In 1904, there was a ten-year-old boy living in Norway named Thorleif. In addition to having a really cool name, Thorleif was also a very keen observer of the things that happened around him. He was utterly captivated by a flock of chickens that his parents had given him and spent hours watching them interact. In 1921, Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe used the observations that he had collected since childhood on the dominance hierarchy in chickens as the basis for his doctoral dissertation. Since his doctoral paper was published in German, he used the term “Hackordnung” to describe this chicken behavior. When his paper was published in English in 1927, this term was translated as “pecking order.” “Pecking order” has now seeped into popular usage to the point that it not only describes social interaction in people, but also an economic theory, a card game, and a chicken restaurant in Florida. As a matter of fact the term has become such a part of the common lexicon that most people have forgotten, or never knew, that it has anything to do with chickens.
|Thorleif (Oslo Museum)|
But chickens do peck each other. They have pointed beaks, and their beaks are their main weapon. In the most extreme situation, chickens can peck each other to death. That's unusual, though, and most chickens in most flocks go through the day without major squabbles. That's not to say, though, that chickens are Kumbayah clucking pacifists. There is a social structure and chickens are constantly trying to move up the ladder. The top chickens get their pick of the prime spots on the very top of the roost and get to eat the choicest treats for as long as they like. The bottom chickens find the best spot on the roost they can, and get any leftover treats that the ruling chickens don't want. And while pecking is involved in maintaining the social norm, it doesn't always come to that - usually a dirty look from a more dominant hen is all that's required for the weaker hen to back down.
The flock of sixteen birds in my big coop actually contains two pecking orders. There are fourteen hens and two roosters in the flock, and whenever a flock contains more than one rooster, there is a pecking order for the roosters that is distinct and separate from the hen pecking order. With only two roosters, it’s pretty easy to see how things fall out for them. Emile is the top banana. Then, there’s the small auxiliary rooster, sad little Paul, the frizzled bantam Cochin. Emile has his way with the ladies whenever and wherever he likes. Paul will occasionally flirt with one of the hens, and if that hen is not one of Emile’s favorites, or if Emile’s feeling magnanimous, he’ll ignore the situation. But if Paul puts a move on Emile’s best girl, or if Emile is in a foul (ahem…fowl) mood, he’ll chase Paul around the coop until Paul finds a good place to hide or Emile decides he’s tired. This goes on every day and will not stop as long as both roosters are healthy and occupying the same flock at the same time.
The dynamic of the fourteen hens is a little more complicated. I could tell you in general who the top hens and bottom hens are, but to actually make a list of the hens from top to bottom would be very difficult because there is constant shuffling going on. A hen will move up or down a position due to some subtle interaction that either I don’t witness or I see but don't realize the implications. In general, I’m positive that Arlene, Barbara, Charlie, and Darcy—the four Barred Rocks—make up the ruling elite. In general, Barred Rock hens are intelligent, curious, and adventurous, and are most often the alpha hens in any flock.
Roosting time is the best time to watch flock dynamics. Emile goes to bed early on the top rung and one by one the hens jump onto the roost to join him. Paul knows that Emile is loath to get up once he’s settled in for the night, so he knows this is his big chance to troll the coop for acquiescent hens. Each hen, meanwhile, works her way up the roost to the top rung and carefully examines the hens already sitting there to see if there is a hen near her status that she can roost by. If the top rung is already full, she looks for a hen she can force to move down. If a hen is not happy with who she winds up roosting by, she’ll not so subtly shove her body against her roost neighbor and try to force her to move. If that strategy doesn’t work, she’ll casually start pecking the other hen’s toes. The pecking escalates to the body, the neck, the head, and finally the comb. Combs are sensitive, vulnerable, and bleed easily, so the conflict usually ends before it reaches that point when the weaker hen reluctantly moves to a lower rung. Occasionally, if the lower hen feels she can take on the hen challenging her and move up a peg on the pecking order, a full-scale hen fight can ensue, which often ends with Emile’s intervention.
While all this shuffling and sorting out is taking place, the Barred Rocks are still lazily scratching through the coop bedding, or pecking feed. They know that when they decide to go to bed, they’ll pick any spot on the roost that they damn well please.
And this is the law of the coop. It may offend your sense of fairness and democracy, but it’s a system that works, and without a system there would be constant bloody conflict. There are several situations that cause the system to break down. One is when I introduce a new hen to the flock. That hen has to fight for a position in the pecking order, or be mercilessly bullied by all of the other hens all of the time. Putting a couple of new hens into the mix always causes a kerfuffle that lasts for several days, and when the dust and feathers finally settle, the new pecking order can look very different from the old one. A second situation is when a hen dies. The sudden death of Rhoda the Rhode Island Red last week opened up a position in the hierarchy and there was conflict. Some hens moved up, and interestingly, some hens moved down. A third situation is when a hen is injured. Hens that rank below her immediately press their advantage. Recall last week’s post about Arlene and Rhoda. Both hens, when they were ill, felt safer on the ground, outdoors, with evening approaching, than in the coop with other hens that would probably pick a fight. A fourth situation is when a hen is temporarily removed from the flock. When she goes back, she has to regain her position in the scheme of things. And that brings us to Arlene.
You’ll recall from last week’s post that Arlene has been under the weather with a lame right leg compounded by a hard molt. She’s been gradually recuperating and on Thursday night at roosting time, I decided it was time to move Arlene back to the coop with the other hens. I swung open the door separating her corner pen from the rest of the coop and Arlene sauntered out. Most of the hens didn’t react at all to Arlene’s reappearance among them, but there were a few that did, and it was interesting to see who they were. First, Paul the pipsqueak rooster scurried up, bubbling with amorous excitement. I interpreted his ardent clucking to mean, “Arlene! You’ve been away! I suspect that the decline in your fortunes means that Emile no longer finds you attractive. But suddenly I find you so…..approachable!” Right behind Paul were Arlene’s “friends”, Barbara and Charlie Barred Rock. They seemed to be saying, “Hey, sister, looks like you’ve got a little limp going on. That is sooo not cool! While you were away we saved your spot. NOT! There’s no way we ever want to hang out with you again, so take a hike now, or you’ll be sorry!” Of course chickens don’t really talk. What they were actually doing was aggressively pecking Arlene. While I realized that it was important for Arlene to get through the hazing and reintegrate into the flock, I also didn’t want the situation to get out of hand, so I waited it out in the coop as the chickens, one by one, found a place on the roost for the night. Arlene eventually limped back into her old corner pen and roosted by herself.
I got up early Friday morning, but not early enough to be up with the chickens. By the time I got to the coop the nasty behavior was once again in full swing—Paul was doing his Lothario routine and the mean girls were bullying. Arlene was constantly on the move to avoid their attention and her limp was becoming more pronounced. Also, her comb was bleeding in several places from hard pecks. I said a few words under my breath, snatched up Arlene, put her back in the corner pen and shut the door.
|Arlene--with comb scabs after a "conversation" with the mean girls|
And that’s where she is today. While Arlene actually seems perfectly happy to be living by herself in the corner pen and with free run of the tractor alley, it isn't a good or permanent solution. She needs to eventually reintegrate with the flock. I'm going to give her some time for her leg to regain some strength and for her comb to heal and then I'll give my next plan a shot: I'll put Arlene back into the coop and do a little social engineering to help her fit in. I have a plan! Will my plan work? Who knows - but it's worth a try. Life in the coop never gets boring!
|Barbara Barred Rock|
|Charlie Barred Rock|
|Paul the amorous frizzled bantam Cochin roo|
[This post has been shared on "Clever Chicks Blog Hop #222"]