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PHOTO: Ana Hotaling
You’ve heard about the pecking order, the complex hierarchy through which chickens establish rank. Each level has its own characteristics. The queen bee is the bossy leader who sets the rules everyone else has to follow. The chatty sidekicks—the lackeys—are next, happy to keep their chief company and swift to follow her lead. The mother hens are the flock’s older females, respected but left to their own devices. You’ll find the weaker girls, those persecuted by the other chickens, at the bottom of the pecking order, hiding and hoping to escape notice. There’s also a social structure that exists in the poultry flock and involves chicken mating.
In terms of hens, this order includes the “others,” different than the persecuted. They aren’t bullied by their fellow birds; they’re shunned—unless the fellow birds are male. These “easy” girls draw roosters like magnets draw iron when it comes to chicken mating. They’ll patiently hunker down and let boys be boys, then resignedly shake out their feathers and move along.
I first witnessed this type of excessive chicken mating among our Orpingtons. An attempt to establish a Mottled Orpington flock yielded only two chicks, both female, out of a dozen eggs. To keep them from being lonely, we put these babies in with our newly hatched black Orpington chicks. The two varieties were together from Day 2 but, as they grew older, which pullets were the ones singled out for “favors?” The Mottled Orpington girls, Butters and Brioche. These two girls were immediately shunned by the other pullets, who blocked them from accessing the feeder, waterer and dust bath. When Butters and Brioche tried to socialize, the rest of the group would literally turn their backs and walk off.
The boys were a different story. Butters and Brioche couldn’t take more than three steps without a cockerel coming forward to “dance.” For almost two weeks, I watched as the girls repeatedly hunkered down, the boys continually lavished attention on them and the rest of the flock treated the two pullets like pariahs. Butters finally had enough and gave the boys the squawking of their lives, flying at them angrily with wings flapping. Brioche took the opposite approach to this odd strain of chicken mating, simply crouching in the middle of the grass in a “ready” position, regardless of whether or not there were any males around. The first time I saw her like this, I ran out, thinking she was dead. We definitely startled each other that day.
If you have an easy girl—or two or more—in your flock, follow these steps to ensure that she is safe and retains (or regains) a welcome position among her peers.
Protect Her Body
Loss of feathers is a sign that your hen is a favorite. Mating males will “tread,” or grip, the feathers on her lower back with their talons to properly position themselves for the cloacal kiss. As a result, your girl can develop a bald patch that will eventually encompass her entire back. The exposed skin is vulnerable to sunburn, injury and infection unless you take measures to protect it. To safeguard your bird’s back, consider buying or making a hen saddle or chicken apron. A hen saddle loops around your girl’s neck and wings, covering the bare skin with soft cloth that allows her skin to breathe and her feathers to grow back.
Some models come with built-in shoulder protectors to provide coverage to another spot males tend to grip. After a brief adjustment period (your hen will walk backward and dash forward for the first few hours of saddle-wearing), your girl will be scampering and dust-bathing like before, albeit better dressed.
Show Her Some TLC
A pullet’s body isn’t the only thing that suffers when she is the easy girl. Like Brioche, she may become resigned, withdrawn, and depressed. She may grow increasingly fearful of her flock and spook easily. If you notice that your hen is becoming timid or skittish, take action to soothe and reassure her. Start by approaching as close to her as possible without panicking her. Be at eye level with her, speaking in a gentle, comforting tone. Repeat this several times a day, steadily drawing a little closer each time. Bring a favorite treat—sunflower seeds, dried mealworms, bits of bread—to offer her once you are at arm’s length. Eventually, your girl will come to view you as a safe haven, someone she can trust. The affection you show her will go a long way to help re-establish your hen’s well-being.
Give Her a Get-Away
If your hen has lost her back, shoulder and head feathers and behaves in a terrified manner when another bird approaches, it’s time to separate her from the rest of the flock. Bring her into a secure area well away from the other birds—a basement, garage or laundry room work well. Set her up in a spacious box, kennel or crate with her own feeder and waterer as well as plenty of fresh bedding and nesting material. Make sure she has enough room to move around. Hang a seed block or a quarter-head of cabbage to keep her busy and entertained and, if possible, have a radio set to soft music or gentle talk so that she associates human voices with safety and security. To keep her from suffering reintroduction at the bottom of the pecking order, have a friend keep her company, preferably a younger pullet who associated with her before she gained the boys’ favor. Your easy girl might be frightened at first, but she will eventually rebuild the friendship with her companion, and her friend will stick by her when they return to the flock.
Bye Bye, Boys
The ultimate manner to put an end to your girls’ predicament in this harsh form of chicken mating is to reduce the number of cockerels and roosters in your flock. Depending on your breed, you should have six to 12 females for every male in your flock. If you actively breed your birds to sell chicks, reducing your roosters might not be an option. In this case, consider housing your boys separately. If your roosters solely serve as eye candy and as defense for your hens, you might need to re-evaluate whether two or three beautiful roos are worth a bunch of miserable, bare-backed pullets who need more protection from their flockmates than from any potential predators.