Chickens are very social creatures.
They are essentially flock birds and benefit from living in family groups. They prefer to live together and have a distinct hierarchical structure within their families and wider social circles. When we first think of chooks we immediately equate them with lots of lovely fresh eggs. We set up with all the necessary poultry keeping supplies: coop, feeder, drinker and feed. The truth is we give very little thought to the chooks themselves; what makes them tick, what put a smile on their beaks and their innate social networking skills. So we thought it prudent to delve a bit into ‘chicken wisdom’ and ‘chicken social etiquette’ and what makes them happy in life. We will also touch on how chickens have highly specialized sight, hearing and smell perceptions which assist them to communicate and interact with other flock members to create a rich, social chicken tapestry of life. Chickens are delightful creatures to keep and reward us humans in so many ways with food, friendship and ‘chicken therapy’ (de-stress after a busy day working just go talk to your chooks!) They teach us much about the simple joys in our fast moving, modern lives. So let’s explore the family life of the fowl.
If we look at how chickens live in the wild (the jungle fowl) it is interesting to observe that they usually live in smallish groups consisting of a dominant rooster and one or more hens. Flocking together not only gives them social advantages but also allows for greater survival of the species.
In the breeding season the dominant rooster of each flock marks and defends his territory either alone or with an accompanying group of non-broody hens. Over the season as the hens lay clutches of eggs they eventually go broody. The rooster will assist each hen to locate and settle in a nesting site. In the domestic chicken this can be clearly observed when the rooster is found in the nesting boxes chatting softly to the hen and showing her where to nest and to lay. Whilst the hen is incubating her eggs (21 days) and once she hatches out her brood mother hen opts to raise her young in insolation and away from the main flock. As the chicks mature and begin to develop their adult feathers the hen initiates what appear to be aggressive actions towards them in order to encourage them to be independent of the maternal group. Once her chicks are old enough to fend for themselves usually around 8 weeks of age the hen returns to and re-joins her original flock.
Each group of pre-pubescent youngsters stick together in their sibling groups and then as the season progresses and more broods of similar age emerge these teenage chickens re -group and hang out together in larger groups till the onset of sexual maturity. This flock mentality also helps to ensure better survival plus the youngsters (like us humans) enjoy the company of others. The young cockerels will eventually become sexually active and start to extend their range and as a result encroach on the borders of other established rooster territories. As the pullets reach sexual maturity they are increasingly chased by the young and inexperienced cockerels and this usually alerts a dominant rooster to their plight and so they indirectly seek the protection of a mature rooster and become part of his flock.
During the non-breeding season whilst the flock is moulting and building up their reserves for the new breeding season (and testosterone levels off a bit) flocks can inhabit overlapping home ranges with fixed hierarchies between neighbours. Ideally older hens will stick close by their dominant rooster and younger ones will range further afield. The younger and less dominant roosters will hang out on the periphery of flocks and lead more solitary lives and remain more vulnerable to predators.
This social hierarchy is key to how chicken families and societies operate. We have come to call it the pecking order. It is a very important concept to understand and consider when keeping chickens and especially when purchasing new chickens to add to an existing flock. This pecking order works the same in layer flocks made up solely of hens. The pecking order is established through trial and depends on age and size to some degree. Young birds are often subjected to aggression as they come to learn the order within the flock. This aggression can be simply eye contact or in the form of face-to-face fighting or head and neck pecking. It can vary from mild to severe so best to give some thought to introducing new individuals to your home flock. Hierarchy can be lineal, for example, one hen can be very dominant over the rest. We witnessed this recently with a group of 13 Light Sussex cockerels where the top male totally dominated the other 12. He ruled the feeder and the hen house and would control them merely with his presence it seemed. The dominance was obvious as all the subordinate cockerels would pile head first into the corner in his presence. Once we removed him from the pen the old order collapsed and a new pecking order was set up. This took a few days to establish but at least it worked out to be a more non-lineal pecking order. This lineal ranking is not usually the norm. Most pecking orders are non-lineal which sometimes creates triangles where Bird A pecks on Bird B who in turn pecks on Bird C and Bird C pecks on Bird A. Once a pecking order has been established this is generally maintained through recognition of individual birds and their positions within the group. Ill-heath, removal of a bird/s, maturity will often be the main reasons to challenge the status quo. With each season the family group will change as the individuals within that group grow, mature and die and thus the hierarchy within the group changes.
In our western culture we have come to associate stupidity with chickens. We use the term ‘bird brain’ to mean dim-witted or foolish. This is a term only recently used since the 1920’s when man started to farm poultry on a mass scale for eggs and meat. We have taken Gallus Gallus Domesticus (the domestic chicken) and turned it into the most exploited and least respected of all avian species. For centuries across many cultures roosters and hens have been respected, admired and revered for their abilities to guard, protect, nurture and communicate with each other. These are all the skills seen within a highly structured intelligent society and ones we aspire to within our own human society.
Yes chickens like most birds have small sized brains but this difference in size does not mean that because it is small it cannot be intelligent or aware. Who are we to say that bird brains are inferior just because they are smaller than ours? Birds may process information in different ways to us and in other locations to us and the evidence is obvious to those that keep chickens and have witnessed the complex family and social behaviours of our feathered friends.
Chickens with their highly specialized visual, auditory and olfactory perceptions are able to instantly recognise friends (members from the same flock) and foes (foreign chickens, predators, threatening objects and situations.) They can process all this information in what we call a pea-sized brain. Chickens have excellent hearing and an auditory frequency range of 15-10,000 HZ. Hearing is vital to chickens as they rely on ‘acoustic interactions’ as one way of communicating with each other and the rest of the flock.
Vision is also highly specialized. Both eyes weigh together as much as the brain. Chickens have the ability to see detail clearly (grains of wheat on the ground) and at the same time have a panoramic view of the more distant environment in order to detect movement or danger. So they can easily switch from lateral to frontal viewing as their distance from an object decreases. As they use each eye independently they are able to swap between eyes and focus with each eye on a different distance. They see in full-spectrum colour vision. Chickens also demonstrate lateralisation of the brain. So when watching (with both human eyes!) our dominant rooster do his ‘titbitting’ (a food related display to call hens over to join him in a nice morsel of food) he will be using his right eye (left brain) to spot the feed and his left eye (right brain) will be watching for overhead predators. He will attack with his left eye (right brain) when viewing a foe.
Chickens also have excellent memories. This is an essential requirement for them to survive within their social groups. Facial recognition is key. They can memorize up to 200 other chicken individuals on facial features, plumage and stance and even after a few months of separation. They also recognise (us) humans, the clothes we wear and items we might carry (food bucket, catching net). They memorise the house they live in, their place on the perch, their friends and foes, their territory and their daily routine. Their daily routine becomes habit and you can set your watch on it. If you feed you birds at set times then you will know what we are talking about! In fact chicken memory is so well imprinted in chicken brains that it is hard to undo learned behaviour/s. That is why it is important when you take new birds home to shut them in their new house for at least a week so they can get to recognise and memorise all their new flatmates and their new accommodation. So when let out to free range they will return to what they know is familiar (their new family) and what has become their home. On the other hand that memory becomes so ingrained that if you move them to another house not far away and let the out the next day they will return to their old house. It will take time and new imprinting to train to their new house. Make changes slowly when moving chickens, keep them non the same feed, take familiar feed/water containers to new houses and remember too much change can stress birds. Stress can kill birds. Also bad habits like egg eating, roosting in nest boxes and feather pecking once learnt as behaviours are hard to unlearn. So best to avoid them learning these bad habits in the first place.
Some behaviours are instinctive like the desire and need to peck for food from day one and the nurturing of young but most other behaviours are learned. Chickens that have not learned from their mothers to scratch and dig for worms are not inclined seek out worms. Chickens that are not used to eating table or garden scraps will generally show little interest in them. Feed a scratch treat to chooks that know and love it and they will mob you for it. Wheat or maize treats feed out to chooks that have never had it before will not know what to do with it.. but they will soon learn over time to love it. So with chickens everything is essentially becomes a familiar and learned behaviour and once imprinted becomes part of their daily routine.
We should coin a new phrase…’a memory like a chicken!’
Chickens communicate not only visually but also vocally with each other and the rest of the flock. We all know that roosters ‘cock a doodle doo’ and laying hens ‘cluck’ but in truth, ‘chicken talk’, is a far more complex affair. This chook communication involves visual, vocal, olfactory and tactile senses combined to convey numerous intentions, messages and details amongst chickens. Each rooster has a distinctive crow. The acoustic frequency has been linked to the length of his comb. Roosters interact with each other to establish identity, status and proximity. Dominant roosters crow more often than subordinate roosters and may attack crowing roosters of a lesser status. This ability to distinguish status according to your crow is vital within the social order as it helps dominant rooster to identify other equal status roosters and allows less dominant roosters time to avoid attack.
The study of chicken communication both in domestic and wild chickens has resulted in at least 30 distinct forms of vocalization associated with territorial, location, mating, laying, nesting, submission, distress, alarm, fear, food and contentment calls. Their daily activities include playful chases, occasional spats, and vigorous vocal announcements – crows, egg cackles, predator warnings, and “chook, Chook, CHOOK!” whenever food is found. Chickens have singing sounds of contentment that resonate through the flock intermittently during the day and often as they are settling down on their perches for the night. They use their voices not only to exchange information intimately and across distances, but to express joy and enthusiasm as well as boredom, weariness and woe.
Chickens admit two types of alarm calls depending on the perceived danger. Arial alarm calls comprise of a series of low intensity, short, narrow based screeches and occur when a chicken sees and identifies a predator like a hawk overhead. This alarm call reverberates around the farmyard as other chickens see and respond to the call by running for cover. The alarm call for ground-based predators (cats, dogs, stoats etc) is different and consists of loud repeated and conspicuous ‘pulsed broad-band cackles’ directed as much at the predator as well at the other chickens. The response is not usually’ run for cover’ but take on an unusual upright stance (tail erect) and scan horizontally for the threat. Each alarm call will be specific and meaningful to the type of predator and relays information as to the size and immediate threat of the predator. Roosters elicit fewer alarm calls if alone or with unfamiliar hens than a dominant rooster with his trusty and loyal group of gals! Similarly a rooster will signal to his girls when food has been discovered particular when his hens are about and even more so when it is a favourite titbit like worms or maize. Hens respond to both types of calls but obviously more favourably to calls inviting them to share in a special treat. Their beaks, with which they explore their surroundings, forage for food, rake in nesting materials, preen their feathers, and defend themselves against predators, are endowed with special receptors enabling them to make exact tactile judgments.
Now for the biggie…do chickens have emotions? Do they have the capacity to feel love, enjoyment, pleasure and experience friendships like we do? Having had the pleasure of keeping chickens and observing their many characteristics and social interactions it is very obvious to us that chickens derive immense happiness from certain activities like dust bathing and sun bathing. Dust bathing is a routine activity and is performed not only to expel external parasites but also experienced purely for the sheer enjoyment of it. A dry dust bowl is a delight to a fowl. The actions of getting down on their side and using their wings to scoop dirt onto their feathers is also an act of pleasure. It even becomes a shared flock enjoyment when multiple birds share the same dustbowl. So too, is sunbathing: lying down and stretching out their wings towards the warmth of the sun. Even (us) humans lap up the warmth of the sun and seek it out as pleasurable experience. Chickens can form special bonds and relationships with other chickens and also other species. Sometimes these are developed over time spent together or they have been raised and bonded as siblings. Chickens are no different to us when it comes to relationships. There are the shy individuals that prefer only chicken company and then the extroverts that prefer the company of humans and other animals. We have a certain cockerel that loves to accompany us when cleaning out our hen houses; he follows us from house to house as if enjoying our human company. If a chicken experiences happiness, friendship and joy then they must also experience the negative feelings like fear anxiety, frustration and boredom.
We know that chickens are vibrant individuals, cheerful in all kinds of weather, and as we learn a little more about their chicken wisdom and understand their social structure so we can only admire and love them more for being our quirky, smart, fun-loving, feathered friends.
It is very important when keeping poultry to be aware of how the pecking order works within a flock. If purchasing pullets for the first time best to start with birds all of a similar age and introduce them to the hen house at the same time. Best to purchase all from the same breeder and preferably birds from the same pen. Chooks have a strict pecking order within a group and each bird has its place within the flock. Usually age takes precedent and size is a factor. By adding birds to existing flocks this order is upset and causes stress within the group which can ultimately impact on laying.
NEW TENANTS, NEW ORDER
When we think about how chickens interact within family groups it can be loosely translated to human families and societies. It is an interesting concept. How would we feel if another group of individuals shifted into our house? How would the dynamics work between the new individuals? Would there be confrontation? Would our status be threatened? Chickens are no different. If 3 lovely ladies (hens!) have been happily sharing their living quarters (coop) and suddenly 2 attractive teenagers (pullets) shift in overnight how do you think the original 3 will respond? Threatened? Challenged? Will they want to give up their room (space on the perch) and their ranking within the group? The result will be one of confrontation. Possibly some sort of beak to head/body assault and sometimes it can get messy. A drop in egg production due to stress can result. For best results we recommend softening this introduction. Run a small coop alongside (borrow one or buy one) so the chickens can see each other. Always good get to know your neighbours. Grow the teenagers (pullets) on to POL (same size as your original hens). Keep the new ones penned in for a week or two. Then let both lots have access to free range so they can intermingle. At POL merge the two groups together in the main hen house. Giving them time to familiarize with each other will make the transition all the smoother.
ROOSTERS LIKE TO RULE
The problem with males is that they want to gain supremacy and be the alfa male (sound familiar!) It is all about being the dominant rooster as the main man gets the girl(s)! Roosters are generally only kept to complete a family unit, for breeding or for fattening for the table. So keeping more than one requires some careful management. Here at Appletons we need to grow many of our young cockerels on to select for breeding. We grow on our young cockerels in small groups and find that those that have been hatched and raised together (similar size and age) do best. We raise and keep similar breeds together. For example Sussex cockerels grow fast, feather quickly and tend to be dominant in nature so best not kept in the same pen as the more gentle, less confrontational cockerels like Faverolles or Croad Langshans . Neither do we raise light breed cockerels alongside heavy breed cockerels. Allow plenty of room in bachelor pads so the young males have the space to move away from each other. The larger the available range the more the boys will occupy themselves foraging and the less obsessed they will be with fighting. Add obstacles (bushes/branches/drums /boards) to the run. These obstacles offer less dominant cockerels places to hide and avoid the more dominant cockerels. Low perches in the run also offer some escape for young subordinate birds as a place to jump up if chased. Have more than one feed station so dominant cockerels do not rule the feeders.Keep an eye open for lineal hierarchy one rooster dominates all and watch out for gang mentality where groups of roosters corner and beat up subordinate cockerels. Best to remove any roosters that are bullied otherwise death can quickly ensue. Boys from batchelor groups will always bare battle scars. If wanting to grow on cockerels for showing they will need to be kept individually. Understanding how male chickens think and interact with each other goes a long way to better management.
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Fionna and Gordon Appleton
Appletons Hen Houses and Poultry Supplies