Monday, 25 June 2007

A hen morality tale

G pointed out last week that "a chicken run is just like a reality TV show". He's right. It is a whole little world of dysfunctional relationships, people showing off, interpersonal dynamics, bullying, cliques and gossipping. Our eglu and run over the past few months has been much more interesting to watch than Big Brother or The Apprentice.

We have four hens: Betsy, Maud, Queenie and Daisy. Betsy, since the moment she arrived, has always been the one in charge. You can see her in this top picture: big, brown and bossy. At first the other three sensibly stayed out of her way and there were few problems but over time Betsy's bossiness evolved into bullying and she started pulling the others' feathers out as a way of asserting her dominance.

Here is my list of everything I tried to change Betsy's behaviour. I think even Supernanny would have struggled with this one.
  • I put a clip on her beak (you can see this in the picture if you look closely), but she learnt how to pull feathers out with it on (though the feathers did get caught in the clip and she could no longer feign innocence when I came outside looking cross).
  • I hung CDs in the run to give her something exciting and glittery to peck at, but she isn't a glittery, sparkly kind of a hen.
  • I hung lettuces and cabbages in the run to give her something else to peck at, but she ate them all and wouldn't let the others anywhere near, then got the runs from eating too much green stuff.
  • I sprayed tea-tree oil on the others' feathers, but it seems Betsy loves the taste of tea-tree oil.
  • I used my most stern voice to tell her off (getting desperate by this time), but she ignored me.

When Queenie had a bald patch on her back and both Daisy and Maud had bald patches on their necks I decided I'd really had enough and it was time for some desperate measures. Someone advised me that I should take Betsy out of the run and keep her in a smaller cage for two weeks, then reintroduce her to the others. The theory behind this is that:

  • Not having Betsy in the run for a couple of weeks would give the others a chance to grow some new feathers and get their confidence back.
  • Hens are notoriously mean to new additions to the flock; they will peck and squawk at the newcomer so that it goes to the bottom of the pecking order. When I reintroduced Betsy hopefully the others would stand up to her and she would no longer be so dominant.

I was very sceptical when I heard all this; it sounded a little too much like hen psychology, but I gave it a go because I couldn't think of what else to try. For two weeks we kept Betsy in a small cage. I felt so cruel, even though she could stand up & move around and carried on laying, she really didn't have much room. Queenie, Daisy & Maud thought this was marvellous. They luxuriated in huge dust-baths without having their feathers pulled. They ate what they wanted, when they wanted. They slept where they wanted in the eglu at night. I started to feel cruel for subjecting them to Betsy's bullying for so long.

Then this past weekend, I put Betsy back into the run. And amazingly, her stint in solitary confinement seems to have done her some good. She stood at one end of the run, looking rather nervous, until I fed them all. She followed the others to the corn and was suddenly SHOUTED at by Daisy, pecked swiftly on the head and told to get to the bottom of the pecking order. And even more amazingly, she meekly did so.

There is now a new harmony in the run. Daisy is in charge (and you can see her to the right - looking very wise), but she is a kinder leader than Betsy was and just has to shout occasionally. Queenie and Maud are continuing with their new routine of dust-baths every morning and they usually let Betsy join them.

Happy hens!

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