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    Pecking order 101

    Authored by Gail Damerow

    A flocks’ pecking order is a social hierarchy established by the chickens themselves. This hierarchy decides such things as which chickens eat first or roost on the highest perches. By governing the flock’s social organization, the pecking order reduces tension and stress. 

    What age do chickens establish pecking order?

    Chicks by the age of 6 weeks (about 1 and a half months), or sometimes younger, start sparring to establish their places in the pecking order. Among young chickens, dominance in the peck order is a good sign of vigor and future fertility.

    However, never cull a bird just because it is lowest in the pecking order. If you have at least two birds, one will always be lower in rank.

    What is pecking order?

    In a flock having both pullets (young females) and cockerels (young males), the peck order is rather complex. The hierarchy involves three interconnected levels: relationships among all the males, relationships among all the females, and ranking between the males and the females. It’s even more complicated in a flock of mixed ages.

    The roosters are generally at the top, then hens, then cockerels, and finally pullets. As a cockerel matures, it works its way through the hens and then finds its place among the roosters. Similarly, maturing pullets work their way up the female ladder.

    To further complicate things, comb style influences peck order rank. Roosters with larger combs rank higher. And among chickens with various comb styles, those with single combs usually rank higher than birds with other comb styles.

    Adding chickens to the peck order

    Introducing new chickens into a flock results in reshuffling of the peck order. Any chicken that’s new to the flock must work its way up through the ranks. But it won’t necessarily start at the bottom.

    However, constantly introducing new birds continually disrupts the peck order. The resulting excessive stress can interfere with laying. It may also lead to feather pulling, vent picking, and other forms of cannibalism. If you must add birds, know the proper way to introduce new chickens to your flock.

    Peck order challenges for flocks

    As the pecking order evolves, a lower ranking chicken that forgets its place may get a sudden peck from a higher ranking bird. The loud sound it makes from being startled by the peck is, in chicken talk, known as a distress call. It may be either shrill or barely audible, depending on the pecked bird’s temperament, position in the peck order, and how hard it was pecked.

    Once a flock establishes its peck order, however, pecking and fighting is minimal. A bird of higher rank need merely glare at a lower ranking bird that infringes on its space.

    Thereafter, most fights involve challenges to the top rooster. The older he is, the more often he’ll be challenged by younger upstarts.

    If, otherwise, your chickens constantly fight, look for management reasons. Such things as poor nutrition, insufficient floor space, or inadequate ventilation can make chickens cranky. 

    Mismatched breeds

    If you include a variety of chickens in your backyard flock, choose breeds of similar temperament. Many breeds are docile, but some can be rather assertive. The more assertive breeds tend to bully the more docile breeds.

    If your flock consists of only hens, you have a bit more leeway in breed selection. Hens are typically less aggressive than roosters, but not always. So, you’ll still need to watch for conflicts.

    Besides temperament, another trait to consider is appearance in relation to flock size. Depending on the total number of chickens in your flock, consider including at least three of each breed.

    Why? Because chickens (like humans) tend to pick on individuals that look different from all the rest. But, according to the chickens’ social structure, it takes at least three to make a flock. So, each group of three similar chickens will comfort and support each other. 

    On the other hand, if you want a lot of variety in a small flock of, say, less than a dozen chickens, you might include just one of each breed. That way no particular chicken will stand out as being different from all the others.

    Roosters and the peck order

    The mean fundamental frequency of a rooster’s crow shows his peck-order status. A high ranking rooster has a higher-pitched crow than subordinate roosters. So simply by crowing, a high ranking rooster asserts his dominance without engaging in unnecessary fights.

    Additionally, dominant roosters mate more often than those of lower rank. But submissive hens mate more than dominant ones. That’s because low ranking hens intimidate more easily and therefore crouch more readily. Because hens that are high in the peck order tend to mate less often, the fertility of their eggs may suffer.

    How to help flock peck order stress

    Properly arranging your poultry facility can reduce stress by helping keep a stable pecking order. Avoid crowding your flock. And provide enough environmental variety to allow timid birds to get away from bullies. Otherwise, they may end up using nest boxes to hide in, soiling or breaking eggs and fouling the nesting material.

    Although a simple coop is easier to clean than a coop with many nooks and crannies, the latter offers more hiding places for birds that are lowest in the peck order. Additionally, an outdoor run gives low ranking birds even more opportunities to get away from aggressive ones

    Also important is to make sure you have enough feeders and drinkers for the number of chickens you keep. Otherwise, higher-ranking birds may chase away lower-ranking birds. A chicken that doesn’t get enough to eat won’t grow or lay well. A general rule of thumb is to supply enough feeder space so at least one-third of your birds can eat at the same time.

    In a flock with more than one rooster, offer one feeder and drinker station per rooster. Well-placed stations allow each rooster to set up his own territory and gather a group of hens around him. 

    Arrange the stations where each bird needs travel no more than 10 feet to reach feed and water. Positioning the stations so no bird must pass through another’s territory to eat or drink will further minimize peck order fighting.

    More flock care knowledge

    How do you know if you have a rooster or a hen in your chick? Gail Damerow explains different methods to sexing chicks.
    Be prepared for illness or injury with our chicken first aid guide. Read more about building a sick bay for your patient and how to keep the rest of your flock safe.