Our ideal picture of our chickens is usually of a quietly clucking flock making their way through green pasture, collecting healthy bugs and plants on the way.
But it's not always like that. Chickens have a very strong sense of hierarchy – who should be the dominant bird in even a small flock, who deserves first place in the food queue, who gets the best place on the roost at night.
And that can sometimes cause problems.
It's called the "pecking order", and this article covers:
Pecking order: theory and meaning.
The pecking order was first identified back in 1922 by a Norwegian zoologist, Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe. He first conceived of the term "pecking order" after watching his own flock of chickens and the way they interacted. His findings were widely published in 1935(1).
Since then, it's been identified in many other species, and the name in academic research has morphed to become "dominance hierarchy".
In chicken circles, it's still known as the pecking order. It just fits.
It's basically quite a complex social system which will be formed in any flock of more than three chickens(2).
Some chickens – Schjelderup-Ebbe called them the "despots" – are allowed to peck everyone, and are therefore top of the pecking order. Others are ranked less high, until at the bottom of the ladder there are those who never peck, but are always the recipients of pecking.
Birds at the top of the pecking order will normally have the best of everything: food, water, treats, nest box, place on the roost, room in the dust bath, and access to the rooster or hen of choice for mating...
Others must take their place as defined by where they are in the hierarchy. Meaning that some birds can find their lives made miserable, chased from the feeder or even prevented from entering the coop.
Chickens can be ruthless.
If you've ever raised chicks, you'll know that fighting to establish a pecking order can start very early – research suggests as quickly as two weeks post-hatch(3).
Baby chicks are naturally curious, so it's important not to make snap judgements but to watch their behaviour. These two, for example, could be checking each other out, or spoiling for a fight.
In fact, they were just curious. There was no pecking order nastiness and they ended up being the best of friends in my coop.
To identify pecking order behaviour you'll see chicks "charging" at each other, chasing their brooder-mates or actively and constantly pecking smaller chicks.
There's a difference between groups based on size and gender, though:
The key to Schjelderup-Ebbe's research was his view of chickens as individuals, not a general species(1).
He recognised that individual differences play their part in forming the flock's hierarchy. Those differences include...
It can and does(1). As with all relationships, it's a dynamic rather than static situation, so as the make-up of the flock changes, so will the pecking order.
That change can be slow, over a number of months, or very quick if a situation arises which challenges it.
Some of the known reasons for change are:
In the photo below, you can see my well established flock (outside the run) visiting a new group of adults. The new flock is kept in a run placed inside the main fenced run, so that both flocks can see and hear each other but not yet integrate.
When the two groups are mingled, the pecking order is likely to change as the chickens work out where the newbies fit into the hierarchy.
The fact that the two groups have been able to get to know each other at a distance is likely to reduce the incidence of pecking order problems when they're mixed.
The best and only way to do this is, as all researchers have done, to spend time with your flock.
Having all the information about what the pecking order means and how it's formed makes watching your chickens' behaviour and the relationships between members of your flock fascinating.
Take note of who dominates and who loses out by watching who...
Managing the pecking order is a natural behaviour which should be left to the flock to sort out. You won't be able to change it, no matter how unpleasant it may seem.
However, there are times when it can descend into bullying behaviour. A full-on pecking order fight can be vicious – sometimes fatal.
Chickens who persistently bully other chickens are detrimental for the flock and need to be managed.
Research scientist Eli Strauss says this:
"The view that dominant animals act as benevolent leaders of their groups is wishful thinking... Individuals holding high status use their status to advance their personal interests"(4).
And in his original research, Schjelderup-Ebbe goes even further:
"The face of the despot would radiate with joy of satisfied pecking-lust and the fury could clearly be observed in its eyes".
So bullying can simply be a dominant chicken becoming a little too full of him / herself and wanting total flock domination rather than using her position to ensure the smooth running of relationships.
It can take forms other than full-on fighting though, such as...
Watch for these signs within your flock. If you see any of them, it's time to act.
These two Speckled Sussex hens, bottom of the pecking order, were forced to roost in my bay tree because they were being prevented from entering the coop by a Red Star bully.
She was dealt with by isolating her from the flock until she had learned some manners.
Bullying can be reduced in a number of ways, including isolating the bully. This in itself can cause problems though, so there are a number of other steps to try first.
1. Make sure your chickens have enough space both inside and outside the coop. Having insufficient space is known to lead to feather-pecking, a known symptom of bullying.
2. If possible, allow your flock to free range. As well as having individual space, being able to forage widely distracts and stimulates, so bullying becomes far less likely.
3. If free-ranging is not possible – and it's always risky – design as large a run as possible, making sure it's securely fenced.
4. If your dominant chicken is guarding feeders and waterers, other flock members will potentially die. Make sure that there are two or three different points in the run where they can access food and drink.
5. Add "boredom busters" (known in the chicken industry as "environmental enrichment") to the run and coop to create more distractions. Find 25 different ways to prevent boredom, here and put some of them into action now!
6. Whatever you do, do not remove the victim(s) from the coop unless she has been physically injured.
The time comes when the only option to stop chicken bullying is to remove the offender from the flock.
When is that time?
If, despite all your efforts, the bully is persistent to the extent of drawing blood, for example, or if the victim(s) are clearly miserable, then it's time to take decisive action – even if the offender is very young.
The earliest I've had to isolate was a two week old chick. He grew up to be a superb dominant guardian but needed teaching manners at that young age. He spent three days in a penned-off corner of the brooder and came out a different chick.
Using solitary confinement should be the last resort. It takes careful planning both to remove the offender and to reinstate him / her at the right time.
How to manage isolating a chicken: click this link for a detailed article.
And always remember: you cannot change the pecking order of a flock. You can simply deal with the problems if it becomes an issue of bullying.
A lot of "facts" you'll find on the internet are often people's individual views, based on inaccurate information repeated from poor quality sources.
The information I provide in this article and others is based not just on my own experience, but on evidenced facts from scientific, peer-reviewed research and books from highly respected and experienced poultry keepers such as Gail Damerow.
Some of the trusted sources I have used in this article are these.
1. Schjelderup-Ebbe, T: Social behavior of birds. Pub. A handbook of social psychology, Clark University Press, 1935.
2. Scarf, Damian: Pecking Order. Pub. Encyclopedia of Animal Cognition and Behavior, 2019.
3. Jacob, Dr. J: Normal behaviors of chickens in small and backyard poultry flocks. Pub. University of Kentucky, 2020.
4. University of Cincinnati. Unlocking the mysteries of the pecking order. Pub. ScienceDaily, 2022.
5. Strauss, Eli, et al: The centennial of the pecking order: current state and future prospects for the study of dominance hierarchies. Pub. The Royal Society, Biological Sciences, 2022.
6. Schjelderup-Ebbe, T: Contributions to the social psychology of the domestic chicken. Pub. Dowden, Hutchison and Ross, 1975.