When it comes to raising a flock of chickens there are a lot of variables. And behavior for your flock will depend on how these variables line up.
For example, if things are too hot, then chickens get cranky. If a bird is sick/injured, then they get picked on. And everyone now and then, someone just gets too full of themselves and needs a time out (their absence reshaping the pecking order).
The behavioral dynamics of your backyard flock are really quite remarkable. And the longer you are with your flock, the more you are able to recognize. But it’s worth stating, that every flock is different, so you have to have the proper mindset – and that is of an attentive student who is always looking to learn.
It is my belief that any individual who is able to embrace the learning mindset, will never EVER be bored when observing nature. Just be warned, all life is filled with ups and downs. And this is easily observed when a member of your flock dies.
The emotional state of your flock after the loss of a member, depends upon three main variables; the size of the flock, the length of ‘shared time’ and relationship. Depending on how these variables line up, you may observe indicators of sadness or you may not.
- The size of the flock – For chickens, flock is family. And should a small family with just a few members suffer a loss, then the effects can be quite notable. Likewise, in a large family, say 20+ members, a single loss would not be as traumatic.
- Length of ‘shared time’ – Using the analogy of family, while some families are quite large in number, the loss of a grandparent can be quite painful. That precious time shared, formed a bond and consequently, their absence is really felt. For chickens, this could be observed in a flock where the alpha rooster has died, after being ‘the guy’ for several years.
- Relationship – Even in large families, it is not uncommon for two members to form a special connection. While there is plenty of opportunities for friendship, the ‘chemistry’ between the special few, just works. In this situation, the loss of a flock member could be quite traumatic for the ones who are left behind.
### Personal Note ###
If you raise chickens, then at some point you are guaranteed to suffer a loss. This is a very sad reality of caring for a flock. Every predator out there wants to eat your bird and some chickens just seem to have a knack for getting into trouble.
As our flocks are generally larger, it’s been our experience that this usually affects us, as their caretakers, more than it does the rest of the flock.
Case in point, a few winters back, we had a hen expire during the night. I found her first thing in the morning where she had fallen in front of the small chicken door for their coop. Obviously, this was quite a shocking find. But what got me the most was watching the rest of the flock walk over her body to get out and start their day. Clearly, they were not distraught from the loss of a flock member.
To be honest, I was quite put out by this behavior. But the variables did not lead to a conclusion of mourning for them. It was a young flock, less than a year old, so time shared was not a factor. It was also a large flock, so interaction between birds was not limited in any way. And lastly, this particular bird had no special relationship with any of the other chickens. Consequently, her passing did not result in any significant signs of sadness from the flock – just from me.
Do Chickens Get Lonely?
Much like the geese you see flying in those giant ‘V’ shaped formations, chickens are a flock animal. They thrive in a communal sort of living.
This doesn’t mean that they don’t fight and quarrel with each other, as they most certainly do! But chickens definitely operate as a flock rather than a lone wolf.
Because of this innate behavior, chickens need the company of other chickens. A chicken without a flock will not only be lonely, but stressed out to the point where they will often pluck their own feathers – causing physical harm. They also may refuse to eat and will most likely perish if left in their own company for an extended period of time.
Because of this, I always recommend to people who are looking to raise chickens, to start with at least three birds. Sickness and predation can quickly reduce the number of chickens in your flock. Having a backup companion will not only help the survivor but give you time to work things out.
Signs Of A Depressed Chicken
The behavior of a chicken can have many expressions. What’s challenging about resolving unwanted behavior comes from discovering the cause responsible, as multiple causes can share the same display of behavior.
With regards to emotional stress, chickens are much like any other animal. They can be lethargic, aloof, sometimes refusing to eat or drink, snap at the other members of the flock, and if the level of anxiety is high enough, they will afflict personal damage to themselves.
None of these behaviors are good for the bird and so careful observation is called for, in order to resolve things quickly.
For example, if your birds seem to be bickering, more than usual, there are a number of things to look for. If they are bickering evenly amongst themselves and it is hot outside, then look for signs of panting as heat stress could be a factor. If the temperature is not excessively hot, then watch to see if there might be a bully in the mix – as things can get agitated when the pecking order is in question.
### Important Note ###
Your first priority when dealing with an upset flock, is not to understand the cause, but rather to ensure that every member is getting food and water. Bullies will often deny other members of the flock access to the feeder/waterer. Consequently, this makes the victim weak. And any signs of weakness will cause the other members of the flock to gang up on the victim.
For the record, chickens can and do kill each other. So it pays to be observant of your flock.
How To Help A Depressed Chicken
On the ‘busy’ scale of 1 to 10, a healthy chicken should be around 15. These amazing birds just go and go, pretty much all day long! They will scratch and peck with deliberate purpose, pretty much anywhere at anytime. And this innate behavior starts almost immediately.
I’ve seen chicks, fresh out of the box (meaning less than 48 hours old) scratch at the bedding in their brooder. This is really amazing to me as they need to be shown ‘this is food’ and ‘this is water’ but yet, somehow, scratching and pecking is as natural as walking or flapping their wings.
In other words, they’re not going through the motions because they hope to find something. They’re going through the motions…well, because that’s what chickens do.
The best way to help a depressed chicken is to appeal to the innate instincts that they have. For example, place a pile of yard rubbish in front of them and maybe toss a treat on the top of it where they can see it.
Every instinct in that bird, regardless of their age, is to get up on the pile, eat the treat and then scratch the pile to pieces.
Chickens also have a high amount of curiosity. For birds that are bored, flock owners will often hang shiny DVD’s at chicken level, where the birds can peck at it in wonder.
Regardless of the tactic, getting your chicken to act like a chicken again, is only going to make you and them happier in the end.