Chickens have a strong social hierarchy the pecking order. The behaviour chickens display when establishing the pecking order can be quite disturbing. The pecking order is essentially a fight for dominance among the chickens, it can exhibit its self in different ways.
- Excluding each other from food or the nest
- Pecking the back of another chicken's neck or even jumping on their back and pushing to the ground
- Sitting on another chicken e.g. when roosting
- Chicken stand offs (one chicken stands opposite the with neck fully stretched upright with the neck feathers raised).
When new chickens are introduced into the flock the process of establishing the pecking order will start again. If you introduce new chickens you will have to keep them apart between dawn and dusk. When the chickens are roosting from dusk they are more docile, and you can add the new chicken to the roosting area. You will then need to remove it at dawn to a separate pen. If you put the food close together in the two pens, then the chickens will start to get used to eating together, a source of conflict. Normally the fighting will be between the new chickens and the ones at the bottom the of pecking order, who don't want to lose their place to a new chicken. Typically the chicken at the top of the pecking order will not be challenged on the introduction of a new chicken.
Chickens may start to challenge each other as they mature. Other factors such as health may start another challenge to the pecking order, but it is normally just established once at the beginning.
When they are not eating, chickens will often preen their feathers, and may have a dust bath. You can provide a bowl full of children's play sand, or compost as a dust bath, or they may find their own in your garden. A dust bath allows the chicken to displace insects and mites from its skin.
Feather plucking/eating and moulting
Some chickens pluck feathers out of themselves, or other chickens and sometimes eat them. eating feathers can be a sign of a lack of protein or greenary, or being confined in too small a space. You can buy anti-pecking sprays, or stockholm tar for the victim, or anti-pecking rings or bits to fit to the beak of the bully.
Scratching the ground
Chickens love scratching in the ground. They will use their long nails for sorting through food, searching for insects, or having a dust bath. They will turn your beautiful lawn into a mud bath, especially in winter! If you wish to preserve your lawn you could keep your chickens on a bark chip area, which will need maintaining by raking over and replacing.
Broodiness is the behaviour where a chicken incubates eggs on a nest. It is more likely to be found in pure breeds, than hybrids. If your chicken starts to become broody you will need to be brave and move her from unfertilized eggs so that they will not stop laying. A chicken that is laying eggs will often crouch for you thinking you are a cockerel which will enable you to pick up the chicken more easily! Susannah went broody last year when there was a heat wave. She puffed up into a ball of feathers, sat on the nest all day in a trance-like state where we could lift her out for a cuddle. If lifted out onto her feet she would sink into a sitting position and would only take one bite of food if offered. Once a day she would do a huge poo, get off the nest and go for some food and water before going back to the nest. She sometimes shrieked and flapped violently when off the nest. She plucked her feathers underneath so that her skin would be next to "her eggs" and heat them better. She stopped laying eggs, and sat on the other chicken's eggs until I collected them. After a few weeks we put her in a broody cage which has air underneath to cool her down as she was losing weight, had no eggs to incubate, and showed no sign of stopping. We tried holding her in cold water to cool her down but this was wholley unsuccessful and she fluffed out within seconds. We took a picture of her bald patch. below though.