Yes, you read that right. I’m talking about my chickens.
I’ve had a backyard flock of chickens now for the last four years. Learning to raise chickens has been an eye-opening process full of joy and heartbreak. Those of you who have been to The HERD Institute® headquarters will know how much HERD Program Manager, Sarah Morehouse, and I love our “chick chicks”. In the beginning, I chose to start my flock with 6 beautiful feathered friends named Zelda, Griffin, Buffy, Ophelia, Daphne, and Buckbeak. These girls would free range our farm in Ohio during the day. They hid in the bushes, climbed the manure pile, nested in the stalls, and joined in with client sessions and teaching workshops. They brought hilarity in moments that needed levity and insight during profound moments of learning. They demonstrated the indisputable fact of their sentient nature through their unique personalities.
Over the years, we’ve lost our girls to sickness and predators and of the original six, only Zelda and Griffin remain. We’ve added to the flock over the years and now have a couple of 2 year-olds (Henrietta and Martha) and a couple of younger ones at 19 weeks (Libby and Bessie). We also fostered a couple of adult chickens (Blanche and Dorothy) for a couple of months this summer before rehoming them. Each time we begin to integrate the flock with new arrivals, I am fascinated by how they build relationships with each other.
Much like horses, dogs, and other animals, chickens have been perceived as having distinct social structures based on the dominance theory of “pecking order”, where individuals within a group have a social standing that is reserved for the one who exhibits the most dominant behavior. While this dominance theory has been challenged in relation to horses and dogs, it is still regarded as fact for chickens. What I’ve observed in my own flock is that this theory only holds true if we equate dominance with aggression and power. This comes to light most often when new birds are being introduced to the flock. My established flock of four (Zelda, Griffin, Martha, and Henrietta) are a fairly egalitarian group. Zelda is the matriarch that the others turn to when there is a threat. Griffin is the most likely to guard resources and chase others away from food. Martha pushes boundaries by regularly escaping the chicken run but has no sense of personal space, and will regularly bump into, or jump on, the others when she gets excited. Henrietta is the broodiest and will claim her space at the nesting box and push others out of her way if needed. To focus on dominance only in terms of power and status would miss the nuanced interactions that form the fabric of the social structure within the flock.
When we fostered Blanche and Dorothy, I quickly recognized that they were not going to mix well with the rest of the flock. Blanche was physically much bigger and stronger than all the others and introduced herself by way of stretching her neck upwards and puffing herself up to her fullest extent. She charged at the others, randomly striking and pecking at them as she went. She flapped her wings and landed on top of Martha, who valiantly fought back and wrestled free. Dorothy then followed Blanche on her rampage by pinning Henrietta to the ground. I stepped in and separated them.
Traditional backyard chicken owners would say to introduce new birds to the flock over a period of time, extending the time of contact with each session until they are comfortable with each other and have established their pecking order. It’s a given that there will be some scuffles before things work themselves out. I had used this method of introduction with Henrietta and Martha the year before, and while there were a few minor pecks and a bit of jostling, there was never any targeted bullying like I was seeing with Blanche and Dorothy. After a couple more attempts at integrating them which led to similar results, I decided to keep them separated for the duration of their stay while I looked to rehome them. Thankfully, my neighbors decided that they wanted to start keeping chickens and I was able to rehome them with ease. They now have free range access to forage under shrubs and bushes and follow my neighbors to their patio for treats. There are no other chickens, so their bullying tactics have disappeared.
I could have let nature take its course and allowed the flock to “self-regulate” and find its own equilibrium, ignoring the stress signals that the girls were demonstrating, believing that they’d get over it. I could have subscribed to the idea that a pecking order was necessary and the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest would balance things out. I could have told myself that they’re only chickens and maybe I was anthropormophizing the whole thing and it’s really not as bad as it seems.
What I knew for sure was this: for the entire time that Blanche and Dorothy were in residence with us, overall egg production went down by 50%. As soon as I rehomed them, egg production went back to normal. The girls were also more willing to engage with me and much less anxious about going into the chicken run during the day.
This process got me thinking about racial and social justice work and what it means to be an activist and/or ally. It brought to light the difference between attending to the symptoms of systemic issues rather than actively dismantling the power structures that perpetuate them. Stepping in to break up a fight between the chickens would be an intervention that addressed the symptoms of the system. Removing Blanche and Dorothy and rehabilitating them in an environment where they didn’t need to exhibit those bullying behaviors dismantled the system. It’s worth noting that I took Blanche and Dorothy in because their previous owner was sick and could no longer care for them. They had been living in a relatively small coop with no space to free range and had to fight for resources with others. It’s not that they were inherently “bad chickens”, simply that they had learned that being bullies was the way to survive.
Clearly, dismantling systems of power is not so easy in human terms. But we can think about which bullies we might want to remove from power, and what resources we have, both individually and collectively, that can help us to do that. We can work to unpick the fabric that we have woven which supports the dominance, oppression, and supremacy over others and look for ways to empower, support, and celebrate them instead.
As I begin to integrate my youngest chickens, Libby and Bessie, into the flock, my hope is that there will be a smooth transition, a welcoming of the increased diversity that they bring to the flock. I trust that my matriarch, Zelda, will take them under her wing and help to build their confidence. Most of all, I hope that the newcomers will feel a sense of belonging and can feel at home.