The Pecking Order: Everything You Need To Know

The Pecking Order: Everything You Need To Know

We’ve all heard the term “pecking order” usually applied to competitive environments such as the workplace or even society. As such we tend to have an idea of what that means with humans. But what about your chickens?

The pecking order is the most basic form of hierarchy in your flock. In there, the earliest bird doesn’t get the worm, the bird who is at the top of the hierarchy does.

As such, the pecking order involves conflict and potential problems, and it is the main reason of aggression between chickens. So how does it work? And most importantly, how can you use the pecking order to your advantage?

How does the pecking order work?

The pecking order, simplified is who gets to eat first. This hierarchy is formed with the formation of the flock. The stronger and demanding chickens bully their way to the top. The less aggressive chicken will let the first one eat before her and may bully its way to eat before another chicken and so on.

Once the order is established, it remains somewhat consistent and the chickens will usually remember their place and stay in it.

In flocks with a rooster, he will be automatically at the top since the chickens instinctively consider it their leader. When you only have hens however, they’ll have to compete with each other to determine who gets to eat first.

The chicken at the top of the order, often known as the “top chook”, will have advantages beyond eating first. This chicken will become the dominant chicken in all activities, sometimes even kicking out other chickens from their nesting areas. This however comes with the responsibility of caring after the flock. The top chook will be the first one fighting a predator and can even break up fights and take care of younger chicks.

Problems within the pecking order

It's great to be at the top of the pecking order.

The issues with the pecking order come when the order is challenged and two chickens end up competing for the same spot. If none of them back down, they’ll fight it out, escalating in violence until either one backs down or is dead.

You may usually see this when introducing a new chicken to your flock. The pecking order, otherwise established, has to be rearranged to accommodate the “extra” chicken. Some chickens even take advantage of this chaos to try to climb up themselves.

When a new chicken is introduced, the pecking order should be established within a few minutes. If it’s not or if the attacks escalate till someone draws blood, that’s when you intervene to avoid eye damage or more severe injuries.

An injured or sick chicken can also lose its spot at the pecking order, which becomes more problematic the higher it is in the hierarchy. That’s why it’s very important to keep an eye on your chickens and make sure they’re healthy and living in clean conditions. Make sure they have enough space and food so they don’t have to compete for it.

Lastly, take notice of which chicken is currently at the bottom of the pecking order. These chickens tend to be the most gentle and docile of the flock and may get bullied for it. Make sure to provide hiding spots for them and check up on their health more often. There may be a reason to why they’re at the bottom.

Hacking your flock’s pecking order

Chickens eating accordingly to their place at their pecking order.

Now that you understand how the pecking order works, you can manipulate it and use it to your advantage. This is particularly useful when you have a bully chicken. An aggressive chicken is usually at the top of the pecking order. However, as we learned, with any change to the flock, the hierarchy resets.

Isolating a bully chicken temporarily can solve the issue. When the chicken is gone, the flock will determine a new, most dominant chicken and when the bully returns, it’ll usually be too busy trying to climb back at the top to bully the other chickens the rest of the day.

That being said, it’s not a chicken who’s technically at the top of the pecking order. Do your chickens flock to see you and follow you around when you’re in their space? That’s because you are at the top of their pecking order as an “honorary top chook”. They usually won’t challenge you when breaking up a fight and may even look for you for protection as they do for food.

And since you’re at the top, other chickens may want to challenge you, specially if you have roosters. If you keep running away you’ll keep giving the chicken the spot at the top. You can wear thick gloves and force the competition into submission by simply forcing it to the ground. However, some people decide not to challenge the top chook and letting it stay at the top.

After all, you’re creating a space where they can thrive and be happy. As long as the top chook doesn’t pose a threat, who cares if it wants to be at the top?

What about you? Are you the top chook? What’s your experience with the pecking order?


2 thoughts on “The Pecking Order: Everything You Need To Know

  1. Debbie L Wood says:

    I have had a couple of situations where the chicken at the bottom had to be removed to keep it from being killed. I have a couple of cages, nice big ones I built with a nesting spot, that I move them to if necessary. I have 2 right now that were in that situation that I put together in one pen and they are happy as can be together, laying eggs and are very content. They both had very timid personalities and one of them is a very small bird, a polish hen. She is particularly sweet, loves to be pet and cuddled and I can put her in the yard to graze a bit when I am working outside, then walk up and pick her up and put her in her cage when I am going in. The other is a barred rock hen, average size, but was being terrorized by the flock and nothing I did worked. The whole flock seemed intent on killing her. The final straw was one day when I went to feed them and she literally ran into my arms with the rest of the flock including the rooster chasing her. I immediately removed her, put her in with the polish hen and the two instantly bonded. Like gets along with like I guess. No fighting, no fussing, they eat from the same dish and drink from the same water, and get along great. I have been raising chickens all my life and I have never seen anything like it.

  2. kate says:

    I had a chicken that was turning into a bully with all the other chickens and with me. I tried isolating her but that didn’t work. Someone suggested picking her up and carrying her around while I did chores for about five minutes a day. Worked like a charm!

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