Chickens are social creatures. Well, they are too a point; anybody who has tried to add new chickens to their flock can attest that there are certain situations in which chickens will become quite anti-social (Introducing New Chickens To Your Flock). Yes, in fact, the pecking order does not just exist in the work place…
Understanding the Pecking Order
Surviving in the wild takes energy and resources. Over the many thousands of years since the first chickens popped out of their eggs, a pecking order has evolved among chicken kind to ensure that the most robust, healthiest chickens get first dibs on any food that is available, while everyone else is relegated to the leftovers.
The healthiest chickens – and consequently most well-fed chickens – will be the ones most likely to breed with the top rooster and pass on their superior genetics to the next generation. (Chicken Feed – Step by Step Australian Beginners Guide)
The top-level hen in a flock without roosters takes on the job of head lookout and guardian. A lot of farmers and chicken keepers have made mention that flocks without roosters behave in a more civilised manner when there are no males around to strut their stuff and assert their authority.
The chicken at the top of the pecking order is the leader of the flock and has a lot of responsibilities. While they have the first pick of the food, many ruling hens are aware at some level that every chicken needs access to good nutrition and will ensure that each bird gets their fill before satisfying their own needs.
Roosters and the Pecking Order
In a flock with a rooster, the rooster is the leading man in charge without question. A good rule of thumb is to have one rooster for every 10 to 12 chickens. Small flocks of 6 or less can get by without one just fine, and probably should.
Roosters are forever copulating with the hens. In small flocks, this level of constant attention can weigh down on their health, as it’s not always the gentlest of encounters and can get quite rough. A hen forced to endure the attentions of a rooster (usually the lead hen ) almost every day will develop a sore back, and be susceptible to a whole raft of health problems as her immune system takes a pummelling.
Too many roosters can spoil the flock as roosters are much more aggressive than hens in asserting their authority. Sticking to 1 rooster for every 12 chickens will keep the roosters from bickering too much amongst themselves. Larger flocks are quite adept at organising themselves into harems of 10 or 12 hens for each rooster.
In flocks with multiple roosters, it’s the roosters who will duke it out to see who gets the captain’s chair (the alpha rooster). Roosters get old and tired, and when this happens, the old timer will be challenged for his rule. In a flock with 3 or more chickens, there will be the usual battle of wills between the roosters to see who deserves the role of guardian.
However, if you only have two roosters then there will usually be an amicable changing of the guard as the once dominant leader realises that he is now the weaker of the two birds.
There are always exceptions to every rule as some roosters will play favourites and may settle on one hen to mate with and be quite gentle in the process. They may also manipulate events to ensure their favourite concubine receives the best portions of food. Roosters can also sometimes make great parents and will get involved with the chicks’ upbringing by teaching them about the rules of life in the chicken pen.
Many councils in suburban areas forbid roosters due to their loud and distinctive calls, so whether you keep one or a few will depend a lot on the area in which you live. (Australian Poultry Laws – Are Your Chickens legal?)
How You Fit into the Pecking Order
As an owner of chickens, you are naturally going to be spending some time caring for the flock. When a human spends so much time with the flock, they may be viewed as a link in the chain of the social order and will need to earn their place.
A rooster who views a human as competition for head honcho will sometimes put up a challenge and become aggressive towards their carer. At times, it may seem quite amusing when the bird struts his stuff around you doing the chicken dance and charging at you, but you should take it very seriously. Roosters can do some damage with their claws and spurs, especially when they jump you from behind.
If you don’t address the situation, the behaviour will only get worse over time. If the bird is putting up a challenge stand your ground, or chase him, so he knows that you’re the boss.
Another technique is to grab the bird and hold him to the ground with your hands around his back and wings. Keep him there for a minute or two, and when you think he’s got the message let him up. You should only need to do this a couple of times for him to learn your position in the social hierarchy of the flock.
This sort of aggressive behaviour isn’t limited to roosters as hens may also attempt to establish dominance over you, but the same technique should work just as well on the hens as the roosters.
Helping the Hen-Pecked Chook
The hen in the unlucky position of being bottom of the pecking order most often copes quite well with her lot in life, but sometimes things can get out of hand.
Most often she will get along by blending in with the crowd and keeping out of the way. While no chooks will want to take her place, she may still receive more than her fair share of pecks. To give this lowly bird a means of escape, an extra roost in the coop which is out of the way of the other chickens may help to keep her out of trouble.
Coping with Bullies
Most chickens are easy going and don’t wish to cause harm to any of their fellow flock members, but sometimes some chickens turn out to be bullies.
If you notice your lead hen dealing a little too roughly with her underlings to such an extent that she regularly draws blood, then a timeout may serve as a reminder that she needs to be gentler with her guidance and the punishment she doles out.
With the lead chicken gone for a few days, there will be a power vacuum that the natural pecking order will quickly fill. Once the bully chicken returns it will need to re-establish its place in the pecking order.