Chickens are amazingly social creatures with a firmly established pecking order within each flock that helps maintain stability and order.
This system of ranking the top or dominant chicken(s) is perhaps one of the most well known examples of chicken flock behavior.
So much so, that the term is used to describe any situation that shows a clearly defined ranking system.
Just watch a group of baby chickens, and within minutes you’ll see the beginnings of a clearly defined pecking order take place right before your eyes.
While it may be a little worrying at first, this is a natural means of establishing and maintaining structure and stability within the flock.
Understanding how this ranking system works is important whether you're already caring for chickens or just learning how to raise chickens.
What is the pecking order?
The term describes the social structure in the chicken world. Each bird will establish a unique degree of dominance or leadership (or lack thereof) in the flock.
It’s how the flock determines which bird is the “alpha chicken” and which bird(s) is/are in descending order at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole.
Once the order is established, each bird knows which birds are in higher positions (and therefore should not be pecked), and which are beneath it (fair game for pecking).
The top birds will peck at the lower birds to get what they want.
Through this system, higher ranking chickens will get first pick when it comes to nesting boxes and roosts, and they'll typically command a greater share of food.
You may even notice your birds applying this preferential treatment when it comes to water.
While all this might seem a little uncivilized, this dominance ranking actually reduces stress and conflict within the flock.
Rather than expending large amounts of energy through regular conflict, the birds are able to coexist peacefully, knowing where they sit in the order of things.
How does the pecking order work?
A chicken establishes her position by confronting another bird in the flock. One bird will typically be stronger or more intimidating, while the other will back down – and thus take a lower place in rank.
Sometimes neither bird will want to back down, and you’ll have a brief bird quarrel on your hands.
Most of the time, the dispute won’t last more than a few seconds and injuries won’t be more serious than a few lost feathers.
Occasionally though, the fight might go on for minutes with potential risk of more serious injuries or death.
If it goes on too long or gets too violent, it may be best to intervene to prevent further injury.
Try to remove the injured chicken from its aggressor and give both birds time to cool down.
What to watch out for:
As disturbing as a chicken fight might be, it’s usually best to avoid interfering as your chickens establish their own rank within the flock.
Chickens have been pecking at each other forever, and they’ll do just fine on their own most of the time. Of course, there are certain things you should watch for:
How you fit into the order
You’ll naturally be considered part of the flock – and that means that you’ll be part of their ranking system. This means that occasionally a hen or rooster will try to dominate you.
Don’t back down or run from the bird, or you’ll fall into a lower spot on the pecking order.
Instead, stand your ground and/or grab the offending bird. Hold the chicken until it calms down and accepts your dominance. You might need to do this more than once, but the chicken’s behavior should change fairly quickly.
Most of the time, your backyard chicken’s will be an absolute pleasure. Just remember that the pecking order does exist.
By paying attention to chicken flock behavior as well as their unique needs, you can help your birds to coexist peacefully and happily.