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Pecking order

Ever seen your chickens bickering with each other?

It usually happens around a valuable resource like the feeder, the favorite nest box, the higher roost. The aggressor is reminding the other chicken that she is higher-ranking and therefore has first pick in everything. Chickens usually peck at each other to assert their status. In 1921, Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe was first to coin the term “pecking order” to describe the hierarchical social organization in the flock. Each member of the flock has a place on the hierarchy ladder. The pecking order has an influence on many activities such as feeding, drinking, egg laying, roosting, crowing, mating, and even dust bathing. This hierarchy ensures a good cohesion within the flock and fewer quarrels. The alpha chicken is typically the strongest rooster, but in a female only flock, a hen will rise to the position. The alpha chicken is usually the strongest, but not necessarily the largest one. A chicken with a mighty personality can make her way to the top. In my flock, Marjo, a tiny 3lb White Leghorn rescued from a battery cage farm, is #1 whereas Poppy, the 7.5lb Ameraucana is only #2. The pecking order is established when one flock member decides to confront the others. It is usually settled with a couple of pecks, but sometimes it may require chasing, hackles up, and fluffy feathers as intimidation techniques. If none of the chickens back down or if they are equally matched, a real fight may occur. The pecking order can seem quite mean to us humans. Our instinct is to intervene and stop the bossy behavior. But it is necessary and natural. The more you step in and remove birds, the longer you prolong the inevitable. That bird will have to find her place in the flock hierarchy when re-introduced. However a full on pecking order attack can be violent and cause serious injuries including death. As the keeper, you should intervene if blood has been drawn. You need to remove the injured bird quickly and isolate her until she fully recovers. The pecking order is a flexible structure. The lower-ranking birds often try to work their way up the ranks. And sometimes, older birds will give in and let a younger, more eager bird take the lead. Adding or removing birds alters the pecking order. This is the reason why it’s always so challenging to add new chickens into an existing flock. Next newsletter will discuss how to introduce new chickens to your existing flock. The pecking order also changes when a bird is sick or injured. Chickens rarely show signs of illness or weakness. If they do, other flock members will pick on them and either drive them from the flock or kill them. It sounds awful, but it’s simply a survival tactic for the flock. The key to avoid major pecking order problems is to not overcrowd your coop and provide enough resources for all. Each bird needs sufficient ‘personal space’. The 14 sqft/bird rule (4 hen house + 10 run) is not a perfect formula. More space is always better. Have plenty of roosting spots so everyone can perch in peace at night. Add extra roosts if you hear any squabbles at bedtime. And if there is any bickering around food and water, add extra feeding and watering stations. Everyone should have a chance to eat and drink in peace. Peace to your flock!


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