I have a small flock of five. There is one hen they beat up, so she stays in a nesting box all day. She has food and water, but she’s not looking good. They’ve obviously been pecking at her. Should I separate her? Should I give her a little house away from the others?
Sometimes a flock’s social order can become marred with violence. A hen can be bullied when she appears to threaten the status of the others or because she appears to be neglecting either her chosen or assigned role within the flock.
The reader’s particular situation reminds me of my Australorp, Helen. Between the months of May and October, Helen becomes broody four or five times for two to three weeks at a time. As such, she spends a lot of time in the nest box. When she leaves, or when I remove her to care for herself, the rest of the flock lets her know through sharp pecks, chasing and wing flapping that she is neglecting her station. Without my protection to allow her to eat and drink, she will return to the coop as the flock instructs, whether she has eggs to sit on or not.
It seems, to me, that the reader’s hen is broody. Otherwise, the hen would avoid the bullies and resume her natural chicken behaviors, like foraging, dust bathing and preening. She wouldn’t hide in the nest box unless she is fulfilling the instinct to sit on eggs. The rest of the flock knows when a hen is broody. You’ll know it, too. When she’s removed from the nest, she’ll puff up her feathers, and she won’t be able to stop clucking. She’ll be nervous, docile, flighty and very hungry.
Not all flock violence requires your intervention. Occasional scuffles are normal, but when it’s obvious that one hen has become an outlier and she’s being injured, she needs human help. Here’s what you can do to alleviate the situation.
Isolate The Bullied Hen
Isolating the bullied hen will protect her while her injuries heal. Give her a safe place to rest and recover. Unfortunately, permanent isolation would not be good for her. Chickens are very social animals, and isolation would reduce her quality of life in the long run. When it’s time for the hen to return to the flock, show the flock that you are the head hen with these next suggestions.
Isolate The Aggressor
If only one hen is aggressive, you can help modify her behavior by isolating her in the coop while the flock free-ranges. If you can’t free range the birds, setting up a separate, temporary daytime pen next to the existing coop is another option. Denying her both freedom and status will calm her aggression.
Isolate The Remaining Flock
If your chickens free-range, lock them up in the run while the recovering hen ranges alone with your supervision. When the flock is forced to watch her roam free, it lowers their perceived status, like when a single aggressor is isolated. Repeat this activity until you can sense that the social order has developed some room for negotiation.
Reunite The Flock
When you feel that the bullied hen and the flock are ready to reunite, always supervise.
If Your Hen Is Broody …
When your hen is broody and being bullied for leaving the nest, the bullying will stop when her broodiness ends. If she’s a young hen and her setting instinct is high, she might need your help to care for herself. If you’d like to break her broodiness, my preferred method is to lock my broody hen out of the coop for the day. Restricting her access to the nest box is a quick and humane intervention to end the broodiness.