Sunday, March 4, 2012

Amelia on the Outer

If you think the New Hampshire Red hen in this picture falls short in the wings and tail department, you’re right. Amelia is named after the aviator Amelia Earhart (a similarly glorious redhead) but she can’t fly right now: she’s lost her finest feathers in the annual moult. 

Since then she’s become a scaredy-chook, scuttling away from me and her five run-mates. So if you think she looks a little solitary, you’re right about that too.

It’s hard to blame her. Several of the others (not moulting yet) seem to sense that as she’s grounded, she’s vulnerable and therefore fair game. My White Leghorn, just visible at the top of the photo,
is usually at the bottom of the pecking order but has been taking this opportunity to lord it over Amelia.

The hierarchy in our chicken run is intriguing. It doesn’t go in a single straight line from top to bottom. Instead it features a complex network of relationships and alliances. It also changes — it almost has a life of its own.

Amelia has coasted along since she was a pullet two years ago. She doesn’t regularly pick on others, and has remained largely unmolested herself. But as a chick she went through a bad patch: the last to develop her adult plumage, she suffered severe pecking, particularly from a run-mate who was a rooster in the making (and who soon went west as a result). 

Amelia on the outer, the first time (2010).
For her own safety I had to separate her from the others while she healed. Her flocking instinct meant that this isolation distressed her almost as much as the attacks.

Now she’s big enough to look after herself, though I’ll admit that her latest demotion has prompted me to supervise some mealtimes, to ensure she gets enough to eat. Moulting is a stressful time for chooks and producing a whole new covering of feathers is energy intensive, requiring a plentiful intake of protein.

I predict Amelia won’t be shunned for much longer. My Light Sussex hen has joined in the moult, shedding her white feathers so swiftly that the ground looks as if it’s had an unseasonal snowfall — and she appears half plucked. It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the flock follows suit. 


  1. I find the pecking order among my hens is not only complex but variable. The hens that are young healthy and laying are at the top and are the roosters favourites. Last winter two layed nearly right through and were queens of the roost but when the others started laying in the spring they got demoted. At the moment I'm concerned about Seraphina (she is not a Green MP because she was named by the neighbours that I gave her to - but they didn't have a rooster so she came home). Seraphina is now my oldest hen and she has gone lame. There was some pecking her at first but she is now getting around reasonably well and seems to be holding her own. I don't think chickens have any concept of respect for their elders though. Mind you I'm not particularly impressed with human attempts to put that into practice!

  2. Thank you for commenting: your thoughts and experience are really interesting. I think "difference" as well as "weakness" affects the pecking order in my chicken run. There's even a theory that hens of different colour discriminate against each other, and it's something I thought I'd write about sometime. I imagine that your having a rooster also affects your pecking order experience. (My hens live in a convent, one in which chastity has been imposed on them rather than embraced by them. Poverty and obedience are not in evidence.)

    On the lameness: have you considered some extra calcium? (I had a lame chook who seemed to benefit.) Perhaps, though, it's age-related wear and tear.

    For people who don't get the 'Green MP' reference, this continues a conversation elsewhere about naming chickens after admirable women. Perhaps your Seraphina is named after the artist Seraphina Pick!