We have all heard about the pecking order, but what exactly is it?
The term is used to describe the social hierarchy of chickens.
However to say the pecking order applies only to chickens is a bit misleading. All complex social groups have some sort of order in place.
The order does many things. It maintains a fairly strict code of conduct, clear lines of command and also a fluidity that allows chickens to rise or descend the ladder according to their personality and general wellbeing.
In this article you will learn everything you need to know about the pecking order including how it came to be and why it is so important to your flock.
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What Is The Pecking Order
Imagine a company such as Microsoft or Pepsi.
Now think of that company as a family unit.
At the head is the CEO, followed by other high ranking officials and so on all the way down to the workers – this is a pecking order. The phrase was first used back in 1921 by a Norwegian zoologist (Thorleif Schjelderup Ebbe) when he was researching chickens and their dominance hierarchy.
In the chicken world, the rooster is the CEO of the coop.
If there are no roosters there will be a head hen.
The top chickens get the best: safest perches, first dibs at tasty treats, best dust bathing spots and so on.
Further down the pecking order are the other hens and young roosters. Depending on their standing, they will take their turn for food and water accordingly.
The pecking order is a social hierarchy.
However it isn not a single hierarchy, there are three distinct hierarchies in action:
- Rooster to rooster
- Hens to hens
- Roosters to hens
The rooster is only one small (but important) part of the equation though because the hens will have their pecking order. This all this meshes together to form a tight cohesive group known as the flock. And they all come together seamlessly to form the overall social stratification that we see in action.
Why Do Chickens Have A Pecking Order?
Every functional society has a system of rules by which it is governed.
Without these rules the society will disintegrate and chaos will ensue – chickens are no different. They may only be chickens, but they do have a fully integrated social hierarchy for survival.
There has to be a chief who makes the decisions, guards the flocks, finds food and provides safety.
Following on down from the chief are the flock members, all in order of seniority or merit. The older ones teach the younger ones and so forth.
How Does The Pecking Order Establish Itself
The pecking order competition begins early on in life.
As chicks they will be rushing around bumping chests and having stare downs.
This is the start of the race to the top and it will usually start around six weeks of age but can be sooner.
Through these small skirmishes the pecking order will be established based on seniority, merit and assertiveness.
Once a rooster has worked his way to the top he will guide the flock for some time. He has great responsibility and if he does not perform well then he in turn will be challenged.
The hens that have pecked their way to the top, will hang onto that position for as long as they are able.
In the wild, life is not kind. Older hens will be ejected from the flock to fend for themselves.
5 Factors That Influence It
Breeds and Personality
A chicken’s personality is probably the biggest influencer.
Assertive breeds such as Rhode Island Reds will be higher up the pecking order than a Silkie or a Polish.
Silkies and other gentle breeds are almost always at the bottom of the ladder in mixed flocks.
Even large chickens such as Brahmas can be subordinate to a smaller but assertive breed. Some breeds are so assertive that they cannot be kept together in a small area – Asils and Malays come to mind.
Chickens that are weak or sick will be pushed to the bottom of the pecking order.
You may not even realize that a chicken is sick, but flock mates will know.
Chickens try to hide any illness or weakness from you and their flock mates in order to remain with the flock and the safety it provides.
In the wild, poorly, sick or disabled birds would be driven from the flock or possibly killed because they represent a threat to the entire flock. A sick chicken becomes a liability to the safety of all flock members and this cannot be tolerated.
Roosters and Hens
In the chicken world, the rooster rules.
He is dominant and all others are submissive to him.
However, that does not mean he always gets what he wants. If a hen does not want to submit to him then she won’t and may not ever mate with him.
A rooster will impact the pecking order because he is the one who keeps the peace within the group, he will stop squabbles and fights.
In the absence of a rooster, there will be a head hen who rules the flock.
Introducing new chickens can be an anxiety ridden time for flock keepers.
All the new hens will be viewed as a threat by the established flock, regardless of whether they are chicks or not. They are viewed as competing for resources and as such cannot be tolerated.
This is why the introduction must go slowly.
Once the new flock members have been accepted into the flock, the more assertive will try to climb the social ladder as quickly as they can and will likely earn a few pecks on the way. You may think chickens are scatterbrained, but a lot of plotting and scheming goes on in those pretty little heads.
The death of a flock member will cause a reset in the order.
If the hen was high up in the ranks then there will be a bit of jostling for position. Usually this jostling will only last for a few days at the most.
Whereas if it was a hen at the bottom of the ladder it will not cause much disruption.
Can The Pecking Order Change?
The order will change whenever there is a change in flock dynamic.
Some common examples include:
- If a flock member dies then the order will change. This change can be dramatic if it is a senior bird that has died.
- Each time new flock members are added there is a scramble to start climbing up the social ladder.
- If a young rooster challenges the head rooster and wins, there is tremendous upheaval as the favorite hens will change too.
- Hens that become ill, weak or disabled will be relegated to the bottom of the hierarchy. In the wild they would be driven from the flock.
- When young pullets mature they will try to climb the social ladder quickly and so the more timid flock members will find themselves at the bottom of the pecking order while younger ones climb upward.
Usually these changes will go fairly smoothly. You should expect a bit of pecking and feather pulling but they should all settle into their spot until the next adjustment.
Common Problems With The Pecking Order
Perhaps the most common problem with the pecking order is bullying.
This happens because certain members of the flock do not know their place and what is expected of them.
Once in a while you will get a bully hen who thinks it is her job to be mean to everyone lower than her. These bullies are usually around the middle of the order and take out their ill humor on the lower ranking chickens.
She may block them from access to food, or simply follow them around pecking at them and pulling out their feathers.
If she continues in this vein for a while then she needs to go to jail for a few days.
Isolating her from the flock in a small cage with food and water for a few days may do the trick. Once she is returned to the flock, she will have to start trying to climb the social pecking order again since she will be seen as a new girl.
If you have a really good rooster then occurrences like this will be few and far between.
The second most common problem people have with the pecking order is integrating new flock members.
This causes confusion and distress for your chickens.
All integrations should be done slowly so each group can become used to the other. Once they finally get to mix together, there should be plenty of hidey holes, quiet spots and extra feeders and waterers so the new hens can escape if they need to and eat and drink too.
The first several days they are all together will remain a bit tense. You can expect feather plucking and pecking, but the fuss should die down within a week or so.
Just as a word of caution, you should never introduce a single chicken to an established flock. When you add a small group, the harassment is spread between them all, but a single hen does not stand a chance.
How To Prevent Pecking Order Issues
The best way to prevent pecking order problems is to choose and mix your breeds wisely.
Gentle breeds such as the Silkie, Cochin, Polish and Sultans can be safely kept together.
Assertive breeds such as Rhode Island Reds, Welsummers, New Hampshires and Crevecoeurs really should not be mixed with the gentle breeds. They will pick at head feathers, toe feathers and can be very obnoxious. There are also some breeds (Malay, Asil and other game type birds) that should never be kept in a mixed flock.
Also remember that the degree of dominance in all of these breeds can vary greatly from strain to strain.
The next thing to consider is your coop design.
A well designed coop can help to reduce the bad behaviors of the pecking order. It cannot be stressed enough that giving your chickens enough space will help to reduce the number of incidents you see.
In coops that are too small, the chickens at the bottom of the order will suffer. They will be pecked and plucked and their lives will be miserable.
The minimum amount of space for each chicken should be 4 square feet – obviously more is better.
Now onto effective flock management.
Flock management can mean several things, but here it is used to mean how you keep your chickens happy and productive.
Can you spot any bullying behaviors? Do you have any hens that look tatty for no good reason, perhaps they are not laying eggs? Check her out for parasites but also keep an eye open for any bullies. Every now and then you will get two (or more) hens than will gang up on a weaker flock member and make her life horrible.
You cannot change or eliminate the pecking order, all you can do is be the flock police and keep on top of bullying.
The final thing you can do is manage the mix of hens and roosters.
You have to think about the hen to rooster ratio. If you have a small flock your head rooster is unlikely to tolerate more than one other rooster. If you have a large flock (12+ hens) then this should not be a problem.
Read how many roosters can I have? the golden ratio explained.
The hen to rooster ratio is important here because you do not want your hens to be run ragged by too many roosters.
Popular Breeds And Where They Sit In The Pecking Order
|Breed||Pecking Order Position|
|Rhode Island Reds||Top|
Gentle breeds such as Silkie, Cochin, Faverolles, Polish and Orpingtons are almost always near the bottom of the pecking order.
Polish are frequently victims of feather plucking which leaves their hair looking much worse for wear!
In the middle of the order you have the Delaware, Barnevelder, Brahma and other similar temperament chickens. They will settle into the middle ranks and are generally not concerned about rising to the top.
Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshire and other birds that may have a little gamebird in them are the go-getters. They want to be on top and nobody should stand in their way.
The pecking order can be messy and violent but it usually looks worse than it actually is.
Try never to interfere unless it starts to get bloody.
It may surprise you to learn that the pecking order is vital for the survival of all of its members, without it they would be very easy pickings for predators.
Once you understand the flock dynamics it can be fascinating watching them all in action.
A look, a peck, or even a squawk can indicate that a hen has stepped over the line and has been reminded in no uncertain terms.
When you watch your flock peacefully pecking away in the yard chatting to each other, it is hard to imagine all the intrigue and social positioning that is part of being a chicken!
Do you have questions about the pecking order? Let us know below…
I’m rebuilding my flock after losses. I have 3 Bantam hens that survived and RIR Cockrell who is in charge but also subservient to the Bantam hens at times. Typically one of the hens gas gone broody sitting and that’s kicked off one of the other hens the most dominant. My 6 week old Chicks are now free ranging from separate hen house – I was hoping they would merge but 3/4 days in the range pen together not seeing evidence but small chasing and gentle pecking, I have my second batch of chicks in broader this weekend coming hope to evict the pullers to join the established hierarchy- advise please.
I would wait until the chicks are at least 12 weeks old until you start to integrate them.