Chickens are the backbone of the homesteading food supply. They are a great source of healthy protein in both meat and eggs. Chickens are easy to care for, generally hardy, and can even be quite affectionate. These attributes often make it seem so simple to keep chickens that new flock owners find out later that there are certain laws in the chicken world that they as humans don’t see until it is too late; they then have to adjust their way of keeping their flocks to compensate for the problems.
A Chicken Is A Chicken – Can Chickens Tell The Difference Between Breeds?
New homesteaders eager to start a flock of their own often start out thinking that having more than one type of chicken is a good idea. In many ways it can be. Of course, you could buy a dual-purpose breed that provides both a decent meat source and regular supply of eggs, but certain breeds that excel at one or the other are going to be better at it than the dual-purpose chicken. Meat breeds will produce more meat per pound in a faster time period than a chicken that has some meat and lays eggs on a fairly regular schedule. A chicken designed for optimal egg production is going to produce a lot more eggs per year than a dual-purpose chicken.
In general, chickens don’t understand the difference between breeds and should get along fine. What chickens do recognize are other members of their species that do not look like they do. Yes, chickens are a bit prejudiced. If you have a large group of one type of chicken, they will usually gang up on the one or two others that do not look like they do. They recognize color differences the most and will beat up on the odd chickens in a group. So, when you are looking to incorporate several different breeds of chicken and need to keep them in one large pen, there are two things you need to keep in mind to make it as successful and minimize potential fights as much as possible – aggression and space.
Some breeds are also more aggressive than others. While Rhode Island Reds are an amazing farm breed for egg production and are fairly docile with humans, they can be very aggressive toward other breeds of chickens. They generally should not be kept in the same confines as breeds such as the Brahmas, which, in spite of the great size, are extremely docile, or Australorps, which are also an excellent egg-laying breed and very docile. If you are determined to keep breeds that are more aggressive with those that are more submissive, pay careful attention to the habits and behavior of the group on a daily basis.
Overcrowding will encourage aggressive behavior towards the odd chickens. Being kept in too small of an area can also create aggressive situations in chickens of the same breed. Aggressive behavior varies from flock to flock and in different circumstances. It can be as little as chasing the submissive birds away from food sources or the rest of the flock all the way to destructive pecking and feather plucking.
Close observation is always important when keeping a flock of chickens to make sure that they are getting along and no one member of the flock is being abused or kept away from food and water. Signs of beginning abuse include:
- Bald spots
- Bloody patches of skin
- Signs of illness including crusty eyes or dirty vents
- Scars or missing portions of the comb or wattles
The Pecking Order
Do not confuse outright aggression with establishing a pecking order. Chickens are highly social and live in a complex flock hierarchy. It may not seem like it to you as an observer. They may all just look like a bunch of birds milling about in a yard, but in their world, there is a very definite establishment of power in the community. When a new chicken is introduced, it will immediately be “low bird on the totem pole” and will be reminded of that status as it becomes a part of the flock.
Care should be taken that the new bird is not overburdened by the group, but as long as it is healthy, do not try and interfere with the group. If you isolate the new bird, it will only take longer for it to become a part of the group and may actually result in even more aggression when reintroduced.
Of course you should always isolate new birds before putting them into the flock initially, but take great care in removing any member of the flock once it is in with the others. Even an established flock member can be treated with aggression if removed from the group for too long.
A Taste for Chicken
Cannibalism is not uncommon in chickens. It can become quite a serious problem when aggression causes bloody patches and the aggressive members of the flock develop a desire to attack each other to get to the flesh of the other bird. This type of cannibalism also occurs with eggs. Great care should be taken to remove all eggs from nests daily and watch for any broken eggs.
Eggs can break from the weight of the hens, from being turned in the nest, or when multiple hens use the same nest to lay their eggs at the same time. When you are allowing a hen to set on a group of eggs to hatch them, you should keep watch to be sure none of the eggs break during the incubation period.
When there are broken eggs on the ground or in nests, the natural pecking from the flock means the birds eat the shells and fluids. Once a chicken eats a broken egg, they develop a taste for it and will begin attacking intact eggs. This is a habit that is nearly impossible to break once it begins.
Chickens that are deprived of calcium in their diet will also develop a habit of eating the eggs. A lack of calcium in the diet will also make eggs weaker and more apt to break in the nests. Since, egg shells are rich in calcium, the birds will naturally turn to the eggs if they aren’t getting the nutrients they need from their foods.
Some farmers purposely feed discarded egg shells to their flocks to provide a great source of calcium. This is dangerous and may create a taste for eggs that leads the flock to begin destroying healthy eggs in the nests. If you want to make use of your empty egg shells from the kitchen, grind them into a fine, unrecognizable powder before throwing it out for the birds to eat.
Keeping chickens can be a lot of fun. If you pay attention to the dynamics of the flock and keep the chicken coop clean, they will reward you with an excellent food source and a lot of amusing antics in the barnyard.