Chickens can be pretty darn mean. The terms “pecking order” and “henpecked” have a firm basis in how a chicken society operates. Like many other animals—wolves and elephants come immediately to mind—there is an alpha chicken (left) who literally rules the roost. Every other bird knows its place too, which (most of the time) results in peaceful coexistence.
Since my flock lacks a rooster, we have a queen hen. The other hens kowtow to her. She is always first to grab the scraps I toss into their coop, and the first to sample the fresh water when I clean their basin. And then there is the poor biddy in last place (right). She’s lacking feathers in a number of spots, not because she’s molting, but because the other hens pull them out.
Over the years, we’ve had to rescue a number of last-place hens. Once the attacks draw blood, the other chickens won’t stop until the victim is dead. We still laugh about the time I had an injured hen in a cardboard box in the dining room. I was trying to give her time to heal before returning her to the rest of the flock. Somehow, she escaped (our two young girls couldn’t have had anything to do with that, could they?).
We were living in Silicon Valley at the time, and Pete was trying to run a consulting business out of our spare bedroom. He was on the phone with an important potential client when I discovered the hen loose in the house. A chase soon ensued, with the hen clucking and squawking, me running around after it, and our kids shrieking with mixed fear (that I’d somehow hurt the hen) and delight.
It was at this point in their conversation that Pete’s customer stopped and asked, “What’s that sound in the background?” Uh-oh.
“Um… er… it’s a chicken,” Pete stammered. “It’s running around under the dining room table and my wife’s trying to catch it.”
There was dead silence on the other end of the line, and then a burst of laughter. “I have goats!” she exclaimed, and sealed the deal.
You’ll never know all the advantages of keeping chickens until you make the leap!
Any time you introduce new birds to your flock, you must take the pecking order into account. There will be some (hopefully minor) altercations before a new arrangement is settled. That’s why it’s essential to wait until your chicks are fully grown before adding them to the coop. They have to be able to hold their own, or they could be pecked to death by the larger birds.
This leads to the problem of finding a place to house growing pullets for four to five months. They’re too big and messy for the brooding box, and too small to be with the adults. If I could do it all over, I’d design a double-coop arrangement. Two indoor roosting areas, two fresh air yards, two of everything except nest boxes, really. That way I could easily isolate the teenagers until they start laying.
Since I’m not about to rebuild my current coop, I’ve come up with an alternate solution. Pete and I built a cage, three feet by four feet, by three feet high. It’s a good size for about six growing pullets. The framework is constructed of 2×2 and 2×4 lumber with 1-inch chicken wire stretched around it. There is no bottom, and the top comes off (for access to food, water, and pullets).
For protection from the weather we stretched a small tarp over the whole thing, propping up the center so water doesn’t puddle and securing the sides with heavy-duty twist-ties. (That made it hard to access the food and water, and this year I plan to add a large door on the lee side.)
I started out with this cage in my garden. I figured the pullets could earn their keep by munching on weeds and cutworms, accessible through the open bottom. Unfortunately, a cage of chickens proved too tempting to the local raccoons and other predators (the four-foot high garden fence was no deterrent at all). Moving the cage into the fenced chicken yard gave our girls a safe home. It’s not ideal—but it works.
Our young birds will spend their summer outdoors in their cage-in-a-coop. I’ll make sure to bring them treats—tender shoots, bolted greens, juicy grubs—so they will be manageable as adults. In early fall we’ll open the door and formally introduce them to the older hens. Hopefully, everyone will get along like a big, happy family!