Understanding the Pecking Order in Chickens
Shortly after I got my recent flock of chickens, I quickly decided to add more chicks to my flock. It was quite the process of integrating the two flocks! After I got them all to be “one happy family”, I felt more comfortable. If you’ve integrated flocks, you know exactly what I’m talking about!
One day, our daughter came running into the house yelling for me. “Mom! I think Georgia is dying!” I frantically ran out to the coop to find Georgia, my Barnevelder, lying on her back not moving. I was completely freaked out! I ran to her and realized she was actually still alive but seemed to be playing dead. I got her on her feet, and her comb was all bloody. I realized that day that Georgia was at the very bottom of the pecking order.
My Barnevelder, Georgia.
What is the Pecking Order?
So many people laugh when I tell them that pecking order is a real thing. If you think about it though, life is a little bit like that. There is a “pecking order” in most workplaces even. Chickens are no different and in fact, this is where the term pecking order came from. According to an article by the University of Cincinnati, the term pecking order dates back to 1921 by a Norwegian zoologist, Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe. He studied dominance and hierarchies by studying domestic chickens.
Pecking order starts as early as the brooder days. I remember my little chicks getting ornery with each other. They constantly tried to peck each other to see who would come out on top. This carries into their adult bird stage. The top hen is considered the “alpha” and the second in the order is called the “beta.” The chickens have worked this out and know the order. It’s incredible to watch them submit to some but stand up to others. The chickens will respect the alpha chicken.
My first alpha chicken, Bitty, was an incredible coop boss! She would make sure the old girls would accept the new girls into the flock without giving up her spot. I watched her break up chicken quarrels, protect a smaller chicken and warn the flock of any possible danger.
Being the head of the pecking order doesn't just mean they get what they want. Without a rooster to protect and monitor the flock, this is the job of the alpha hen. The term “pecking order” was coined because Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe observed the hens pecking each other to achieve the top spot.
My original top hen, Bitty. She passed away 2 years ago.
Bitty would always stand on the treats so make sure everyone got some.
Who is the Alpha Hen?
Most people would think that the largest hen would be the alpha hen. This isn’t always true. Some of my smallest Bantam hens are higher up in the pecking order than some of my largest hens. It’s pretty crazy. It all comes down to their personality (yes chickens have them) and their willingness to stand their ground. Fascinating, huh?
I’ve found the happiest chickens land somewhere in the middle. They don’t have the pressure of being the top hen, yet they are not at the bottom getting picked on all the time. They can pretty much wander the yard eating snacks, bask in the sun and dust bathe when they want to. It’s interesting, isn't it? They are content and happy to be in the middle.
How to Help Injured Chickens from Pecking Order
If the pecking order gets too intense, there can be blood involved. If you have an injured chicken with a lot of blood, it’s important to separate them from the rest for a day or two until the wound heals. I had two roosters fight for the top spot a couple of years ago, and that ended with one of them living in a crate for a couple of days. I cleaned the wound and sprayed on Bye Bye Boo Boo's spray. You guys, this spray is absolutely magical! You simply spray this on a wound and by the next day, you can hardly tell it's there. I always have a bottle of this in my coop first aid kit.
I’ve added to my flock 4 times in 5 years. Each time, the chickens have to work out the new pecking order. It takes time and patience on everyone’s part. But, in the end, they will figure it out and eventually learn to live in harmony for the most part.
Our job as the keeper is to ensure you’ve given them the proper living conditions, nutrition and safety precautions so they can work this out. Unless there is a chicken who is really getting beat up, I encourage you to let the flock work this out. They are going to do it when you’re not watching anyway!
LouLou checking out the Boo Boo spray
We can learn so many life lessons when it comes to backyard chickens and pecking order is one of these valuable lessons!
Until next time,
–The Wing Lady