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Kristina Smith
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What is typical pecking order behavior in chickens? And how do you know if your birds have a successful social order? If you have a backyard flock or are even fairly new to this, then you most likely have seen this behavior. Where the birds will chest bump each other, flap their wings, puff themselves up in order to look bigger, and often times pull feathers out as they peck one or several birds.

If you’ve observed this in your birds, where they seemingly pick on each other for no cause, they aren’t necessarily being mean. Because, they aren’t like us. They don’t understand between good and evil, right and wrong. But the chances are high that they are displaying what is called the pecking order.

2 roosters fighting for dominance
Megatron and Baby Nay fight for dominance.

SO WHAT IS THE PECKING ORDER IN CHICKENS?

The earliest use of pecking order referred to chickens displaying their supremacy over each other. It includes pecking and was used in the 1920s by a Norwegian zoologist to describe their behavior.

Pecking is just one aspect of it. However, it does certainly capture the essence of the phrase. Because, the birds in charge, or ahead in the hierarchy, will peck the ones lower down the totem pole to keep everyone in line.

The behavior isn’t just limited to pecking though. Or to adults. If you have an established flock, you might not see a lot of aggression. At least not any more. Because, they’ve settled their class structure for the time being. But, if you add new members, or get chicks, then you tend to see more activity that we would consider ‘mean‘ but are perfectly acceptable to chickens.

As I mentioned earlier, they can puff themselves out and chest thump each other. Typically this occurs with birds of similar rank and size. An adolescent rooster, who just got introduced to the flock, won’t necessarily challenge the established rooster for dominance of the flock. He doesn’t even have his spurs yet. No, he will wait submissively until he’s bigger and thinks he has a chance against the bigger roo.

The same goes for hens. The more accepted, older hens will put the younger, newer ones in their places quickly. And those hens will, likewise, work out the hierarchy between themselves. Depending upon the breeds you have can determine if they will ascend to top dog position; some birds aspire to rule, it seems, while nobody wants to be on the bottom.

dominant hen in social order
The hen eating is more dominant than the others waiting around.

WHY IS THE CHICKEN PECKING ORDER IMPORTANT?

The purpose of the pecking order for chickens is simply to keep order. If they didn’t have a class system, it would be chaotic in the backyard. So, if you only have one chicken, you aren’t going to have a pecking order. Or see much pecking order activity. Although, once you get more birds, they will quickly establish their social order. And normally it’s the most socially dominant hen in charge, unless you have a rooster.

If there is just one rooster, he’s in charge. And then the most socially dominant hens, working out their own class system between themselves. Though, if you have two roosters, it’s usually the most aggressive one who’s boss, unless one of them is young. And then the young rooster is somewhere in the mix; he can be just below the boss rooster or even under the oldest hens. We have two roosters, and I’ve only witnessed one of our hens still pecking and even raising her neck feathers on Baby Nay. And for whatever reason, he is cowed into submission, even though he’s bigger. However, I wonder how long that will last.

When Cass, our last rooster, died, and Megatron became the boss, he was very eager to do his duty. Although, our two boss hens, Fives and Echo, had a thing or two they wanted to teach him before they would allow him to take over.

They were never mean to my rooster before; they never had a cause to prior to this. However, when he assumed a new position, and a very important one at that, I can well imagine that the two sisters had some very momentous things they wanted Megatron to understand. He was maybe only a year old, and they were old hands at this, raising chicks and wayward roosters. They were better suited to protect the flock than the last rooster, and they knew it. So they weren’t about to let some upstart waltz in their flock, acting like he knew what he was doing, when he didn’t.

It was actually quite interesting to watch how they interacted with him. I’m not kidding you, those two old hens tackled my 1 year old rooster. And at first, he fought back, but then, I think he began to understand that he was not the boss . . . yet. It was a demonstration in front of the whole flock. After a while their abuse ceased. And over the next few days the girls eased up on him, possibly giving him instructions on how to take care of his harem, before they too submitted themselves to him.

chickens in established pecking order
A harmonious flock where every member knows their place in the social order.

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE CHICKEN PECKING ORDER?

I’ve already mentioned that there will be pecking in a backyard flock. And for an established flock, it’s limited to mostly pecking. In a new or young flock, or one where new members are being added, you will see more serious attacks between members. Although, that isn’t all that it’s about. The pecking order determines when the birds eat, drink, lay eggs, dust bathe, and where they sleep. And in the case of roosters, when they can crow and mate. So the birds at the top of the hierarchy get first and best dibs, while those on the bottom get the leftovers.

If a chicken steps out of line, metaphorically, and eats before they’re supposed to, or is laying an egg when the boss hen wants to, then the boss hen, (or the hen who’s in a better position on the social ladder), will peck the hen who usurped her place and the hen with the lower social standing will get in trouble. I have seen hens drag other hens away from the feed dish or nesting box. They are that serious about their pecking order. And the hen who got pecked usually doesn’t retaliate even if she’s ten times bigger and could crush the other bird.

Currently we only have our rooster as the boss. And since Echo and Fives died, no other hens have risen to the challenge to take their places in guiding the flock. I shouldn’t be surprised, since most of our birds are docile. They’re content with their positions, so long as they’re not on the bottom. You can read about them here.

You know your backyard flock has a successful social order when the boss maintains the peace. Usually that position is reserved mostly for roosters, however a good hen can do this as well. Sometimes a hen or a rooster will step out of line and disturb the homeostasis for only a moment. In which case, the boss will soon take care of it.

If there are 2 roosters, and the younger one upsets that balance, he might end up challenging the boss rooster. That’s what happened in the picture below. Since Megatron still has his spurs and is much bigger, Baby Nay lost the fight. Normally Baby Nay will run from confrontations with his dad. But not that day. For whatever reason, he decided it was time to take the risk.

2 roosters establish pecking order

HOW TO TELL IF IT’S NORMAL PECKING ORDER BEHAVIOR INSTEAD BULLYING

How can you know if your birds are displaying normal social order activity? I mean, it sort of looks like they’re all bullies, right? I admit, for a long time it bothered me how my backyard flock treated each other. But, especially how the adults would treat the younger birds.

When we have adolescent chickens, and Megatron gets around them, he makes a special point of pecking them. And it appears really hard. But that might be due to his larger beak.

It wasn’t until quite recently that I realized he’s most likely using his authority as the boss to teach and keep the youngsters in line. And not really being mean and wanting to eat his kids.

When you introduce new members to your existing flock, it will inevitably look like abuse. But especially if you do it too fast, only introduce one new member, or one of the chickens gets an injury or has an abnormality. Make no mistake, the chickens will abuse that bird. And it won’t be just one mean hen. In general, even your sweetest hens will join in the abuse. And you will have absolutely no doubts.

flock of hens on green field
Photo by Alexas Fotos on Pexels.com

WHAT TO DO IF A BIRD GETS TOO BULLIED

It does happen with the backyard flock; you will inevitably get a chicken who will be the bully. Or, you will get a hen who will be the one who gets bullied. We have had both kinds of birds, and both can be frustrating. I want all of our birds to get along. However, that’s not how they are built. They are built to eat, drink, sleep, have chicks, and survive. If there’s a member of the flock who is weaker, they automatically pick on that one. Maybe they’re trying to beat the weakness out of that particular member, but I don’t really think so.

They certainly don’t have human emotions; our complex emotions like feeling sorry or sorrow for something that is weaker, hurt, or sick. They want it far from them. It could be instinctual, because they’re preventing the spread of disease. The time we had Kix, the Wyandotte mixed hen we incubated, (who had a leg that didn’t develop completely), the flock abused her. Though, she learned to hide from the rest of the birds. And eventually the abuse stopped, perhaps because they figured she knew her place.

The times when we’ve had a relentlessly abusive hen, we’ve separated her from the flock. Because, the birds like to stay together. And they have their social order established, so if you separate them, totally away from each other, even for a day, sometimes they have to start all over. Which means the offending bird will stop behaving badly, at least for a time.

Another option, which we’ve tried, is Pinless Peepers or Blinders, by attaching them to the hens nostrils. They make it difficult for the disagreeable hen to see very much, so that she can’t abuse anymore. Pinless Peepers are also a good preventative for egg-eating and cannibalism. The hens don’t like them obviously, and they can be difficult to put on. Although, once they’re on, they help a ton.

For more information on the chicken pecking order, click here.

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