Managing my small flock of backyard chickens has been enormously rewarding. I have a handful of hens, each of them a different breed. They are all beautiful, winter-hardy and dual-purpose, whichs means that they lay eggs well and can also be harvested for the soup pot after their egg-producing days are over. I've enjoyed watching them grow from chicks to pullets (teenagers) and later to fully mature hens.
Rosie is my Red Star hybrid. She matured quickly and began laying large brown eggs at exactly four months of age. Rosie lays an egg every day regardless of cold or daylength. She's friendly with people and seems to get along with the other hens.
Delphinium is a Dominique, a true American heritage breed. She began laying tan-colored eggs at about five months of age, perhaps three or four eggs per week. She took about six weeks off in the middle of the winter and refused to lay eggs between Dec. 4 and Jan. 17.
Hyacinth is an Easter Egger, a hybrid that produces green eggs. She began laying eggs at five months and continued to produce right through the darkest part of the winter. This bird was nicknamed "Hysterical Hyacinth" because of her timid behavior.
Finally, Wisteria is a Columbian Wyandotte. She is our largest bird and the slowest to mature. She began to lay eggs at the end of her seventh month, but now she's a good layer of tan eggs. Wisteria is all about food, all the time. And she produces very large poops!
Pecking order in the flock is very real. At night, the dominant bird roosts in the middle of the huddle so the other girls will keep her warm. This is especially important in sub-zero weather. She's also the most aggressive when it comes to extra snacks.
Although I visit my hens at least twice a day, I couldn't ascertain which bird was truly the boss. I liked that my girls seemed rather democratic and there was peace in the coop.
Until mid-January. After several consecutive nights of sub-zero temperatures, Hyacinth the timid Easter Egger started to slow down. Her comb was pale. She didn't seem interested in food. And she allowed me to pick her up and hug her, which was highly unusual behavior for her. After a call to our veterinarian, we decided to bring her inside to warm up. We reassembled our brooder box and brought her indoors.
As she recuperated, we recalled snowshoeing past the coop at night and observing Hyacinth outside the huddle of hens. No wonder the poor thing was failing! After a couple nights in the Poultry Hilton she seemed to perk up. The weather returned to above zero temps, so I took her back outside to join the flock.
This was the moment when I learned that Delphinium is the Big Boss. She walked directly to Hyacinth and pecked her on the head so hard I thought it might kill her. Chicken fights are ugly and Hyacinth would not defend herself. I quickly brought her indoors again. I attempted another reunion later in the day but it was clear that this would not be successful. So I did the only thing any self-respecting mom would do: I gave Delphinium a time-out. She spent the next night in the Poultry Hilton and she was not pleased.
Our subsequent attempts at reunion made it perfectly clear that Delphinium was not only aggressive toward Hyacinth, but she was also quite aggressive towards me. I've never been threatened by a chicken before, but her intentions were clear. So we made the difficult decision to find her a new home. We couldn't afford to keep a bully who was only a moderate layer of eggs, especially with new chicks coming in a month. Fortunately, Delphinium found a new home on a hobby farm with llama and sheep, and she provides her new owners with a few eggs per week.
Meanwhile, Hyacinth the Easter Egger was quite traumatized. It has taken her three weeks to recover after Delphinium's departure. For two weeks she hid in the coop and refused to step outside, but she has finally started laying her beautiful green eggs once again. Happy chickens really do lay more eggs.