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Understanding the Chicken Pecking Order

Understanding the Chicken Pecking Order

The Pecking Order in Backyard Chickens

The phrase "pecking order" literally describes the hierarchical social order of a flock of chickens. This expression not only describes poultry behaviour, it also details a social leadership ranking among people. The term was first coined by Norweigian zoologist Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe back in 1921. His study observed the noticeable social order of chickens and how chickens understand the social hierarchy. 

In a backyard chicken flock, the pecking order details which chickens can access feed and water first, which chickens will get first pick of any treats and even where chickens roost at night! 

How the pecking order is established

For chickens, the term "pecking order" is quite literal. Chickens peck each other to establish their rank in the social hierarchy. 

It's not pretty, but pecking among chickens is normal behaviour. Social status is settled when more dominant chickens peck weaker or more submissive chickens into compliance. 

When a pecking order is being established, chickens can be quite violent and bloody. This is particularly the case where the loser refuses to show submission. Chickens will puff out their chests and ruffle their feathers, but they will also scuffle and peck one another.

Fights over the pecking order are most common when introducing new birds to the flock. But they can also occur when something else upsets the status quo - this could be a change of scenery, new treats, maturing, ageing or even a hen being sick or injured.

Once a pecking order is established, as long as there is nothing to upset the social hierarchy, pecking that causes injury is uncommon. Usually, a mere look from a dominant hen will usually put a weaker hen in her place. Or sometimes the dominant hen will resort to a sharp peck on the head for an un-submissive subordinate. 

Where does the rooster sit in the pecking order?

A strong "Alpha Rooster" will almost always dominate a flock of chickens. Roosters may show their dominance by being rough with the hens, but more commonly they will be so assured of their place that they needn't even involve themselves in pecking order dramas. 

Often, having a rooster stabilises the pecking order. Some roosters will even break up fights or prevent bullying among the hens. But roosters can be rough when mating with hens, so unless you have a sizeable flock - at least 6 hens, and ideally 10 or more - keeping a rooster can cause other injuries to hens.

While roosters almost never get involved with the hen's pecking order, they do have a pecking order with other roosters. Regular, bloody fights between roosters are common, especially if the roosters are of a similar age and size, and can result in serious injuries. Unlike with hens, rooster fights are often ongoing. Unless one of the roosters is willing to be subordinate, the fights will continue.

Although roosters can learn to live with each other without fighting, this is usually only the case where there are no hens present. In a regular backyard flock the only way to stop roosters fighting and injuring each other is usually to separate them. 

How to prevent major pecking injuries

When chickens are establishing a hierarchy, there may be a lot of pecking going on, particularly if you have just introduced new chickens to your coop. But the pecking and squabbles should stop in a few days. If the pecking continues, or a bird is injured, then you need to act to prevent the behaviour from getting out of hand.

Chickens are curious. If another bird looks strange - for example if it has an injury or is bleeding, it is common for chickens to peck at the wound. Therefore, always remove injured birds and only return them to the flock when their wound is no longer noticeable.

Sometimes pecking is caused by bullying behaviour, and will not stop even when the social hierarchy is stabilised. Also, chickens are more likely to bully and peck each other when they are bored or don't have enough space. 

Evaluate your backyard chicken coop to see what changes you can incorporate to reduce the risk of relentless bullying behaviours.

  1. Is your chicken coop big enough?

    Just like humans, chickens require some space to be on their own from time to time. If they do not have a little pocket of their own space, or spaces to hide and roost, then the hens will most certainly bicker. If you are unable to increase the size of the coop, consider increasing the size of the chicken run, giving them more opportunities to explore during the day and get their own space. If you do have a bullying problem, providing spaces for birds to hide can help reduce the problem. Just be careful not to provide hiding spots where birds can be cornered by bullies!

  2. Are your chickens bored

    Chickens are a naturally curious and inquisitive bird, requiring places to scratch, and something that stimulates their senses. Bored chickens will often turn against their hen friends, pecking them and pulling out their feathers. To beat boredom, give your hens something to do, such as room for a dust bath, a foraging garden or a pecking block.

  3. Room to eat and drink

    If food and water supply is limited, or is placed in a crowded corner of a coop, chickens will often battle it out to get to the feed. A simple solution is to provide an extra feeder and drinker. Sometimes the bullying may become so extreme that smaller or weaker birds are prevented from eating and drinking by a single alpha hen or group of hens.

  4. Adding a new chicken to the flock

    Introducing a new chicken to an established pecking order can provoke a civil war among your hens. You will find that adding a new breed can also cause an unsettled period, as some breeds are more territorial than others and unless you have a mixed flock already, hens can be funny about birds that "look" different. For this reason it is important that you do not rush the process of integration. 

    Always try to add more than one chicken to your flock at a time. There is safety in numbers. 

    The best way way to introduce the new birds is by adding a chicken run alongside the existing run, allowing your hens to mingle without physically touching. Try this method for a week before adding new birds into the existing flock. Introduce the new hens to your yard before your flock comes out to free-range. Give the hens plenty of food and treats to eat before the introduction, and allow them to come together for a short period of time before you return the new hens to their own individual chicken run. Repeat several times before a permanent introduction late in the evening, just as birds are going up to roost, but make sure you're up early to monitor your flock the next morning! This method also works by introducing a small coop in the chicken run.

  5. Do you have too many chickens?

    Studies have shown that chickens can only remember about 30 other birds. If you have a flock of more than 30, chickens cannot remember their place in it and every time they meet another bird, they need to re-establish the pecking order. This is why fights and pecking behaviour are so much more common on commercial farms, where flocks can have hundreds or thousands of birds.

  6. Remove the ringleader

    If your prime bully continues to persist with her harmful behaviour you can opt to remove her from the coop for a couple of weeks. When you reintroduce her to the flock, a new pecking order will have been established.

Some chicken breeds are natural bullies

The majority or the time when you see pecking within your flock, it is harmless social dominance behaviour. However, bullying behaviour such as feather pecking can be more common among some breeds than others. For instance, ISA Brown hens are known for feather pecking, usually due to boredom or protein deficiency.

Your backyard chickens may exhibit healthy social habits, up until the point you introduce a different breed of hen to the coop. The different temperament of breeds can make problems, with some exhibiting more pushy bahaviour than others can trigger bullying among the birds.

For this reason, it is advisable that before introducing new birds to your flock you should see if the breeds are mostly compatible and avoid introducing mild-tempered breeds to a more boisterous flock!

Stop bullying in your flock

Although there will always be the odd bully, most chickens are unlikely to bully others or participate in unhealthy behaviours like feather pecking or vent pecking if they are happy. And how do you keep chickens happy? Provide plenty of space and stimulation. 

For example, bullying is much less common in free-range flocks and especially those with lots of space. When there is plenty of space, not only does the bully have better things to do, like foraging for insects and dust bathing, but the victims can easily avoid the bully for most of the day!

And if your flock has limited space, limit the number of chickens you keep and choose more mild-mannered breeds. Providing plenty of stimulation in the form of treats and toys can also help.

Happy chicken keeping!

Rachael at Dine a Chook