Social Engineering in the Coop – The Arlene Denouement

The more behavioral scientists study domestic chickens the more they come to appreciate their high intelligence and their complex social structure.  Chickens “talk” to each other with a large number of different vocalizations, each with its own meaning.  They show complex thinking in decision making—they take into account prior experience as well as their knowledge about their current situation.  They exhibit self-assessment, and make comparisons between themselves and other chickens in their flock.  They understand the rank of each chicken in the pecking order of their flock, which demonstrates logical reasoning ability. They engage in group activity when they forage and defend themselves.  They demonstrate long-term relationship-building (i.e. friendship) that requires long-term memory.  Author Annie Potts states “It now appears that the cognitive processes involved in representational thinking in chickens are similar to those required for associative learning in humans.”  The fact that chickens think like us is disturbing when you consider how the vast majority of domestic chickens are treated.  But it is also intriguing to think that just as we humans are subjected to subtle social manipulations by Madison Avenue and political campaigns, that chickens, too, can be socially manipulated, because they think like we do. 

And that brings us back to the story of Arlene Barred Rock.  It is not random happenstance that of all my chickens, it is the picture of Arlene perched on my shoulder that is featured prominently in the upper right-hand corner of my blog page.  From the time she was a chick she has always been an intelligent, adventurous, and gregarious bird.  When I go into the coop, she will run up to greet me with a peck on the leg and then will happily follow me around.  So it was very distressing to find her injured, lame, and sitting alone in the hen pen when the other chickens had gone indoors to roost for the evening that day in late June.  I moved her out of the coop that night and got to work on nursing her back to health.  It was heartening when she gradually regained her health and mobility to the point that I could move her from the sick chicken pen back to the regular coop.  But then I had to endure the drama of two of her former Barred Rock buddies, Barbara and Charlie, show one negative aspect of chicken behavior by becoming “the mean girls” and stalking, harassing, and aggressively pecking her in a display of dominance.  Arlene was constantly on the move to avoid their attention and her limp was becoming more pronounced.  Finally, when I saw that the mean girls had pecked Arlene so hard that her comb was bleeding in several places, I said a few words under my breath, snatched her up, put her back in the corner sick chicken pen and shut the door.  Once again, she was living by herself.  She stayed in the corner pen for a couple more weeks—until late August when I made my second attempt at reintegrating her into the flock.  And the second time, I used some social engineering. 

Arlene on her own again, after being beat up by the Mean Girls
In my post on pecking order, I talked about my flock’s roosting behavior, and how every bird in the flock wants to roost on the top rung of the roost.  It creates friction at roosting time, because the entire flock simply will not fit on the top rung.  So I changed things up a little—I made the top rung twice as long.  The top rung of the roost runs along the wall, and it would have been difficult, due to space constraints, to continue it along the wall, so I ran a second perch from the top rung across the coop to the opposite wall.  It created a limbo pole for me to duck under every time I walked through the coop, but it effectively doubled the chickens' “high up” space.  Then, right at roosting time, I swung the corner pen door open, and Arlene ambled in to rejoin the flock for a second time.  By the time everybody was ready to go to sleep, Arlene was peacefully sitting on the new part of the roost with a few other hens and everybody was interacting like they were a living representation of “Peaceable Kingdom.”

And, oh yeah, I did one other thing.  After I swung the door open for Arlene to go into the coop, I scattered some scratch grain in the small corner pen.  Barbara and Charlie Barred Rock sauntered into the small pen to investigate this fascinating treat, and once they were in, I slammed the door shut.  Arlene was with the flock and the mean girls were separated!  Barbara and Charlie leisurely pecked at the grain at first.  It was only when grain was all gone and it was time to roost with the flock that the realization that they were trapped hit them.  They pecked forlornly at the fence separating the pens for quite a while, with Charlie, the verbose one, complaining bitterly the entire time.  Eventually the automatic lights went out.  I found them the next morning sadly roosting on the low roost in the corner pen.  For the next ten days, they lived in the corner pen at night and the center part of the pole barn by day.  The center part of the pole barn is generally a chicken-free zone.  I use the space for feed and tool storage and it’s where I park the tractor.  On other rare occasions, I’ve had chickens live in that space.  Arlene, for instance, spent time there—it was a nice open space for her to walk and get her lame leg working again.  No chicken has ever caused problems in that space, but don't you know that Barbara and Charlie did!  They were into everything! I was more than a little upset when I discovered that they had made an entire square foot section of exposed Styrofoam insulation disappear by eating it!  And I was quite relieved when it seemed to go all the way through and come out the other end looking just like it did when it went in—apparently with no ill effect to either hen.  The very worst offense was when they roosted on my shiny green John Deere tractor and did what roosting chickens always do.

There’s really no such thing as a bad chicken.  These girls are Barred Rocks, so they were just being their usual adventurous selves—and there were two of them, so there was a second hen to egg the first one on.  No pun intended. Really!  But having those two hens hanging around outside of the coop was as big a trial for me as it was for them.

So ten days passed, and then on the tenth day, at roosting time, I opened the door and the two Barred Rock girls walked back into the coop.  Now there was a role reversal.  Instead of being the top bananas, the two Barred Rock hens were the new kids.  But there was absolutely no commotion.  The other chickens simply looked up and said, "Oh.  Hi, Barbara. Hi, Charlie."  And Barbara and Charlie nonchalantly said, "Hi, everybody! Hi, Arlene!" Then they just fell right back into their leadership role, only this time Arlene was right there with them.  And there were no dominance games at all--and they all seemed to be best of friends.  I shot the picture at the bottom just yesterday.  There are three hens perched on the edge of the dust bath where chickens often congregate and socialize.  That’s Arlene in the middle with her two buddies, Barbara and Charlie, on either side.

Charlie, Arlene, and Barbara Barred Rock, BFF's
[This post has been shared on "Clever Chicks Blog Hop #223]

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