Pecking order: Real, not at all imagined, in the hen house

Pecking order is a real thing and on display every day within our flock of 16. It essentially determines the order in which chickens are granted access to food, water and other privileges—first dibs on dust-baths, comfy nesting boxes and a premium place on the roosting dowel.

Who’s at the top

The chicken at the top of the pecking order has a special role in the flock. This could be a rooster or a hen who is strong and healthy. It’s their responsibility to be on the lookout for predators, whether advancing from the brush or circling menacingly overhead.  I witnessed this just a few weeks ago after a playful neighborhood dog caused our hens to scatter. They dove into the protective understory of our wooded lot, quivering and suspicious.

Louis, the current rooster in charge, redeems himself.

My son and his friend were able to flush out a few, but by 7 o’clock, when the hens are generally returning to roost, we were short 13. Our current rooster, Louis, stood sentry by the coop door, waiting, watching, clucking, crowing. He was worried about them. I curse him often because of his proclivity for wanton copulation, but on this day he earned my adoration.

A cautionary tale

For a flock of chickens born and raised together, the pecking order is established early. The birds live in relative harmony, with only periodic dust-ups to reinforce who is in charge.

Carnage occurs when a new chicken or group of chickens are introduced to an existing flock. Hierarchy breaks down. This was the case for us last year when we merged 26 chickens with our aging flock of six. We didn’t heed the warnings of more experienced tenders who suggest separating the strangers by a fence and letting them warm up to one another. Our thinking was much more rudimentary: Our flock was dwindling and winter was approaching. Adding feathered bodies would serve a dual purpose—taking our nephew’s flock off his hands and generating more heat in the coop. We tossed them all together. Chaos ensued. Certain birds were singled out and bullied. Feathers flew, blood was drawn.

Birds of a feather

Chickens gang up on any chicken that is bleeding and will peck at the red wound. This is the reason my father in law, the Most Tender, keeps a red light burning in our coop at night. The eerie glow cast by the bulb prevents chickens from discerning blood. The tormentors thus leave the bruised and bleeding alone—at least until first light.

The situation has improved, although not necessarily because the chickens have made a peace pact. Our combined flock has been decimated twice in recent months—once by a fox and once by a golden retriever. A few of the girls have died of old age.  The simple truth is that we don’t have as many birds vying for food, water and roosting spots. The photo in the masthead depicts our most forlorn friend, who seeks refuge on a narrow sill and has to be coaxed down to eat. You can see two moody, tragic images of her in a recent post called Still life with chickens.

Who’s the dominant one?

Humans are part of the pecking order. Hens tend to respect humans as the leaders of the flock, but some roosters will face off. Aggressive roosters range from menacing to dangerous, as we can attest with the Dwight experience.

Some chicken farmers suggest establishing dominance by pinning an aggressive rooster to the ground. If this isn’t effective, it may be time to put the offender out to pasture.


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