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I have been keeping and breeding chickens for more than 20 years, and during that time I have come to love these feathered little characters. Each chicken has its own personality and each flock of chickens is different from the next flock.
During my time as a chicken breeder, probably more than 1,000 chickens have passed through my homestead.
If there is one aspect of chicken keeping that new keepers find to get to grips with, it is the pecking order within the flock. Chickens have a strict social order, and every hen knows her place in the flock.
In this article, I will explain how and why chickens have a pecking order, and how it has helped them survive when there are so many predators looking for an easy meal.
Chickens have a strict social order which is often referred to as the pecking order. Chickens are vicious birds, and they use their beaks to control any hens in the flock that they consider to be weaker than they are. The chicken at the top of the pecking order usually has access to the best food, the best roosts, and the best nestbox.
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What is a pecking order in a flock of chickens?
Many people are surprised to learn that chickens actually have a social order. In a small flock of chickens, you typically have the strongest, bravest chicken at the top and then the birds get progressively weaker and more submissive as you travel down the pecking order.
If you put a group of chickens together that have never met one another, the first thing will start to do is peck at one another.
Chickens use their beaks to literally peck other members of the flock. They then determine their status in the flock compared to the chicken they just pecked based on the response they receive.
For example, if chicken A pecks chicken B, and chicken B pecks back harder and more aggressively than chicken A, then the chances are chicken B will sit above chicken A on the social ladder.
If on the other hand, when chicken A pecked chicken B, chicken B shied away and wandered off, chicken A would sit above chicken B on the social ladder.
Every chicken in the flock has to work out where they sit compared to every other member of the flock.
This social structure is for the good of the whole flock and ensures the flock can flourish rather than spend its time with the hens fighting against one another.
Where do Roosters sit in the pecking order?
Under normal circumstances, the rooster will sit at the top of the pecking order. It is the rooster’s job to fertilize the hen’s eggs and also look after his girls. He also has responsibility for finding the flock food and watching out for predators, especially hawks or eagles circling overhead.
A rooster can not protect and look after all the females in his flock if he does not sit at the top of the social ladder.
In almost all breeds of chickens, the roosters are larger and stronger than the hens, and the roosters also have hard, sharp spurs on the backs of their legs. They use these spurs when fighting, especially when fighting other roosters.
Roosters are famous for their abilities to fight, and whereas two hens will normally peck one another and quickly decide who sits where roosters may fight one another to the death.
Rooster fighting used to be very popular around the world, and in some places, it still is, although most people now consider it to be a barbaric sport that is banned in many civilized countries.
However, if we keep two roosters in the same flock unless the run is extensive and there are more than enough hens to go around, there is a good chance your two roosters will fight to decide who sits where in the pecking order. If neither rooster concedes, one may be killed by the other.
When we keep a flock of chickens without a rooster, the strongest hen essentially fills the rooster’s role. In my experience, however, a flock governed by a hen rather than a rooster is always a little less well organized and can be more unruly than if a rooster is present.
Why do chickens have a pecking order?
Researchers believe wild chickens (technically called Jungle Fowl) first developed the pecking order so the chickens did not waste time fighting over the available food. Fighting instead of feeding would not only have wasted precious energy but likely attracted the attention of predators.
By having a social ladder that all birds in the flock followed, the wild chickens could find a source of food, everyone eats according to their social status, then the whole flock flies off before attracting unwanted attention from predators.
The pecking order also creates a sense of harmony once the birds all know their place. When food is brought in, typically the top chickens feed first, with lower members of the flock coming in once the top hens have eaten.
At bedtime the chickens at the top of the social ladder typically go into the coop first, taking the best (usually highest) roosts. The other birds follow, with the lowest members coming in last and taking whatever roosts are left.
I used to have a flock and the coop with a little too small for the number of birds. The lowest member of the flock was always left without a roost and she would settle down to sleep in the doorway of the coop on the floor. In the end, I moved her and she lived in a small coop by herself.
Problems in the pecking order
Whilst having a pecking order that works can bring the whole flock together meaning they all live in harmony, it can sometimes become total chaos with the pecking never really settling down.
It is not uncommon for a single bird to be pecked relentlessly by the other hens, sometimes to the point of blood being drawn and birds being left with open wounds.
The main causes of problems within the pecking order are;
The introduction of a new hen
Introducing a single hen to an existing flock can be an absolute disaster. In fact, it is such a potential issue that I recently wrote a whole article dedicated to the subject of how to introduce new chickens to an existing flock.
When we add a new hen to an existing group, there are two potential issues. Firstly, if the new hen is at all submissive it will be pecked by every other member of the flock.
This continuous pecking can lead to injuries to that bird, which in turn may well make the amount of pecking worse.
Secondly, if the new bird is not submissive and it does not sit at the bottom of its new flock, there is a good chance the whole pecking order of the flock will change.
Hens sitting somewhere in the middle of the social ladder may decide this is the opportunity they were looking for to move up the ladder.
Others sitting higher up the ladder may fancy a chance at being top of the ladder
Before long, the whole flock is in chaos, and it can take a few days for everything to settle down.
When one hen is just a bully
Occasionally you will get a single hen that is just an all-out bully. She may not sit at the very top of her social ladder, but the chances are she will peck every chicken below her, and she will peck at them non-stop, sometimes pecking continually until the point blood is drawn.
Sometimes a single hen or multiple hens in a flock can end up with large, open sores on their back or on their heads. These sores can bleed a lot and may become infected, leading to the death of the hen.
In my experience, the only thing to do with a bully is to remove her from the flock. Sometimes she can be placed in time out, living away from the main flock for a few days to a few weeks, then she can be reintroduced.
Other times she will just have to go and live elsewhere as she can not be trusted to go back into her original flock.
I once had a bantam hen that just pecked and pecked all the other bantam hens in her flock. No matter what I did, she was just vicious to the others. In the end, I moved her and placed her in a flock of non-bantam hens.
As they were all much larger than she was, they soon put her in her place and kept her there.
To be fair, she settled into that flock nicely and lived happily for many years.
If one member of the flock becomes unwell
If one member of the flock becomes unwell, the others will soon notice. No matter where that hen sat originally, as soon as her flock mates realize she is weaker than she was, they will quickly try and take her place in the pecking order.
Hens that are unwell are often hounded to the point the rest of the flock wants them gone. This is probably a survival strategy left over from their wild cousins, but it can be unpleasant for the chicken keeper to see.
Remember, a wild flock of birds is only as strong as its weakest member!
What to do if one hen is pecked too much?
As discussed above, sometimes a single hen can be pecked so much by her flockmates that she sustains an injury. It is not uncommon for birds that are being bullied to end up with open sores that bleed and can become infected.
If this happens to one of your birds you will need to consider removing the injured bird and placing her either in her own run to recover, or segregating a part of her current run where she can live out of reach of the other birds.
The injured bird will need to be given time, and possibly medication, to get over her injuries.
The major problem comes when it is time to try and reintegrate her back into the main flock. In my experience, the best bet is to treat her like a brand new hen and take the same steps as you would if she had never been a member of that flock.
If you can not successfully reintegrate her, she may have to live the rest of her days as a lone specimen, separated from the other chickens.
When Should you intervene if one bird is being pecked too much?
As a general rule, you don’t want to step in and intervene if one bird is being pecked too much, providing that bird is not in danger of being injured.
It usually takes a couple of days for the hens to sort out the pecking order, but if there is still a bit of bickering after a week, it is probably not a major issue still.
If however one bird is clearly in distress and is either injured or appears to be in danger of getting injured, then you may need to step in and try and sort the situation out.
The problem is, the only real course of action open to you is to remove either the bully or the victim, and after you remove them, what do you do with them? It isn’t always easy to add them to another flock, and even reintegrating them back into their own flock once you remove them can be tricky.
Be aware, that if you step in and remove one bird, there is a good chance you will end up with that bird living in a separate coop and run alone from ever.
How to avoid pecking order problems in a flock?
Preventing any pecking issues in a flock is a real challenge. However, there are some things we as chicken keepers can do to reduce the chances there are pecking order problems in our flock.
Primarily, ensure there is enough space for all the hens. Working out exactly how much space each chicken needs can be tricky, but I always give the advice of 2 to 3 sqft of coop space per bird with 8 to 10 sqft of run space per bird in the enclosure.
Each hen will also need about 8″ or 10″ of roosting bars on which to roost at night.
The next thing we can do is to place more than one feeder and waterer in the chicken’s enclosure. Bully chickens will often try and dominate a feeder and they will peck the weaker birds when they come in for food or water.
As a single bird can not dominate more than one feeder at a time, having two or three feeders placed around the run can solve the problem.
Another great potential solution to excessive pecking is to place plenty of line of sight blocks around the run. Bales of straw or stacks of old pallets create places the victim of a bully can go to get away from the bully bird. This can provide vital respite for the bird that is being pecked excessively.
The pecking order in a flock of chickens is totally natural, and in fact, it is essential for the flock to remain in order and work as one for the good of the flock.
Sometimes however the pecking can get out of hand and an individual bird may get pecked excessively, leading to that bird needing to be removed from the flock to have time to recover.
Watching chickens peck one another is usually more distressing for the chicken keeper than it is for the chickens themselves.
If you found this article helpful, why not check out another one I wrote recently titled ‘How to compost chicken poop?’.
- Pecking Behavior in Conventional Layer Hybrids National Library of Medicine
- Feather Pecking Behaviour and associated Welfare issues in Laying Hens Sage Journals
- The peck orders of chickens: How do they develop and why are they linear? Science Direct
- How peck orders of chickens are measured: A critical review Science Direct