Monday, August 30, 2010

Segregated Peace

It's now been over a week since I was at the height of frustration with our flock's one year old monarch, and I'm pleased to report that things have settled down considerably out in the yard. I'm not sure why, but I'll take it.

Seems we have reached a stage of relative segregated peace. That is to say that the chicks stay together and together they spend all of their time staying out of the way of the older hens. They are like a couple of shadows darting around in tandem, trying to stay two steps ahead of the other three. And the older hens seem less interested in tormenting them. They seem to have gotten the drift that the chicks aren't going anywhere, so they've resigned themselves to mostly ignoring them now. Oh there's still the occasional nip and peck, but nothing like the constant oppression of their first two weeks together.

And while the chicks spent the first week in the henhouse sleeping WAYYY on the other end of the roost on the opposite side of the house, one day last week they decided that they deserved a spot by the door, too, - it's cooler there - and because they are always the first ones to go to bed, they took over the hens' roosting spot (which I was sure would mean a new kind of trouble). And though the hens loudly protested, they squeezed in right next to the chicks for sleep (Miss Lucy provides and excellent buffer between the chicks and Betty.)

The hours (and I mean hours!) of daybreak squawking is suddenly reduced to 5 or 10 minutes - and with the recent heat and humidity we are thankful for the closed windows and doors of ourselves and our neighbors. Hopefully, we can soon return to squawking only when laying.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Trouble with Betty

There was a quiet takeover in our backyard chicken coop sometime early this spring. When spring arrived and the ladies were spending a lot more time in the yard, it soon became obvious that Lucy was no longer our Alpha hen - that position had been assumed by Miss Betty, large and in-charge.

Henhouse dynamics can change over time, but we suspected that the death of Betty's sister was the trigger for the hierarchical upheaval. We lost Wilma early this spring (we suspect it was due to a neighbor's weedkiller overspray on a windy day, which landed the poison on our yard right next to the coop). Whatever the cause, it is now very plain to see that there's a new queen in town - and it seems she's a bit of a tyrant. Whoever said Orpingtons were a docile and quiet breed of chicken has not met our Betty!

Our red hens are getting older and one of them has all but stopped laying. Without Wilma, we were down to only two laying hens. So early this summer, some handy friends added a dormer to our henhouse and we expanded our little flock by adding a couple of young black australorp chicks, LoisandMarge - identical "twins" - (10 weeks old then). And, of course, that's when the trouble started.

We kept them separated for the first month, the chicks having their own small brooder coop and separate run, but once they got fairly close in size to the hens, it was time to put them all together. Integrating new chickens into an existing flock rarely goes off without a hitch, and there is usually a bit of biting and chasing and pecking until everyone finds their place in the henhouse hierarchy. So when we added the younguns to the coop, we expected a bit of trouble, but there has been much. It has been a long week.

The older hens have terrorized the poor chicks all day every day - particularly tyrannical, of course, has been alpha Betty. By Thursday, the chicks had taken to spending their days in the henhouse (where the hens only go to sleep at night and to lay in the morning), depriving themselves of fresh air and sunlight - and food and water - for the sake of security. We intervened and sectioned off a portion of the run, giving them protection from the other hens and access to their own food and water. And for the last couple of days, we have tried leaving them together for awhile, and separating them only when there's a lot of trouble. It seems that the chicks and the older reds get along pretty well when Betty's up in the house, so it's obvious that Betty is the instigator of aggression, and that it's only the crowd mentality which encourages the older hens in that behavior.

But now in these last days, a new problem has emerged - it's the racket. Early in the morning. Very early.

Seems Betty is no longer willing to share the nesting box with anyone else. And she's no longer willing to let anyone into the house when she is laying. So when it's time for her to lay, if there's anyone else in the nesting box, she stands next to the box and squawks - loudly and incessantly - until the box is free (it can take a long time for a hen to lay an egg!). Now I get that when a girl's gotta go a girl's gotta go, but I don't think any amount or increased volume in squawking is going to hasten the amount of time it takes for another hen to lay an egg. And now she also wants her privacy, it seems. If the box is open but the chicks are up in the henhouse, she stands next to the box and squawks - loudly and incessantly - until they go down to the run. But the chicks won't leave the henhouse because they are terrorized in the run. You see where this is going, don't you?

For the last week - beginning at daybreak, Betty has been down in the yard screaming her beak off about something - either someone's in the house when she wants to lay or someone's in the box when she wants to lay. And she just. won't. shut. up. It goes on for a long time, and my going down there and telling her to can it seems to only make it worse. Putting the chicks down into the run helps for about 2 minutes, but that's all, because sometimes she screams and squawks for no apparent reason at all ... just because she can, I guess. Maybe she thinks she is a rooster now.

I'm usually up before 5 anyway, so she's not depriving me of any sleep. But we have neighbors close by, at least one of whom is not at all excited to have 5 chickens living next door. And we also have noise ordinances here in suburbia - which I am sure are being violated. (YoungerSon has been awakened several times this week, coming out into the kitchen at about 6 am all droopy-eyed, saying, "What is her PROBLEM?")

So what to do?

I didn't want to have to do this, but it seems that Miss Betty needs a bit of a timeout. Sometimes when there are such problems, they say that it is best to remove the troublesome hen from the flock for a while, allowing the flock to establish a new hierarchy. Then after awhile, re-integrate the problem girl, who will then be seen by the rest of the flock as someone new, and newbies are always at the bottom of the pecking order (just ask LoisandMarge).

DearHusband says that if it comes to that, perhaps we shouldn't look at it as putting her in solitary confinement (i.e. jail) for awhile as much as giving her a "private suite" for a couple of weeks.

I don't want to rehome her - she's a good layer, only one year old, and drop-dead gorgeous to boot. I'll try putting a second nesting box in the henhouse and give her one more day before we separate her.