That Damn Pecking Order

BTW, y’all, it’d be reeeeeeal nice if the Instagram peeps stopped picking at Tino of @rooandcrew every time he posts a video of his birds fighting, with demands that he make them stop or reporting him for cock fighting.

Recording a chicken fight that is happening near you is not, in any way, cock fighting and you devalue the fight against this awful blood sport when you imply that natural behaviours are being forced by humans for gain. Stop that.

I hear you ask, “Well then, what do I do then when my birds are fighting?

Believe me, I do understand the impulse to run in and make your babies quit their bickering, especially if you see blood  (remember that combs are RICH with blood and that they bleed profusely even from small scratches).

It’s important to realise before we get into this where your inclination to stop them comes from.  Humans aren’t supposed to brawl, so we get really upset when we see our pets or livestock doing the same.  Humans, by and large, use their words to sort out their differences.  The problem here is that chickens aren’t humans.  THEY use fighting.  Very often that’s a look.  It’s a glare, a very subtle tremble of the wattles or a shake of the head.  Sometimes it’s physical dominance. Fighting.  It’s “I am stronger and faster than you and if you don’t let me eat first I will kick your ass”.  We run in because it distresses us, but it would be a bit like running in when your children are negotiating a peace treaty and sending them to their rooms.  It’s HIGHLY counter-productive.

I get a lot of people telling me “well it worked for my chickens”.  Most of them simply don’t understand what they’re talking about.  They haven’t noticed that now one of the hens is isolated.  Or they haven’t noticed that now one of their hens is attempting to dominate them (the cues are very, very subtle and easy to misinterpret if you don’t know exactly what to look for) because the human inserted itself into chicken politics.  They get a rooster running up behind them to spur them and they think, ‘That’s just roosters.’ (that is absolutely not just roosters – and by the way, it can be trained out of them – but that’s a different post). 

They interrupt one natural behaviour and interpret the fallout from that as another natural behaviour when they themselves caused a problem. 

People like Tino and I practice farming with an emphasis on natural expression of behaviours as a primary welfare concern.  In some farms this is letting birds forage, for example.  Or letting them choose their nesting box instead of laying on a ramp that feeds an automatic belt.  Or letting them raise their own chicks.  Most people are down with that! They support natural expression of behaviours.  But when they see their birds fight they run out with a rake and lock them both up in “time out”, denying them one of their most basic social expressions – the pecking order. 

Like I mentioned to a couple of his followers, there’s nothing at all wrong with not knowing something.  There’s everything wrong with not caring to learn or rejecting the knowledge of hundreds of years of behavioural science research because it makes you feel uncomfortable to see it happen. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the incredible behaviour of chickens – I highly recommend The Private Life Of Chickens (available on YouTube) and Chicken Behaviour And Welfare – a free MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) given by The University of Edinburgh.

But again…. What do I do when my chickens are fighting?

Well firstly, you can enjoy watching a naturally occurring spar happening near you and not be evil.  Give yourself permission to watch.  There is an amazing beauty in the speed and agility of a chicken fight.  My boys, for example, are so fast that almost no blows land, everyone dodges skilfully – and that’s part of the point.  “Look at how amazing I am! I’m so atheletic!! Such good protector of my ladies! Better, sir, than you are.”  When you become evil is when you tie up a bird and induce another to attack it for nothing but your own amusement.  When you cut off your bird’s wattles so that they can fight longer with less blood.  When you attach literal spikes to their legs to encourage more blood loss or death.  When you push them to do it – that’s cockfighting. Recognise the difference.  It’s huge.   Moreover, watching these interactions is how we learn about them and their place in the flock.  It’s how you start to notice the subtle behavioural cues.

Secondly, remember that knowing how to fight keeps them safe.  They need to be able to defend themselves against predators and this is part of how they practice that. When you run in to stop them, you’re hindering that practice.

Here’s a good rule of thumb:

  1. Stand back, don’t interfere.  Don’t shout.  Don’t run in.  Let it happen.

  2. Keep an eye on them, watch for a chicken becoming overly exhausted. While this is normal behaviour and results in a peaceful resolution 97% of the time, 3% of the time someone can genuinely be hurt or die.

  3. Most of the time, someone will give up and run away. Pecking order established. Good on you for letting it happen!

  4. Sometimes a bird will collapse in exhaustion. This is when you step in. Hand up to the attacking rooster but protect your eyes.  When they’re amped up like this they’ll attack you even if they wouldn’t normally because you’re standing in the way of their target.  Almost every time I have been spurred by a rooster it has been because I was holding another rooster.   If you get spurred, don’t get mad.  Understand that they have no idea what you are doing, it looks like you’re trying to dominate them, they’re trying to prove their worth to you and to the hens by showing them that they can beat you, the interloper.  The very best thing you can do if you get spurred is to grit your teeth through the pain and pretend it didn’t happen.  Literally.  Yelling makes it worse.  It reduces you to the place of a chicken.  Passively ignoring the behaviour is genuinely useful in preventing a reoccurrence.

  5. If one chicken is hurt or in shock, remove it to a quiet, dim (but not dark), warm place and give it water with electrolytes. This is how we treat shock. Spray any comb wounds with a dyed antiseptic such as Terramycin or Cetrigen to prevent infection and pecking by the flock.  When they’re feeling better, release them back into the flock.  DO NOT be surprised if fighting immediately begins again.  It will probably end better this time, the mildly injured bird a little wiser for their loss.

Most importantly – understand a behaviour before you abuse a lovely, skilled, and devoted chicken farmer for doing the right thing by his birds. When you jump people like Tino, myself, and others who are only showing you these videos to educate you – you make yourself look ignorant and you diminish our trust in those around us.  We’re only trying to spread knowledge – and when you report us to Instagram (or Twitter, or Facebook) for that education, you’re making it harder for us to teach people and to properly care for our birds.

 

I had a situation like this a couple of years ago when I posted images of a Bumblefoot procedure on a hen whose toe was completely consumed by a staph infection.  I speculated that the last joint of the toe may have to be amputated if she didn’t improve (she did though, it was a moot point) and someone reported me to the RSPCA for animal abuse.  While that person was absolutely well-meaning, they let their ignorance hinder my ability to properly care for my birds.  They made assumptions that weren’t true.  They assumed, for example, that taking chickens to the vet for something like Bumblefoot was the norm, not realising that most people who keep chickens do their own minor vet work and that most vets won’t work with chickens and cull them over minor illnesses that can be treated easily at home.

I ended up thoroughly debriding that chicken’s wound and packing it with antibiotics and somehow the toe did survive.  But I also stopped teaching people for months because I was afraid that those who were ignorant would damage my ability to properly care for my birds.

Do you know what the RSPCA told me? They said that I obviously knew what I was doing and to just be more quiet about it and to stop teaching people because “people are ignorant”. 

And frankly – I refuse.  I don’t want to be that person.  As much as it stresses me out getting notices on my door that the RSPCA wants to talk to me about the care of my chickens (*insert long sigh or string of profanities*), teaching people is how we stop this.

I’ll never stop.