Gene Logsdon and Friends

Love and Hate In the Chicken Coop

In Gene Logsdon Blog on August 13, 2014 at 9:13 am

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From GENE LOGSDON

We are in the process of moving our pullets in with the old hens. No big deal in this case since I am talking four pullets and three hens. The coop is about ten by twenty feet in size, plenty of room for seven chickens. The pullets since birth have lived on one side of a chicken wire fence that divides the coop, with the hens on the other side. All day, all night, since May, they have been able to watch each other closely, smell each other, listen to each other, even able to nuzzle or peck through the fence at each other if they wanted to. The chicks in fact preferred to huddle against the fence, as close to the hens as they could get when I came in the coop. The hens paid the chicks no mind whatsoever.

We all know what happens when you put a strange chicken in with your flock.  The resident birds will attack with a vengeance. I think it says in the bible that humans are the only creatures that will kill their own kind but chickens will too. And even after they have spent a couple months separated by only a flimsy wire fence, the dominant group still attacks the other mercilessly when they are put together. I usually introduce the two groups slowly and tentatively, by way of contact outdoors, where the pullets can escape their aggressors until the two groups get used to each other. In that situation, it always amazes me how the pullets go back into the coop at night with the hens.

In this case, with the pullets outnumbering the hens, and with only a few older birds, I just opened the door between the two. (I was afraid to let them outside because the foxes and coyotes have been especially active this summer. That is why we have only three hens left.) The hens immediately tore into the pullets. The pullets, being faster and quicker, managed to avoid getting injured, but for two weeks, the hens never let up. Sometimes they followed the pullets around, waiting for one of them to start eating something. Then the hens pounced, even though the food in various places in the coop was all the same. Why did the pullets put up with it, I wonder. They were younger and faster and almost as big as the crotchety old hens. Why didn’t they fight back. No way. But every day there is less pecking and squawking. And I keep reminding myself: these are the same hens that can hatch out chicks, care for them, defend them, find food for them and in general display all manner of what we think of as kindness.

One of the hens finally accepted the pullets. The other two are still attacking, as I write this, but somewhat less heartily. The relationship is extremely complex. Once I herded the two groups more or less together in one corner of the coop, hoping to force them into some kind of acceptance of each other.  About that time, one of hens spotted a bug and grabbed it, working it around in her beak, trying to swallow it, seeming almost to choke on it. In a flash one of the pullets darted up to her, grabbed the morsel or part of it very daintily and gently out of the hen’s beak, then skittered away. The old hen seemed only slightly nonplussed.

I know from the experience of other years that one of these nights one of the pullets, after dark, will get enough nerve or verve to hop up on the roost beside the hens instead of roosting on the other side of the coop. Then another will do the same. In about another three weeks, the hens and pullets will roost together and soon after that, they will become one flock. The family that sleeps together, stays together.

As I watch, I can’t help but think of Gaza and Israel. Of the entire Middle East. Of our southern border with Mexico. Of Ukraine and Russia. All my life, I have tried hard to convince myself that eventually, love conquers all. But I doubt it.  The way of nature is to eat and be eaten, to kill and be killed. Is there really any difference between the instinct of the so-called irrational animals and the craftiness of the so-called rational animals? What we call love and hate may be just passing incidences of making sure there is always something to eat or to be eaten, ho hum. Perhaps all life follows the same mindless impulse: anything that even remotely seems to threaten the balance between eaters and things to eat must be eliminated.
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  1. I am so afraid that you’re right but so wish that you weren’t.

  2. It’s assumed that humans should be able to rise above their darker angels but I believe it’s quite likely that animals are often quicker at adapting and learning to love (or at least not eat) their neighbor.

  3. Brother Gene, Just did yesterday what you write about. Like your chickens, my pullets have resided in a pen with only chicken wire separating them for the old hens. And yes, the pullets would get as close to that fence as they could. The old hens were aware of them, but didn’t resort to trying to peck at them. Yesterday I put the pullets in with the one old hen I was keeping and though the pullets outnumber the old hen, they still are skittering around like fools whenever the old hen even steps their way. I did turn them outside into a big sheep lot, so the young ones have lots of room to skitter away. Like you, I have noticed in other years that in about a week or so (if death doesn’t occur) the two generations get along well enough.
    Love those little pullet eggs!

  4. I have always waited until after dark and then stuck the new pullets on the roost, interspersed with all the old hens. Because chickens are so comically dumb, when they wake up the next morning, they seem to assume that they’ve all been together all their lives. I very rarely have any serious pecking going on after that.

    So, transferring this practice to the Middle East (and elswhere), what our military needs to do is somehow get all those Isrealites and Palestinians asleep, mix them all up within their borders, and when everyone wakes up, they will all just assume that they belong together, with no more pecking (or rockets or shelling).

    Right?

  5. I had hatched out some Buckeye chicks and Barred Rock chicks about a week apart and they flocked together well. Three weeks later, I moved the older chicks out of the brooder to a grow-out pen and put a dozen brand new Silver Spangled Hamburg chicks in the brooder. Three weeks later, I tried introducing them to the grow out pen. The mixed flock pretty much ran the show. In all the time I had them (almost two years) the two flocks never foraged together and never roosted together, even though they were in same coop.

    Some folks are just bred not to get along with one another, I’m afraid. Shalom and Salaam sound so very similar as greetings, but they just don’t seem to be able to roost together.

  6. Well, we shouldn’t forget that the chickens don’t have thousands of years of blood feuds and enmity going for them… they were fighting each other when Alexander the Great came through and haven’t stopped since. The only way i see some folks ever getting together is if they have to face a common enemy that will destroy them separately. And even then, it might be a toss-up who they fight!

  7. I get that Gene’s post wound up being about the human condition, but I am down to one hen, and I don’t have any experience adding to a flock, so I’m going to skirt humanity’s inhumanity and ask for chicken advice. You all seem really knowledgeable and hopefully one or more of you is game to give me a pointer.

    My remaining hen, Matilda, has never laid an egg in her life, but likes to sit in the nest boxes and used to sit on the other hens’ eggs. Until the second-last died, Tildy would sit in the nesting box and sing the same “I just laid an egg song” the other sang. It seemed like she thought of herself as a normal hen. Lately, she has quit that, though she still visits the nest boxes. Actually, now she has started crowing, well sort of crowing, but I don’t think that’s relevant and I don’t want to go too far afield.

    My plan is to add three dummy eggs, one by one as though she’d laid them, and let her sit on the fake eggs for a couple weeks, after which I’ll switch out the plastic eggs with baby chicks in the night.

    Is this a sound plan or an insane gambit? Somewhere in between? Will the hen, who has never laid an egg and spent her life on the bottom of the pecking order, hop off the roost upon waking and lay waste to the babies? Before you answer (if anyone is kind enough to answer) I should point out that earlier this summer, a pigeon built a nest and laid some eggs in the roost box, below where the chickens’ roost. Tildy let it stay for three days but then savaged ot. I happened to be in the yard and it sounded like someone was taking a rubber mallet to the various walls. After some really protracted banging, the pigeon flew out missing a lot of feathers and Tildy walked down the ladder spitting feathers out of her mouth. She kind of looked like Santa. The pigeon eggs were all stomped, though I like to think that happened as a consequence of the assault, rather than as part of a particularly cruel eradication effort on my bird’s part.

    So, long story short, can I subject day old chicks to my barren, lately ambiguously gendered hen?

    • One question — how old is Tildy? If she’s a couple of years old, she isn’t going to turn into a rooster at this point; if she’s five or six months, that’s different — she could be a late bloomer. I’ve never known a rooster to set.
      Otherwise, you can try it and see. Rather than fake eggs, though, get a few store-bought eggs; Tildy might be able to smell the difference. Let the eggs come to room temperature before you put them under her. To improve your chances, let her set for 20 days before you put in the chicks (hens have an internal timer, and if you put them in too soon, she might abandon or kill them), and make sure you put them in at night, in full dark. Wear cotton gloves to minimize the human smell. Then watch her carefully — if she seems not to want to mother them or is aggressive, you’ll have to separate them and raise the babies yourself. Here’s a link from a woman who was successful in the process: http://www.nwedible.com/2014/04/will-a-broody-hen-adopt-chicks.html

      Good Luck!

      • Thanks Beth! Tildy is nearing three years old. She didn’t start crowing until she was the sole survivor. So, Betty, you seem right that it’s a dominance thing, since she started once her immunity to my mistakes elevated her to first rank.

        After reading Northwest Edible Life, I’m not sure I know what broodiness is. A truly broody hen sleeps in the nest box, I take it? Tildy is a vacation brooder, then. She won’t let anything keep her from the box, but after a couple hours she’s on with her day.

        So I guess that I can do as Karen advises and set up a dog crate inside Tildy’s realm. She can get used to them and watch them grow and, I guess, one day they will follow her up the ladder? The sneaking them on the roost presupposes I raise them to four or five weeks and slip them in, do I have that right? So that is the fallback if I encounter problems with the crate set up? Alright! I’m emboldened.

        Thanks chicken advisors!

        Oh, and Betty, I think that tribalism and openness co-evolved with neither being a newer mutation. They are both always around and ascendant in different places.

        Thanks again, everybody.

  8. And, sadly, as soon as the common enemy is defeated, they’ll go right back to fighting each other.

  9. Beth, your advice to Constant Gardener is exactly what I was thinking! I was wondering too about it being a young rooster. But sometimes a dominant hen will make a somewhat crowing-like sound if there are no roosters around to do the job.

    So Gene, how do we explain people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Mother Theresa? Are they a more highly evolved species? mutants?

  10. we never separated them long . the pullets went into a seperate square cage right along with the old hens in the yard and within 2 weeks we let them out . Neither batch batted an eye. we did this every year for 5 years. Last time we let them out in less than a week and all was well. I wonder if the short time span is the reason for such success or the fact that the hens could walk completely around the new birds .My neighbor has raised them for 60 years the way you do it and has the same problems you do. I believe just putting them on the roost at night seems like it should work well too. However we have notice since day one that the birds group themselves into breed or color groups. preferring their own kind to roost next to or go bug picking with.

    • I may have mentioned this at some point in the past here ( I’m starting to preface a lot of things I say with that disclaimer in case other people’s memory is better than mine ).

      40 years ago when we were first married and living in a farm house my grandparents had lived in, we brooded a hundred chicks. There were 25 each of R I Reds, S L Wyandots, White Jersey Giants and Black J Gs. They were raised together for the first ~6 weeks in the chicken house and then the door was opened to let them roam. Within a very short time they had separated themselves by breed into 4 separate roosting areas. The reds always returned to the coop, the Wyandots to an old feed alley in the barn and the Giants across from each other in a livestock lot behind the wagon shed. Except for a few color blind Giants it was pretty much 100%. The other thing that amazes me in remembering that is the lack of predators we had back then. The only loss was when we got a Beagle pup later that summer. He was too cute to shoot and too dumb to learn.

      Looking forward to seeing the Logsdons at Jandy’s Garlic Festival this Sunday.

      • A couple of you have noticed the same thing I have–that chickens sort themselves out according to breed! I have noticed this too but wasn’t sure that I just didn’t have a bunch of racist chickens! Also I am a liberal and didn’t want to acknowledge this, but I’m see a theme here. Currently I have silver-laced wyandots that I raised from chicks and some kind of buff I bought from a neighbor kid. In the past I’ve have had black and red sex-links from the 4-H kids, barred rocks and a variety of others that I’ve raised and for the most part, they all hang out with their own kind!!

        I don’t pen mine in so there’s little to no fighting when a newly brooded batch is introduced–they can spread out and get away form one another. Because I didn’t coop them up, in the early days I lost tons of chickens to predators. The chickens are smarter than I am and finally moved themselves out of the open-door coop and into the buck pen. They roost in the rafters. I keep a hot wire on around the goat pasture at night and I guess that and the smell of the bucks must keep them safe. I have not lost a single chicken since they’ve found these new nighttime accommodations. I think they must help the goats too by scratching through the goodies in the pen and eating parasites?

  11. The difference between us and chickens is that the chickens eventually get over their fear of outsiders and stop persecuting them.

  12. Lucky all of you! My first batch of chicks fell victim to (we believe) a ring-tailed cat. Nothing left but a couple of feathers. This second batch is not ready to be joined with the older girls, but past experience does not bode well. I like the night time intro and may try that, but I always laugh when people talk about how they just love their hens and cuddle up and kiss them. Just like people, they can turn on you in a hot minute and peck you for no reason at all.
    Still, my experience of playgrounds – a hotbed of dominance and aggression – leads me to believe that we can all learn to play nice. Yes, it’s harder for some, but not impossible. Even the thousands of years of hatred found in the Middle East can be overcome, it’s just not easy, and most will always prefer to stay with their own kind, just like chickens.

  13. Birds certainly flock together by breed / color in the wild so I am not surprised birds do so in captivity . I read the Bible so I am also not surprised at how the world is going either. Do not find anything in the Bible abut humans being the only ones who kill their own kind , but life has shown me cats , dogs, pigs , birds, killing there own kind, birds seem especially vicious at times.

  14. All wars are resource wars.

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