It’s exceptionally difficult for humans to watch the transitional period of the pecking order in a group of chickens. This must be primarily because we love our pets and want them to get along; but also because we would never greet a new friend by head-butting them, forcing them to stand in the corner of the room, or taking their lunch. But chickens can’t say, “Hi, I’m Becky. Let me show you around!” So instead they use dominance to create a social hierarchy that establishes how the flock operates: who is the boss, where the cool kids hang out, who is dismissed for lunch first, and so on.
If the flock contains a rooster, he will generally make his way to the top of the pecking order as he matures. Without a rooster, a dominant hen will establish her place at the top of the pecking order and function much like the dominant rooster. The chicken at the top of the pecking order is charged with protecting the flock. They will keep an eye to the sky and to their surroundings and make a sound to warn the flock of incoming predators or unknown objects. In the case of a shortage of food, a rooster will often prove chivalrous enough to find food for the hens, and allow them to eat what’s available before he eats anything. A dominant hen on the other hand, may lay claim to the last morsels of food if resources are running low. Those at the bottom of the pecking order are mostly required to stay out of the way of more dominant chickens, and are often bullied away from the feed and water until the dominant chickens are finished.
Changing the makeup of the flock – adding new chickens, removing chickens, or mixing different flocks – causes uproar in the pecking order. A new order must be established by pecking, bullying, and fighting. New chickens in the flock will mostly end up at the bottom of the order as the established chickens peck at them. When a chicken stops looking at a dominant chicken, keeps its head low, or moves to a different area, they are signaling that they accept their less dominant position in the pecking order. Although the majority of the bullying and fighting happens immediately, it can take around two weeks for the flock to truly finalize their pecking order.
Chickens simply intend to show dominance to establish their place in the pecking order, but some chickens are stronger and rougher than others. Although it doesn’t happen often, a chicken will occasionally get injured by a larger or more aggressive hen. If a chicken is injured during the squabble and her wound bleeds, it can cause other chickens to peck at the injury. The saddest thing about the nature of chickens is learning they are cannibals. A bleeding chicken may be pecked to death if it is not separated from the rest of the chickens and treated. For this reason, it is always best to supervise when adding new chickens to your flock. If you’re looking for some tricks to make it easier on you and the new chicks, check out our article on Tips for Integrating Chickens.
If your chicken is wounded, get that chicken out of the coop first. You can apply a topical antiseptic called Blu-Kote that also acts as a dye to cover up the color of blood. Be careful not to get this on your hands, clothes, or furniture as it stains! You can also use a triple antibiotic such as Neosporin to help the wound heal quickly – just make sure it does not contain “Added Pain Relief”.
Remember that the hardest thing about the pecking order is watching it. Most of the time, the order is established smoothly without any injuries. And if someone does get bullied a bit much, you might notice they’re simply more inclined to be loved on by their human mamas and papas, which you will surely enjoy. Just have a back-up plan ready in case things do head south: a spare dog kennel, a separate coop, or simply dividing the coop to create a safe space for injured or bullied chickens will work perfectly.