10 October 2011
Some training exercises and disciplines ( and remember that a discipline is not always a negative action - for instance, patience training is a discipline in the same way that martial arts calls it a discipline ) can also be turned into games that will keep your pet's lives active and enriched. I once had a pair of young Campine cockerels and quickly learned that they have mentalities very similar to border collies - always needing something to do, and in constant need of feedback that their actions are approved of or disapproved of. Before finding new homes for them, I began to train them in agility and I would even go running with them, which they absolutely adored. That's all they wanted, after all, was to run, run, run. This exercise in along with disciplines such as patience training and ending with a calm and relaxing cuddle time left these two young boys feeling quite calm and happy themselves, making their company much more enjoyable.
Specific forms of fixation I have been asked to address are egg eating, feather picking, and fighting. I will address the issues in that order.
This is a behaviour that has created much chagrin amongst egg farmers everywhere since the dawn of time. Why do chickens start this behaviour? Almost always this starts as an accident ( a hen steps on an egg and breaks it, or she lays her egg in a place where it rolls off a ledge and breaks, or someone is curious and pecks at the egg and the shell breaks ), but once chickens learn that edibles lie inside, they will quickly take to breaking eggs to get to the gooey middles. After all, the hens laying the eggs are losing all of those nutrients each and every day that they lay an egg, and seldom are their nutritional needs met. A hen laying eggs needs a very specific diet - they need plenty of calcium, they need protein, and all sorts of other vitamins and minerals that plain old scratch doesn't provide. This is why there is a specific formula for layers. HOWEVER, layer formula is also formulated to encourage laying which if you simply want a pet chicken, is a very bad thing. Overlaying can lead to prolapsed cloaca, internal laying, massive calcium deficiencies, and so forth. If you are keeping chickens as pets and not just for the eggs then you will want to discourage egg laying which can mostly be done through diet. Diet and nutrition is also often what encourages egg eating after it starts.
Hens will also be more prone to eat eggs if they are struggling to maintain healthy calcium levels. Hens have a little calcium deposit ( I forget if it's an actual gland or just a deposit ) in the reproductive tract where the shell of the egg comes from, and when that is depleted calcium is taken directly from the bird's bones. During the winter months, when hens don't lay as much, they are replenishing those calcium resources, and if forced to keep laying their bones will become brittle leading to broken legs and wings along with all of the reproductive issues. Not something you want in a pet.
On top of hens having low calcium from overlaying and eating eggs for that reason, hens with low calcium lay eggs with extremely thin, brittle shells, which means if another chicken comes along and pecks at the egg, curious as to what it is ( remember that chickens only have their beaks to explore the world, so they are not always looking for food - sometimes they are just exploring ), the egg could very well break, leading to that chicken to learn what lies inside of an egg.
Some people recommend just simply collecting eggs as soon as they're laid to keep chickens from eating them. This goes under the theory of "if you never give the animal a chance to misbehave, they won't." This might be true, but what if you have to go somewhere for a day? You wouldn't want to hire a chick-sitter or to come home to find no eggs for the day, would you? I'm going to take the opposite approach which says to give the opportunity to misbehave to the animal. Correct the animal when it does this behaviour and praise when it does not. This way your pet gets the opportunity to experience what is wanted of it, and it gets the opportunity to learn about this rule and figure out what you want from it. Chickens are extremely intelligent and they will want to please you, and you can always look at every misbehaviour as a chance to teach a lesson instead of a failure After all if the animal never shows you its misbehaviour you would never be able to catch it to correct it.
When my hen, Faust, began eating Ziggy's eggs ( and then Ziggy learned through observation and started eating Faust's eggs ), I took the girls aside and laid an egg between them. They both dove for it, so I snatched the egg and gave them both "pecks" on the head - like another chicken would do to disagree with their behaviours. This repeated until they had no more interest in the egg, and would simply ignore it. I don't want them AVOIDING the problem matter, I want them to IGNORE it, because avoiding means they could do it outside of my observation and simply associate me with discipline, whereas ignoring is a sure-fire sign that they have no interest with or without my intervention. Once they began ignoring the egg, I petted them and praised them. I even rubbed the egg against their breast and head, helping to associate affection with the intact egg itself. Today my chickens will only eat eggs out of boredom or frustration, and when faced with a lone egg, neither will start pecking at it unless it is left unattended for a few hours at least.
Feather picking is something that one most often hears associated with birds like parrots, crows, or other flight- capeable and not-entirely-domesticated birds. This tends to be picking of one's own feathers more often than not, too. With chickens when the subject of feather picking arises, it most often is someone speaking of one chicken picking on other chickens, and usually involves plucking feathers off of the back of other chickens or the heads. However, I have seen cases of chickens self-plucking, and I've seen some chickens plucked absolutely bare.
The chickens I saw plucked bare were frizzled white Plymouth Rock bantams, in a flock of Rhode Island Reds, Ameraucanas, barred Plymouth Rocks, buff Orpingtons, silver-laced Wyonnedottes, and Blackstars all of standard sizes. This leads me to believe that the rest of the flock thought the frizzles looked awfully funny and opted to see what it was all about. Chickens explore the world with their mouths, pecking and plucking to figure out what things are - if things are edible, and if not what else they could be good for - and since the frizzle's feathers looked so odd, they must have wondered what was on these chickens. Perhaps they even tried to groom the feathers off of the frizzles since grooming in the chicken world entails pecking at another chicken, trying to pull dirt and bad feathers off of one another. You can see how this would lead to some poor chicken having all of their feathers plucked out, if another chicken thought that it needed to be groomed or if a whole flock needed to pluck a single feather to find out what is going on - and usually a chicken learns through trial and error, so they likely would pluck many more than just one feather before learning that they're just feathers.
Feather plucking and eating, on the other hand, can be a sign of malnutrition, boredom, ill-adjustment to a flock, frustration, and many other things. Malnutrition is the most common, and if you find your chicken eating feathers - from themselves or other chickens - the first step you should take is experimenting with diet. First try supplements of fibre since feathers are a high-fibre product, and some people will say to try tuna or something high in protein. If your chicken is still plucking and eating, try eliminating things from their diet to see if maybe the cause is an excess of something. The key here is to experiment, observe, and keep trying. More often than not feather-plucking can be resolved with a change of diet.
Also remember that chickens, just like other animals, are individuals, so even if you've been feeding your chickens the same diet for fifty years and have never seen something like this, maybe your chicken has an allergy of some sort, or maybe their system is compromised in some way One of the biggest problems I have working with people is the thought process that all animals are the same and the thing that worked for their grandparents is going to work for them, or the thing they've been doing for years has had no ill effects yet, so why should something happen now? Long-term effects can take years to develop ( such as lung cancer to smoking or diabetes to sugar consumption ), and sometimes even generations, so even if the last several hundred chickens you've had have been fine, if you notice a sudden health issue spreading through your flock it's time to reassess your husbandry techniques since your animals depend on you for their well-being.
"General Fixations" can be defined as a fixation on ANYTHING. My rooster, Bo, has a nervous tick in which he scratches his face. He scratched his face SO much when he first started that I didn't even catch him before his whole comb and wattles were covered in little blood blisters and the fleshy area on his beak on both sides was raw. He was also scratching so bad that he'd fall off of his perch at night in favour of scratching his face!
I'm pretty sure it's not an allergy because he seems to only be prone to scratching his face during stressful situations, and after working with him to discourage scratching it's greatly diminished and his face is perfectly healthy now.
I've also heard of a rooster who was obsessed with people's shoes and would attack SHOES relentlessly! I also worked with two Australorps who were breedists - they were perfectly find with every single other breed I brought them in contact with EXCEPT Ameraucanas! They pulled out the beards and muffs as quickly as they could. Just like people, chickens will develop personalised interests and hobbies, and some of those interests might get a little more attention than others.
In my experience, most fixations can be spotted in chickhood and with regular structure, discipline, and redirection they can be staved off as adults, but even as adults they can be dealt with, but as with everything in this blog that assumes you have the time and energy to deal with every single one of your chickens as an individual!
I was going to talk about fighting in this post, but that deserves its own post all together. My next post is going to be about what to expect with chickens if you're new to chicken-keeping, the urban myths, and the realities of chicken keeping. Perhaps the post after that will be about fighting if I haven't had any new comments to address by then!
If you have any questions or comments, take your risks commenting on the blog since I only THINK that I have things fixed, but Emails will ALWAYS get straight to me and answered in a fairly timely manner. Happy chicken keeping, everyone!