Despite being domesticated for thousands of years, chickens still retain their wild instincts. Most of the time, they potter about the garden, burbling and clucking away in a very gentle fashion, but sometimes their behaviour can be quite shocking. The term pecking order, now used to describe any kind of hierarchy, was first coined by German researcher Torlief Schjelderup-Ebbe in 1921 after he observed the way that chickens asserted dominance by pecking those further down the order. I’ve just had a demonstration of how aggressively they can do this.
We got two new chickens a couple of weeks ago to add to our ageing flock of four. The newcomers were gradually introduced to the others to avoid arguments and I thought that everyone was settling in well. Yesterday, all of them were sitting in a row together on their favourite perch, catching some late afternoon rays.
However, this morning, I went down the garden to open up the gate to their larger run and was horrified to see that Florrie, the top chicken, had cornered Emmeline, one of the new arrivals. Emmeline had her head buried in the ground and Florrie was viciously attacking her. She’d pulled out a chunk of feathers, had drawn blood and was pecking furiously - I’ve never seen such a concentrated and determined attack. The others were all honking furiously and Florrie didn’t let up even when I shouted and banged on the side of the run as I fumbled with the catch to get in and rescue her victim. Chickens have a crazy response to blood and will sometimes kill other chickens if they catch sight of an open wound so Emmeline is lucky I happened to go down the garden when I did.
Emmeline was kept away from the other birds for a few hours while everyone calmed down a bit. I treated her wounds with gentian violet, a bright purple solution that was once widely used in human medicine as an antibacterial and antifungal treatment, particularly for skin conditions such as athlete’s foot, eczema and impetigo. It’s still used on poultry because as well as its medical affects, it masks the sight and smell of blood and so discourages further pecking. At 20 weeks old, Emmeline still has some of her adult feathers growing through so these should soon cover up her bald patch which is unlikely to grow back fully until after her first full moult next autumn.
Before I let everyone back together, I also fitted Florrie with a bumper bit. These are small, plastic loops that clip into the bird’s nostrils and form a barrier around their beak so that they can’t use the sharp tip. I’ve used them on bossy chickens before and they look very undignified but don’t hurt them in any way or prevent them from eating. It’s usually only a temporary measure until harmony is restored. Florrie is shaking her head a bit and looks a rather miffed, but at least all the birds are sharing their run nicely again. As you can, Poppet has been keeping an eye on the patient too.