Flock Dy­nam­ics

Julie Moore takes a look at how the peck­ing or­der is es­tab­lished

Your Chickens - - Contents -

So­cial hi­er­ar­chy

If you’ve spent time ob­serv­ing your flock, you’ve prob­a­bly re­alised that chick­ens care lit­tle for democracy, hav­ing no in­ter­est what­so­ever in en­sur­ing each mem­ber has equal ac­cess to food and wa­ter or a good spot to roost. But yet, a flock, for the most part, lives in har­mony. So how do chick­ens main­tain so­cial or­der?

A flock’s hi­er­ar­chy is known as the peck­ing or­der, a term coined by Norwegian zool­o­gist Thor­leif Sch­jelderup-Ebbe. In 1904, the 10-year-old Sch­jelderup-Ebbe was put in charge of the fam­ily’s flock of chick­ens in Oslo. Hav­ing a fas­ci­na­tion for the birds, he watched their be­hav­iours, record­ing his ob­ser­va­tions in a daily jour­nal. Through years of recorded data, he re­alised that there was a hi­er­ar­chy within the flock.

He ob­served that chick­ens rank them­selves in pre­dictable ways. He dis­cov­ered that rank­ings emerged from squab­bles over food and as­cer­tained that each mem­ber of the flock un­der­stood who ranked above and be­low it. He found that dom­i­nant chick­ens re­minded their sub­or­di­nates of their rel­a­tive so­cial sta­tus with a painful peck, hence the term ‘peck­ing or­der’.

He ob­served that the most dom­i­nant hen re­ceived cer­tain priv­i­leges, for example, first ac­cess to food and wa­ter, the first choice of nest­ing boxes, roost­ing spot and dust­bath. If an­other bird tried to im­pinge on these rites, she would quickly peck the of­fender into sub­mis­sion. Dom­i­nance wasn’t re­lated to size: old, savvy hens were able to dom­i­nate larger, naïve birds. The sec­on­drank­ing hen was able to peck any sub­or­di­nate but dared not as­sert her­self against the dom­i­nant hen. And so it con­tin­ued, with each hen peck­ing those ranked be­low her and in turn was pecked by those above her.

Ev­ery mem­ber of the flock is in­cluded in the spec­trum of dom­i­nance — no one is left out! The hi­er­ar­chy of a flock isn’t cast in stone and changes as birds age, per­haps re­lin­quish their po­si­tion, die or new birds are added to the flock.

In a mixed gen­der flock, the males will typ­i­cally vie for top spot, the role of Al­pha, while the hens will vie among them­selves for the po­si­tion of dom­i­nant hen. If there is only one rooster, it’s likely he will take the dom­i­nant po­si­tion if he is sex­u­ally ma­ture. Al­pha rooster is the boss: he en­joys first po­si­tion in ev­ery­thing from lib­er­ties with the hens, to fight­ing new com­ers, to set­tling dis­putes and lead­ing the flock. If there is more than one rooster, the de­scend­ing hi­er­ar­chy places each rooster in his own dis­tinct po­si­tion. Some­times, Beta rooster will share du­ties with the Al­pha, but if Beta over­steps his bound­aries, Al­pha will take ex­cep­tion, giv­ing Beta a re­minder of his po­si­tion ei­ther through a good beat­ing, a peck on the back­side or by us­ing pos­tur­ing body lan­guage such as puff­ing him­self up and stand­ing tall. The very pres­ence of my Al­pha sends Beta scur­ry­ing! The Al­pha is al­ways vig­i­lant and this is the be­hav­iour you, as Al­pha Al­pha need to em­u­late.

As the Al­pha rooster ages, he’ll even­tu­ally be re­placed.

The more we un­der­stand about the struc­ture of our birds’ lives, the bet­ter keep­ers we can be

This could hap­pen through bat­tle or sim­ply tir­ing of his du­ties. When the Al­pha is re­placed, the peck­ing or­der will need to be re-es­tab­lished. Once the Al­pha yields, he knows that he’s been beaten psy­cho­log­i­cally and seems so dev­as­tated that he’s un­will­ing to con­test any birds and avoids con­fronta­tion at all costs — he can fall to a lowly po­si­tion in the peck­ing or­der.

In gen­eral, one rooster is ca­pa­ble of watch­ing over, car­ing for and mat­ing with a flock of 10 to 15 hens. Where there are sev­eral roost­ers in larger flocks of over 30, males will nat­u­rally cre­ate their own smaller flocks within the larger group, gen­er­ally leav­ing the other males alone.

In a hen-only flock, one dom­i­nant fe­male will es­tab­lish her­self as the Al­pha. You may also see other dom­i­nant birds in sec­ond and third po­si­tion while younger birds are typ­i­cally lower in the hi­er­ar­chy. Dom­i­nant birds re­mind more sub­mis­sive birds of their po­si­tion in the hi­er­ar­chy through warn­ing growls, glares or an oc­ca­sional peck.

Dom­i­nancy tends to be in­her­ited rather than learned. Sci­en­tists have shown that the off-spring of dom­i­nant roost­ers are more likely to grow up to be lead­ers than the off-spring of lower rank­ing males.

So in a mixed gen­der flock with more than one rooster, you’ll usu­ally find three dif­fer­ent so­cial or­ders: Rooster to rooster; N Hens to hens; and N Roost­ers to hens all in op­er­a­tion at the same time! This com­plex so­cial struc­ture is de­signed to en­sure that there is good co­he­sion be­tween mem­bers. It also safe­guards the sur­vival of the flock by giv­ing the best chances to the fittest birds — in the wild, a flock is only as strong as its weak­est mem­ber.

Chick­ens are mer­ci­less when it comes to main­tain­ing a strong so­cial struc­ture; they are can­ni­bal­is­tic by na­ture and can and will kill an­other chicken. Chick­ens are blood-thirsty — one small wound can quickly be­come a life threat­en­ing in­jury in­flicted by many chick­ens.

To hu­mans, can­ni­bal­is­tic be­hav­iours can seem hard­hearted, but these be­hav­iours are meant for sur­vival. Such be­hav­iours in­clude peck­ing var­i­ous parts of other birds’ bod­ies — this can range from a gen­tle peck as a re­minder of so­cial sta­tus to se­vere peck­ing caus­ing skin wounds.

In a vig­or­ous, so­cially healthy flock, can­ni­bal­is­tic be­hav­iours aren’t likely to oc­cur. Over­crowd­ing and bore­dom both lead to ag­gres­sion and can spark can­ni­bal­is­tic be­hav­iours. If you see can­ni­bal­ism, per­haps after the in­tro­duc­tion of new birds, it’s im­por­tant that you in­ter­vene quickly to avoid a po­ten­tial bloody epi­demic.

As a hen keeper, you are re­spon­si­ble for creat­ing a peace­ful flock en­vi­ron­ment. By pro­vid­ing spa­cious, clean hous­ing free of bright lights, ac­cess to fresh air and sun­light, food and wa­ter, can­ni­bal­is­tic ten­den­cies should be elim­i­nated and so­cial har­mony should reign.

Space is key to happy hens: The bare min­i­mum is one square foot per bird if they have ac­cess to an out­door run and four square foot per bird if they are con­fined in­doors. If your hens are con­fined, pro­vide dis­trac­tions such as hang­ing pecker blocks or fresh greens to keep them amused. Vary the ‘bore­dom-buster’ daily.

Food and wa­ter for ev­ery­one: As dom­i­nance is­sues are most of­ten car­ried out over sus­te­nance, adding mul­ti­ple food and wa­ter sta­tions will en­sure ev­ery flock mem­ber can eat and drink. Re­duce the lights: Lights that are too bright or kept on for too long can cause bore­dom, stress, ag­gres­sion and feather-picking. Lights kept on in a brooder 24/7 of­ten re­sult in chicks picking them­selves or each other — chicks es­tab­lish hi­er­ar­chy from day one! If you must use light­ing, limit the hours to 16 per day. Us­ing a heat source, such as the Brin­sea EcoGlow al­lows chicks to ben­e­fit from nat­u­ral di­ur­nal pat­terns.

It’s im­por­tant to know your chick­ens as in­di­vid­u­als and as so­cial crea­tures. The more we un­der­stand about the struc­ture of our birds’ lives, the bet­ter keep­ers we can be.

ABOVE: Al­pha rooster is the boss BE­LOW: You, as hen keeper are the Al­pha Al­pha and are very much part of the so­cial hi­er­ar­chy

Even at a young age, the peck­ing or­der is be­ing es­tab­lished young cock­erel stands guard whilst his sis­ters sleep

Al­pha rooster en­joys first po­si­tion in ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing li­a­bil­i­ties with the hens

Al­pha rooster and Al­pha hen en­joy cer­tain priv­i­leges such as the first choice of roost­ing spot

In a mixed gen­der flock, the males will typ­i­cally vie for top spot, the role of Al­pha

An older hen dom­i­nates a sub­or­di­nate

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