Lessons Learned From the Flock

Cannabalism in Chickens

Lessons Learned From the FlockIf you have chickens, you know that, at times, flock pecking can get out of hand resulting in severe injury and sometimes even the death of a bird.

Chickens are meat eaters (if you doubt me, you should have seen what happened within seconds to the nest of newborn mice we uncovered in the henhouse last spring.) They will peck each other and if they draw blood, the sight of the bright red tissue will excite them to even more pecking.

 pecking damage

Put simply, chickens can and will peck flock members to death.

So what can you do about cannibalism in your flock?

The best strategy is an offense.

  • Make sure your chickens have enough space. Crowded chickens are stressed chickens and stressed chickens will tend to lash out at each other.

  • Supply your chickens with activities. Free-ranged and well-exercised chickens rarely peck at each other. Cramped, winter chickens who are bored often will. Even in the middle of winter, you can supply henhouse-bound chickens with activities. Hang swinging roosts, or provide colorful decorations for them to peck at. Put a seed block in the coop or create some chicken toys (something as simple as some pebbles in a sealed soda can could work) in order to give the flock something to do.

  • Watch the amount of light they get. Sometimes birds receiving too long of a duration or too bright illumination may develop cannibalism, be flighty, and show nervous behavior. On the other hand, birds not receiving enough light or too dim illumination can show poor growth, poor egg production or poor weight gain. Natural lighting is the best and if you choose to augment the light, just beware of how it affects your flock’s behavior.

If your flock does peck and shows signs of cannibalism, you need to remove the injured bird and tend to its wounds. You may have to keep it separate from the flock so that it will have undisturbed access to food and water.

flock | Fotolia/sherjaca 

Photo: Fotolia/sherjaca

Whatever you do, don’t file down or trim the beaks – this procedure won’t prevent the pecking, it will just reduce the damage when a bird is pecked. It’s far better to address the underlying problem than it is to try and treat a symptom.

Lastly anticipate that pecking and therefore cannibalism might occur and “bird proof” your coop. Make sure there are no areas where a bird can “hide” and then get stuck exposing itself to the savagery of the others. Fill in cinderblock holes and make sure that boxes are flush against the henhouse walls so a bird won’t be tempted to wedge itself as a way to escape other chickens.


Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist and blogger who believes that facing challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of six funny and creative children, and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

That Came From WHERE?????

“Do you know where that thing comes out? I’m not going to eat that!”

Dirty eggs

Believe it or not, I’ve actually heard a few people say this about eggs. Some people are only willing to eat eggs that are perfectly clean and completely removed from the farm with any connection to the animal that supplied it stripped completely clean.

To those people I say, get real. No really, I mean it, get REAL.

In real life, an egg comes out of the same opening that poop does in a bird. It’s called a cloaca and it is very efficient. When the egg drops down through the oviduct (which is a separate from the intestine) and is ready to be released, it squeezes the opening to the intestine shut, effectively separating the poop from the egg.

Once the egg is laid, the intestinal track opens up again and is ready for action.

But as is almost everything in life, things can get messy, there can be residual poop in the opening, or there can be poop that has leaked around the closure. And if a hen is brooding, she’s not going to leave her nest resulting in some of her poop on the eggs.

What this all means is that you can get eggs that are not necessarily pristine (although sometimes you will find an egg that looks like it has been washed, it’s so clean.) Almost always, eggs will have some poop on them.

You can help this situation by keeping the bedding clean and by keeping all roosting bars away from the nesting boxes, but even still,

Guess what? Poop happens.

All you need to do is bring the eggs inside and wash them. To wash our eggs, we fill a soft plastic bucket with warm (not hot) water and put a few eggs at a time inside.

If the egg floats we get rid of it. That’s a bad, old, or cracked egg that has too much air inside. I would never take a chance with that.

If the eggs sit nicely on the bottom of the bucket, we gently wash the egg off with a very soft sponges. I do not use soap on my eggs, although some people use soap/and or vinegar.

The point is not to make them look like perfect little pristine packages of protein. Some eggs will have spots, some will even be stained by the poop that was on them. It’s all okay. The point is to simply to remove the poop.

If you’re worried about germs (and yes Salmonella is a real threat in animals) then use common sense. Wash your hands after handling eggs. When you are cooking with eggs make sure all products are thoroughly cooked so that all bacteria will be killed. Be aware of cross contamination and use the same precautions you would use with meat (which in all likelihood, probably has more bacteria in it than your eggs.)

It amazes me that some people are so removed from where food comes from that they think farm fresh eggs are gross.

When in fact, it’s the sterile, bleached, factory-caged, nutrient-deficient things called eggs found in the grocery store that are what’s really gross.


I write about lessons learned living with children and chickens in New Hampshire. You can follow our family's stories at my blog: Lessons Learned From the Flock.  

When a Broody Hen Won't Stop Being Broody

broody hen 

Broody hens. If you only want eggs from your birds, sometimes maternal hens are nothing more than a literal pain, pecking at your hands as you try to retrieve the goods. But if you want chicks, broody hens are absolutely necessary. 

So what do you do when you have a broody hen who doesn’t want to stop being broody?  

I was recently asked this question from a reader regarding her broody chicken:   

“Will a hen stop sitting on eggs if they are not going to hatch? I have a hen that hatched out two chicks a week ago but she continues to sit on four other eggs. I'm just curious how long she will stay on them.”

This was my reply:

I'm not sure there is an absolute answer to your question. Some hens will sit as long as instinct (and a little bit of hope) tells them to. Others will not.

If you have any doubts about the viability of the eggs, you can remove one at a time and candle it.  If a chick is inside then replace the egg, if not then discard the egg.

Not all eggs are fertile and even if fertilized, not all will hatch. If it's been a week since the other ones in the clutch have hatched, I'd remove the eggs from under her (use leather gloves if you need to, she may be fierce) and let her get on with things.

Once she realizes that the eggs are gone (hatched) then she'll get to the job of taking care of her chicks.

Anyone else have experience with broody hens not willing to leave the nest as long as eggs are there?  


I write about lessons learned living with children and chickens in New Hampshire. You can follow our family's stories at my blog: Lessons Learned From the Flock.  

The Danger of Cinder Blocks in the Coop

If you’re a follower of my blog or Facebook page then you already know about this but I want to make sure that the word gets out to as many chicken owners as possible.

One less death is one less death. 

Cinder blocks can be a deathtrap  

This week, we had a mishap when we introduced a new chick into our existing flock. As it turned out she was a solitary chick and although I had done what had worked for me in the past - she was caged in the hen house for a week, had supervised interaction with the flock, entered the flock unsupervised at night when they were getting ready to roost - she died the next day.

The reason for her death is that when she tried to get away from the other flock members, she scooted into the side hole of the cinder block upon which we keep our water bucket. She got stuck and with only her bum exposed, the other chickens went to town and literally pecked her to death. By the time I found her she was horrifically wounded.

We’ve had cinder blocks in our coop for years and we’ve never had this happen. We even have some tiny bantams who have never tried to get inside the blocks. But this chick managed to not only get inside but also get stuck in one.

When I posted the story on my blog, one commenter put up this reply:

“Shoot, yeah, we never get to quit learning and improving in this life. Even after 50+ years of chickens, I just found out about the cinderblock thing. I flood irrigate so my coop is on blocks, and recently some of my girls decided that laying eggs underneath it was better than the nests. I had boarded it up, but they knocked one down and for several days we kept wondering where all the eggs were. By the time we figured it out and re-secured the boards solidly, they were so fixated on that being the place to lay that the next day I found one stuck in a cinderblock hole! So stuck, in fact, that it took me a while to get her out… but that ain’t gonna ever happen again.”

It’s one of those things that you don’t know about until you know.

This is the time of year for new chicks to be put into existing flocks. If you have cinder blocks, please be careful and make sure you fill the holes up before you put your chicks in the coop.

Because one less death is one less death.  


I write about lessons learned living with children and chickens in New Hampshire. You can follow our family's stories at my blog: Lessons Learned From the Flock. 

The Not So Attractive Side of Having Chickens

“Chickens have become the new black,” I often joke with the people in my chicken workshops. What I mean by that is that having backyard chickens has, all of the sudden, become very trendy. It seems that everyone is interested in getting a flock started.

Chickens are more than just trendsWhile I applaud the desire to raise clean unadulterated food (eggs and meat), I want the students in my classes to understand the benefits of chickens, I also want them to clearly understand the often not so attractive side of having chickens.

Chickens need daily care – oh sure, it’s not much care once they become old enough to live in a hen house but they do require fresh water, and food every day.  And don’t forget mucking. That hen house will need to be mucked on a regular basis. It’s not the most glamorous job but it has to be done.

Eggs need to be collected – You’ll need to check for eggs throughout the day.  An egg left in the nest can be an egg that gets pecked and as many of us chicken owners know, once an egg-eater, almost always an egg-eater. Even though egg production goes down in the winter, the hens will still lay. An egg not gathered in freezing weather will frequently burst turning it into nothing more than a waste.

Chickens poop – A lot. Many chickens will poop every 30 to 40 minutes. I’ve also seen estimates that a flock of 3 chickens can create up to 5 pounds of waste a week. That’s a lot of poop. Chickens will poop all over your yard, your driveway, and maybe even your porch. It’s one of those things that you’ll just have to accept and learn to deal with.

Chickens curtail vacation plans -  Although it doesn’t take much work to care for an established flock, they still need to be released, fed, watered, have eggs collected, and be locked in their coop at night. Since we’ve gotten our chickens, our vacation plans have changed from overnight stays to local day trips with our kids. It is possible to get “chicken sitters” who will do a fine job but just know that a certain amount of vacation spontaneity disappears when you have a flock.

Chickens get sick – Chickens scratch in the dirt, they eat basically anything that is not nailed down.  As a result chickens can get sick and they can get parasites and bacterial infections. Chickens can also get injuries and have egg laying problems. You need to know how to monitor your flock by checking poop, chicken bums, and behavior. If a chicken is found to be ill, it is your obligation as the owner to do your best to help it. Sometimes this means medication and injury care, and sometimes it means making the decision to put the bird down.

Chickens die - There is a trend right now to name chickens and give chickens human characteristics (I’m guilty of it myself with some of my favorites.) The truth though is that chickens are livestock, they were never intended to be domestic pets. This past winter was particularly harsh and we ended up losing 4 from our flock. There was nothing we could do about it. One day they were alive and the next they weren’t.

Chickens also get eaten – And sometimes it’s not by the owner. If you are going to free-range your chickens, you are going to lose a few from predators.

Chickens (thankfully) also live – A well maintained chicken can live for a good 4 – 7 years.  This means that if you decide to get chickens, you’ll be involved in their care and management for some time. Raising chickens requires a long term commitment. Please don’t even consider getting them if you are one of those people who wants a flock simply because it’s a current trend.

You might not know what to do with your birds next year when llamas become the next big “thing.”


I write about lessons learned living with children and chickens in New Hampshire. You can follow our family's stories at my blog: Lessons Learned From the Flock.  

Chicks and Red Marbles

Recently I wrote a piece about how chickens were naturally drawn to the color red and that you could use this knowledge to help you manage your flock. Because of this attraction to red, you can use feeders with red bases when you have chicks to get them used to the idea of eating and drinking out of feeders, you can isolate chickens with red wounds so that the other chickens will not peck at them, and by not wearing dangly red earrings into the coop (go ahead and ask me how I know about this one) you are probably going to avoid bodily injury.

This past weekend I was given a solitary, very young Black Copper Marans chick. She couldn’t have been more than a day old and as I set up a brooder for her (Tupperware tub) I was stymied as to how to give her food and water. Oh sure, we have the small sized feeders but she was so tiny I didn’t think she could reach them, it seemed a little overkill. She also lacked older flock mates to show her how to use the feeders.

What to do, what to do.

Then I remembered the red. I sent my son upstairs to get a few of his red marbles and I put a small, low water bowl and feed bowl  in the tub and then placed a few marbles into each bowl.

The light from the heater lamp made the marbles look especially sparkly and red. 
 Water and red marbles 

Once our chick had gotten used to her surroundings, sure enough, she walked over to check out the water dish. Her first pecks hit the marbles but as soon as her beak slid into the water, she got the idea and started drinking.

The same thing went for the food dish.

Feed and red marbles 

Now on her third day of being in our house, she knows exactly where the water and food are located and she’s busy getting her fill and growing like the proverbial weed. When she’s large enough, I’ll switch over to a conventional feeder and waterer.

I certainly wouldn’t use red marbles if you have lot of chicks (low bowls tend to get the bedding kicked into them.) I’ll be careful to remove the marbles before our chick get too much larger in the event that she might try to swallow them, but using red marbles is something to keep in your back pocket (and to add to your chicken first aid kit) if you find yourself for some reason with a young solitary chick or if you might need to isolate a chick from the rest due to sickness or injury and using regular feeders is just not practical.


I write about lessons learned living with children and chickens in New Hampshire. You can follow our family's stories at my blog: Lessons Learned From the Flock. 

Chicks Are Not Puppies

It’s chick season around here and that means that people will flock (pun intended) to the local feed stores in order to bring home their newest backyard poultry members.  

Baby chicks 

In a recent chicken workshop, I warned my students that chicks are not like puppies, you don’t want the calm one who is taking a nap when you inspect the litter. Quite the opposite, when you pick out chicks, you want the ones who are most lively and active. Those are the ones who will have the greatest chance of survival. Things to consider when choosing chicks:

Beak– don’t bring home a chick that has a broken or deformed beak. That could translate to eating problems as the chick matures. Depending on the age of the chick, though, she might still have her egg tooth and that’s fine. The egg too tooth is something that will fall off in a matter of days.

Eyes – Choose chicks that have bright and shiny eyes. Make sure there is no drainage or deformity (half-closed, etc.)
  • Body – a chick should have a well formed body.  Sometimes there will be a skeletal problem (I’ve seen chicks with breastbones that weren’t formed correctly and that stuck outward) inspect the shape and make sure you are getting a bird that has good structure.  
  • Feathers – chicks don’t have real feathers yet (they will have the beginnings of them on their wings) instead they are covered with down. Make sure that your chicks do not have any bald spots or areas where the down has been rubbed off or is splotchy.
  • Feet and legs – make sure that the legs are study and not twisted. Look at the feet, gnarled and twisted feet will cause problems as the chick matures. Webbed toes can be fixed but if you decide to get a chick with webbed toes then you need to make an effort to fix that problem (surgical release and splinting.)
  • Activity – leave the sleeping chicks for someone else, you want the chicks that have a lot of energy and that scurry away from you when you reach down to them. A docile chick may be sick, it may be dehydrated, or it just might be its personality – you’re simply taking your chances with one that doesn’t act vibrant.
  • Breathing – chicks with respiratory problems breathe quickly and they “pull” into their chest when they breath. Oftentimes you can also hear a slight “whistle.” A respiratory infection in a chick can kill it within a few hours and it can infect the rest of your flock. Not only do not choose those chicks but alert the store clerk of a chick with breathing difficulty so that it can be immediately removed from the others.
  • Chances are, if you are buying your chicks from a feed store, they will have already been inspected and any chicks that have problems will have already been removed. Because the chicks are also constantly monitored, sick ones are also isolated very quickly. Still, it’s best to know what to look for in a young chick to make sure you bring home hardy stock, especially if you are only buying a few to add to your backyard flock.  


    I write about lessons learned living with children and chickens in New Hampshire. You can follow our family's stories at my blog: Lessons Learned From the Flock.