October 31, 2014

Pecking Order in Poultry

The term ‘pecking order’ is familiar to all of us and refers to the hierarchical order within a poultry flock. It is likely that flocks established pecking orders thousands of years ago as a way of ensuring that food resources when they became available could be shared out without constant in-fighting and attracting the unwanted attention of other creatures to the food or to the birds themselves. The bird at the top of the pecking order has first access to food and water and to the best roosting sites, all ensuring that this the strongest bird is the most likely to survive and hence pass on its genes.

Depending upon the mix of your flock there are three pecking orders that may need to be established, these are; one for the hens, one for the roosters and one for the hens and roosters.

Although the pecking order can appear brutal sometimes (the aggressive behaviour occurs during the establishment stage), especially when directed to newcomers, once the pecking order is established the flock will live happily until something disrupts it, or one of the birds becomes noticeably stronger or healthier.

The two most common factors which cause a disruption to the pecking order are overcrowding and the introduction of a new bird.

As a chicken keeper you should for the most part let your chickens sort themselves out. But keep an eye on those birds at the bottom of the pecking order, to ensure that they are not being injured or deprived of the food and water they need to stay healthy. As long as the lower ranking birds have enough space to escape any over aggressive behaviour there should not be an issue and any problems should sort themselves out within two weeks.

In the rare instance where a chicken at the bottom of the pecking order is suffering badly and things do not appear to be settling down try adding more food and water bowls to reduce the likelihood of the weaker bird getting in the way of the stronger ones.

If a bird that is being picked on gets injured, you should however remove it until it heals as wounds on chickens can often lead to increased pecking and in severe cases cannibalism. Isolate the wounded chicken, preferably by erecting a mesh screen between it and the rest of the flock so that the bird can still be seen but not touched by the rest of the flock. Once the bird has healed try removing the mesh and see what happens. If the aggressive behaviour starts up again try taking the picked on bird and the main aggressor to another area or suitable room in the house, hold them face to face and then leave them alone for 15 to 30 minutes, then return them to the rest of the flock. Try this a few times as it has often worked for us.

If none of the above sort the problem out then the only solution is to rehome either the aggressive bird or the weak one, whichever you think will best restore harmony to the flock.