One of the most common posts I see on Facebook chicken groups is about flock conflicts and injuries. It’s critical to understand the dynamics of the pecking order if you want to avoid potential problems. Every flock has their own pecking order – a hierarchy based on dominance. Think of it like your old elementary school yard at recess: the most dominant bird has the highest status. The second most dominant bird outranks everyone, except the top bird. The poor bird at the bottom is the least dominant, and often the new kid in the playground.
When you spend time with your birds you’ll notice that that flock status is reinforced every chance they get: at the food and water dishes; vying for the best nest box or spot on the roost bar; going into, and out of, the coop and in the dust bathing area. When you put food out, watch who gets to eat first, or last. The top hen hogs the treats for herself and chases off the lower-ranked birds. Roosters usually eat when everyone else has finished. I often see Simon sacrificing the best food for the hens.
If you have chicks you’ll know they start fighting to determine pecking order when they are around two weeks old. Chest bumping, staring contests and ruffled neck feathers are all indicators of challenges between them. Fortunately their attempts at dominance often feel like play fighting. Not always though, so be careful to monitor smaller or weaker chicks in a hatch.
Everyone has heard of the term pecking order, but many new chicken keepers are surprised to see it in action: from the gentle swat at youngsters to the downright nasty and dangerous attacks on sick birds and newcomers. Fights are typically the welcome wagon response to meeting new birds or when a previous member is reintroduced after an absence, such as when recovering from an illness or injury.
If you’ve got more than one rooster they establish their own order with one head rooster, followed by subordinate roosters.
When there are multiple roosters in a flock there may be fights to see who can secure the position of top-dog. For a couple of years I had just one rooster, Isaac, a Japanese Black-Tailed Buff bantam and mostly standard sized hens. I kept one standard cockerel, Thomas, from a 2015 hatch. Everything was fine until he was about ten months old and challenged my bantam. I ended up re-homing the youngster.
This dynamic was repeated twice more: I kept one of my favourite cockerels and everything was fine until, very suddenly, the tables turned and Isaac’s safety was in jeopardy. There didn’t seem to be any middle ground to allow Isaac’s status to drop so he could remain part of the flock. The challenging teenagers always seemed to want him expelled from the pen and I feared for his safety. I conceded that I wasn’t going to be able to keep two roosters in one pen, even with a decent number of hens. I moved Isaac to an adjacent pen with my teenaged grow-outs who readily accepted him as the boss.
Fights occur between both roosters and hens, however when fights break out between two males they are usually more violent–often leading to severe injuries or death. Even roosters that were raised together will often have violent fights when it involves hens, including brothers who have grown up together or fathers and sons. It’s best to be proactive and separate males before they get to this stage.
Last year, I was walking my dog in the forest and came across a group of other walkers, each with their own dog. Since they were familiar to us I didn’t put Lola on her leash. As we passed she snarled and there was a flurry of activity that was over in a flash.
Chicken fights can be similar, or a whole lot worse. The opponents eye each other, circling and challenging. When the fight starts they raise their hackle feathers on their neck, point their wings downward, spreading them away from their bodies. The birds face each other, standing tall. Sometimes one of the birds will back down, but if not there will be pecking, scratching, and beating with their wings and spurs. Unlike the short-lived scuffle involving my dog, rooster fights can result in serious injury or death.
If your flock membership is consistent then things tend to hum along smoothly. Introducing new birds is stressful for everyone so do it slowly and under supervision.
- Ideally have only one rooster. If not, make sure your ratio of roosters to hens is at least 1:10+ to avoid conflicts between the males and over-mating of the hens.
- If you want to keep multiple roosters consider housing them separately as a bachelor flock with no hens.
- Avoid overcrowding in the coop and pen. If you don’t have enough space refrain from getting more birds.
- Provide multiple feed and water stations.
- Monitor your birds and watch how they all get along daily. Take note of any changes in the flock dynamic.
- Provide enrichment activities. Boredom leads to stress and bullying.
- When introducing new members they should be about the same age/size. Make the introduction gradually in a way they can see, but not touch each other (e.g. separate pen, wired dog crate etc.). Do not just throw them together and hope for the best.
- Monitor the gradual reintroduction of a hen with her chicks.
- There are lots of jokes about ‘chicken math’ – the practice of getting more new birds, as though it were an addiction. What folks might not realize is that every time new chickens are introduced, or established birds leave, the pecking order changes which is stressful for all members, both new and old.
- Immediately remove any sick, injured or bleeding bird. They will be targets for pecking (or further pecking). Provide first aid and keep them separated from the flock until they have recovered completely.
Click here for a humorous look at the pecking order brought to you by When Chickens Talk.