Starting a Small Flock
Is there any minimum number to have? We very much believe that a chicken should have friends. Chickens do die from time to time, so it would be very sad to have a sole chicken who's only friends have died, so we recommend at least three or four in a starting flock. At five you definitely have a group. Six is a really nice number. Perhaps my favorite number for a flock, a nice gang, but still personal.
If you strategize furthur, consider that you will input chickens into the flock from time to time. So you want the newcomers to have a stable friendship of peers, so you introduce in packets of three or more. That way you get clusters of chickens by age and they are all happy.
So consider that. You wouldn't add a single new young chicken into a flock of three oldsters without it having a friend, and you wouldn't run your chickens down to below three, so for a minimum experience, you would start with say four, and then add three more about 3 years later.
Now just enjoy your birds. Every time you lose three you add three. your flock fluctuates in size from four to seven. that i would call a good minimum flock. that's what we do right now. we currently have five. if it goes down to four, we add three more. we've had more, but not less.
There's this other important concept: chickens don't lay their whole lives. it takes 6-9 mos. to get them going, and then they lay for a few or several years, then they either die, or become unproductive. so you want there to be a few spring chickens in the flock to keep the egg action going.
someone who has a high egg laying rate going is flying high now, but when all those birds start going menopausal, she's going to have to decide whether to eat, euthenize, hospice, etc, and suddenly the reality of a primative society (that possibly practices canabalism) will dawn on her.
keeping chickens is a very real thing. we've had two or three out of say thirty, that lived for more than a decade. trippy was an ornery bird, lived till 13. She got cut up by a cat so we brought her to a vet and got her stitched up. It was expensive. But it was in those last 3 extra years of her life that she learned to trust and accept human affection.
the other decagenarian was Dippy, she was our favorite for many years. i was there at the instant of her death at 12, heard her last cry. healthy chickens are highly sentient at that age. if you want to know what it means to find love that transcends the boundary of species, you will, if you persist, find that purity in this lowly creature. but prepare yourself for the loss of a friend as well. chickens are very zen. the things of this earth are fleeting.
Chickens can be encouraged to perform tricks. So far we have not been inclined to teach them strange behavior but instead try to encourage individual skills as they manifest, such as jumping on our head or shoulders, approaching for affection or treats, sometime jumping up onto one's outstretch arm, high jumps to acquire food, imitation and encouragement of unique speech patterns. If you encourage them from birth, they will maintain trick behavior for a long time (though you never know when they will choose not to cooperate.)
Chickens are very compatible with human beings, and inspire affection and love. If it can be said that cats and goldfish can act positively on the health of the pet owner, than certainly it can be said of the chicken. Said one woman,"I guess loving your animals truly goes a long way when it comes to nurturing them into full grow birds. I never thought I could grow so attached to these birds, but they truly have a sweet and loving disposition about them."
Because chickens differ from one another in terms of personality, they tend to assume different roles within the flock. One chicken may be particularly good at a certain call such as "Danger from the sky!" and will become the sentry. Others are good at finding food first and will alert the others to it. Another chicken might call the others to go to sleep at night.
Some chickens are more affectionate and desirous of human contact than others. Frequently, this is associated with the breed of the chicken. Barred Rocks tend to be meek and affectionate. Arucanas tend to be independent (ours is also jealous). Rhode Island Reds are loyal and happy, unafraid. Light Brahams are 'floofy' and dainty. Chickens also frequently form affinity groups of two or three dependent upon the circumstances of their introduction into the flock, their breed, or their temperament.
Dominant and submissive Behavior
Dominant behavior in chickens is typified in aggressive or mean spirited advances by one bird upon another (and in the case of roosters, a bird upon a human.) In overcrowded conditions it is exaggerated, but in a free-range situation it manifests as rude opportunistic social behavior.
The dominant chicken is a jealous creature and will not accept the sight of the chicken keeper fraternizing with the lower ranks. It fluffs its feathers and will attack the chicken you are cuddling. Make sure the dominant chicken is the first and last chicken you snuggle with, or take the friendly underling out of site of the alpha. When holding two chickens don't let their faces get within pecking range of each other. Alpha chickens are jealous creatures- the other chickens don't seem to care.
Submissive behavior is typified by whimpering speech, inactivity and staying out of the busy circle of feeding chickens. Just keep an eye on meek chickens and make sure they don't get too roughed up. If they do, isolate the dominant chicken - it will get the message (eventually). Never isolate the submissive chicken - that is certain doom and will disadvantage it severely.
As far as we can tell, this pecking order as a danger to the chicken occurs only in man-made conditions. Over crowded pens push unhappy birds into close proximity with no choice other than to assert some sort of territoriality, just like any human being. The best way to channel the alpha or dominant chicken's behavior is for chicken keeper to assume the role of the dominant chicken. Sometimes the submissive chickens don't get any food if you don't play mother hen.
'Discourage' the bully (but don't be too mean) from picking on the little guys or new comers, and help the little ones or slow ones to get enough food buy having separate feeding areas or spreading treats around for all to enjoy. Sometimes we do this by imprisoning the bully in a separate cage. The bully chicken will eventually see itself as more of an equal, though it may take quite some time (years).
When assuming the role of alpha chicken, make sure that the discouraging is done with gentle movements or affection. If you treat it with sharp words or movements the chicken will not know what you are doing, it will think you are just another bully and want to fight with you - not the right idea, especially if you are dealing with a rooster.
You can take chickens traveling with you and it's fun to see how they cluster around you in a strange place (proof that you serve as the alpha chicken in a healthy relationship.) But be sure that wherever you take them they are not over stimulated or left unattended in an insecure area. It wouldn't be good.
Chicken calls hear some
Chickens have a wide variety of calls, and believe it or not, there is a representational or symbolic quality to their speech. Chicken speech efficiently communicates the emotional state of the chicken, both to the keeper and to the other chickens.
A loud rhythmic "boc boc boc boc boc boc " often signifies that an egg has been laid. They emit impatient little grumbles when digging for food, they call plaintively when the sun goes down, and coo and chortle when they want affection or are getting it. They have clucks of recognition to say hello.
If a large bird flies overhead or shows itself perching on a nearby tree, the sentry chicken will screech to sound the alarm and they all may hide if the situation seems dire. We had one chicken that actually altered the sentry call to a higher pitch and lower volume when the situation was less threatenig as with a small bird flying overhead. The sentry call could therefore be symbolically imitative.
A hen on the nest will sometimes emit a chattering warning when you approach, but only before they have come to trust you. Everytime i go out into the back yard, the chickens alert each other to my presence with a low little cry. Sometimes, hens will even crow. This can be because they want you to come out and feed them or play with them, or they just might be 'in the mood'. This crow can sometimes start out as the same call they make when they want or are getting affection and rapidly develop into a loud insistent plea!
The more time you spend with your chickens the more you will learn of their language.
--Karl Franzen & Lyn "Zobin"