What Is The Pecking Order And Why Is It Important?

Being lower in the pecking order than the black chest rooster, the lighter rooster left the hens as soon as the rooster higher in the pecking order arrived.

The chicken is a social bird that enjoys the company of its flock. Many social animals work out a hierarchy, and the chicken is no exception. The hierarchy created is a means of attaining and keeping order. When referring to this ordered social structure in chickens, and sometimes other bird species, it is called the Pecking Order.

The pecking order is a natural process that chickens have to work out among themselves. This order of social dynamics determines the status of individual birds of a flock and their roles. The pecking order has an influence on many chicken activities such as feeding, drinking, egg laying, roosting, crowing, mating and even dust bathing. Stronger members of a flock are ranked at the top of the pecking order, while more submissive or physically weaker birds are placed lower in the order. Alpha roosters who are healthy will crow to signal their dominance to the other chickens and often take on the job as head of the flock. Roosters who are the flock leader will look out for the hens by watching for predators, find them treats, mating and chasing other roosters away from the hens. Roosters and cockerels lower in the pecking order do not crow or breed with hens when the rooster higher than they are is around. Hens high in the pecking order are known to chase other hens out of nest boxes that they favor. The higher ranking chickens get to eat more while the lower ranking members usually wait or move out of the way until the higher placed chickens have had their fill. Chickens with higher status in the pecking order get to choose where they will roost, leaving the other chickens to take whatever roosts are left.

I have even noticed that my hens apply the pecking order to the water dishes as well. The top hens will peck at the lower hens until they move. The weaker hens then have to wait until the dominant hens are gone to drink, or position themselves between roosters to avoid the higher hens.

The pecking order is established early in a chicken’s life when raised in a flock. Young chicks peck each other and bully one another when they are around food. The stronger chicks get to eat first, or eat the best foods and treats. Pullets and cockerels that grow up together will run and bump into each other, with the stronger one often chasing the other.

After slight pecks, chasing and minor disputes on the roosts, order is established and is evident by the peaceful nature of the flock, because each bird knows where they rank and who they can and can not push around. Unless a member of the flock is removed or added, the pecking order may remain the same for a long time, although it is never permanent. One bird will always find another that it can push around, allowing that one to climb higher in the pecking order.

How The Pecking Order Works

Chickens use the rooster dance to dominate other members of their flock.

Pecking order positions are established when one or more flock members are confronted by another member. If one of the chickens turns out to be stronger or more intimidating than the other(s) being challenged, the individual that is weaker will back down and is now lower in the order than the stronger member. If neither chicken is willing to back down or they are equally matched, a quarrel may occur. According to how determined each bird is to become the higher ranking, the dispute can be minor and no longer than a few seconds with minimal injuries such as loosing a few feathers, to minutes with a possible risk of serious injuries like eye loss or even death. I personally suggest that you should try not to interfere with chickens establishing their pecking order unless blood is shed, in which case you should separate the injured bird from the aggressor to prevent further injuries.

One of my roosters that ranks at the top of the pecking order in his flock. He is flapping his wings together to make a loud clapping sound, announcing that he is at the top of the pecking order.

Usually the pecking order is established with a peck or two from a dominant chicken to a less dominate bird though it sometimes requires chasing and the use of other body language as well. Flaring hackle feathers with the head usually lowered is used as an intimidation technique. Both roosters/cockerels and hens/pullets can fluff and flare out their hackle feathers. Loud wing flapping with the head held high and chest puffed out is a way to show dominance, while flapping with a lowered head and a slight run in the opposite direction of the opposing chicken is a way for one chicken to show submission without ever touching each other, preventing possible damage to itself. Another common non violent way for one bird to show they are high in the pecking order is the wing dance(or chicken/rooster dance). The dominant bird will come up sideways to the other bird, lower their outer wing and ‘dance’ in a half circle around the other chicken. If the other chicken runs or walks away, the dominant chicken is now higher than that bird in the pecking order.

New Chickens And The Pecking Order

To avoid possibly serious injuries to newly acquired chickens that you want to introduce to an existing flock, separate the new chickens from your current flock with a cage or large dog crate. If possible, you can also section off a portion of your current coop/run for the new birds that you can later remove if you wish. Keeping them separated but visible to the existing chickens will allow your current chickens to get acquainted with the new chickens. This way they can start the pecking order while getting to know each other through interaction without actually coming into contact with one another and it will also give you an idea of how they may act once they are together. I keep new birds separated about one to two weeks, depending on how well they behave with each other while in the temporary cage, before I let them out into the actual flock. To make the pecking order process even less stressful to new chickens, provide plenty of hiding places for them, multiple feed and water areas, and plenty of roosts in the coop.

The rooster with his wings open is being chased away from the hens by the more dominant rooster. Being lower in the pecking order means he does not get to mate with the hens.

You And The Pecking Order

As a chicken owner your chickens may view you as a member of their flock, which places you in the pecking order. Normally, A strong and healthy rooster is at the top of the pecking order as the leader of the flock. In the absence of a rooster, the most dominate hen will take the rooster’s place. The top bird is strong willed and keeps the rest of the flock in order, breaking up fights and caring for the hens. Sometimes a rooster will try to challenge a human if they view the human as part of the flock. Doing the chicken/wing dance around you and charging towards you are some of the first signs of a rooster (or sometimes hen) trying to dominate you. Pecking and jumping at you to claw or spur you and attacking you every time you turn your back usually follows, with the birds behavior getting worse and more aggressive every time they see an opportunity. If you experience this or similar behavior from a chicken, that chicken is trying to dominate you.

If you catch this behavior early you can stop it by making the chicken view you as the dominate one. First, never run from the bird, stand your ground or run and chase him. If he still tries to attack you, one technique you can try is to grab him and hold him down to the ground with a hand around his wings and back, and a hand over his head or neck. Gently hold the chicken to the ground until it calms down, then you can let it up. Do this one or two times and it should correct the behavior and how he views you. This is how I correct any rooster that tries to attack me and it works nearly every time, but sometimes the aggressive bird will not give up. In this case, I usually send that bird to the stew pot, but if you don’t want to do it then you can give it to someone else as long as you make sure they know the bird is aggressive.

The larger red rooster is chicken dancing around the other rooster to show he is higher ranking in the pecking order.
A human aggressive chicken can cause some pretty painful wounds. If you have children around your chickens, I suggest keeping roosters pinned up when the children are outside because children like to run and play. This behavior is normal to us, but to a protective rooster it can seem threatening and cause him to attack. With children being shorter than adults the attack could cause serious facial damage, especially to the eyes.

Two roosters flaring their hackle feathers. Although separated by a fence, the red one soon ran off
and is now lower ranking than the other one.

Topic of the Week - Chicken behaviour and flock dynamics - Part 1 - The pecking order

Topic of the Week - Chicken Behaviour and Flock Dynamics Part 2 - Bullying Behaviour