I was in the barn doing morning chores when a commotion erupted from the vicinity of the chicken houses. That’s right, houses, with an S at the end. Our chickens are segregated.
Bird segregation is not our doing. Backyard chickens are extremely territorial, and often exercise a strong us-versus-them world view. They know who belongs where, and they can tell the difference between one of their own and an interloper.
In fact, chicken genetic conservationist Dana Manchester once told me that they will sometimes even separate themselves according to color, with the dark ones shunning the light ones and vice versa.
Sometimes their discriminatory behavior is amusing. When our neighbors began allowing their birds to free-range two summers ago, the young chickens naturally began gravitating towards the fence that runs along the property line. My girls responded with outrage. One hen would call the alarm when the neighbor pullets got too close, and her homies would all run over to join in a show of solidarity.
I went running outside several times when I heard them screeching, thinking the fox had returned, only to find my hens all up in arms over the tentative approach of harmless little neighbor chickens. The Mister and I laughed about the chickens staging a rumble.
Sometimes, it’s not so funny. We incorporate a handful of new birds into the laying flock every few years, in order to replace the hens that are lost to natural causes and to keep our egg production up as the birds age. It’s always difficult to integrate new ones, and we do our best to introduce them in ways that will not result in the young ones getting hurt. We’ve tried various methods suggested by others, including sneaking the new birds in and placing them on the roost after dark so that when the older birds wake up in the morning they won’t know the new ones are new. That has never worked for us—they do know, and are usually horrifyingly aggressive toward the newcomers.
It so happens this year that we have two chicken houses because we built a new one with the intentions of eventually housing all of the chickens in it, but we haven’t combined them yet. The young chicks started off closed up inside the new house. We introduced them to the outdoors gradually—at first, with a short length of portable electric fence around their area to make sure they didn’t wander off and get lost. We kept the fence up a little while longer in hopes that the older birds would get used to them.
Finally, about a week ago, we took down one side of the fence and allowed the two chicken populations to mingle. We were surprised at what happened. Instead of attacking the young birds, the hens all shied away. We thought they’d surely get over the newness and begin bullying the little ones, but they didn’t. They seem to be so terrified of the young birds that they will stand back and watch while the pullets eat the kitchen scrap delicacies.
It’s a strange phenomenon. I wondered if somehow the young birds were of a particularly ferocious nature, but I have not observed any aggression towards the older ones—or even much toward each other—on their part. They spend their days like happy young children, pecking around the barnyard engaging in new life discoveries, oblivious to the angst they are causing their elders.
Now that the dividing fence is gone completely, the area around the chicken houses is often in an uproar nowadays. I can’t help but imagine the worst when I hear bloodcurdling screeches and stop what I’m doing and go running, and am always relieved to find that none of the birds are in any danger.
It is ironic that after a lifetime of surviving attacks by foxes, hawks, and even an eagle, after frequent harassment from the family bird dog and overzealous kid goats, and after avoiding fatal maladies, it has come down to this. Old hens running in fear from young chicks. Acting like—you guessed it. Big chickens.