Gene Logsdon: Love and Hate In the Chicken Coop

The Contrary Farmer

We are in the process of moving our pullets in with the old hens. No big deal in this case since I am talking four pullets and three hens. The coop is about ten by twenty feet in size, plenty of room for seven chickens. The pullets since birth have lived on one side of a chicken wire fence that divides the coop, with the hens on the other side. All day, all night, since May, they have been able to watch each other closely, smell each other, listen to each other, even able to nuzzle or peck through the fence at each other if they wanted to. The chicks in fact preferred to huddle against the fence, as close to the hens as they could get when I came in the coop. The hens paid the chicks no mind whatsoever.

We all know what happens when you put a strange chicken in with your flock.  The resident birds will attack with a vengeance. I think it says in the bible that humans are the only creatures that will kill their own kind but chickens will too. And even after they have spent a couple months separated by only a flimsy wire fence, the dominant group still attacks the other mercilessly when they are put together. I usually introduce the two groups slowly and tentatively, by way of contact outdoors, where the pullets can escape their aggressors until the two groups get used to each other. In that situation, it always amazes me how the pullets go back into the coop at night with the hens.

In this case, with the pullets outnumbering the hens, and with only a few older birds, I just opened the door between the two. (I was afraid to let them outside because the foxes and coyotes have been especially active this summer. That is why we have only three hens left.) The hens immediately tore into the pullets. The pullets, being faster and quicker, managed to avoid getting injured, but for two weeks, the hens never let up. Sometimes they followed the pullets around, waiting for one of them to start eating something. Then the hens pounced, even though the food in various places in the coop was all the same. Why did the pullets put up with it, I wonder. They were younger and faster and almost as big as the crotchety old hens. Why didn’t they fight back. No way. But every day there is less pecking and squawking. And I keep reminding myself: these are the same hens that can hatch out chicks, care for them, defend them, find food for them and in general display all manner of what we think of as kindness.

One of the hens finally accepted the pullets. The other two are still attacking, as I write this, but somewhat less heartily. The relationship is extremely complex. Once I herded the two groups more or less together in one corner of the coop, hoping to force them into some kind of acceptance of each other.  About that time, one of hens spotted a bug and grabbed it, working it around in her beak, trying to swallow it, seeming almost to choke on it. In a flash one of the pullets darted up to her, grabbed the morsel or part of it very daintily and gently out of the hen’s beak, then skittered away. The old hen seemed only slightly nonplussed.

I know from the experience of other years that one of these nights one of the pullets, after dark, will get enough nerve or verve to hop up on the roost beside the hens instead of roosting on the other side of the coop. Then another will do the same. In about another three weeks, the hens and pullets will roost together and soon after that, they will become one flock. The family that sleeps together, stays together.

As I watch, I can’t help but think of Gaza and Israel. Of the entire Middle East. Of our southern border with Mexico. Of Ukraine and Russia. All my life, I have tried hard to convince myself that eventually, love conquers all. But I doubt it.  The way of nature is to eat and be eaten, to kill and be killed. Is there really any difference between the instinct of the so-called irrational animals and the craftiness of the so-called rational animals? What we call love and hate may be just passing incidences of making sure there is always something to eat or to be eaten, ho hum. Perhaps all life follows the same mindless impulse: anything that even remotely seems to threaten the balance between eaters and things to eat must be eliminated.