10 October 2011

009 - How to Deal With Fixations

FIRST OFF - I must apologise to people who have commented on the blog and received NO responses. It would seem that I was NOT receiving notifications of comments and I AM SO VERY SORRY for this lack of response to those who have commented! Comment notification SHOULD be fixed, and I SHOULD be able to see comments now and actually respond to them. I thought it was weird that I wasn't getting any comments, but just decided to check before posting this blog up! I'll begin making blog posts catered specifically to comments the post after this one, I promise.

I have recently had a few inquiries about chickens with fixations, and have decided that to be the topic for this journal since there is a wide variety of behaviours that can be considered fixations, but since they're all classified under the same thing, they can all be treated as more or less the same thing. Feather plucking and egg eating are fixations just as much as a fighting cock's alleged "need" to fight - let me just point out that in the case of fighting cocks, fighting is NOT a need, but rather a psychological trauma that has manifested as an obsession based on survival. We'll talk about how detrimental fighting is to a chicken's health later in this journal. For now, though, just know that I do not condone fighting animals despite the fact that I walk around with roosters wherever I go. My roosters are my friends, and they are not expendable.

Chickens develop fixations for all sorts of reasons. Fixations are signs of boredom, insecurity, other psychological problems, overcrowding, unstable environments, and are even encouraged by human interaction when we don't know how to properly discourage the behaviour. I have found the most common reasons for fixations to be boredom and unstable environments ( which lead to insecurity and other detrimental psychological problems ). Luckily, both of these issues are well within our control. We're in charge of their environment, so we can take steps to make a more balanced environment for our animals.

An "unstable environment" refers not only to an environment being unsafe or uncomfortable, but also to the energy and emotion that we, as humans, attach to it. If we are abrupt and upset every time we go to collect eggs, soon the chickens will become difficult to work with as they, too, become upset simply because we are. This can even lead to such problems as roosters trying to reestablish the environment by kicking out to unstable specimen - which tends to be us. He's doing this not because he wants to be aggressive, but because he wants to help us to reestablish ourselves. In an animal's perfect world, everyone is healthy, everyone is happy, everyone is well-balanced physically and psychologically. In their perfect world, no one is fussing over them or cooing about this or that. In their perfect world, there is clear structure and boundaries. It's always obvious what their leader wants, and they will consistently receive praise for the same things, and consistently receive discipline for all of the same reasons as before, and when a new rule is introduced, it's made clear what's wanted of them right off.

The key here is communication - specifically communication on the level that the animal understands. Have you ever seen a crow and a squirrel fight? It's surprisingly common, and with some basic understanding of their behaviours, it becomes obvious why these fights take place. Both crows and squirrels make a very similar-sounding clicking noise. For crows it's a way to simply state their territory to another crow and to ask for respect of their territory. For squirrels this is a friendly sound meant to illicit companionship and invitation into one's territory. In other words, they are saying the exact opposite thing, and thus communication between the species breaks down and the animals argue and sometimes fight because they are trying to tell each other, "No, that's not what I said! I said something completely different!" [ DISCLAIMER: this is from my own observations of crows and squirrels. If anyone out there knows crow or squirrel communication better than I do, please inform me - I was not able to find anything to back up these claims when I tried to research their behaviourism myself. ]

However, going back to the previous paragraph... is it possible to obtain our animal's views of the perfect world for them? No. But we can come pretty close. One obvious way that we'll not be able to meet our animal's every desire is the fact that we, as humans, are not able to be with them every single moment we live. There will always be something you need to do that your animals just can't come with. Most stores let me bring my roosters in with me because they are well-mannered and clean, but some stores absolutely forbid it. It is against federal law to bring anything considered a "livestock" animal into a restaurant, even if they're service animals ( which the service animal laws have changed recently, too ). Certain people won't want anything to do with your animals, and these people might be family or employers, or otherwise people we are "obligated" to be connected to. During these moments, however brief they are, our animals are not living in their perfect world. This does not mean that they are destined to be unhappy, though. We merely need to set parameters that give them a clear goal on how to behave while we're gone.

For me and animals that I work with, this starts with patience training, which can often times be integrated with tolerance training. Tolerance training is just what it sounds like - you train your animal to tolerate anything and everything ( so long as you deem it safe and reasonable for your animal to be exposed to such situations ). I train my chickens and dogs to allow me to hold their feet, faces, necks ( gently! ), torsos, tails, legs, and wings. The functional part of this is if your animal ever is hurt, you can easily perform a quick physical check-up to assess the situation. I also train animals to let me handle inside of their mouths in case I ever need to medicate them. These are also good things to train animals for veterinary appointments. Your animals should see the vets at least once or twice a year, and there's no reason your pet should feel at all upset by this experience, which is where tolerance training and patience training come in.

Both tolerance and patience training helps your animal to trust in you and to check in with you when exposed to new situations. That means if you're taking your pet into a grocery store, dog park, veterinary hospital, vehicle, or friend's house for the first time, they will check in with you to see if this situation is safe or not, and depending on your reaction, they will act accordingly. The first time I brought my big rooster, Bo, into a grocery store, he kept looking at me whenever something new would happen and whenever someone else passed by. He would look at me when the cart stopped or started, when I turned, when something was placed into the cart next to him, and each and ever time I made eye-contact, but calmly went along my way, and not once did Bo try to get out of his bag in the cart, make uncertain noises, or make any sign of stress or nervousness.

Patience training is like tolerance training except instead of focusing on being able to tolerate certain activities the animal is now asked to be able to put up with it for extended periods of time. I start out by simply touching my chicken's feet, wings, combs, and wattles, and when they don't pull away I praise them. We'll work up to me being able to handle and manipulate them, and then work towards me being able to hold something for just a few seconds at first and work forward until the animal just plain doesn't care that I'm handling it. When I trim my chicken's claws ( and spurs for cocks ), I will flip them on their back, and then encourage them to relax. They'll often times close their eyes and just let me do my job, and when the trim is over they get to go on their way as if nothing happened.

With patience training, one can train an animal to wait for you to come back, in the mean time leaving them in a calm state of mind. I've seen this most often done with crate training, which is to say you put the animal in a crate and wait for them to calm down, then you let them out. Put them back in, wait for them to calm down, walk out of the room, come back, and let them out. The period of time that you're out of the room will work up and up until you can be gone for up to an hour, and then by that point your animal should be safe being left at home without a crate - but not for long. You'll have to retrain at this point, but since your animal is used to the patience training at this point, they'll catch on quickly since the exercises are so similar, it's just the amount of space open to your animal that has changed. Don't expect to be able to up and leave your animal for a day if you've worked up to an hour and feel confident from there. A day is a lot longer than a single animal and your animal will get bored or start wondering where you are. I can leave my cocks without supervision for about three to five hours before they start crowing, trying to figure out where I've gone off to. Luckily, they only crow a short amount and then go back to whatever they were doing before I left, but some animals will just continue to make noise indefinitely if left at home for too long, and even start performing extremely destructive behaviours such as urinating and defecating indoors, chewing on furniture, or jumping up where they don't belong.

The key to patience training is doing everything in a calm manner and to never progress in any step until your pet is in a relaxed state of mind. They must be relaxed before the exercise even starts, they must be relaxed and calm when entering the crate, they must be relaxed and calm when you stand, when you walk, when you exit, and when you enter. They absolutely must be relaxed and calm when you release them, too. I often simply freeze in my actions until the animal has once again relaxed, and I also train my animals to not ever leave a designated area or engage in an activity until they've been given a "release" command. If I open a crate, an animal is not allowed to exit until I give them that command; if I put food in front of them, they're not allowed to eat it until I give them the command; if I introduce them to a new toy, they're not allowed to engage until I give them the command. Once the command is given, they are allowed to partake in the activity set before them - but remember, even play should be in a controlled manner. You don't want your pet to become too rambunctious or they'll risk breaking something or they'll get so caught up in that high-energy state of mind that they'll forget to listen to you. Even if an animal seems to be completely unaware of what's around it ( dogs playing and ramming book shelves, fire places, or people is a very common happening ), it is not impossible to train them to be aware of their surroundings while playing.

Now that you've successfully patience trained your pet, you've curbed destructive behaviours and fixations that occur due to unstable environments while you are gone. What about when you're home? If your environment can house calm, happy animals while you're gone, it can certainly keep them that way when you come home, and if this is the case - that your animals go wild the moment you come home - then you need to start looking at yourself and how you interact with your pets to figure what you're doing that's causing your pets to behave that way. This does not mean that you are doing anything inherently wrong, destructive, or harmful, and it certainly doesn't mean you're doing anything malicious, but our animals do reflect our own emotions and our own energy that we emanate. Think of them as emotional barometers. I mean this quite seriously, too - even MY chickens become horrible little demon-spawn when I'm upset and casting that energy out around me, but they calm down and behave the moment I stop and take some deep breaths to ground myself once again.

Another big factor in fixations is boredom - and this is another factor that leads to separation anxiety, too. If your pet has absolutely nothing to do while you're gone, they will find something to keep them occupied. However - and here's something a little interesting - patience training helps your animal to have a longer attention span, and thus have less need for things to expend its attention on. Nonetheless, some animals are going to need toys, and don't you think for an instant that lots and lots of room to wander is a suitable way to curb boredom. Some of the worst dogs I've worked with are dogs that have had lots and lots of acreage to roam every single day whenever they wanted. Your pet still needs structure, boundaries, and toys.

As for chickens, specifically, toys are difficult to come by. I have come across some vendors on the internet that make chicken-specific toys, but I have done little research into them and have not tried them out myself, so I cannot vouch for them at all. My chickens love to chase paper balls ( I take a small bit of news paper - the same newspaper that I use for their bedding - and crumple it up into a ball ). They also enjoy suet and honey-seed sticks that hang from the ceiling of their coop. I can also play "catch" with my chickens by tossing cat kibble ( their preferred choice for "treats" next to tuna ), and they'll chase after it. I have heard of people buying crickets for their chickens to chase and hunt ( chickens DO have a prey drive since they are predators of bugs and even small reptiles and rodents ), but insects with hard carapaces need to be given in extreme moderation since the carapaces don't get entirely digested and can easily cause an intestinal blockage if your chicken eats too many. I have also heard that chickens enjoy the cat toys that are a fuzzy ball on a spring that's anchored on a block of wood to cat-scratch material. Since chickens are curious, have prey drives, and have foraging capabilities you can work off of all these to create your own toys. Some chickens enjoy the classic "Which cup is the prize under" game once trained that if they knock down cups, they can find something to eat, and they're smart enough to keep track of which cup has been moved to where. If you're creative you can come up with many chicken toys that will keep your chickens quite happy.

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

"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!


  1. Hiya your blog is an inspiration! Thank you... we have three hens and they are brilliant, we got them a few weeks ago, our first. We bought them as hens but one of them is crowing - we don't mind but we have a neighbour who does, big time. We have a largish garden and they roam around freely and go into their coop very sweetly at night, but 'Ethel' will crow at around 5-6 an.m. Any suggestions? Also our three dogs (who accept the hens totally so that's ok) have been ingesting their droppings and have all been seriously sick as a result... any suggestions there too? We would be very grateful for your advice. Please mail me on: rykens@skynet.be. Thank you, Valerie

  2. This is one of the most helpful blogs I've ever found about chickens. I hope you continue to bring rich insights to we chicken lovers! Most helpful is understanding the patience training that is applicable to chickens. I have done this with my dog and others all my life but never dreamt it could apply to poultry! Reading Bernd Heinrich's Mind of the Raven gave me a clue as to the brilliance of birds, of course especially corvidae, but I knew that chickens and people form close bonds and never realized this was so so common if sought in the loving sort of way any good relationship is developed. Wonderful!

    I am the chicken-mom of my small, semi-rural neighborhood in Wisconsin. Have seven pullets recently arrived, but for past two years 9 other hens were my sweet flock.
    Almost two weeks ago, a new neighbor appeared, at dusk at my front door. Something cradled in his arms. A tiny cockerel! (really don't know what age he is!) Neighbor said dogs had been chasing the poor little guy to point of exhaustion, and knowing I had chickens, was this one an escaped buddy of mine??

    No, I had not intended to include a rooster in my flock. Out of courtesy to my neighbors, I didn't consider a rooster to be a viable addition to my flock. How could I resist this adorable little one, so lost and tired? So now, Rodrigo, is getting acquainted in a separate coop but near my pullets of about 4 months of age. He was really terrified and shy, and continues to be taking his time being willing to 'be' near me. Hides when I come near, but can be enticed to approach with bits of cottage cheese or tossed scratch. I come 'read' to him and sit in doorway of coop, half in and half out, and toss him feed, sunflower seeds and bits of cheese. Cheese is the winner. Tell him he is lovely and we will be good friends. Reading Joanna Macy to him.

    What do I do now!! ? How do I best help this cockerel blend into my flock? I know nothing about roosters, breeding, and flock happiness except to trust nature. I know I need more info. That is why I'm fascinated with your deep insights! Please send along tips to rooster integration into flock. Flock is 7 Copper Maran pullets.--Four more pullets will soon be gifted me, They are about 9 weeks old. Full sized, and owner unsure but says they are 'silver laced--and unsure what breed' what a sadness more attention is not placed to knowing kind of pullet, but they came in a mixed order of unusual breeds.

    Rodrigo is, decidedly, a bantam.

    Any advice will be deeply appreciated.

    My goal is to create 'family' with this flock as an education for my little grandson, soon to be six, who begged me to get some chickens 2 years ago. He is a city boy and I thought this would be a perfect intro for him into the world of rich animal personalities, healthy animal care and chance to consume eggs from free-ranging hens instead of the eggs from stores. I didn't anticipate I would fall so in love with these fascinating birds! You are miles ahead of me, but I am eager to learn!! Thanks so much! (in advance) I will read all your blogging to try to absorb what I must understand to be a good chicken-mom.

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