Environment » Nature

The Pecking Order

Who knew the social lives of chickens were so complicated?

Chickens in the barnyard are a lot like people in society—they can’t stand each other, but nor can they live without each other. And like so many other social animals, they get along best when life is free of stress—and especially well when they know where they stand with the rest of the flock. Indeed, in every chicken coop, one hen emerges as the leader while the rest rank in declining order according to their relationship with her. Meanwhile, all of them are outranked by any male, although sometimes a young, inexperienced rooster is sometimes dominated—or “henpecked”—by the lead hen.

Chicks are barely hatched when they commence establishing their place in the pecking order. As they mature, they will occasionally charge each other, spar and scrap until a clear leader emerges as the one who gets to butt in at the feeder, gets the first drink at the trough and whichever nesting box she likes. Among hens, it is rare that much damage is done although the lowest, most passive girl can be beaten up badly and is sometimes ostracized.

All is peaceful until newcomers are introduced, and the sparring starts all over again. New chickens don’t stand a chance if thrown into the fray. It’s better to keep the two sides separated by a fence for a couple of weeks before making formal introductions.