How to hack the pecking order

Manipulating the chicken pecking order

Chickens have a strict social hierarchy. They can recognise all the other members of their flock and know exactly where everyone ranks.

If anything happens to upset the social order, things can get ugly. In fact, studies have shown that social instability in the chicken coop leads to lower egg production and more aggressive birds.

Introducing new chickens to the flock

There are ways to make adding new chickens to your flock as smooth as possible. But it is natural and necessary for there to be some fighting.

When the social hierarchy is upset, for example by the addition of new birds, every chicken, from the top hen to the lowest, must re-establish its position in relation to all other members of the flock.

With an established pecking order, usually all it takes is a look or an “air-peck” to settle a challenge.

But with new birds, fighting can involve head pecking, chest bumping, comb pulling and scratching. It looks brutal but, unless there’s an injury, it’s best not to get involved.

Chickens rarely do serious damage to each other (two roosters are another story). Usually, one chicken will signal subordination before blood is shed and the dominant bird will walk away. A few more scuffles might occur and within a couple of days things will settle down.

But sometimes, introductions don’t go smoothly.

Should you interfere with the chicken pecking order?

We often say that kids need to sort fights out themselves. The same is true of chickens: When everyone is playing by the rules, chickens can establish the pecking order by themselves.

But there are occasions when it is necessary for the chicken keeper to get involved, such as when:

  • The loser won’t signal submission
  • The winner won’t back off even when submission is signalled
  • The bullying is relentless
  • A group is ganging up on one or two birds
  • There is ongoing conflict between two groups of birds
  • The conflict is having an impact on chickens’ health

And, of course, if a chicken is injured in a pecking order scuffle, it should always be removed from the coop and only allowed to return when its injury is fully healed.

Three ways to hack the pecking order

Chickens’ social interactions are complex, and we aren’t chickens. Interfering with the pecking order can have unintended consequences. But if it is really necessary, there are some ways to hack the pecking order.

1. Solitary confinement

In the case of relentless fighting or bullying, often one or two chickens are the culprits. Removing those birds can stop the conflict.

When we introduced a hen called Penny to the flock, one grumpy leghorn would chase her away from the feeder and waterer. It even stayed on the ground after all the other hens had gone up to roost, just to keep Penny out of the coop. We took the grumpy leghorn out for a fortnight and Penny settled in perfectly.

After time in solitary confinement, most chickens will be too busy re-establishing their own positions to worry about picking on others. Serial offenders can be removed every time you introduce a new bird!

2. A change of scenery

Sometimes a bird just isn’t accepted by the flock.

Once, we got 6 new hens and one was picked on relentlessly. This chicken looked identical to several others and behaved normally, but even the other new birds would not leave her alone. She began losing condition, and we decided that it was kindest to give her away. For whatever reason, this bird was accepted by her new flock and quickly returned to health.

If it is just one bird that isn’t getting along, sometimes a change of scenery can make a difference.

3. Playing the game

This is an intrusive method of flock design that can have unintended consequences. It isn’t always easy to watch, either.

When you have groups of chickens in conflict, there is a way to completely subvert the pecking order.

Our very first chickens were rescue hens. These ex-battery hens were a little unusual but got along well enough until we added four layers to the flock.

The new laying hens were big and healthy. They quickly overpowered our beloved ex-battery hens to rule the roost. This would have been ok, but they also picked on them and the ex-battery hens went back to being miserable.

We were already attached to the ex-battery hens so we tried a method I had read about – we took the new hens out and re-introduced them to our existing flock one-by-one.

Normally, you should introduce new chickens in groups for protection from bullying. Without the protection of numbers, each new layer was subdued by our ex-battery hens in turn, despite the size difference. With each new hen accepting her lowly position, even when all four joined the flock, the ex-battery hens still ruled the roost.

Although we had preserved the existing order, this method of interference did have unintended consequences – Louise, one of the ex-battery hens, turned into quite a tyrant. But she was so much smaller than the new laying hens and there was only one of her, so we were happy with the new pecking order. 

Have you had any luck hacking the pecking order with your flock? We'd love to hear from you! Contact us here.

Do you have new chickens? You might also be interested in these articles:

Happy chicken keeping!

Rachael at Dine a Chook Australia