To me chickens are more than simply a provider of meat and eggs, they are also an opportunity to study closely one of the longest standing domesticated species on the planet. Not only does this cover their biology but their behavioural ecology and not just in terms of how they interact with the environment, but how they work as a community and social group, and how they respond to the presence and attentions of their keepers.
They are an intelligent creature and few people realise that they have cognitive abilities that compare in some instances with those exhibited by our genetically close counterparts, the primates. Spend any reasonable length of time around a flock of chickens and even to the inexperienced eye indications of individuality, character and social structure become evident. In fact it’s fair to say there is a veritable soap opera taking place albeit it more often at the pace of The Archers rather than Eastenders.
One of the most important elements at play within a group of chickens is the flock dynamics. This is the glue that holds the group together, the interactions between different birds that establish hierarchy and define the dominants from the subordinates. It’s a structure that’s repeated throughout any community of socially linked species and within it there are rules. Rules which are defined at a species and group level and rules that are often a reflection of the social groups of other species. Am I comparing a flock of chickens to a group humans such as a club, village or perhaps even a parliament? Yes, in many respects I am.
Most animals are capable of discerning the familiar from the unfamiliar within their species and their behaviour in both instances is likely to be different whether they be part of a group or not. In terms of the flocking mentality of species such as chickens however these social recognition abilities go beyond a fight or flight response.
This additional level of complexity in the interactions between chickens, and the fact it is open to change even without any external factors influencing it, means that alliances can be built and broken and aggression can occur beyond the simple defence against threat. The drama is all there in a manner more akin to our everyday life than might seem the case.
It is in understanding this ‘society’ of chickens you keep that will help you interpret their individual responses towards each other and ultimately towards you, their keeper.
Aggressive behaviour between chickens (and towards their owners) is in effect a form of negotiation. We as a society have developed negotiation to the point that in most instances it avoids conflict but will still carry a level of posturing. Within chicken society negotiation tends to start with posturing and if that doesn’t resolve the problem then conflict, be it a sharp peck, a kick out with claws and spurs or full on fight, will be resorted to. By the same measure alliances are built within our society based around collaboration and mutual benefit and much the same occurs within a flock of chickens where its survival, success and genetic future rely primarily upon group cohesion.
Such cohesion can be strong. Introducing a new group of chickens to an existing flock is a case in point. The new comers are viewed with suspicion particularly if the existing flock consists of only hens. They are potentially a drain on the resources available to the flock and represent a threat to its future. The pecking order will be fairly solid and the new comers will need to find their place, most will reside at the bottom, subordinates kept in their place by the more dominant hens. Eventually though competition will arise, not necessarily because the new comers want a bigger slice of the pie but quite probably because of changes in the hierarchy above them. Existing alliances can be strong but can collapse and when weakness and opportunity cross path,s and with competition usually comes posturing and quite probably aggression.
If that flock however contains a dominant cockerel then the new comers may find themselves in a different situation. To the established hens these new comers not only represent a fresh draw on the limited resources but also a threat to the attentions of the cockerel and protective behaviour he may express towards his favourites within the flock. As such they may get unwelcome attention from the hens whilst the cockerel observes. He may then intervene putting himself between his existing hens and the new ones. This might seem altruistic for the structure of the flock but he will see the new comers as potential mates and something that could successfully carry his genes on to the next generation. In effect he’s is making an investment and he will protect it through posture and aggression to anything that threatens it, including the flocks members he has charge of.
Aggression towards you as the keeper might be quite simple. Do you have a cockerel; are you persistently picking his hens? Or perhaps it’s a female only flock and you favour the underdog giving them attention and treats to the neglect of the others? This isn’t jealousy on behalf of the others but competition; you are taking a mate, or giving something to a subordinate that is not respecting the social structure of the flock. Your apparently insignificant intervention into the established structure and alliances is impacting the social structure of the flock and could be the cause of aggression. By the same measure though you can complement the structure where your actions bring benefit to each member of the flock.
Understanding, and therefore establishing the motives behind the social behaviours of your flock, is very much dependent upon the context in which it happens. Granted there are those birds that can be predominantly aggressive or friendly, and different breeds can have different dominant behavioural traits, but your chickens are not ‘bird brained’; it is not in their interests to be blindly aggressive nor is it sensible to befriend something that places their future and the future of their offspring at threat. They do respond to base level stimulus but they are also capable of learning the right reaction to maintain stability of within the flock and how best to interact with you. Understand this and you will understand that you can be a welcome and beneficial resource in their world but by the same measure one that can significantly influence the script of the soap opera in front of you.