The Pecking Order of Chickens
Chickens are social creatures, and a huge part of understanding how chickens in a flock interact with each other is knowledge of the pecking order. The pecking order is, in the shortest way possible, a hierarchy among chickens to determine the rationing of resources, e.g., food water and space. But, the actual explanation on how it works and what it’s for is much more complicated. Let’s begin.
For one, chickens have a pecking order because it helps them to survive. Let’s say you (hopefully briefly) put a bunch of chickens in a cardboard box with a small bowl of food in the middle. There is a very low supply of food compared with a chicken feeder, so, as a result, chickens will institute the pecking order (even though they always have it “turned on”, when in the presence of a rare food commodity, the pecking order will be more tightly enforced). Chickens that are higher in the pecking order will either give a stare or make a certain sound that tells subordinates to back off. If they don’t, then a downward peck will follow. The chances of the chicken heeding the call/stare depend, but on average it’s around 50/50. The stronger chickens, which are at the top, will be able to survive longer until food arrives or can be found.
So how is this pecking order determined? Well, the chickens’ pecking order is usually determined fairly quickly in a flock, probably once chickens become pullets, or teenage chickens. Chickens with a strong personality and the need for more space will be at the top, while more docile chickens will be at the bottom. Size and breed aren’t that important overall, especially if you have a mixed flock from the beginning. Once the pecking order is established, there is great stability in the flock. In my flock of chickens, some spots will be contested every once in a while, usually with the challenger being the loser, but there is still overall peace. Generally, when a spot is contested, the chickens will get into a fight, fluffing their feathers and curling their necks before attacking. These fights do not last long and result in little to no bloodshed. The loser of the match is whoever runs away or does the submissive pose.
However, there is one bit of information I have left out. In flocks where the chickens are frequently handled and/or visited by humans, the top chicken won’t be a chicken, but rather a human. In my case, that’s me. I am the top chicken. An easy way to tell this is if you approach or try to pick up a chicken, they will do the submissive pose, which involves them crouching and spreading out their wings (Hens do this pose when they want to mate with roosters to, but you’ll know what the reason is when they do it).
Learning about the chickens’ pecking order can help you to better know your flock. Chickens will use their pecking order when competing for food, water, dirt bath spots, as well as roost and nester space. By watching them while they are doing these things, you will, over time, come to know your chickens’ pecking order. Who knows, you may end up being surprised by your findings.