Feeling Hen Pecked? The Purpose Of The Pecking Order In Chickens

Find out why your chickens need it, and how to best transition your new birds into an existing flock.

“Chickens like to live in a defined community,?said Demi Stearns, who has been raising chickens for almost 30 years and currently cares for 9 standard chickens on her property in Florida. “They want to be a part of their flock: to sit in the sun together on a chilly day, to preen wet feathers together after a summer rain, or to fluff up their feathers with cool dirt on a hot day from a prime spot.?

The pecking order determines who gets to sit in these prime spots, who gets to sit in the second most favorable spot and so on. Chickens, and some other birds, have a hierarchical society.

A pecking order, which may seems primitive, is a sophisticated way for a group of animals to reduce caloric output through reduced aggression, time and energy. “The pecking order lets chickens live together comfortably,?Stearns said. It also allows all chickens to fit into the group? dynamics regardless of when they joined the group, their size or age. All chickens have a chance to be part of the group, and even the weakest don? become outcast, according to Stearns.

The pecking order can change due to acquisitions, adopting out birds or from the flock gradually aging. “Young, dominant, laying hens ?especially the larger breeds like my Buff Orpington and Cuckoo Marans ?will displace the older seldom-laying hens,?Stearns said.

“When Nugget, my Rhode Island Red, came to live here last March, she was six months old and had never seen another chicken,?Stearns said. She fixed up a 10-by-10 foot courtyard that opened from Nugget? coop. Stearns gave Nugget two docile hens to accompany her in the transition. “These Welsummer hens were one year old and would never peck a soul,?Stearns explained.

They spent two weeks with Nugget, in the courtyard with extra greens like kale and Swiss chard. Leaves to scratch through and enrichment were added to keep them occupied. At the end of the day, after the six higher-ordered chickens were put in their coop for the night, Nugget and the two Welsummers, Pippa and Kay, were given access to the whole backyard. Once Stearns believed Nugget was comfortable with her surrounds, the rest of the flock was introduced.

“Nugget got pecked a little, but everything went well,?Stearns recalled. Nugget quickly learned which hens to keep a distance from and which ones would allow her access to resources such as fresh dirt to bathe in, leaves to scratch and treats. “We left feed and water in her familiar coop,?Stearns says in addition to the established feeding station, which the other chickens were accustomed to. Nugget, Stearns says at first ate only at the ?rivate?feed bowl, “but soon began to eat at the bigger feeding station.?

If you currently have a flock of chickens and are considering adding a few birds to your group, separate out the calmer chickens and introduce them first to the new additions to aid in the transition process. Younger additions will benefit greatly from being first paired up to birds of similar size. Once these chickens know their place with each other, other members of the flock can be introduced.

Chickens do not need to get in physical contact with each bird to know their own status. Social cues will allow the newer birds to avoid conflict and start benefiting from the flocks established resources. Creating a physical barrier with a chicken wire fence will also help reduce stress when adding chickens. After seeing each other safely from a distance for a week or two, introductions will not be as harsh as they could have been.

Scattering treats, such as fresh vegetables or favorite grains, can either go one of two ways. First, broadcasting treats over a great distance may help pair the new acquisitions with favorable things. The pre-existing flock may see the new bird as a sign of good things to come. New bird equals favorable novel treats. The other possibility is that the treats are not broadcasted far enough and the original flock monopolizes the treats and pushes out the new birds even more due to the special treats.

Other solutions include introducing new birds to the flock at dusk. In combination of birds being able to see each other through a protective fence during the day, adding the birds in their permanent coops right as the sun sets is a great idea. This will greatly reduce pecking since their vision will be impaired due to the low light conditions. As the sun rises the next morning the chickens will have already snuggled up with one another, not discriminating the new additions because they couldn? distinguish easily the new and old birds.

As the sun comes up, let all the chickens out in the yard and give them as much room as possible. Allowing both sets of birds equal time in a common area separately, so all birds are familiar with hiding places is a good idea. After a night together and then having the option to linger or roam, your chickens will soon be coexisting peacefully.

Stearns says that after a few months, her young Nugget moved up rank by standing up to two mature docile Americanas. “Nugget still loves people best,?she said, “but she is often right in the middle of the group now.?

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