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The social understanding within a flock is a complicated issue. Chickens are social creatures who thrive in group settings. Pecking order is how your flock establishes hierarchy.
It might seem brutal to us as chicken keepers who only want peace and harmony for our chickens, but pecking order is a necessary communication for your flock. To sort out who eats first, who sleeps where on the roosts and who’s in charge.
Social standing for a chicken can be affected by many considerations including personality/demeanor, breed, size, age, and sex of the bird.
Pecking Order Within Different Sexes
Most of the time, if there is a rooster present; he will be at the top of the pecking order. His job is to look after the flock, watch for predators, call more birds to his harem, find food and round up hens that roam too far. It is also his job to scare away any males that might impede on his dominion.
If more than one rooster is present, then a few things can happen. If the rooster was raised with the other or introduced at a young age, chances are, the roosters will experience a similar pecking order practice that happens with hens. One rooster will be in charge and the other will fall in line with the hens. Often, a strong-willed hen will outrank a more timid rooster.
Occasionally a less dominant rooster will attempt to crow or mate with a hen. If the dominant rooster sees this attempt, he will usually run over and bounce the lesser rooster away. This is how he carries on his genes and keeps his status as top bird.
Where no rooster is present, you will always have a top hen. She might peck the other hens or pullets if they attempt to eat before her. It has also been known that some hens will actually adopt the role of the rooster. She might stop laying eggs, crow and may attempt to mate with other hens.
Adult roosters that are introduced to each other will often fight to the death. Or until the other rooster is so badly injured that he gives up. In nature, the lesser rooster might move on, but in a coop atmosphere, where roosters are kept in close quarters serious injury can occur. Roosters have also been known to chase each other to the point of collapse or death.
Pecking Order Within Different Ages
Pecking order shows up in chicks that are as young as a few days old. You will see chicks pecking each other on the head or beak, or chest bumping, chasing and other bullying behaviors.
One of the most obvious times when pecking order can be witnessed is when you add young chicks/teenagers to an existing flock. This is a critical time when your flock should be monitored for over-aggressive behavior.
Introducing teenagers through a wire fence or cage will allow the adult chickens to see, smell and interact with the newcomers, through the protection of a barrier. This often lessens pecking order aggression when the teens are fully integrated.
Usually, the teens will experience their first peck when they attempt to eat from the community feeder. A higher ranking bird might give a good peck or chase.
You might see the group of new birds hiding submissively in a corner somewhere with their heads down. Often other chickens will come by and check out the newbies. This huddled behavior is protective and also communicative. The new birds are in a sense holding up the white flag.
Aggressive Pecking Order
Pecking order can seem mean to us humans. Our natural instinct is to step in and stop the bossy behavior. But it is necessary and natural. It’s a healthy communication between birds. The more you step in and remove birds, the longer you prolong the inevitable. Each time you remove a bird, that bird will have to be re-established in pecking order when re-introduced.
There are times, however, when you should step in. Sometimes chickens can be ruthless. Usually, the initial pecking order is established within a few minutes. Anytime the pecking lasts consistently for an extended period of time, or if many birds are ganging up on a single bird, it might be time to step in.
Injuries can happen fast. Usually on the top of the head. Once the wound begins to bleed, then it will become an object of interest for the rest of your flock as chickens are drawn to the color red. There are products like Blu Kote that will lessen the scab’s attention.
What to do if you have a bird injured in pecking order
While it might seem best to remove the injured bird so that it isn’t pecked further, sometimes it is a better plan to remove the offender. If you remove a bird that is low on the pecking order, it will have to eventually be re-introduced again. Where it runs the risk of being injured again.
By removing the offender, it forces the bird with the stronger personality the responsibility of re-establishing itself within the flock.
If the less dominant bird needs attention then, by all means, remove it to a safe place.
You might notice that your flock is composed of different cliques; chickens that stay together in subgroups and have their own set of hierarchy within that group. Many times chicks that are raised together will stay together within the larger flock. There is usually a dominant bird within that group who is holding on to its rank from chick-hood even if there is an overall top bird.
Pecking Order in Different Breeds
Pecking order distributes itself differently among different breeds. And this behavior is usually counter-intuitive among breeds size. Often large breeds are more docile, more domesticated and therefore, less offensive when it comes to pecking order. More wild breeds like Araucana, Ameraucana and Leghorns are often aloof when it comes to pecking order. Bantam breeds are small but often have large attitudes.
Polish are often low ranking birds probably due to their physical make up; that crest draws a lot of attention and often makes it hard for the birds to be sharply reactive.
In my experience there are certain breeds that always seem to produce the top hen; Rhode Island Red to name one. Whenever I have a RIR in a mixed flock, one of the hens seems to display top rank among the other breeds.
Pecking Order with Mixed Species
Pecking order further complicates when you have multiple species living together.
Each of these species has its own set of rules similar to that of chickens. There is often a set of hierarchy within the species, then it organizes itself after that.
Our Tom turkey runs our coop. Without a doubt he is in charge of all chickens, ducks and even geese.
Our Gander is in charge of our waterfowl clique and takes his job of watching over his goose and ducks very seriously. But he does not trump Tom.
Interestingly, our turkey hen is in constant competition with our dominant rooster. She can often be seen puffing her feathers up, similar to a male display and chasing him away from whatever is of interest to her. Usually, she wins.
Pecking Order is Not Stagnant
Once pecking order is established, it is not necessarily written in stone. Lower ranking birds often try to work their way up the ranks. Sometimes older birds will give in and let a younger, more enthusiastic bird take the reigns.
Other things like illness, death, broodiness, other birds being added/removed will warrant a new communication within your flock.
How to Lessen the Effects of Pecking Order
Pecking order can be lessened by not overcrowding your coop and by providing ample run and feeders.
By introducing birds through wire fences or open cages.
It is better to introduce multiple birds at once rather than one at a time.
Introduce young birds when they are feathered out and about ¾ the size of the adults but haven’t reached sexual maturity. For roosters, that means crowing/mating/ full bright red comb or wattle.