UNDERSTAND your chickens

Spend an hour or so quietly observing your chickens, and you will learn a great deal about their behaviour. You will probably be amazed at how sophisticated it is. Francine Raymond reports

Don’t underestimate your hens! Brains of Britain they may not be, but featherbrained they certainly are not. The best way to understand and enjoy your flock is to spend time watching them. To me, there’s nothing more enjoyable than spending an hour or so, sitting in the garden with my flock, observing their behaviour. I find they are more relaxed if I’m sitting, or crouching gardening than looming over them - normally all they see of you then is a pair of boots. Talk to them quietly and they will learn to trust your presence. If you learn what normal behaviour is, then you’ll notice when things change and go wrong, and can deal with them before problems occur.

Chickens are quite vulnerable creatures; they cannot fly to escape danger, nor do they move particularly speedily, so they take security from being in a flock. Within the flock there is a strict hierarchy known as the pecking order. Top of the roost is the cockerel, or the cleverest, oldest or most aggressive hen who the rest of the flock follows and defers to. Bottom are the weakest and youngest, who take their chances where they can, but need the safety of the flock to survive. For this reason it’s a good idea not to keep too many hens together, or the most vulnerable will have too many above them picking on them. And it is for this reason that it is important that your flock has plenty of space, so that those being bullied can escape.

The integrity of the flock is of paramount importance, and this is why newcomers are given such a hard time. In the wild, they would be seen off, because they may be carrying disease and their mere presence is a health threat to the flock. Always introduce newcomers gradually, and in pairs, so that at least there is one friendly face for them to relate to. Poor health, broodiness and stress can result in changes in the pecking order, and there’s often quite a lot of shuffling about. A cockerel is the natural leader of the flock and will protect vulnerable members from bullies.

If watching your flock teaches you about their behaviour, then listening to them will help you understand them better as well. A recent study from the Veterinary Department at the University of Melbourne discovered that chicken language was as sophisticated as that of higher apes. Their range of calls and noises will alert you (as well as your neighbourhood) to danger, stress, and the finding of food. The tuk tuk a mother hen makes to her chicks is the same sound as the cockerel makes when finding food to share. The alarm call can be short and sharp to alert the flock or continuous to alert you. Keep an ear open and always respond. It may just be an unusual bird, or it could be something more dangerous, like a fox or dog.

Let’s spend a day with a flock and look at normal behaviour. Hens cannot see in the dark, so they will have made their way to roost as light falls to the safety of their house. If prevented from entering the house, they will make for the security of overhanging trees or the roof of the house. Within the house, the top hen gets the best space, and newcomers will often be pecked as they come in. The next morning, daylight (or the cockerel) will have woken them and the top hen will lead the way out of the house to breakfast. She will have first peck and the others will follow in order of precedence. Younger hens will get less food. I prefer to feed my birds on individual saucers. They soon get used to this personal service, everyone gets enough food, and the plates can be cleared away afterwards, preventing unwelcome diners from joining the party. During the day, the top hen will lead the flock to the best spots in the garden or run, to the sun or shade, to dust bathe and to the best feeding areas, calling the others over for food (but taking the best for herself), and ticking them off if they misbehave, till suppertime and food, then leading them to roost as light fades.

If a hen is unwell or stressed, she will be excluded from the flock. Her natural stance (head up, tail up) will change, she may stop eating or eat a lot, show digestive problems like diarrhoea and have breathing difficulties. The others will pick on her to distance her and reduce the health threat to the flock in general. Checking your birds from a distance is just as important as picking them up and examining them closely.

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When you watch a mother and her chicks, you will see they pick up information and learn very quickly. It is their extreme vulnerability that makes it essential they do as they’re told. Their day to day existence involves life or death decisions by the broody. They are at the bottom of the food chain and at the mercy of predators from above in the skies and from the ground. Hens retain this ability to learn new procedures. Recent trials involving different shaped food containers proved that hens learned which shapes contained food immediately, and then were able to make the same correct choices the following day. Sometimes though, when their regular routine is changed, it can take them a little while to get used to. How many of us have watched as hens go to sleep in the space where their henhouse used to, after it has been moved to another part of the garden?

You, as their keepers, will learn to spot changes in their behaviour, routine and body language, and use that information to manage and protect your birds, so that you get maximum egg production and most pleasure from keeping hens.

For further online information on keeping hens, join the Henkeepers’ Association free of charge, www.henkeepersassociation.co.uk and visit Francine’s website www.kitchen-garden-hens.co.uk