Life among a flock of chickens can be a bit like a Shakespearean drama. Seriously. Characters come and go; gender issues unfold; young ones move up the social ladder and old ones just get tired and let down their guard. Most days, we are just too busy with our own lives and chores to keep up with the goings on in the hen house, but occasionally, we stop to take notice and see who’s zooming whom…
We had naive intentions with our initial three chicks and the beginning of our lives of chicken keepers. We were going to smile contentedly as our three best-friend-hens played and romped docilely in the yard–laying us one golden brown egg a day. We did so much research and chose our initial three breeds based on “what the books say” are the friendliest and calmest of the egg-laying heritage breeds: the Buff Orpington, the Black Australorp (reported to be one of the most prolific layers) and the Jersey Giant. Let me tell you, we’ve learned that the books might be based on somebody’s chickens, but our girls never read those books!
Our Australorp turned out to be quite the prima dona preener and preferred posing with her luxurious green-black frock to the gritty work of egg-laying. When she started her second molt in 18 months, and had established herself as a maybe 3-eggs-a-week layer, she literally ended up in the stew pot. Honestly, when we started out our chicken adventures, we didn’t really see ourselves as those kind of urban farmers. But, we are.
Once our Jersey Giant feathered out and started laying–extra-large eggs from the very first–she quickly became the dominant hen. It didn’t seem to take much effort–her size, girth, and tendency to run off squirrels and cats seemed to win her the honor. She displaced Hilda, the plump and then-mellow Buff Orpington. Hilda seemed to have other things on her mind and she was determined to spend the Spring months in a baby-craving broody state–squawking and fluffing her way to brood nest after brood nest.
When Hilda came off the nest, our flock was, by then, up to six. She was at the bottom rung of the power ladder and got pecked at, bullied and bumped all around the yard. She, in turn, tried to push the teens around. It was a re-enactment of Lord of the Flies and we found ourselves evolving from naive peacekeepers to “obviously chickens are better at being chickens than we are.” It may have had something to do with our being outnumbered, but I think it was really that we had evolved. We became more and more about farming and raising our own food and the chickens ceased to be thought of as pets.
But, Hilda was not content to be relegated to some obscure government post. She’d had a taste of power and she wanted it back. Through sheer daily determination, she pecked, posed and squawked her way up through the ranks. When Ginny went to the great stew pot in the sky, and one of the three teenagers turned out to be a rooster who needed a new home, Hilda made her move. Somewhere along the way, Trudy, the Jersey Giant, seemed to just abdicate. She didn’t really have it in her to do the daily grind of boss and peck and push. She was just too busy laying those extra-large eggs and eating enough to keep a big girl nourished.
So, Hilda is in charge, and she works it–all day. She is the ultimate mean girl and, in no way does she fit the “Golden Retriever” descriptions we read about in the chicken books. She chases the others down and has even taken to mounting Jolene–who is apparently at the bottom of the pecking order of laying hens (the three now-young ones are truly at the bottom, but they haven’t really begun to find their way into the power structure yet, so they just stay clear) even though Jolene is one of our favorites for her unassuming demeanor and consistent early-morning laying (I think Hilda is just plain jealous.) Hens mounting hens–who knew such a thing was, well, a thing? I imagine it takes its toll, though, because all the other chickens spend the day doing chicken things and Hilda struts around looking for others to boss around. She is forever on the lookout for ways to take somebody else’s bugs.
Needless to say, we have detached from our original coo-y cozy chicken dreams. We periodically intervene when we’ve just had enough of Hilda’s brutish ways, but with an entire yard to roam, the others have developed skills for getting out of her way. We don’t really understand chicken politics anymore than we understand people politics, but like human rulers, Hilda’s days are numbered. Chicken rankings change with the times.