Chicken Pecking Order: How, Where, When and Why
Two hens eat peacefully with our rooster in an established hierarchy in a good environment
All flocks of domestic chickens will establish a pecking order – a well defined social hierarchy that determines the rank of every chicken from the top to the bottom. This behavior among chickens is centuries old, long observed by every keeper of chickens. However, the phrase “pecking order” was first introduced in the 1920’s by German biologists who determined that chickens maintain a hierarchy by pecking at chickens of lower status within the flock. Noting the similarities of pecking order in human and corporate behavior, the term became a broadly used colloquial expression in the 1950’s.
In a flock of chickens the most obvious indication of “pecking order” is the pecking of one chicken at the neck and head area of another chicken who is usually of lower status. This behavior is used to intimidate and distress the other chicken, giving the pecking chicken the advantage to food, water and social rank. Yet pecking, or stabbing with their beaks, is not the only method chickens use to maintain their status. There are clearly observable behaviors that become quite evident as each chicken jockeys for higher rank within the flock. Chickens will squawk and squabble, chase, bunt, elevate themselves, and give other chickens “the eye”, staring them down. Their body language also includes, especially on the part of roosters, a lot of posturing: puffing themselves up to look bigger, standing up higher than others, and craning their necks to heighten their position over the others, giving them the physical and psychological advantage over their lesser counterparts. The less dominant chickens learn to defer to the dominant ones. They tuck and turn away, run, give up their position or food to the more dominant chicken, and completely avoid eye contact. These submissive hens and roosters are the ones who will have to wait for their food, or scoot in quickly to grab a bite and run, hoping not to get pecked.
This posturing is clearly evident within a newly established flock, as each chicken tries to peck its way to a higher rung on the status ladder. Every chicken is born with individual traits and personalities, so some will be much more aggressive in this pursuit to be top chicken, while others will not be so persistent in fighting their way to the top. Factors that may influence individual chickens are genetic tendencies, age, gender, and territoriality. Young chickens, females and hybrid breeds tend to be less aggressive than their counterparts.
Baby Chicks Source: http:www.flickr.com/photos/mikeporesky/
Another factor that will influence flock dynamics and the intensity of fighting is the environment in which the chickens live. In a flock that is confined to a small, enclosed space, the fighting will be much more intense, as the chickens are forced to interact with each other as a group, competing for resources, and having nowhere to get away to, to escape the feuding. Given enough space, feed, water and diversions, chickens will be much less likely to challenge or to actively reinforce their social status. They will form smaller subgroups, also ranked, within the larger flock.
Any time that the pecking order is challenged, the process is repeated. When new chickens are introduced into a flock, the pecking order needs to be re-established, and new chickens must fight their way up the ladder. When a bird is sick or injured, it is immediately relegated to a lower status, and may be pecked and vigorously attacked by the others. If two or more roosters are in a flock, they will challenge each other, as will a particularly aggressive hen. The pecking can be loud and violent, but it is necessary for chickens to establish this hierarchy. It is important for the chicken caretaker not to intervene unless there is a potentially lethal situation.
As a young chicken, Henny Penny was severely injured (including a broken foot) and picked on by the flock. She was removed from the flock for her safety, moved into the horse barn where she now lives as a happy free-ranger
Once a hierarchy is established, chickens function within their roles - as leaders, protectors, aggressors, or as quieter, gentler followers. When they “know their place” within the flock, incidents are more quickly resolved, and the dynamics help keep the flock as a safe and cohesive group. The leaders take the role of seeing that the needs of the flock are met: they may eat first, and eat the most, but they will also stand guard while the others eat, and will attack and fight an outside aggressor who threatens their flock. There will be broody hens, and protector hens, docile followers and nurturing ones.
Enough food and space for everyone
Pecking order is a natural and necessary system with any domestic flock of birds. Although painful and sometimes downright traumatic for us chicken keepers to observe, this process of defining a hierarchy within the flock eventually does serve to create a more civil and peaceful social environment for all of them.
Link to BBC clip on Chicken Pecking Order: