The chicken "pecking order" – (and animal hierarchies in general) have always been a source of fascination for me. When I started my own flock seven years ago consisting of hand-me-down banties, my daily observations of the dynamic world of chicken social standing began. As a life-long observer of domestic and wild animals and a trained wildlife biologist, I have logged thousands of hours observing and interpreting animal behaviors and social interactions. That said, I am also an avid student of this past-time and as such, am constantly learning and refining my own interpretations. I thought I would take this opportunity to present a few of the common social behaviors I've observed in my new young flock and what I believe the significance of these interactions to be from a "chicken hierarchy" standpoint. I will try and present "just the facts, ma'am" with a minimum of anthropomorphism but let's face it; the behavior and attitudes exhibited by our feathered family members often begs for a little color commentary! I hope you enjoy and perhaps recognize the two examples from this, the first installment of pecking order behaviors and interpretations:
Subject: Mixed flock of thirty-three (33) buff orpington and Plymouth barred rock chicks.
Background: All chicks in the subject group (except one buff orp pullet I hatched out) are mail-order chicks hatched February 11, 2013. Approximately 30 birds are pullets with two or three cockerels starting to emerge.
Observation #1: “
This is one of the first social observations I made among my brood on day six, A.H. (After Hatching). I am still refining my interpretation of this quirky behavior but am now convinced it is, in fact, a social activity often displayed by the same individuals yet never observed in many others. This activity is usually initiated when something potentially good to eat is discovered by an individual or when presenting a particularly tasty treat to the whole group. The chaos ensues when one or (less often) two individuals grabs a chunk of the coveted item and races willy-nilly through the group, loudly announcing its prize with a nasally, “Peer-Peer-Peer!” call. Inevitably a few others in the group will hotly pursue the exclaiming individual until; A) they successfully snatch the morsel from the first bird or; B) lose track of (or interest in) the instigator. This strange but entertaining exchange appears to be initiated by birds which are somewhat bolder and more outgoing than some others in the flock. I believe it to be an early example of “leadership development” among birds attempting to attract followers. I’ve since observed these individuals continuing to develop confidence and often are among the first chicks to try new activities and investigate novel stimuli.
Observation #2: “Get Off my Back”
This activity is a favorite among many chicks and there are very few (perhaps 10%) in which I have never observed it. Alternatively; there are a handful that seem to be making it a signature move! This action is most often initiated when there is a cluster of birds vying for a spot at the feeder or treat bowl but it may be seen at random moments by a handful of birds that seem to have really taken a liking to the tactic. Essentially, it involves the instigator launching itself onto the back of an unsuspecting victim. This seems a bit underhanded to the observer (here I go anthropomorphizing!) however; the victim’s surprise and shock seems short-lived and no long-term effects are apparent. The move is effective, to be sure, and the “jumper” usually is rewarded by the “jumpee’s” instantaneous vault out of position, affording the offending bird a spot at the trough. That result at least is understandable but what I have not yet identified is an obvious reason for the occasional “random attacks” that occur. These are the situations in which some individuals just seem to be ambushing their sisters purely for effect. Time will tell if these same individuals turn out to be roosters, bullies, or simply grow out of it.
Well, that’s all we have time for today. I hope to see you back for the next installment of pecking order behaviors and interpretations!