Our very first batch of chickens was a memorable experience – and that may qualify as the understatement of the year. After hand-picking eight adorable little fuzz-balls, we went home, excited as a family, with all sorts of ideas as to how our flock was going to grow.
Fast forward ten weeks and our excitement turned to horror as the happy little chirpers were consumed with daily death matches.
While some fighting amongst your flock is completely normal, it should be monitored closely as things can turn fatal very quickly.
In retrospect, there were plenty of indicators that things were going bad. Unfortunately, we just weren’t experienced enough at raising chickens to realize what was going on. Had we been, even a little bit, educated we would have never put ourselves in the impossible situation of raising eight roosters together.
Is It Normal For Chickens To Fight?
Every morning, when I let my girls out, I can count on the daily ‘tussle’. My hens have been cooped up all night and are definitely in the mood to let off some steam. To the inexperienced observer, this might look bad. But for those who have cared for a flock of chickens for any length of time, you do learn to tell the difference between the morning angst and acting with intent.
It is completely normal and, in fact, healthy for a little low intensity fighting amongst your flock of chickens. Not only does establishing a hierarchy add a sense of harmony to the flock, but the morning workouts provide exercise to the birds – exercise that they wouldn’t normally get during the course of a regular day.
While I never encourage fighting or any kind of aggressive behavior from my flock, I generally do not intervene either – so long as the behavior is low level in intensity. However, I am quick to address things if I feel that they have escalated beyond a healthy level. Knowing the difference between normal and aggressive is crucial in maintaining a happy healthy flock.
How Do Chickens Fight?
A chicken’s primary offensive tool is their beak. And while deployment of this tool is usually the same, the body posture of chicken, as they poise to use their beak, tells us a lot.
- Crouched – A good analogy for a crouched chicken would be a sprinter at the starting line. The athlete will assume a position that will allow them leap forward in a sudden burst of motion. This is the same for chickens. If they are anticipating a leap to action, they will crouch down in preparation.
- High Stretch – Size is everything to chickens. The bigger their size, the better their chances of dominance. A chicken will try and capitalize on this by stretching up as high as they can in a sort of ‘I’m bigger than you!’ posture. It’s very common to see this behavior mirrored by the opponent as they size each other up.
- Flared Neck Feathers – This is another behavior that goes along with the bigger is better concept. But unlike the High Stretch, this indicates a more serious level of intent. Think of a cat, with it’s fur all standing on end. This generally doesn’t happen until there is a significant level of concern.
- Hopping – When fighting with another chicken, it’s not uncommon for a bird to hop up a little. Sometimes this coincides with a quick jab of the beak as the bird comes down. This behavior is quite common in small doses and probably isn’t cause for any concern.
- Wings Out – This behavior is not as common as Hoping or Flared Neck Feathers, but can come from a smaller bird that is being bullied. Think of it as chicken’s way of saying, ‘I’m going to go all out on you if you don’t back off!’
It’s worth stating that all of these behaviors are acceptable if only displayed in small doses. For our flock, I don’t pay a lot of attention to flared neck feathers or hoping – unless I see a lot of it. Generally, I just see it a little bit in the morning.
The Wings Out behavior, however, is something I do take note of, especially if I see it repeatedly from the same bird. This is a really good indicator of a problem and I’ve found that it’s worth my time to figure things out before there is an injury.
### Important Note ###
There is one posture that always gets my attention and that is the ‘Intense Stare’. For the record, this is not always bad, but there are times where you’ll definitely want to get involved.
Chickens generally move around quite a bit. Even if they’re not walking or scratching at the ground, their heads are moving as they observe their immediate surroundings. However, if they see something of significance, they’ll stop moving and focus all of their attention on it.
Sometimes, this object is simply something new. For example, a few summers back, our free-range flock freaked the first time they encountered a baby bunny. They gave that little blossom thief a real stare down, as if to say, ‘beware of the bunny!’
Other times, this behavior is a good indicator of something nefarious. A couple of winters back, I looked out the back door to see all of my chickens frozen and staring in the same direction. I immediately suspected there was a problem and walked outside to find a hawk sitting in a tree not 30ft away, giving them the ‘Intense Stare’.
The hawk and I had a stare down of our own…along with a few choice words on my part, after which the predator left for better company.
So if you see this behavior of the ‘Intense Stare’ on the part of one or more in your flock, please take note. If it’s just one bird, then they might have just found something new. If it’s more than one bird, then it might be worthy of investigating. If your entire flock is frozen, staring in a specific location, immediate investigation would be recommended.
Why Do Chickens Fight?
For animals that prefer to be together as a group, it can seem odd to see them fighting amongst themselves. After all, if someone was annoying you, wouldn’t you want to avoid them? But the reality is, chickens can and do fight with each other. However, the intensity of the fighting is something that every flock owner should work to control.
When it comes to chickens, there are three main reasons why there will be fighting amongst the flock: sickness/injury, stress or establishing dominance.
It’s important that you identify this correctly as your options to successfully stop the fighting will differ from reason to reason.
- Injury and Sickness – While these two reasons might seem worlds apart, from a chicken’s point of view, they are one in the same. A bird that is not at 100% health is more likely to attract the attention of a predator. And so the instinct is to drive the ‘predator bait’ away from the rest of the flock.
- Stress – Stress for chickens can come from a lot of different places. If the area they are in is too small, then there is sure to be fighting. If the weather is too hot, then there is sure to be fighting. There really is no limit as to what may be stressing your flock to the point of bad behavior. That being said, it’s still your job to figure things out and provide a solution as the fighting generally won’t stop until the variables are changed for the better.
- Establishing dominance – This is easily seen in the life of a rooster. If you have more than one rooster in a flock and not enough hens to go around, then you are guaranteed to have fighting. A rooster is hard-wired to dominate. And they will not stop fighting until they have satisfied that instinct to dominate.
### Important Note ###
It’s worth stating that chickens have this thing about blood spots. If there is some feather pulling amongst the flock and one of your birds has a visible ‘red spot,’ the other chickens are sure to notice this. And they will peck at it relentlessly.
In this case, they are not fighting so much as one bird is going after the ‘spot’ while the other bird is trying to avoid being pecked. Regardless, a chicken with a blood spot should be immediately moved from the flock as it will need time to heal – something that will not happen should there be other chickens around.
Will Roosters Kill Each Other?
As mentioned above, roosters have an innate drive to dominate. And this behavior will generally start around the eight week mark. It doesn’t matter if they are all from the same clutch and have been raised together since hatching. It doesn’t even matter if they are the only two birds in the flock. At some point, every rooster will feel the need to be dominate.
And this drive to dominate causes fighting as each rooster struggles to make the other submit. Unfortunately, this is not something that will pass with time. Roosters will undoubtedly kill each other in an effort to satisfy their need to dominate. It is hard-wired into them.
We saw this with our first flock of eight roosters. Crowing started fairly early, which should have been our first clue that something was wrong. But at around the eight week mark, the fighting really started – first with the bigger birds, but ultimately with the entire flock. It was frustrating and heart-breaking to watch.
Unwilling to let them butcher each other, and still unaware of what was happening, I culled three of the biggest ‘trouble-makers’ with the hopes that the rest of the flock could get along. This worked… for about a week. So, with that limited amount of peace, I culled two more trouble-makers, after which things seemed to be resolved.
We went the rest of the summer with those three roosters able to get along. This was a HUGE relief. It might not have been the flock we dreamed of, but it was nice to have birds that weren’t constantly fighting.
And then one day, out of the blue, one our chickens failed to come out of coop. I knew this was a bad sign. When I found him, the poor guy was still alive, but completely covered in flies from all of his injuries. The need to dominate had come a little late, but it had come all the same.
### Lesson Learned ###
Always make sure you know the sex of your birds before you bring them home! Otherwise, you run a very real risk of having to deal with a situation that has no chance of ever ending peacefully.
Can Hens Kill Each Other?
While there is most certainly a hierarchy amongst a flock of hens, they don’t have the same hard-wired need to dominate. This is part of the reason why most backyard flocks are primarily female. Not only do the girls give you delicious eggs, but they don’t spend their entire day trying to kill each other. Hens can generally get along.
However, this is not to say that you should relax. While hens generally do live peacefully, things can get ugly if conditions are right. A sizable and grumpy hen is more than capable of killing another hen. This can be through fighting, but more likely, through bullying.
If a problematic hen decides that she doesn’t like one particular member of the flock, then her constant harassment of this individual can cause others to ‘join in’ on the bullying. This is bad as chickens are a flock animal, meaning they do best as a group. A lone chicken is a stressed chicken – in other words, they need each others company. And since the victim is not inclined to be alone, she is never free from the brutal behavior bestowed upon her.
And bullying is not limited to just pecking. Access to food or water can be denied, or even the use of a nesting box.
Chickens are one of the more low maintenance forms of livestock. Even with our birds being free-range, there isn’t a whole lot of work required on my part. That being said, I still pay very close attention the state of our flocks. While certain signs are more obvious (pecking, pulling feathers, ect.), being denied access to food and water can be tougher to catch.
How Do I Stop My Chickens From Pecking Each Other?
Remember the occasional peck or flaring of the neck feathers is not something to really worry about. Point of fact, you will never be completely free of it as that’s just how chickens do things. But, if the aggressive behavior is sustained, then you will need to intervene.
The best way to stop chickens from pecking each other is to first understand what is causing the unwanted behavior. You will not deal with a stressed out chicken the same way you would deal with a chicken looking to establish dominance. Nor would you deal with a dominance scenario the same way you would with a sick bird. So understanding the variables is crucial when you are formulating a solution. The following are some examples:
- Injury and Sickness – If there is fighting amongst your flock because a certain member is not 100 percent healthy, then your only option is to immediately remove the sick or injured bird from the flock. By providing them a safe place to recover, you’ve not only helped the chicken in question, but have removed a source of stress from the rest of the flock.
- Stress – Stress is the most difficult thing to address as it can come to your flock in a variety of ways. For example, chickens that are forced to live together in a small area can become quickly stressed. Hot weather is another thing that can make everyone cranky. And then sometimes, someone will just decide to be ornery. So it’s really important to know what the variables exactly are before trying to implement a solution.
- Dominance – Aside from establishing a pecking order of who’s who, dominance driven fighting really applies to roosters. Bigger hens do like to throw their weight around, but they are not so prone to fight to the death as a rooster will. Depending on how many hens there are, you should limit the amount of roosters you employ.
### Important Note ###
For birds stressed out by heat, first make sure that you provide them with ample water and shade – afterward, you can give them some nice and cold watermelon or maybe cold and sliced grapes. Just be careful about giving them frozen treats as chickens don’t chew their food. They simply swallow everything.
For birds stressed out by a lack of adequate space, you really only have two choices which are, give them more space or reduce the number of birds. Our flocks are free-range and this provides everyone ample space, as well as, loads of distraction. Consequently, we rarely see any sort of aggressive behavior. This can change though as the snow piles up and limits their ability to move around.
For bullies in your flock, the general consensus is to remove the bully from the flock and isolate them for a time. This changes the dynamics and allows for a new hierarchy – pecking order – to form. After a little while, the bully should be really ready to be a nice member of the flock again and will return to find that things have changed. With any luck, she will not embrace her bad behavior again.
There are those who will grind a chicken’s beak in order to reduce the impact of fighting. This is especially common in industrial applications where space is often limited. If done correctly, this practice does not pose a long term issue for the chicken as it simply dulls the pointed end, thereby reducing its potential for harm.
However, for our personal flocks, we never do this. It is my opinion that grinding a chicken’s beak is simply treating a symptom and not resolving the problem. Our experience has been that chickens with adequate space and care don’t feel the need to try and kill each other. They would much rather scratch around at the ground for something new than worry about what another member of the flock is doing.
It’s worth stating that a single rooster can go a long ways towards resolving any friction amongst the flock. Roosters don’t just have the innate drive to dominate, but the drive to care for the hens as well. If there is fighting amongst the girls, a good rooster will quickly intervene and put a stop to things before it has a chance to escalate.
For the record, we rarely leave roosters with our flock as a rooster can sometimes see people as a threat to the flock. Consequently, we avoid the whole mess of a potential bird attack by ‘retiring’ our roosters to the freezer. However, each situation is unique and the benefits of a rooster is worth knowing.
In closing, if you find yourself in a situation where you feel there might be just a little too much aggression in your flock, then I highly recommend that you post on a chicken forum. The help that I have gotten from these forums has been incredible. Quite often, I will find several people who have been through the exact same situation as I am in, and a few of those will have the same variables as my own: breed, age, environment, ect.