Why all chick­ens are not born equal

There is the born leader, the sec­ond-in-com­mand, the wanna-be and the pas­sive, and it’s im­por­tant to re­spect the hi­er­ar­chy if you want to keep your flock happy.

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Achicken doesn’t ap­pear to be a com­pli­cated bird, but the so­cial struc­ture of a flock is com­plex. Sci­en­tists can now tell us a lot about how truly fas­ci­nat­ing it is, and you can ob­serve these univer­sal be­hav­iours in your own flock.

A flock’s hi­er­ar­chy is known as the peck­ing or­der and find­ing where they fit within that or­der be­gins on around Day 3 of a chick’s life. It starts with jostling for po­si­tion, squawk­ing and push­ing over other chicks at feed­ing time, turn­ing into feather peck­ing fights by Day 16. The ar­gu­ments will con­tinue for around 10 weeks in a fe­male-only flock; ex­pect it to last a few weeks longer if you are rais­ing a group of males.

The peck­ing or­der is an in­stinct, mostly re­lated to feed but also wa­ter, nest boxes, perches and dust baths. This is why it’s very im­por­tant to al­ways have plenty of well-spaced feed­ers and water­ers, an ad lib sup­ply of both food and wa­ter so birds lower in the peck­ing or­der don’t miss out, and plenty of room for birds to move away from each other and be safe.

Big­ger chicks have an ad­van­tage, and some in­di­vid­ual birds and breeds are more nat­u­rally ag­gres­sive than oth­ers. If you have mixed breeds or birds of dif­fer­ent colours, you may find you have on­go­ing is­sues as chick­ens can be racist, adding another level to the fight­ing.

Feather peck­ing of other birds is the most com­mon ex­pres­sion of dom­i­nance (hence ‘peck­ing or­der’) and birds usu­ally grab at smaller, more down-like feath­ers which means birds that are slower to grow their adult feath­ers can be vic­timised more.

Com­bine this nat­u­ral be­hav­iour with a lack of feed or an in­cor­rect diet (eg, too low in pro­tein, a lack of vi­tal nu­tri­ents) or too much or not enough light, and feather peck­ing can quickly turn to can­ni­bal­ism. Chick­ens aren’t vege­tar­i­ans, and like other an­i­mals, once they get a taste of blood, it can quickly be all over for the vic­tim and their body will prob­a­bly be eaten.

Fight­ing among male birds is usu­ally much more in­tense, and roost­ers are also more likely to keep go­ing un­til the death (see page 61 for more on the rooster peck­ing or­der).

How­ever, once set, the peck­ing or­der in a flock tends to be rel­a­tively sta­ble, although ma­tur­ing birds are likely to have a go at im­prov­ing their po­si­tion. In­tro­duc­ing new birds will also up­set the or­der, which is why it’s im­por­tant to in­tro­duce more than one bird at a time (three is a good num­ber) as one bird can eas­ily be over­whelmed by ma­jor­ity. Even rein­tro­duc­ing a bird that has for­merly and hap­pily lived within the flock – for ex­am­ple if it has been sep­a­rated be­cause it has been brood­ing chicks or suf­fer­ing from an ill­ness or in­jury – means it will have to re-es­tab­lish its po­si­tion.

Peck­ing as a skill is recog­nised as be­ing species spe­cific for fowls. A chicken will peck to es­cape from the shell, to feed, to drink, to ob­tain and keep per­sonal space and to es­tab­lish re­la­tion­ships as well as for other rea­sons. Hens main­tain a per­sonal space around their heads and keep a dis­tance from each other by hold­ing their heads at an an­gle and main­tain­ing a spe­cific body ori­en­ta­tion or an­gle to other birds. If a di­rect head-to-head stance is adopted, peck­ing will usu­ally re­sult.

Sub­mis­sion is usu­ally demon­strated by es­cape or crouch­ing. How­ever, the main pur­pose of peck­ing is for eating which is a pre­cisely tuned move­ment of the head and neck. The food is picked up by one ac­tion and swal­lowed by another.

The peck­ing or­der is es­tab­lished sep­a­rately for males and fe­males in the same flock – that is, there is a peck­ing or­der for males and a sep­a­rate one for fe­males in mixed sex flocks – and the process fol­lows a well-recog­nised se­quence:

on Days 1-3 there is a strong im­print­ing or bond­ing pe­riod when the new­ly­hatched chicken bonds onto the broody hen; in com­mer­cial sit­u­a­tions they bond onto other ob­jects and, be­cause of this, are more eas­ily trained;

this is fol­lowed fairly quickly by the de­vel­op­ment of es­cape be­hav­iour, a pro­tec­tive mech­a­nism;

shortly af­ter, the first signs of ag­gres­sive be­hav­iour are seen where two chicks ap­proach each other ag­gres­sively but be­fore con­tact is made they race away, ie es­cape;

this stage is fol­lowed by a pe­riod of play fights where they spar but do not

roost­ers are more vi­cious than hens, and are more likely to fight to the death Hens hold their heads at an an­gle for re­la­tion­ship rea­sons

make real con­tact;

the fi­nal stage is where real con­tact is made, the truly ag­gres­sive stage, and it’s from these true fights that the dom­i­nant/subor­di­nate re­la­tion­ships are es­tab­lished; the age that this is com­pleted de­pends on the size and com­plex­ity of the flock but in most cases would be some­time af­ter 10 weeks of age.

Once a peck­ing or­der is es­tab­lished, birds will live in a har­mo­nious state with no ob­vi­ous dom­i­nant/subor­di­nate re­la­tion­ship un­til the flock struc­ture is al­tered. In prac­tice, you need to give con­sid­er­a­tion to the so­cial or­gan­i­sa­tion of your flock in or­der to min­imise the dis­tur­bance of es­tab­lished re­la­tion­ships dur­ing times when per­for­mance could be af­fected. For ex­am­ple:

form new groups of hens be­fore pro­duc­tion starts, eg move new lay­ers into the coop where you want them to lay weeks be­fore pro­duc­tion is due to start;

don’t move sin­gle birds from one flock to another;

pro­vide ad­e­quate space needs – floor, eating, drink­ing and nest­ing space;

if it is nec­es­sary to join two groups, do so by sep­a­rat­ing a pen into two with wire net­ting and hous­ing the groups, one on each side, for a few days. Once things seem calm af­ter a few days or so, open the net­ting bar­rier a small amount to al­low the two groups to min­gle grad­u­ally;

run males to­gether as a group be­fore plac­ing them in the breed­ing pens;

you can place a male in with a group of fe­males to re­duce peck­ing; the best ra­tio is one rooster per 8-15 hens, with a younger back-up rooster if you are want­ing fer­tile eggs.

Al­ways in­tro­duce new birds in groups prefer­ably groups of at least three, and never a lone bird.

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