The Pecking Order: What Is It and How to Avoid Problems in Your Flock

The Pecking Order What Is It and How to Avoid Problems in Your Flock

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘the pecking order’. In our minds eye, we likely see colleagues and co-workers neatly arranged in order of ‘merit’. From the CEO down to the janitor, everyone has a place in the ‘pecking order’.

The term ‘pecking order’ was first coined in 1921 by Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe to describe the hierarchy of flock dynamics and it came into popular usage in the 1930s.

At times the pecking order can make life extremely difficult for both chickens and chicken keepers! Keep reading to understand exactly what the pecking order is and how you can stop common problems caused because of the pecking order.

What Is The Pecking Order?

So, exactly what is it and how does it relate to you and your flock?

It’s a system by which birds arrange their social standing in the flock. The higher ranked birds will get the best food, water and roosts while the lower placed birds will get the leftovers.

This method of organization places each member of the flock on a ‘heirachy ladder’. At the top of the ladder will be the head rooster (or hen if no rooster is present). This complex social order is designed to ensure that there is good cohesion between members, and few if any petty squabbles…

This sort of co-operation between members of the flock ensures the survival of the flock by giving the best chances to the fittest birds.

It is a flexible structure and within the flock there are usually three different types of social order going on:

  • Rooster to Rooster
  • Hens to Hens
  • Roosters to Hens

A rooster may go up the ladder if he mounts a successful campaign against the leader. He becomes the new chicken-in-charge! And the defeated roosters go down the ladder, as do weak or sickly birds.

Establishing The Pecking Order

Roosters that are lower in the order, crow less frequently and rarely mate.

Hens have their own ‘girls’ only ladder. The matriarchs of the flock will be up to the top of the ladder, with less dominant birds at the bottom. In this system the older, stronger and more savvy hens will be at the top.

Young pullets just coming to point of lay, will try to ‘move up’ the social ladder quickly.

If a bird tries to go ‘out of turn’, she will earn glares, pecks and feather pulling from the higher ‘ranked’ hens. Usually a ‘look’ or a quick peck is enough to remind the lower ranking hen she has overstepped the boundary.

The serious games of the pecking order start when chicks are around six weeks of age. Chicks will start rushing at each other, bumping chests and flaring feathers. These are all methods used to intimidate flock mates at any stage of life. By the time they leave the brooder, they will have their own pecking order sorted out.

Pecking Order Problems

Whilst the pecking order can create a sense of harmony within a flock it can also create absolute havoc, with chickens fighting each other for their position within the order.

A full on pecking order assault is a violent and terrible thing to see. Older birds can be relentless, drawing blood, causing serious injury even death. There is nothing gentle about the pecking order.

1. Adding New Birds to Your Flock

Adding birds to your existing flock will cause a shift in the pecking order. The older birds will be very suspicious of the new members and can be quite violent about it.

If you do add new birds to your flock, it needs to be done slowly and cautiously. You should never add less than two birds to an established flock.

Adding New Birds to Your Flock

The method that has worked well for me in the past is the separation pen.

This is an area that the new hens can be put safely without the older girls being able to peck them. They can look, pace around the enclosure but can’t get in. I do this for a couple of weeks then open up the enclosure.

When you do open up the temporary enclosure you need to have places the new birds can hide or run to if flock members get really mean.

I have not had any integration problems using this method- a couple of pecks here and there, but nothing too vicious. As a keeper, you should not intervene unless blood has been drawn, then you need to remove the inured bird quickly and isolate them.

Remember to read Introducing New Chickens to Your Existing Flock for more help!

2. Sick or Injured Birds

Chickens rarely show any signs of illness or weakness. If they do, other flock members will pick on them and either drive them from the flock or kill them.

This sounds awful, but remember, the flock in the wild is as strong as its’ weakest member. It’s simply a survival tactic.

Pecking Order Is Survival Tactic

If you have a chicken that is constantly being pecked at, you will need to isolate her away from harm. A large crate or ‘chicken hospital’ area will do very well. Check her over carefully for peck damage and also try to find out what is wrong with the bird.

The victim will need to be isolated until wounds are healed- now comes the tough part, trying to re-integrate the affected bird. Use the segregation pen which we mentioned earlier on for a few days and then reintegrate her.

3. Bully Birds

Sometimes you have a hen who is a bully to everyone. Often she will be in the middle of the pecking order, rarely at the top.

My bully bird is called Red Sonya and she is mid-level pecking order wise. When she sees a new girl anywhere near food she makes it her business to let them know they are not entitled to one beakful of food- it’s hers! She dutifully ‘patrols’ the food stations for a day or so then loses interest. She has made her point and the newbies avoid her!

Red Sonya
Everybody meet Red Sonya

If you have a hen like this, the best way to ‘straighten her out’ is the segregation pen for a few days.

The pecking order will change while she is in isolation, so when she gets re-introduced she will be a ‘newbie’ and treated accordingly.

Once in a while you will get two or more hens that form a ‘bully club’. Use the same treatment for them, except re-introduce them to the flock on separate days- this should break the pattern of bullying!

How to Avoid Pecking Order Problems

The good news is that much can be done by the keeper to ensure that old and new flock members integrate fairly peacefully.

First and most importantly, each bird needs to have sufficient ‘personal space’.

There really isn’t a ‘perfect formula’ for space requirements, often quoted is four square foot/bird for floor space. If they are confined within the coop twenty four hours a day, I would certainly add as much room as possible, since boredom leads to mischief!

If however, your birds are allowed to free range, coop space doesn’t really become an issue until winter. I provide my girls with one foot of roosting space per bird. Mine all cram together on the roosts at night, leaving lots of empty roosting space! As you can see, it’s very much an individual thing- some birds like space, others not so much.

Make sure you provide lots of roosting spots so that a hen can get away if she needs to. Providing places to ‘hide’ is important- old boxes, straw bales (outside the coop) dark quiet areas in the barn/shed. If you can think along the lines of a two year old playing hide and seek, you will have great success!

Don’t forget to provide extra feeding and watering stations. I usually provide four for a flock of thirty hens, this gives everyone a chance to eat and drink in peace.

Conclusion

Congratulations! You have survived the ‘pecking order’ social upheaval! It gets easier every year, believe me!

The pecking order is a necessary evil for flocks to understand exact where each hen fits within their own hierarchy.

Those birds towards the top of the hierarchy get first access to the feed, water and roosting spots, whilst lower members of the pecking order are left with the scraps.

Sometimes the pecking order can become a real problem, but if you follow the steps outlined above you will be fine!

Question: What do you think the best way to manage the pecking order is?



Comments

  1. Lynn says

    Another great article thanks! I have a bullying problem with my “middle” girl. She just came out of isolation for a brooding problem. Back with the other two, she constantly bullies the smaller girl and pecks her when she goes to eat. I think I might have to isolate her again for a few more days. Such fun!
    Wouldn’t change them for the world though. Thanks for all your advice.

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Lynn,

      So happy the website is helping you 🙂

      Glad to hear you are taking the right steps to sort the problem out.

      Be sure to email us if you have any problems,

      Claire

  2. Penny says

    I have a problem with my flock of 8 free range hens. One was sick for a while and while she has recovered she has now been isolated by the other 7 to the extent that she is constantly on guard, and is not even allowed into the hen house at night, but sleeps underneath it on the ground. If she goes anywhere near any of the others she is pecked and driven away. Needless to say, she no longer lays. Anyone have any ideas of how to reintegrate her into the flock?

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Penny,

      Please follow our article on re-introducing hens into the flock and I’m sure she will be fine 🙂

      Claire

  3. Lori says

    We have 7 in established flock, got a rescue and incubated. The rescue and babies have been together for a few months and are fine. We did the block off part of the run for them to be introduced to established flock. The “runt” or lowest in established flock is super mean. I feel bad because she is constantly picked on bit she dishes it out worse.

    • Charlie Aqui says

      I have six in established flock, and one of them is a wild hen that I raised along with the other five rr/leg horns. The wild hen is almost 1/2 the size smaller, is the bully of the flock. This morning I caught her pecking at a hen while the poor hen was nesting. So automatically I separated the wild hen in a holding pen. Lately my egg count has dropped almost 50%. I hope by separating this hen will fix that.The one thing I like about this wild hen is that she will dedicate her self to sitting on all of the eggs if I choose to one day hatch them.

  4. Donna says

    I just read the ‘pecking order’ article and I have a question.My girls are all about 6 months of age and they were purchased at the same time.They have lived in perfect harmony with occasional pokes and pecks but just the other day one of my hens started going after only one of my other hens.She literally pulls the feathers out of her and it’s constant is that normal after 6 months?

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Donna,

      Has she stopped bullying them now? It’s quite strange after they’ve been settled for so long. Has anything changed in the flock recently?

    • Roy Jones says

      Donna – same with our 3 hens @ around 6 months. We have one coop, hence isolating the bully is problematoc. Any thoughts out there?

      • Linda Potts says

        Depending on the size of your coop you could add extra fencing inside. I have an older hen blind in one eye who was always being harrassed. I used a small wire dog crate when set up it’s 1’by 3′ she has space and can “see” the others but they can’t get to her. same outside a 2 by 4 (8sqr feet) area that she and her one friend go. it’s not ideal but it means i don’t have to part with her just yet.

    • KJL says

      I’m actually having this problem too, my hens are 6 months old and my last to lay (an Orpington) finally laid today and then attacked my dominant hen (an EE), but ended up bloodied. I cleaned her up and bluekoted her and put her back out and after a bit she did it again…she went over to my ee, the ee froze and dropped down a bit and the orp started pecking her and they ended up fighting with my ee pulling on the orp’s comb. I penned the orp up in the run in a 3×4 wire dog crate and I’m not sure what to do next.

  5. Henry says

    I am having a real problem introducing 3 bantams to my regular sized flock of 3. The original lowest chicken singles out the smallest bantam and chases her all over the coop. There are many places to hide, but the other two bantams can go anywhere Rusty goes, and they also follow her and bang on her constantly. Consequently I isolated Rusty across a fence, and closed off the small coop to the other bantams, but while changing the mini-coop configuration the next highest banty got across the fence and immediately started the torture. So who should be in jail –the number 2 bottom, the #4 bottom (full-size bottom), both of those, or some other combination?

    Interestingly, this seemed to start when Rusty, who is a few weeks older than the other newbies, started laying. Now she is so stressed she has quit after 5 eggs.

    The banties spent months in the isolation pen and have been with the big girls only two or three weeks.

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Henry,

      I would isolate the larger bully and see if your bantams integrate well with the remaining 2 from your flock.

      Claire

  6. Sara says

    Great article thank you. I have a problem with our rooster and a new chicken. She was in isolation for two weeks before introducing to the flock. After two days he had pecked her comb extensively and she was standing still taking it. I have isolated her again t heal. How can I stop the rooster pecking her to death.

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Sara,

      Instead of isolating the new chicken, next time isolate the rooster and then reintegrate him into the flock.

      Claire

  7. Breanne Wiesner says

    Hi! We have 3 Rhode Island reds, and recently added 2 Easter eggers. They seem to be fine with the 1, but two of the Reds seem to pick on the other.

    It’s only been a couple days, and no blood has been shed, but how much is too much?

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Breanne,

      It isn’t a problem as long as they aren’t drawing blood or hurting each other…

      Claire

  8. Jeanette says

    I have chickens & ducks co-living in a large coop/run area & they all free range daily,,I have 2pullets that pick on the smaller ducks,I’m isalating the two dominant pullets right now for a couple of days then will release those hound hens one day apart just like you sugguest,hopefully it works

    • Sian says

      You’re not supposed to keep hens & ducks together, they’re both entirely different species, with very different needs & habits, ie hens go to roost at dusk, but ducks are quite nocturnal & stay up very late, disturbing the hens. Ducks also require a different shape coop, with a wider door opening, as unlike hens (going out one by one), ducks will rush through together & could injure themselves. Ducks also need a different ladder (having webbed feet). Most importantly, as your ducks mature, if you have drakes they will attempt to have intercourse with anything & could become very sexually aggressive towards your hens – & could even kill them.

  9. Sophie says

    Thanks for your article, very helpful! Recently added 3 hens to my flock of 3. Have a sectioned off part of the run, which I’ve now put the 2 meanies in, so the newbies and 1 existing hen have the remainder of the run. When they go out into the garden I let them all out, newbies just stay away from the flock.
    Question I have though is why should they be separated if they are going to fight when they are put together anyway?

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Sophie,

      In my experience it helps to reduce the amount of fighting when they are introduced…

      Claire

  10. French Hens says

    I have a rooster and a bully hen who are super mean, it is our only rooster and he came at the same time as this hen, and they team up against the weakest ones. Pecking, banning from food etc. One hen has already died, because she was evidently not eating and then picked up an infection, so was too weak to fight against it.

    Now a point of lay that we introduced 6 weeks ago (carefully along with her sister), is going the same way 🙁 She never had any contact with the other bird that died, so we know it isn’t a contagious thing. Also all the other birds are ok.

    The only thing we can work out is the rooster and the bully hen are so aggressive that she is too scared to eat. She has lost weight. We have her isolated now, feeding her vitamins and yoghurt etc to try and build her up but I am scared she is going to die too. What suggestions would you have for this situation? Sorry for the long post!

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi French,

      Unfortunately sometimes you do just get super mean ‘bully’ hens. Have you tried removing them from your flock and reintroducing them to try to move them down the pecking order?

      Claire

  11. Cindy says

    Thank you, I have 5 6month old Rhode Island Reds with one being a bully. She pecks at their heads, Ears and now Lucy has a wounded eye. Thanks to you, I will Isolate Savvy tomorrow and hopefully this will be the solution. I also have 2 3-month old bantams that I am worried about and yes, I name them and love them all. UGH! Thanks again for the article. Nice to know I am not alone.

  12. Bill Woods says

    Have 5 chickens. The smallest one has, recently, been pecked to the point of serious bleeding. The two guilty bullies include her sister. We had no problems for 6 months prior. I have seperated the injured bird and nursed her to health. Yesterday, I returned her to the flock and the pecking resumed in the coop right away. They seem tp be okay during free time, but not within the coop. What should be my next step?

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Bill,

      As the problem seems to be happening in the coop I’d say it’s likely to do with the roosting situation.

      Do they have enough roosting space (they should have one foot each). Also, are the roosts at the same height?

      Claire

      • Arlene Mayberry says

        Do hens do better with level roosting bars?
        I have a hen who gets picked on. I have to put the docile one on the roost when they get settled and it dark in there. They are fine and in the morning they start picking on her again.
        I have to guard my docile hen so she can eat.

        • The Happy Chicken Coop says

          Hi Arlene,

          Yes, level roosting bars.

          Any sort of tiered bars will encourage more ‘alpha’ behavior…

          Claire

    • Sian says

      Hi Bill, I couldn’t help but notice that nobody has mentioned on here about ‘Anti Peck’ spray. You simply apply to the bird which is being picked on/bullied & reapply every 3-5 days. It tastes disgusting & the bullies stop pecking immediately – thus breaking the cycle.

      • Alison says

        Hello, Sian. Which “Anti Peck” spray do you use? I looked online and the one they had didn’t have a very high rating.

        Thank you,
        Alison

  13. Anna says

    Hello I am very concerned about about the smallest hen in my flock. I have 20 or so laying hens and the last two days at feed time I noticed the hens would not let the littlest hen eat. I have a pretty large coop with two separate feeding areas that many hens can feed on at the same time. I feed them daily. This particular hen just paced back and forth in s frenzy manner at the rear of the coop. Each time she tried to sneak up a hen snapped at her and she scurried away. She attempted 1/2 dz. times or more and today the same thing occurred. Both times I tried giving her food in the rear but the other hens were to nosy and found everything I provided. My question is does her size cause this. It is obvious she is the smallest? Also her feathers look great, she is not showing signs of being pecked or bloody. So hopefully like your article mentioned maybe the middle girls are picking at her during feed time.
    Any suggestions would be appreciated. Thanks in advance!!

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Anna,

      Are they all the same breed? If it is only one or two hens bullying her I would isolate the bullys. However, if it’s a lot of the flock then I would isolate the smallest hen and feed her up abit 🙂

      Claire

  14. Michele S, says

    I have 8 med/large hens. The lowest on the pecking order started sleeping in nest boxes while moulting. I allowed it until she was feathered again but the nest boxes are now closed off at night. Found her lying on the floor of the coop near the nests but also by the door (which is always open Bc our coop and run are super secure.) I don’t want her to be chilled and I want her on the roost with the others, poor girl! They also largely leave her alone; I never see them picking on her but they also don’t include her…she’s often by herself. What should I do about roosting at night? Thank you!

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Michele,

      I would wait until they go to roost and then physically pick the hen up and place her on the roosting bars with the rest of the hens 🙂

      You may need to do this a few times util she feels comfortable again.

      Let me know how you get on.

      Claire

    • Arlene Mayberry says

      Do you put her on the roosting bar after the others are settled and it’s darker out.
      I have to do that and they don’the bother her at night.

  15. Daisy says

    Hello, great article. I have 11 nine month old hens, one went broody and hatched 5 chicks November 23rd. While the littles are extremely adorable, it’s been some additional work. Mom and littles have a separate sleeping quarters in the main coop under the poop board. It’s about 6’x2′ so she and the littles gated in at night and left out in the morning. I have made a 9’x5′ separate area in the enclosed run for her. The big girls also have access to a fenced in free range area 10’x20′. Mom looks like she wants out, but when I let her out, one go the big girls goes after her. A scuffle breaks out and it looks like the others join in. At what age is it ok to introduce her and the littles? Mom and the littles haven’t free ranged as I need to make sure the outside area is “baby-chick-proof” so they don’t get through the metal fencing as I have two very large hounds. What is the best way to introduce the mom and littles and at what age? They see each other all day. Thanks

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Daisy,

      If the chicks haven’t been introduced to the existing flock straight away then I would consider waiting until they are a similar size until a proper introduction.

      Claire

  16. Linsie says

    I have three chickens in a pretty large coop and I know one of the hens is picking on one of the others, I’m just not sure if both of them are picking on her. she now hides in the area above that is secluded for laying and will sometimes come out and down on the ground for a little while. I have put food and water up in the area for her in case she isn’t getting any. Do you have any tips on how to help? They have all been together since they were chicks.

  17. JP says

    We have eleven hens about nine months old. We got all of them at the same time. Two Australorps, two Columbia Rock Crosses, two Buckeys, and five Black Sex Links.
    One of the Sex Links recently started plucking and eating feathers from all of the other hens. One of the lower ranked links nearly has a bald neck from the plucking. They mostly just stand their and let her pull their feathers out.
    They get a 15% protein mash, oyster shells and they have always a fresh coop and fresh water.
    Their coop is 4×8 plus nesting on the side and their run is about 50’x25′ with lots of stumps and some concrete wheels to play on. They are let out occasionally but we can’t let them free range without supervision due to a neighbor that has a larger free range flock close by.
    I removed the cannibal today to a makeshift coop and run made from two dog kennels and an old cat house that I transformed into a small coop.
    How long should I leave her separated from the flock to give her an attitude adjustment? Or, is this situation one that once the bad habit is formed it’s too late for change?
    Thanks for any help with this. We don’t want to have to cull her because of this. She is a good layer.

  18. Sarah says

    Thanks for this. I hope we don’t get to the bloody stage.

    We have three chickens in a coup, had them for just under a week, and the pecking order had been established most definitely.

    Edna is our boss lady hen. She’s always first at the feed never satisfied that she has her pile of food, as soon as she sees you giving some to the others, she forgets about hers and wants theirs. she doesn’t seem to like on of the other hens getting exited, yesterday, this second in command hen got spooked by a bumble bee and ran, and Edna fluffed up her feathers and charged at her, no feathers drawn yet. Hoping they’re being nice to each other today. 🙂

  19. Gillian Todd says

    I have three Isa Browns 6months old who free range during the day. Their chicken house has two laying boxes and two separate roosting areas which fit two chickens comfortably. A couple of weeks ago they all decided to roost in the one area and one of them is being pecked and every morning there are feathers being pulled out of her tail and around her neck. She has now stopped laying and looks very miserable. What can I do to stop this and why are they cramming into one area? Thank you for your help. Gillian

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Gillian,

      I would use an anti-peck paste. This should do the trick.

      Claire

  20. Henry says

    My problem is with the youngest hen. I added 2 girls to an existing flock of 2. The youngest is picking on the older hens it seems. Every time they are close the older hen puffs herself up and the younger one attacks, resulting in the older one running away.

  21. marie dawson says

    Hi i could really do with some advice i have 2 rescue hens and i would like to get another 3 but i am scared to mix them because one of my birds is a very dominant bird she is the head bird and will fight she is fine with my other bird though

  22. Michelle Erickson Kolarik says

    I have a 5 yo polish hen that broke her leg six weeks ago. She has fully recovered, but has been isolated for so long. I have kept her in a dog crate inside the coop, so the other three polish hens have seen her but can’t get to her. Now that she is better, I have been letting her out some but one of the hens pecks on her, and the previously injured one starts fights with another. I know this is pecking order norm, but how much is ok to tolerate? I’m worried to leave them unsupervised, especially at night. Any suggestions?

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Michelle,

      It shouldn’t go on seriously for more than a couple of minutes and certainly no blood should be drawn.

      Best of luck,

      Claire

  23. Joyce Bozman says

    I have 4 girls, all the same age. Have been together since babies. One got broody on me so we put 11 eggs under her. So far so good. They are due to hatch the 21st. But when she comes off the nest a few minutes in the morning, our dominate hen is very mean to her. It’s like she stocks my broody. Chases and pecks her.

    Also I plan to remove the broody and eggs to a safe haven, but not sure about when to introduce any babies we get.

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Joyce,

      If you remove the broody hen and eggs from the flock, I wouldn’t reintroduce them until the chicks are a similar size. However if mama hen is dominant you can introduce them as chicks as she will protect them from the flock!

      Claire

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