Poultry have behavioral characteristics, attitudes and moods just like other animals, writes Janice Houghton-Wallace. This will be most noticeable during the mating and breeding season, usually early to late spring.

The testosterone will be higher at this time of the year and cockerels, ganders, drakes and turkey stags will be showing the natural instinct of self-preservation, which to them will be the ability to mate and breed the next generation. This is all perfectly normal but keepers of poultry should be aware of protective and mating behaviour and understand it.

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If a bird is being highly protective it is trying to do just that – protect the females or win over the females. It is not necessarily being aggressive towards the person looking after it but understanding is required so as not to exacerbate the situation.  

Cockerels can become quite upset if one of the hens if picked up or something is upsetting her. Occasionally a cockerel will fly towards the person who is interfering but with all birds, if you have something such as a bucket between you both and walk to the side rather than turning your back on the bird no harm will be done. Whatever the species do not be tempted to ‘teach the bird a lesson’ for this reaction will only reinforce the dramatic behaviour of the bird. It is best to just steer clear of any birds that are showing this body language for in time this will diminish and the males become settled down and less demonstrative.

A cockerel will establish a territory for his females. Other males will be allowed in that territory so long as they adopt a subordinate relationship to the dominant male. These subordinate males will be kept away from the females and if this is not respected quite nasty fights can take place before one bows to the other and keeps a distance. If a strange cockerel with his own hens invades another group’s territory the loser of the fight can feel so admonished that he will leave his hens in the location of the other cockerel.

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Cockerels carry out basic survival patterns and this is illustrated by a cockerel calling the hens when he sees a tasty morsel to be had – a male’s natural instinct to hunt and provide for the family.

Once mature a hen’s natural instinct is to nest and lay eggs, taking time before deciding on a nesting site. She will want the nest to be in as secretive place as possible because she will be thinking of incubation and the safety of future chicks. That is why people are sometimes surprised when a hen and chicks suddenly appear in the yard.

Having decided on a nest the hen will give out pre-laying calls and be rather restless. She will squat and rotate her body to form the nest as she wants it, then stand up again to lay her egg. After a few seconds pause she will check the egg, leave the nest and give out an excited cackle. If there is a cockerel in the flock he will usually respond to this call by going to her and accompanying her back to the flock.

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Hearing, sight and colour vision are acute senses in chickens and they will look out for each other. If danger is sensed a warning call will be given and the birds will run for cover, either under bushes or back to their housing. Broodies are especially alert and will warn chicks of anything they are unsure about. A group of birds will also complain noisily if they are concerned about something. They look for predators from the sky, the ground or even humans, if they are behaving in a threatening manner such as chasing them.

Personal space is achieved by sounds and postural moves, such as tail up or down or fanned out. By slanting the head or body a bird can give out important body language to another. Turkey stags will naturally fight amongst themselves in early spring, just like deer during the rut in the autumn. This behaviour is so inbuilt that they will fight even if no females are in the vicinity. It is best to leave them to sort it out but keep an eye open for any nasty injuries because sometimes the birds can really exhaust themselves and have lots of cuts and bruises.  A turkey or peacock quietly displaying his tail is showing off, not being aggressive.

Turkey hens will squat for the stags once they are ready to mate and will also squat before anyone looking after them. Rather than ignoring this behaviour if you just stroke the bird’s back several times, she will then jump up and feel content. When several turkey hens are together you may get a matriarchal hen who ‘feels she is in charge’ of the others and she will display her tail just like the stags do. This is not her changing sex but demonstrating her importance in the group. 

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With geese respect for ganders is required although some breeds are less demonstrative then others. Some will be quite hissy and active whilst others will just follow the females wherever they want to go and quietly and calmly keep an eye on them.

Drakes have a testosterone problem throughout the year so be sure to only keep one drake with a small number of ducks or they will be constantly harassed sexually and could even end up injured. The males are more likely to be a nuisance to the females rather than taking it out of those looking after them but caution with some breeds, such as the Muscovy should be taken.

Understanding the natural behaviour of poultry, especially during the breeding season and allowing for it will lead to better husbandry and management skills and produce more contented birds. It will also take way the anxiety of keepers when it is realised that some behaviour is only seasonal.

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This article was written for Smallholder magazine by Janice Houghton-Wallace. For more like it, subscribe to the magazine by calling 01778 392011.