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Bully Hen - plucking feathers out  RSS feed

 
Emily Smith
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Location: West Central Georgia
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I've got a bully hen, I think.  I caught her the week before last pinning another hen down and plucking her neck feathers out.  Another of my hens had new feathers growing in on her neck but until I saw the bully(?), I was thinking molting or mites.  The rest of the flock seems ok, and they went from being out a lot to being in the coop a lot, so stress is possible.  I haven't had a problem until now; they're 9ish months old.  I separated the plucker into a makeshift enclosure, and kept her separate for about a week.  After that we let everyone out in the yard together, and let them go to roost on their own.  But a day later she did the same thing; pinned the one (the "runt") down and starting plucking out feathers.  She's back in isolation for now.

So questions: is this really bullying behavior, or normal pecking order stuff?  This is our first flock and I'll allow I may be ignorant and/or sensitive.
If it's bullying and not normal, what's a moderate approach?  I know I could just cull her now, but is there any hope or value in trying to "fix" this hen?
If I cull her: I've sort of got cold feet about that, largely because it's an unknown, and I (foolishly?) didn't think I'd need to do it this soon, so am not set up for it either with equipment or location (the neighbors probably wouldn't appreciate me butchering a hen in my front yard, just a guess).  I live in a neighborhood.  So in light of that, suggestions?  Craigslist is not an option, long story.

ETA: mites?  I didn't see obvious signs of mites, but they've had straw in their coop since mid-December and it's been wet here.  I'm wondering if they would be feeling an infestation before my untrained eyes could detect early signs.  I removed all the straw last week; I don't think it will get below freezing any more this year.

And molting: no one else looks like they're losing feathers, can a molt go quickly, though?
 
Craig Dobbson
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It sounds to me like a pecking order type deal.  If the one being picked on is a true runt (lagging way behind) then the bigger hen might be trying to cull her.  I've had that happen a few times.  For one reason or another a hen just will not tolerate having the runt around.  I've seen it happen in open fields in the early spring when there should be no reason for a chicken to be picky.  In one case, I removed the runt from the flock and the other hens all calmed down.  I put the runt back in, and by mid afternoon they had plucked her neck nude.  I kept them separated after that, but the runt never really recovered.  She just kind of lingered through the seasons until winter took her out.  I think the other hens knew something that I couldn't know and they had made up their collective mind about what was to happen about it.  Chickens are like little dinosaurs.  Cute but not always nice.

If you remove the runt and the bully doesn't find a new victim, you may have to find a new home for the runt. 

If you remove the runt and the bully just picks on the next weakest bird, then I'd find the bully a new home.  Probably a soup pot. 

I hope you find a solution that works well for you.  These things are complicated at times, but that's the way it goes with livestock. 

Good luck
 
 
r ranson
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Could be pecking order, could be a nutritional deficiency.

If I have a feather eater in my flock, it's almost always the spring or fall.  Like most animals, I think chickens nutritional needs vary throughout the year.  I can usually cure this by giving the flock a massive amount of protein and calcium for about a week.  This is free choice in addition to their regular food.  They gobble it up as quick as you like for the first few days, then by the end of the week, not so much.


Any sort of meat, but liver and soup bones seem to work the fastest.  Boil it up with some eggs (one egg per 6 hens) including shells, and maybe some leftover grains or something else.  Let it cool, mush it up, put it in a bucket and give it to the hens.  Repeat.  It also helps to up their oyster shells and maybe import some grit (sand) as this helps them get more nutrition from their food.  9 out of 10 times, this cures the problem.



If one hen is still pecking out feathers after the week, then you know it's probably a personality disorder.

If it's just one victim, then maybe time to take her, and the next lowest one on the pecking order, and keep them in isolation for a few days on a high calory feed (starter mix works well). 

A strong rooster will usually stop this behaviour in hens - if it's a personality issue.  If it's a nutritional issue, he'll join in the fun.
 
Libbie Hawker
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Do you think you might have a space issue that's leading to aggressive behavior? Aggression is often related to competition for resources--food, water, prime scratching space, roosting space, etc. If you can add space or add resources (more feeders, more roosts) that might relieve the tension among the flock.

I'd also look into enrichment. Sometimes aggression comes about due to boredom. Are the hens getting novel experiences every day? New things to look at, peck at, listen to, etc. Rotating in simple "toys" made out of stuff like paper towel tubes, crumpled balls of paper, or bright objects hanging from the fence could help a lot.

Thinking like a zookeeper here, since it was my former profession.
 
Emily Smith
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Location: West Central Georgia
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Thank you all for the information and possibilities.

Is there a way to tell for sure which hen is next lowest in the pecking order?  I think it's my Orpington, but I'm not 100% sure. 

I upped their protein by adding dried meal worms and eggs (alternately) to their scraps & feed (also alternately).  I made sure to get a higher protein feed this go-round, as well.  And we've been making sure to spread it out more; the waterer is big enough, but the feed pan wasn't.  They've been able to be out more this past week, and I cleaned out and moved their coop to new ground (bottomless pen).  But today the pinning thing happened again, and it actually appears to be mating behavior.  I know for a fact they're both hens, and the dominant one has been laying.  Do I just ignore it?  I'm still concerned about the bare spot on the little one's neck.  The others give it a peck every now and then; nothing injurious.  I'd like her feathers to grow back in, though.
 
r ranson
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You're bully hen sounds like a rooster.

No, she's not a guy, she's transgendered.

Rooster is a social position, something like a mayor.  Rooster means the head of the roost and the position is usually taken by a cock (male chicken).  The job of the rooster is to find food for the flock, keep the girls in order, and spend a good deal of time watching for danger.  If the hens aren't satisfied with the current rooster or if there isn't a rooster, then one of the girls may take on the rooster role.  She may even start crowing. 

here's an excerpt from another conversation

I've had several transgendered and a couple of transsexed hens/roos.

Gender being a social role.
Sex being more biological male/female aspect of things.

A transgendered hen will adapt a male role in my flock if she is unhappy with the current rooster.  Rooster originally meant "ruler of the roost" and could be male or female.  She'll crow, take on the defence role, keep the other hens in line and the like.  All the things a rooster is supposed to do to keep the flock healthy and safe.  Once I replace the weakling cockerel with a strong one, he'll take the rooster role and the hen will go back to being a hen.

Of the ones that were transsexed, I had one fella called hobble foot (I use the male pronoun with this guy because that's what he liked).  When he was a young hen, he escaped into the bachelor yard.  They were very excited to see a sexy young girl and poor old hobble foot was very badly injured and could not walk for many weeks.  We kept him in isolation and for the first few weeks he remained a hen, lay eggs, was henshaped, hen behaviour, all that.  But after about a month, he stopped laying eggs and became cock shaped, had a beautiful deep crow, and once he could walk again, took on the full role as second cock in the flock - including mating with the girls.  I had hoped to experiment to see if the eggs were viable but alas, he only lived a couple of years and I never got around to it.  


People think this is very unusual.  It's not.  Gender roles are very well defined in the animal world.  Each gender (usually two - but for something like sheep, there are usually three: male, female, eunuch) has their own pecking order, which slightly intermingles with the other gender's pecking orders.  I call these social hierarchies 'gender roles' because they usually follow male/female.  However, animals are quite alright if a member of their flock wants to choose a gender role that doesn't match their sex (so long as the behaviour is in keeping with the expected norm for that role... but that's a long story for another day).


Now, your situation. 

You're on the right track with the feed.  One possible cause for the gender change is mold in the feed, but I would expect more than one hen to change.  My friend had some organic feed that was stored poorly at the warehouse and this triggered a large-scale change in her flock's gender behaviour (the vet suggested it acted like hormone therapy for the hens - a bit like steroids).

If you are allowed a cockerel, then it might be worth getting a young and virile one... someone raised in a larger flock so he has a notion of how to be a rooster.  If you have one already, it may be he's not doing his job well enough.  One of his jobs is to keep the hens from picking on each other too much.

Is there a way to tell for sure which hen is next lowest in the pecking order?  I think it's my Orpington, but I'm not 100% sure.  


It's not always easy, so I usually go with my best guess.

If it were my flock, I would start with separating out the weakling with someone who doesn't pick on her (the Orpington sounds nice).  With the lesser hen gone and given a chance to gain strength, the bully hen/roo may settle down. 
 
Craig Dobbson
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Just to add one more thing, if the little one hasn't been picked to the point of bleeding by this point, she probably will be ok.  If the flock or even just one hen wanted to kill the runt, they would have accomplished that by now.    It's been over a week so it's probably along the lines of what R Ranson was saying about one hen taking on the rooster role.  It's pretty common and probably not much to worry about at this point.  They have everything they need, aside from maybe a legit rooster.   On that point though, a real male chicken (rooster) WILL be larger than, and more aggressive than what you're dealing with now.  Adding a rooster might stop the aggressive hen only to kill the runt himself. 

Does the runt lay eggs?   I've seen roosters get pretty aggressive with a non-responsive hen that won't mate.  So... no real easy answers, but at least they are all alive and mostly ok for now.  That might be as good as it gets given what you have to deal with.  Maybe get a bantam rooster with a little bit of a sweet side?  He'd be smaller but still likely to dethrone the bully hen. 

good luck
 
Emily Smith
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Location: West Central Georgia
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No we did have an issue with moldy feed right before all of this started.  My bin was leaking at the seam.  We quit using it once we discovered mold, but it doesn't appear overnight, right?  Maybe it's connected and maybe it's not, but I would never have put those two together on my own.  I was worried about and looking for physical illness, but not behavior changes.  I feel like a dumb now.  Thanks for that info; I will not be a dumb in future.

We do not have a rooster.  This is my first flock, and I didn't feel confident enough to get a rooster with the hens.  Or to get straight run.    I didn't think of a banty; I'll keep that in mind.  Apart from the lack of confidence, we do live in a neighborhood, and I don't want to cause the neighbors undue annoyance.

The runty one does lay and seems fine other than this issue with the other hen, but I may still try separating the lowest two and see what happens.  However, my daughter just saw our "bully/roo" pin another bird and maybe pluck feathers, but at least peck the neck, then let her up.  But I think if she was truly wanting to pull/eat feathers, probably more birds would be more bare by now?  She's been back in with the flock for at least 10 days.

I truly appreciate the replies.  Probably the wisest route would have been to "apprentice" with a flock owner and then set up for my own flock, but that's just not at all how I did this!  Thank you for helping me figure this out as I go.
 
r ranson
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I was worried about and looking for physical illness, but not behavior changes.  I feel like a dumb now.


Don't worry about it.  I didn't know it was possible until my friend had it happen and she didn't know why till she consulted the local livestock vet.  Physical thingy caused hormone imbalance which causes behaviour change.  But all us humans see is the behaviour change which could have all sorts of other explanations.

We do not have a rooster.  This is my first flock, and I didn't feel confident enough to get a rooster with the hens.  Or to get straight run.    I didn't think of a banty; I'll keep that in mind.  Apart from the lack of confidence, we do live in a neighbourhood, and I don't want to cause the neighbours undue annoyance. 


If you get the right rooster they can be absolutely the most affectionate creatures in the world (except they don't really like being touched when they are working).  I think the key is to get them 'working' right from the start.  The hierarchy goes Human, rooster, alpha hen, then the pecking order.  If the rooster is encouraged and praised for doing his job (I thank him every night for keeping his girls safe, I chastise him if he fails).  I also give treats to him and not to the hens.  He gets the treats, he gives them to the hens, this shows him that I respect his place in the flock as the main food finder.  I might need to hold him but very seldom.  I do try to stroke him each night so he's familiar with my touch, but only one or two strokes, no serious petting.  When he knows his place, he's very human-friendly.
 
Emily Smith
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Location: West Central Georgia
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You said upthread that I should get an young rooster from a large flock.  How do I go about selecting a rooster?  Assuming I found someone with a big flock with several to choose from, what am I looking for either in observation or from the owner's comments?
 
r ranson
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A healthy guy is most important.  Bright eye and bushy tail.

Around here there are loads of free roosters/cocks around, but some aren't so healthy as others.  If you can get a rooster with an old hen that he's friends with, this helps him a lot.  He already has someone who respects him so it's easier for him to convince the other girls he's boss.  It also makes him less homesick and more confident.  Most importantly, someone who really cares about their chickens will know how important it is just send a chicken all on his own to a new flock, they will practically insist that they send a friend with him.  Even if she isn't laying, she's definitely worth it. 
 
Emily Smith
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I missed that last post until now, I'm sorry!  Thank you for that advice!  I'll tuck it away.  We finally had to cull this hen; she just never stopped and was making skin raw on this one bird.  First time processing a bird, so that was interesting.  I'm not sure it's my favorite thing ever, but we did it!  Anyway, so closes the saga of the bully feather-plucking hen.
 
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