper to witness, but you must remember that it’s their language, they understand it and accept it. Some integrations are easier than others but this will depend on factors such as size of the flock you’re adding to, accommodation/space, time of year (winter integrations can be inconvenient for the chicken keeper), personality traits and broody hens can cause problems too. However, there are a few things you can do to help your new chickens settle in without too much stress and lower the risk of injury, read on to find out how.

chickens

I don’t have a cockerel to help keep the peace within our garden smallholding flock, my years of experience with integrating and advice given here will be based on keeping a flock of hens only.

Behaviour to expect:

I study my chickens, I find their language fascinating, so I’d like to start by explaining the behaviour you should expect to see from your flock when introducing new hens. The first thing I notice when introducing new hens into the garden smallholding is the racket our current flock makes, you may notice yours become noisier than usual for a few days at least. When integration gets underway, the top hen in your flock will exert her dominance immediately over the newbies, you may well find the current lower ranking hens in the pecking order suddenly become aggressive towards them too, and for the longest time. They will not want to be any lower in the ranks than they already are.

Neck feathers rise like dog hackles making the hen appear larger than she actually is, standing taller (as if on tippy toes) they barge each other with their chests, gaze locked in perfect concentration, kicking out with the feet aiming well-timed pecks towards the facial area until one hen gives in and retreats. This usually lasts for just a few minutes, it’s a quick scrap but horrid to see. Once this stage is complete the winners will chase the losers, jumping onto their backs, pulling at the comb and generally aiming hard pecks at the head (sometimes pulling feathers out).

introducing chickens

Chickens are territorial so expect food and water to be guarded as well as the hen-house, you may have to physically put the new hens inside the hen-house at night if they chose to roost on top of it or elsewhere, if you do have to do this try to wait until it’s dark to prevent fighting breaking out inside the hen-house.

Expect chasing and guarding to continue for at least 3 weeks, then it should start to settle down with just the occasional bit of chasing. Eventually the pecking order will be established but the dominant hens of the flock will continue to give a reminder of their status every so often (don’t be surprised if this includes reminding the current members of the flock), should the other hens forget their authority over them. This is usually done by a little chasing, pulling combs and tail feathers or the ‘stare’ across a food bowl, resulting in the lower ranking hens breaking eye contact immediately and moving elsewhere (sometimes this is enough to warrant respect without any further action needed). Usually all of the current flock members triumph over the newbies for higher ranking within the new pecking order, but expect the odd surprise.

Bedtime always brings drama when integrating new chickens, expect noise and chasing. It will calm as the light fades. The dominant hens often guard the coop entrance to prevent the new additions from entering, the lowest ranking hen usually takes her position within the safety of the hen-house last and most probably later than she’d like, so do check around the garden with a torch before locking up at night if your hens are completely free-range.

Tips to help the integration go more smoothly:

  • After a period of quarantine, keep your healthy new additions separate from your current flock using chicken wire or netting as a barrier for about a week or so before fully introducing them to the flock, chickens recognise faces and it will make things a little easier in the long run. A temporary hen-house and run within the garden also works well (this is what I use). Your flock will be inquisitive about the new hens, so expect fighting through/against the wire/netting during this time, just keep an eye out for injuries.
  • When you finally make the decision to mix the hens together without a barrier, add the new hens to the hen-house used by your chickens at night, after the flock have gone inside to roost, darkness brings calm and it’s unlikely any fighting will occur during the night. Be prepared to open up the hen-house earlier than usual each morning until the pecking order is established.
  • Smear Vaseline on the combs and wattles to prevent a firm grip being had, you may need to reapply often but it really does help.
  • Allow plenty of space, I can’t stress this enough. The more space you allow the easier the integration will be on the new additions. If you usually keep your flock in a run for a good part of the day allow the hens to free range the garden together for as long as possible, this really does help to minimise the fighting.
  • Supervise free ranging during the early days of integration and use food such as mixed corn or mealworms as a distraction if bullying becomes a real problem.
  • Place extra food bowls and water containers around to make food guarding harder, hang cabbages/greens as a distraction. Check the new additions are eating by feeling the crop during late afternoon. If you find there’s a problem, give the newbies some time out from the others, a quiet spot with some food and water and allow them time to indulge.
  • Avoid adding a lone hen to an established flock, she’ll be the only target and this isn’t fair.
  • Intervene if blood is drawn, check injuries and use purple or blue spray to disguise blood or redness on minor wounds to prevent further pecking or worse, cannibalism. For more severe injuries separate an injured hen from the flock for a few days to allow her time to heal and recover, but within sight of the flock.
  •  If you’re currently integrating chickens for the first time you may be feeling a little deflated if bullying within the flock is a problem. Follow my tips and try to remember it will get better in time. I’d always recommend keeping a watchful eye on integration proceedings until you’re confident the flock dynamics are going in the right direction.

With thanks to YouTube user Ann for permission to use this video

 

Chicken Behaviour, Chickens

The Chicken Bath

hen taking a dust bath

Today the weather was sunny and warm, I watched with amusement some of the hens taking a dust bath in the sunshine, the empty veg beds and patch of bare earth near the fence the preferred places.

chickens dust bathingchickens dust bathing

Rolling and raking the soil towards their bodies the hens soon take on a bedraggled appearance, completely unaware of anything going on around them as purring noises of sheer happiness fill the air.

chicken dust bath

dust bathAs soil showers them, occasionally hitting their eyes, I can’t help but wonder what goes on in their minds during a dust bath. They truly seem at peace with the world.

dustbathing

chicken IMG_5021dustbathingresized

Chickens are handy soil sieves, the earth where they bathe raked to a fine tilth after a dust bath. After a good shake they soon fluff up again and look great, then go about their business happy as ever.

Chicken Behaviour, Chickens

Moody Broody

broody hen
Apologies for the poor photo quality, I used a mobile phone to take quick snaps.

One of our ex battery hens went broody about a month or so ago. Since then most of my time has been spent looking after a very moody hen, trying to ‘break’ her broodiness by removing her nesting material and locking her out of the coop to stop her from sitting (I failed, she sat in the dust bath trug instead, or, the floor would do), eventually searching for hatching eggs and then frantically driving a long distance to a friend for two-day old chicks.

At first, I didn’t think she’d actually bother to sit for long due to being selectively bred to never feel the urge to raise a brood. It was a surprise she’d gone broody in the first place and I didn’t think she’d see it through. But I was very wrong. She sat dedicated on an empty nest, turning invisible eggs and clucking. Seeing her like this I decided to allow her the right to raise chicks herself, I guess I’m a bit of a soft touch with this hen. I refused to carry out some of the usual tricks to break a broody hen, such as dunking her in cold water or putting her into a cage (the very thing that traumatised her), so I got her some eggs to hatch instead. Don’t get me wrong this was not an easy decision to make, hatching boys doesn’t sit comfortably with me. I’d never cull a chick for being male so I had to think very carefully about what I was going to do if she hatched cockerels. As cute as chicks are, hatching is not something I’ve yearned to do as a chicken keeper.

I found a great home for 2 cockerels and I was prepared to keep one if it came to it. The lady who I bought the eggs from offered to take any remaining boys if my hen hatched all males, with the absolute promise she wouldn’t cull. I had all bases covered and my conscience felt better, so I went ahead and placed the eggs under her, marking 21 days on a calendar. ‘Pumpkin’ is the type of broody that will not leave the nest herself, she wouldn’t defecate regularly or eat, drink or dust bathe. She’d just sit there in a trance, dreaming of becoming a mother. This left me with the job of looking after her health, hygiene and well-being closely, each morning I’d lift her off her nest (much to her disgust) and wait for her to poop, then I would hand feed her until she refused my tasty offerings. She wouldn’t drink either, so I fed her halved grapes and over ripe strawberries to prevent her from becoming dehydrated. I placed a little bowl of food and grapes right by her nest, sometimes she’d eat a little more and sometimes she wouldn’t, eyeing it suspiciously before pushing it away from her precious nest.

A week into sitting she accidentally broke an egg,  I cleared everything away for her and she continued to be a dedicated mum-to-be. Day 20 came and 2 eggs started to hatch, sadly both chicks didn’t make it, the hatching process went wrong and they died while still partially inside their shell. I guess Pumpkin didn’t move at all as the chicks struggled to free themselves, she sat very tightly. It was sad, what should have been a happy and exciting moment quickly turned to disaster. Pumpkin continued to sit but the 2 remaining eggs didn’t pip ( I tried to candle them but failed miserably, I guess I worried too much each time I removed an egg and my hands would shake so much each time Pumpkin screeched at me I was worried sick I’d drop them). I could smell sulphur (rotten egg) and the other egg just didn’t hatch at all. This left me with a huge problem, Pumpkin had been broody for over a month now and she was losing so much weight and condition, she wanted to be a mum, she’d seen this process through and was still sitting, waiting. I couldn’t possibly allow her to sit for a further 21 days on a new batch of eggs, I worried I’d end up with a dead hen and to be honest I was completely put off. There was only one thing to do, I’d have to get her some chicks to adopt.

chicks

I found out I could get some sex-link chicks from a friend who occasionally takes surplus chicks from a hatchery, these chicks were destined to end up in the very place their potential mother had been. I drove the long distance to collect these unwanted children for Pumpkin, and listened to the advice given very carefully. When I got home I made sure the chicks had food and water and a good rest under a heat lamp. I waited till it was very dark outside and took the babies to Pumpkin’s nest. I put the babies under her, removing the remaining eggs underneath as I did. No torch, no speaking, just a quick switch over and then walk away. This filled me with absolute dread, it was quite possibly one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. If it went well it would solve a whole heap of problems, not just breaking my hen of her broodiness that would eventually make her very weak, but she could have company at last. Pumpkin is a traumatised hen from her time in the battery cages, described as one of the worst cases the rescue had ever seen. She screamed like a child for over a month, afraid of everything. Eventually she turned this fear into aggression and I’ve had a hell of a time trying to integrate her with other hens. She just wouldn’t accept any of them and was extremely aggressive to the point of being quite dangerous. The broodiness being an added problem to deal with.

I didn’t sleep much the night I put chicks under Pumpkin, I went out to her nest as soon as it as light enough to see. As I lifted the lid of her coop my heart was hammering, because of her temperament and unpredictability I was terrified I’d find dead or injured chicks. I was greeted by the sight and sounds of Pumpkin happily clucking, with four little heads poking through her feathers. What a huge relief! I spoke softly to her, telling her what a clever girl she was, as far as she was concerned she’d hatched those babies and they were hers. I placed some food and a drinker inside the coop, locked it back up and left them to bond further. I went back to bed for a couple of hours, I was exhausted!

hen and chicks

The chicks will be 2 weeks old this week, they’ve grown so much and Pumpkin is a brilliant mum. She adopted the chicks without any problems, and she’s calmer than ever. I’m hoping she’ll want to continue to live with her daughters once they’ve grown, they have plenty of space but I guess it’s just a waiting game to see how this works out.

Chicken Behaviour, Chickens

Why You Shouldn’t Get Up Close to a Dustbathing Hen

Myrtle my bluebelle hen is feeling and looking much better, she’s now living with the old ex battery hens and things are going well. Due to her docile nature, I believe this is for the best.

She has taken to dustbathing in the empty veg beds recently and really ‘purrs’ with delight. I decided to get really close to her and take a photo close up. Trouble is, this tends to happen.

Yikes!

*No eyes were harmed by taking this photo, thanks to my camera*

Chicken Behaviour, Chickens

The Dark Side of Chicken Keeping

I enjoy keeping chickens (most of the time), and I’m a sucker for ex battery hens. They are affectionate and comical creatures, the eggs are just a bonus. However, keeping chickens can sometimes be a sad affair too, prompting you to question yourself – why on earth put yourself through it?

Ex battery hens can come with their health problems it’s true, but is it any wonder? Even before they’re hatched their health is at risk due to bad breeding, their miserable existence in caged farms certainly weakens them even further. Many ex battery hens lead long, trouble-free and happy lives after rescue, I guess it’s the luck of the draw or conditions of the particular farm from which they came. If I have an ex battery girl for just a short time, I know that she experienced so much more than those that never got the chance. I do take comfort in that. In any case, regardless of type or breed of chicken you keep, problems can occur from time to time.

On Sunday I found top hen of the flock ‘Lizzie’ hunched and scared, covered in blood round her rear end. After the initial shock of finding her in that state my first fear was that she had prolapsed. After checking her over it became clear that she had been subjected to a rather nasty vent pecking session. I cleaned her up and gave her some sugared water to help combat shock, then I promptly got her to an emergency vet. Goodness knows why chickens can do this sort of thing to each other, it’s just beyond me, but it can happen to any chicken regardless of breed or history. It’s what I call ‘the dark side of chicken keeping’.

At the moment I’m cleaning Lizzie’s wounds twice a day with a veterinary antiseptic and giving her pain relief liquid and antibiotics. She’s doing OK but I’m not 100% happy with her progress so I have made another vet appointment, for peace of mind if anything. I will update about her again once I know more.