Many social species that live in groups establish a hierarchy, and for chickens, this is the pecking order. It's a great name if you've ever seen a group of freshly introduced birds in action!
Establishing a pecking order is crucial for a happy, healthy flock – no pecking order, and you could be in for some serious trouble.
Let's take a deep dive into the structure of the pecking order, how it works, and how you, as a responsible chicken keeper, can help your birds establish their social ranking quickly and without serious conflict.
Why Do Chickens Establish a Pecking Order?
Social groups of chickens and other species like horses and dogs require a hierarchy of dominance to function correctly.
It's instinctive for chickens to create a pecking order and establish which birds are more dominant and the order in which they'll eat and drink. The pecking order also extends to mating, roosting, and egg-laying – this is government poultry-style!
There's no mystery about how the pecking order works – those at the top get first dibs at the feeder and the treats. They also choose the best roost whilst other birds must wait their turn.
If a chicken gets out of line, they'll quickly be reminded of their place with a sharp peck from a dominant bird.
However, as with any government, nothing stays the same for long, so the pecking order will change as birds age and new chickens join the coop.
The pecking order is often based on vigour and health; birds declining or becoming ill will alter the hierarchy.
Chicken Pecking Order Roles
The Leader of the Flock
As the old saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility, so, as well as enjoying the rights and privileges associated with this position, the dominant chicken will also be the protector of the flock.
The top chicken is usually the strongest and healthiest bird. The alpha chicken will be a cockerel if there is one or an older strong hen - if there are no male birds.
The dominant chicken will watch out for predators and move the flock to safety if they identify a threat. They resolve disputes between other birds and may even wait whilst the other flock members eat and stand on watch.
Pretenders to the Throne
There are usually several chickens in waiting, ready to take over if the occasion presents itself.
It's no coincidence that subordinate birds are often younger or, conversely, ageing birds. They can also be subservient because they are a less aggressive breed. But, it can just be character; as in human life, some chickens are bullies.
How the Pecking Order Is Established
The hierarchy in any species' social group is established and preserved by dominance. This process can be noisy and sound and look worse than it actually is. There will be strutting, feather fluffing and rustling, and plenty of squawking!
However, things can get violent if the less dominant chicken doesn't back down and fighting persists, leading to serious injury or, in extreme situations, death.
Chicken keepers must constantly monitor the pecking order, especially when introducing new birds. If squabbling gets to the point of drawing blood, then it's time to intervene.
Chickens are attracted to the colour red and will increase pecking on an injured bird, which may, in turn, encourage other hens to join in and lead to cannibalistic behaviour. For this reason, always remove sick birds quickly, too.
Chickens are not vegetarians and relish the opportunity for some protein, giving a whole new meaning to a chicken dinner!
How Long Does It Take for Chickens To Establish Their Pecking Order?
Establishing the pecking order can take a few days but sometimes as long as a few weeks. It depends on how many new birds you introduce, the environment, and, to some extent, the individual characters of certain birds or breeds.
How long is too long is a fine judgment call. It can be hard not to intervene sometimes, but early interference could stop the birds from sorting it out for themselves.
Introducing new birds with care and in the right way will keep disruption to a minimum, maximising the chance of the flock settling down again quickly and without any violent behaviour.
How To Handle and Prevent Pecking Order Problems
Prevention is Better than Cure
Introducing new members to the flock always upsets the apple cart. However, if handled properly, this should keep any problems to a minimum.
Introduce new birds slowly to reduce stress. Segregate new arrivals in a portion of the coop or run so all the chickens can see each other without actually mixing.
Let the birds get used to each others' presence over about a week or so before allowing them to mix.
Never introduce just one bird; they can quickly become overwhelmed. Three is a nice number for a larger group. Introduce birds at night; this is likely to reduce the risk of fighting.
Expect some initial squabbling, but this should settle down quickly and be far less aggressive because the birds have had time to get used to each other.
Remember that some breeds are more aggressive than others, and chickens also react to colour, so be careful what you mix. Chickens have more sophisticated eyesight than humans and can identify and remember individual birds.
Always ensure the birds have enough room to access food, water, and roosting spaces. Cramped accommodation may incite bickering and arguments, making it easy for one bird to dominate another.
Outdoor space is an excellent distraction for dominant birds and provides more room for subordinate chickens to stay out of the way. Add extra enrichment; bored hens are like bored children – they cause trouble!
Make sure that coop lighting is not too bright and is limited to no more than 16 hours a day or less. Bright lighting or extended periods of light may cause chickens to stress, meaning they're much more likely to fight.
Check the Environment
If establishing the pecking order is taking just a bit too long or becoming unacceptably violent, then first check that the chickens' environment is not contributing to the problem.
Dominant birds stand guard overfeeding and water stations to prevent other birds from eating and drinking.
This is easy to remedy by merely increasing the locations they can feed and drink and ensuring plenty of space around each one.
More space generally makes life easier for birds lower in the pecking order; they can eat and drink without interruption and exhibit normal behaviours without being worried by a dominant bird.
More space also means birds lower down the pecking order can get out of the way if needed.
If there's nothing amiss with how the birds are being kept, then it may be necessary to remove the troublemaker.
Remove the Bully, not the Victim
Removing the victim for some TLC is tempting, but you'll make life more difficult when you try to reintroduce them to the flock.
The preferred option is to take out the bully, initially for just one day, and pen them with enough food and water. This can help take the edge off, reducing confidence and dominance.
Persistent fighting over dominance may require the troublemaker to be removed permanently and rehomed.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Do Chickens Show Dominance?
Chickens show dominance by pecking and chasing other birds. Pecking is the fowl equivalent of bullying, and this dominant behaviour is necessary to establish the pecking order.
Happy birds have an established pecking order and often don't mind being lower in the ranks as long as they know where they stand.
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The flock pecking order is not just a case of letting the dominant birds bully the other ranks. The pecking order is a complex and sophisticated system that relies on the correct input from the poultry keeper.
Keeping happy, healthy chickens requires a well-designed and appropriate environment so birds can exhibit natural behaviours with minimal stress. Fail to provide this, and you'll never have a peaceful, stable pecking order in the flock.
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