There are many benefits to raising your own chickens, but along with the fresh eggs and free garden fertilizer there are plenty of challenges too. For instance, on occasion, you’re going to find yourself playing referee to your chickens.
So, why do chickens fight? Here are 8 reasons:
- The hens are too crowded
- There’s a rooster problem
- They need more food and/or water
- They smell blood
- There’s a new chick(en)
- Someone needs a bath
- There’s a predator nearby
- The hens are bored
What is a Pecking Order?
Before we address chickens fighting, it’s important to understand that there is a difference between fighting and establishing a pecking order. Very simply, the pecking order is the ranking of every chicken in a flock, including hens and roosters.
The larger and more aggressive chickens prove to their cohorts that they are the strongest, taking their place at the top of the pecking order.
Chickens vying for their place will start with making a show of themselves; strutting, puffing up their feathers, and crowing at each other. If the chicken they are opposing won’t back down, that is when the pecking will start. Depending on how stubborn the chickens are about their status, this whole process might look like a fight.
It’s important as a chicken farmer to understand that the hierarchy your chickens establish on their own is a natural system that has served flocks of birds well since the beginning of time. While it may seem violent, and it may result in drawing blood – or even a dead chicken – this is still their system, and it’s best if you to respect it.
Here are 8 Reasons Your Chickens are Fighting and What to Do
If you’ve determined that your chickens are actually fighting and not establishing their pecking order, there are a few causes to consider and options on what to do.
1. The Hens are Crowded
The most extreme example of overcrowded hens is in the case of factory farming. You’ve seen pictures of “cage-free” birds in pole barns, body to body. In this situation, they will peck at each other and fight to get some personal space.
Factory farm hens are debeaked to prevent them from being able to hurt one another. That’s not a good solution to an overcrowding problem – lack of space is stressful for chickens. Responsible chicken management means making sure your hens have plenty of room.
There are some options to fix your backyard overcrowding problem:
- First of all, make sure that each hen has enough space. According to Green America, the minimum space per hen inside a coop is 3-4 square feet and in the chicken run another 3-4 square feet, with ideal space per chicken at around 8-10 square feet. If you’re opting for free-range, aim for 250 square feet of space per bird to allow enough space for foraging. Obviously, the more space each hen has the better. Think about how you’d feel cooped up in a closet for your whole life versus living in a house with a bit of a yard!
- Second, determine if you have too many hens. While you have probably become attached to your little feathered pals, if your yard is only large enough for a certain number, you need to cull the flock. Some options for reducing your flock include giving them to a rescue or another farm or even having a chicken dinner!
2. There’s a Rooster Problem
If space is more than adequate, assess the possibility of a rooster problem. Hens on their own in optimal conditions are not likely to fight outright, but introducing roosters to the mix is going to cause a stir.
However, with care and planning, you can make smart choices about your rooster additions. Here are a couple of considerations when assessing your rooster situation:
- First, consider if you actually need a rooster at all. For chicken farmers raising hens solely to provide eggs for their home, or even for a small income, a rooster only causes unnecessary chaos. The males like to bully the hens to show off their dominance, and this inhibits optimal egg-laying and leads to the possibility of fertilized eggs that cannot be eaten.
- Second, assuming you need a rooster, the one you have may not be domesticated enough. Roosters in their natural state are aggressive and will pick a fight with anyone – that includes you and any other animal it may cross.
- Third, is that you’ve got too many roosters. If you think you need a rooster, a good ratio is 1 rooster to 10 chickens. Any more than that and everyone is going to fight each other out of pecking order issues or just plain stress. Your hens will do much better with as few roosters as possible. Again, it is likely you do not need a rooster at all!
Here’s what you can do to fix your rooster issues.
The easiest option is to get rid of all the roosters. Again, you can either rehome them, or have them for dinner. If you are keeping one rooster, and he’s in need of domesticating, here’s what to do:
- Show the rooster who’s boss. Pick your rooster up and carry him around. It takes away his power to attack if you are holding him.
Word of caution: A lot of chicken owners report kicking back at roosters who attack them. I don’t advocate this. You can seriously injure your bird by doing this. You are much bigger and stronger than your birds.
- Another option is to show how big you are. Grab the rooster who is trying to dominate you and force him to sit down. Lean over him and hold him there until he stops fighting to get up, showing he has accepted you’re in charge.
- Also, you want to make sure you have the same breed rooster as your chickens. He should never be so much bigger than the hens that he would automatically take first position in the pecking order. Give your girls a fighting chance to hold their place!
3. They Need More Food and/or Water
Just like any other animal, hens will fight for food in a shortage. Some people get into chicken farming, thinking that it will save them money on buying free-range eggs from the grocery store. Unfortunately, you’re likely to lose a little money at first while you figure out how much to feed them.
Here’s how to make sure you are providing enough food for your hens:
- Make sure there are enough bowls to share. Two large, shallow bowls are good to keep six hens happy. This way, they’re not fighting over a single bowl.
- Assume that each hen will eat ¼ pound of feed per day. You’ll want to provide a good mix of scratch grain and nutrient-rich ration (pellets, crumbles, or mash). Hopefully, you’ve provided your hens adequate land area that they can also seek out bugs to supplement their diet. While it will require some extra research and experimentation on your part, it’s crucial for happy hens that you’re feeding them exactly what they need.
- And finally, make sure to keep clean water available for them at times.
4. They Smell Blood
And on that note, we’ve arrived at the fourth potential reason that your hens are fighting. If there is a sick or bleeding hen, the others will be more likely to attack her. Chickens are, in fact, carnivores, and they may turn to cannibalism.
The natural instinct of the flock is to remove weak hens who might compromise the overall health of the others. This sounds horrible, but it’s basically just the instinct of natural selection.
Here’s what you need to do to solve this problem. First of all, check on all your hens daily for symptoms of poor health. Isolate an unhealthy hen from the bunch until she’s fully recovered. You can keep a sick or injured hen in a large wire dog kennel with plenty of hay, food, and water.
How will you know if a chicken is sick? Things to look for are patchy feathers, a pale or limp comb, wheezing, coughing, a runny nose, or blood.
Here’s a video on how to help a sick chicken. The video recommends apple cider vinegar mixed into the water, and wet bread to supplement your chicken’s regular feedings when they need extra care.
5. There’s a New Chick(en) in Town
Bringing in a new hen into the flock will probably cause some disruption and may lead to a fight.
If your hens already feel that space is at a premium, or they are concerned with how much food is available, or even if they think their position in the pecking order is at risk, expect your hens to give your new hen a hard time.
There are several excellent resources for how to safely introduce new chickens to your flock, like this one, but we’ll sum up here some of the best tips we’ve found.
- First, try to introduce new chickens in pairs rather than one on her own. This gives a new chicken a buddy to keep her company if the rest of the flock bullies her.
- Second, place the new chickens in an isolated area first where they can be smelled and noticed by the flock, but not attacked. Then, for a week or so, manage the introduction of the new hens to the flock by chaperoning any time all the chickens are together.
- Third, provide additional distractions like toys and treats to your established hens the day you move the new hens in. Your old hens will already care a little less having been eased into their presence, but the addition of treats or fun toys will distract them from pecking at the newcomers.
- Fourth, do not introduce babies into a flock of adults. You may expect that your mother hens will dote on the cute little chicks you picked up. This is not the case. The pecking order will apply to those little chicks, and they are likely to be injured or killed by the mature chickens. Give chicks a fighting chance by keeping them isolated until they are grown and then introduce them, following the tips above for easier integration.
6. Someone Needs a Bath
As we noted previously, chickens can sense when one of the flock isn’t in great shape, and they will mercilessly go after the weak bird. That said, things that cannot be cleaned through a hen’s normal dust bath and preening ritual may signal weakness to the rest of the chickens.
Normally, chickens will “bathe” themselves in dust and then groom themselves with their beaks.
However, dust will not adequately remove blood, feces, or flystrike (maggots). You should also note that if you’ve isolated a hen for illness or injury, she won’t have dust in which to bathe, and she may require a bathing before returning to the coop.
So, what can you do to solve this issue? To start, here is a great article (including a video) on how to bathe a chicken.
Once you’ve addressed any skin issues that might have triggered the other hens, reintroduce the hen to her flock slowly and carefully, as if she were a new addition. The others may still be wary of her, even in her improved state of health and cleanliness.
7. There’s a Predator Nearby
We’ve already talked about chickens and their strong instinct for survival. If they sense danger, there is a good chance they’re going to fight among themselves to get rid of the weakest member. They will basically try to send the lowest in the pecking order to the slaughter.
The best thing you can do for your chickens is to provide them safe housing. Start by understanding what wildlife lives around you. This helps you understand what you need to build the proper defenses.
Two great starting points are a good sturdy coop with a lock so you can secure the hens at night (keep any roosters separate, too) and a chicken wire fence set at least six inches deep into the ground and at least six feet high.
Additional security measures could include a motion sensor light to startle nocturnal scavengers like rats, raccoons, or foxes. Often, the light is enough to send them scampering away.
Also, make sure you’re collecting eggs every day and clearing away excess food, so there isn’t a temptation for predators to sneak in at night. If there’s nothing for them to eat, they’ll stay away.
8. The Hens are Bored
The last thing we’re going to talk about is keeping your hens’ minds engaged. The phrase “idle hands are the devil’s playground” applies to bored chickens, too – except in this case, we’re talking beaks!
Hens who have nothing better to do than pick at each other’s feathers will do just that – they will pluck each other. And, as we’ve noted before, blood appeals to their carnivorous brains, leading to further aggression.
So, how can you keep your hens entertained? Here are some options:
- One easy way to draw their attention is to pile up hay in their run. Chickens will assume these piles are hiding bugs or treats, and they will work through them until it’s flat again.
- Another fun idea is to hang a nutritious green vegetable from twine where it can be beaten up like a piñata. A head of broccoli or cabbage not only offers the girls a tasty treat, but the swinging action caused by their pecking creates an obstacle for them to dodge. It’s a game that will keep them interested for a while. Just don’t do this too often as an excess of treats isn’t good for their health.
- A third option is to add some decor in the form of perches or mirrors. Perches let the girls find their own space further away from the others while seeing their home from a new perspective. You can even use different textures to pique their interest. Mirrors just give them something new and unusual to look at. They may figure out that they are looking at themselves and revel in some vanity, or they may just wonder who the new girl is that’s copying them. Just note that mirrors and roosters are not a good combo, as they see other roosters as a threat.
Whatever issues you’re having with your chickens fighting, rest assured that there is always a solution to bringing peace to the chicken run. Most problems with fighting chickens can be resolves with one or more of the solutions above.