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.
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.