Hens are fascinating, as you have probably discovered, and a study of their behaviour reveals all kinds of differences in preferences and character
Chickens are social animals and should never be kept on their own. They enjoy foraging together, will often lay their eggs in the same nestbox or even share a nest, and like to roost as a group. So hens like company, but they don’t always act in the same way. Over the years, I have found that all my hens, even if they look the same and are of the same breed, can have very different characters. Some will be more dominant and pushy, some timid and nervous and some just downright inquisitive. As a group with or without a cockerel, they will establish a pecking order. And the bigger, more docile hens may not always be the most dominant.
Problems do occur more frequently if hens are cooped up. The more space your hens have, the fewer problems you will get with bullying and pecking; just like in my family the boys like their space with their own TV/gaming room and are very pleased to get rid of their parents for the evening!
Hens need space to flap their wings, preen, have dust baths, forage and scratch in the earth or in a pile of leaves. If hens are confined and are short of room, they will get bored and are more likely to peck each other which might also lead to feather pecking; this can be a problem because hens can get a taste for the feathers which are, needless to say, full of protein; one argument as to the cause of feather pecking is that the birds are lacking in protein and mineral-rich food, but I think it is much more likely to be boredom from lack of space and no opportunity to forage naturally. If you do have hens being pecked and losing feathers, there are anti-pecking sprays available (the purple spray is designed to cover any redness and also to taste bad so prevent further pecking); there is also a product called ‘pecka-block’ which is a natural cereal-based agri-toy which can be placed in a run to alleviate hens’ boredom.
Smaller hens can get bullied so, if your chickens are enclosed, try to go for hens of roughly the same size. Of course, there are exceptions, and I have had crossbred bantams who are very feisty and enjoy taking control over some of the larger hens!
Dust bathing squabbles
Often one of my hens will find a new dust bathing spot, preparing the earth and making a nice dip; within seconds, a more dominant hen will come along, overcome with jealousy, and reap the benefit and pleasure of a free bath – life is so unfair, even among the chickens!
Even if you get two new hens and put them in the same hutch, eventually they may decide not to stay together. I often find one hen decides to roost elsewhere but often the two friends get together during the day! Amongst my motley crew of around 40 chickens, some hens tend to be loners while others will stick together. My two New Hampshire Red bantam hens gave up roosting with their New Hampshire Red cockerel, so he ousted my new Brahma bantam cockerel and took over his Brahma hens!
Some hens are very greedy and always first in line for special treats, while others are much slower and more timid to come forward. I find my two ex-battery hens are the most fearless of all my hens and always at the front of the queue for food – they seem to have huge appetites and bottomless pits for crops!
Although there are certain breeds that go broody and like to sit, some hens are much keener than others. Our little buff Pekin, Pekes, is always eager and had sat on some supposedly fertile eggs that I had bought – they failed to hatch, so I rushed out and bought her some day-old-chicks. (If you introduce chicks within their first 24 hours to a Mum who has been sitting she will, with luck, accept them). With Pekes, it was touch and go – she didn’t seem too happy to start with but, after dark, she had no choice but to keep them warm and, by morning, the new chicks had used their charm and she said ‘yes, I’ll have them’. Two of these chicks were Welsummer/Araucana crosses; they don’t look the same and have totally different personalities – one, named Ophelia by my 21-year-old son, went broody after laying a few eggs in the early spring. I managed to dissuade her but, when she promptly went broody for a second time a couple of weeks later, I let her hatch some chicks – she is a proud Mum and angrily protects her chicks. Her partner, known as Tuftie, has no interest in sitting at all but is much tamer.
I had one Wyandotte cross bantam called Megs who loved to hatch a brood of chicks. Her greatest achievement was to sit on 14 eggs and secretly hatch 14 chicks. She had got inside a box in one of the stables which was open at the back; she appeared every day for food and water so I didn’t realise anything was amiss!
Hens, even if they are the same breed, can behave very differently. We had a Black Rock, named Miss B, who was very self-confident and used to come inside if the door was open. She would not only come inside the back passage but make her way through the whole house and go upstairs! On one particular occasion, her curiosity knew no bounds. I left my son in charge and went away for a couple of days. She had somehow sneaked inside before I left around 10am. My 21-year-old son woke up around midday, hearing noises in the house. Thinking we had an intruder, he prised himself from his bed only to find Miss B in our bedroom. In her two hours of exploring, she had made quite a mess and my son was not too pleased with having to clear up!
Some hens, usually the best egg layers, seem to have more energy than others. They will be up early and out foraging; after egg laying, they will most likely head straight for the feeder and then relax either in the shade or possibly in the sun before returning to foraging. Dust bathing will be a preferred option later, with preening and sorting out feathers high on the ‘to do’ list. More foraging and a good feed will be important before bed. Some of my older hens will be in bed early in the summer, at around 6pm, but the young, active birds won’t retire until around 9pm. At least in the summer, with fewer hours roosting, the hutches are a lot easier to clean!
Cockerels and hens behaving badly
Despite the need for a cockerel, if you want to hatch some chicks and the fact that they are good at protecting and looking after their wives, hens can find them a real nuisance. We have a number of hens who really hate being pestered by Jethro, our Welsummer cockerel, and will shoot off across the field to escape his clutches first thing in the morning. We used to have a hen who flew up onto the pergola to get away from an over-zealous cockerel.
I have lots of different breeds, all shapes and sizes – it is always exciting to get a couple of new hens or watch the chicks grow up because there is always something new and interesting to learn about hen behaviour.