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The Secrets of Chicken Flocks’ Pecking Order by Brian Barth in Modern Farmer on March 16, 2016

“Chickens are not a particularly democratic species. They have no interest in consensus-based decision-making or ensuring that every member of the flock has equal access to food and water and a good place to roost.

But they do have their own ways of maintaining social order, which seem to have served their needs well enough over millennia. It’s a bit authoritarian by our standards, but the pecking order—in which each bird has a rank in the top-down hierarchy of the flock—is the way in which chickens govern themselves.

The pecking order is, literally, determined by pecking. Bigger, stronger, and more aggressive chickens bully their way to the top of the flock by pecking the others into submission with their pointy beaks. First they strut about, fluff their feathers, and squawk, but if that doesn’t get the point across, they peck. It can get violent. Sometimes blood is drawn; occasionally, the opponent is killed.

Pecking order rank determines the order in which chickens are allowed to access food, water, and dust-bathing areas. It determines who gets the most comfortable nesting boxes and the best spots on the roosting bar. The good news is that, at least among a flock of chickens born and raised together, the pecking order is established early on and the birds live in relative harmony, with only minor skirmishes now and then to reinforce who is in charge.

The chicken at the top of pecking order has a special role to play in the flock. Because they are so strong and healthy, it’s their responsibility to keep constant watch for predators and usher the others to safety when a circling hawk appears or a strange rustling is heard in the bushes nearby. The top chicken is also expected to be an expert at sniffing out food sources, such as a nest of tasty grubs under a fallen log, or a bunch of kitchen scraps that the farmer dropped on their way to the compost pile. Even though the top chicken has the right to eat first, he or she usually lets the others feed, while keeping a vigilant watch for predators, and dines only after everyone else has had their fill.”

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