Friday, February 1, 2019

Chicken Molting Madness

I thought they were going to kill her.

Cleaning the main hen run, I heard a terrible squawking. Our four chickens had Buffy, our Buff Orpington, pinned against the fence, pecking at her mercilessly. Running at the scrum of birds, I shouted, “Get off! Get off her!” For one horrified instant I watched Buffy go limp, her head drooping onto the ground.

My husband John came racing over from the woodpile. He got to the birds first. “Stop that!” he yelled, pushing the four girls off Buffy.

“Is she dead?” I asked, panicked.

“No,” he said, just as Buffy moved a tiny bit. She slowly got to her feet, apparently uninjured, except for losing some feathers. As John and I chased the other birds away, Buffy made a beeline for the ramp into the coop and disappeared inside. And there she stayed.

The other four chickens had been picking on Buffy for weeks, ever since she started molting. That’s the naturally-occurring process when laying hens gradually lose their feathers, and grow in a new set; it’s also a time that gives a hen’s reproductive system a break…a reboot, as it were.

Buffy had always been a bit of an outsider. She kept her distance from the other birds, and had always been very skittish around John and me. She pretty much wouldn’t come near either of us. She’d also been the first to start losing her feathers, and the other hens had pecked at her thinning spots. I guess a molting hen is sort of a “weak link.” But Buffy has paid a heavy price for playing it cool with her four flockmates. For a few days leading up to this last attack, they’d been seriously ganging up on her. Buffy had proved to be a masterful escape artist, extricating herself and running away, but the other girls’ aggression had stepped up.

After this most brutal assault, Buffy wouldn’t leave the coop. Too terrified to come outside, she wasn’t eating, nor was she even drinking any water. After locking the four attackers in the main hen run, separating them completely from Buffy, I’d open the man door to the coop, and coax, “It’s okay, you can come out.” But she still wouldn’t leave, and would just mill around on the floor.

After several days without eating or drinking, without sunlight or being able to scratch, Buffy was not only losing her hen vitality. She began to look sick. Half of her feathers were pretty well gone; her comb was pale and flopped over, with strange blue spots on it. On Day Four of Buffy not taking any nourishment, I said worriedly to John, “I wonder if she’s going to make it.
John looked bleak. “There’s not much we can do,” he said, “since we can’t guard the coop and run 24/7.”

We talked a little about building a separate run and tiny coop for her. But our budget had been recently stretched when one of our generators died and we had to replace it. Besides the expense, it seemed like a lot of trouble for a situation that might only be temporary. In the short term, we hoped that Buffy could hold on until the molting process had wound down.

I decided to try something new. I locked the other four hens in the third “hen yard” John and I had created last spring. Then I went to the main chicken pen, opened the man door and left it open, which blocked the view of the other hens. I sprinkled some feed in the doorway then backed away. Buffy just looked at the food for a while. Then, low and behold, she slowly came over to the doorway. With the other hens, and me, at a safe distance, Buffy began pecking at the feed.

She didn’t eat for long, and returned to the coop. But I kept trying. Each afternoon I’d open the door, sprinkle some feed on the ground. Each time, she ate a little bit more. But she still didn’t go near the waterer. I’m guessing the feed had enough water in it to keep her from dying from dehydration.
A few days of this, I started to sprinkle more feed further away from the doorway, like a little Hansel and Gretel trail of breadcrumbs, to get her closer to the waterer and the feeder. It worked! She would creep out a bit more into the run. The one day, what do you know! She went to the waterer and drank, then to the feeder.

I could see she was still weak. But with each day that passed, she ate and drank more, and definitely looked a little stronger. Eventually, she slowly ventured into the main hen yard, into the daylight. She really was going to make it!
Buffy "treed" up on the stump

For a long while, she would stay in the coop until the other four hens were locked away from her. This past week, however, she’s been coming outside, into the main run with the others. They’re still attacking her—not quite as savagely—but they still won’t let her alone. John and I can only conclude that the other hens see her as not part of the flock. But she’s figured out a workaround. She’ll somehow get away, and take refuge up on the old big leaf maple stump in the run. She’ll spend hours up there, again, without eating, but at least she’s safe until we can get outside.

Interestingly, Buffy has lost her fear of John and me. We can now come quite close to her, to give her scratch or to clean the coop, and she doesn’t skitter away. I guess she’s figured out we’re not the threat any more.

It’s been a couple of months, and Buffy is once again fully-feathered, and alone in the hen yard, she'll happily scratch in the dirt. So far, the strategy of locking the other hens into a separate yard is preventing more attacks, but it’s not a long-term fix. John and I have been keeping hens for four years now, but we’re still stumped about what to do to keep her safe.

If you have any insights about how to re-integrate a flock, I hope you’ll post them here...

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