If you've never thought about it before a flock of chickens can exhibit the whole gamut of human behaviours and stress affects them in much the same way as it does us. Over many years of observing the inter-reactions of our four flocks I have seen stress brought on by conflict, bereavement, heat, cold, power-games, loss of status, motherhood, newcomers and change.
At the initial stage in a conflict or situation, if you can find the reason for stress, then you can start to implement some strategies for prevention as well as cure. In my experience stress is not only a problem in itself but can cause, malabsorption and depletion of nutrients, depression, suppression of the immune system and can easily, if untreated, lead to serious illness and death.
In this instructable I'd like to look at stress triggered by conflict, in particular that of dominant birds or rather those that take on the mantle of a superpower because the balance of the flock is somehow out of kilter. As Lord Acton famously remarked, that 'power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely'.
Step 1: Solutions
When trying to assess your flock's problem be aware that understanding flock dynamics is not easy and human intervention can often do more harm than good. By removing a dominant bird you can inadvertently cause a power-vacuum and make things worse rather than better. Therefore, if you are not sure, always deal with the victim first and maybe leave the flock to decide who the dominant birds should be. After years of watching our birds I have come to the conclusion that the dynamics of a flock is so complex and fluid it is beyond human comprehension!
The strategies I have devised and used with success are:
Time-out - allowing perpetrator and the victim of bullying, for example, to have at least several hours away from the flock. This will also ensure that the victim of stress gets well-fed. When within the flock you can do this either by policing the food plates or more easily getting her or him out first thing in the morning to get first sitting for breakfast.
At night you may have to physically arrange everyone on the perch. Not only does this help the 'stressed-out' but also the 'stressor' as it puts you firmly above him or her in the pecking order.
Always try to keep perches/roosts at one level: Allowing birds to get higher than others, in particular when the flock is in stress, denotes superior status. This can create real problems.
Make sure of sufficient foodstuffs in particular those which impact on the nervous system. so the B complex vitamins, including B12 cobalamin from invertebrate protein and B9 folate from leafy vegetables and/or quality pasture. The amino acid methionine, when deficient, is also a major cause of severe nervous states and hence a precursor to stress. So make provision for a compost bin, which when it is finished working can be daily opened up to give the chickens access.
TLC nothing gives a 'stressed-out' bird more confidence and help than showing him/her you care. Allowing a bird who is feeling submissive into your house improves status and gives the bird a bond with you and your home.
Stressed and ill birds, who know and trust you, will imprint on you, so never allow yourself to panic when treating them. I know this can be hard at times but they are expecting you to have the solutions and showing signs of stress or lacking confidence in your own ability to help will be picked up by the bird.
Above all never put either bird involved in a conflict into a cage. A cage to a bird has the same connotation as it has for us, it indicates subservience and loss of status.
If you have found this useful then you can find an expanded version of it here
and check out my film on providing the B complex vitamins and methionine, for free and our film on creating a compost bin from untreated pallet wood.
All the best,