Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Mean Girls: The Bigs and the Littles

The Littles: Under protective custody.
Things are not so harmonious in the hen house right now. There are the "Bigs" and the "Littles" and the Bigs are behaving like bullies.

The "Littles" are the two Jaerhons, Inga and Lotte; and the mystery hen, recently named Pippa. (Pearl seems to be joining their ranks, as well, though I'm not sure why.)

The three Littles have been housed in a large wire dog crate inside the coop. They have their own food, water, and roost. Theoretically, this will introduce them to the rest of the flock gradually. But they've been in there for weeks, and all attempts at integration have been dismal.

In the past, when we've integrated new hens, there have been a few days of orientation for the new birds, something like sorority initiation. The established flock makes it clear that the newcomers are low on the pecking order, and the newcomers avoid getting in the line of sight of the mean girls, and eventually they all settle in. Within a few months they are roost-mates, primping and gossiping and sharing lunch.

But this time, Mabel and Thelma, who are low on the Big pecking order, seem to be leading the mean-girl charge. I'll let the Littles out of their crate while I'm outside watering in the morning. The Bigs leave them alone at first. Then Mabel takes herself into the run looking for a Little to pick on. She pecks Pippa hard. Pippa squawks and runs for the crate. Inga and Lottie, alarmed, run into the coop. Mabel pecks them for good measure as they run by. Squawk. Squawk. If she could toss her feathers and stick her beak in the air, it would complete the picture. As if I don't have enough girl drama in my life right now. I scold her, which of course is about as effective as when I scold M&L for bickering. Makes me feel better, anyhow.

Mabel goes back to scratching for grains. The Littles wander out again, tentatively, then Thelma chases them from the run into the yard, and looks pleased with herself. Mabel, alerted, takes off after the three hapless victims, and pretty soon they are back in their crate, and Thelma is walking around in the crate with them like an inspector thinking about evicting them.

Exasperated, I decide to close the Bigs out of the run/coop, so that the Littles can have some time in the run without being harassed. I leave Pearl with them because for some reason, Thelma has been picking on her as well.

I go back to watering and weeding. I really would like to take the crate out and have one big happy family. But maybe I need to let the Littles get bigger, so they peck back. I mull this over, feeling like I'm trying to figure out a parenting dilemma. In that case, I'm trying to get into the psyche of an 11- or 13-year-old. In this case, I'm trying to delve through the mysteries of a chicken psyche. Maybe they are the same.

We have closed the hens into a smaller space in the last few weeks, in order to give our garden time to sprout and mature, and our grass time to recover. They've overgrazed it, and it's looking raggedy. I wonder if part of the pecking problem is space related. If M&L are confined to a small space (like the house on a rainy day) they pick at each other like... well, like Mabel and Thelma peck at the Littles.

I glance over at the run again. Even mild-mannered Oreo seems a little bit grouchy. And Pearl joined the outcast Littles about the time that I put everyone on lock down.

I'm not sure how to solve the space problem, but I think I may give everyone--Bigs and Littles--free rein of the entire yard just before sunset tonight. Maybe an hour with more space will clear the air a bit. I can do some work in the yard to keep an eye on my lettuce sprouts, and I can try to herd them toward the weeds for a little weed control.

We'll see how it goes. Who knows... maybe parenting wisdom can apply to poultry?

Postscript:  Last night we let everyone out into the backyard to free range. The Bigs were happy and gobbling up green weeds, grass, bugs, and worms. The Littles looked like three teenage girls at their first dance: they went everywhere together. Thelma and Mabel did take a few runs at the Littles, but mostly they were too busy eating to really pay them much attention. Every once in a while we'd see the three Littles come flying from somewhere, with a large hen behind them, but they soon figured out that they were faster than the Bigs. So finally, peace in the flock and happy hens. I'll be glad when we're able to let them out for longer.

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