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The pecking order

Who isn’t a little bit envious of the simple life of a happy hen? Spending your days pecking for slugs and bugs, eating and running about – all in the company of a flock of friends – sounds pretty idyllic, we think.  

However, anyone who has attempted to introduce new members to their troop will tell you that it’s no easy task. In fact, a flock of chickens is built on a complex social structure that can be traced back to their ancient ancestors. This social structure – the pecking order – is instinctive and, once established, leads to a stable, harmonious feathered family.  

Why is it called the pecking order?  

Pecking is an action specific to fowls. They are born with the instinct to peck – to free themselves from the shell; to feed and drink; to establish relationships and to maintain personal space. The latter is extremely important to chickens – who live in groups, often in comparatively small spaces.  

They ensure they have enough room by holding their heads at a certain angle and orienting their bodies to create space around them. If another bird adopts a ‘head-to-head’ stance, this is seen as a direct challenge to personal space and pecking ensues to settle the squabble. In a merged or emerging flock, such squabbles can occur frequently in the early days, as chickens jostle to find their place, hence the term ‘pecking order’ – they quite literally peck their way into the hierarchy!

How is a pecking order determined? 

For domestic chickens, building a social hierarchy is ingrained. In fact, it is a directly inherited from their ancestors, for whom a pecking order would have been essential for survival.  

By establishing a social order – a leader; a ‘second in command’; a challenger and subordinates – everything from food and water to perches, nest boxes and dust can be apportioned accordingly.  

In the wild, this means that the healthy leader gets the lion’s share, allowing their superior genes to thrive, improving the flock’s chance of survival.  

Top tips for merging your flocks 

The first rule of merging a flock is to never introduce a lone bird. Much as we adore them, hens are natural bullies, and they will quickly see to it that the newcomer is put in her place. There is strength in numbers, so we recommend bringing in a group. For example; taking six hens if you currently have four is preferable to trying to integrate two new birds in a flock of eight. The ensuing bullying would cause extreme stress to the outnumbered newbies. Introducing birds that are of a similar size and feather coverage will also help to minimalise integration issues. 

Space is key to success. If you are able, it is best to allow your chickens to share a common space in their respective areas. Separating a pen with wire will allow the birds to acclimatise to their surroundings and each other, whilst keeping them safe from potential bullying. After a week or so, you can gradually allow them to mingle. There will likely be some disagreement but hopefully it will be much less intense. 

When they do begin to merge – or if space is limited – ensure that there is adequate access to food, water and nest boxes for all hens. Distraction techniques, such as hanging old CDs and greens like cabbage around the run can help too.  

Do it under cover of darkness. Arm yourself with your torch and place your new hens on perches or in the coop at night. Chickens are much less aggressive at night and therefore less likely to start a fight. They also have an excellent sense of smell, so will be aware of the new birds on some level. The theory being, that they will be much less ready to attack by the time daylight arrives.

What to do if problems persist 

Rest assured; bickering is perfectly normal as your new hens settle in. However, after a week or so, things should start to settle down and peace will once again be restored. Remember, chickens are attracted to the colour red, so if blood is drawn, be vigilant. A small amount around the comb can be closely monitored but any more than this and we would recommend removing the injured hen temporarily. 

If one hen is bullying significantly, try removing her to allow the others to integrate and establish the pecking order amongst themselves. Once she is reintroduced, she will be busy working out her place in the new structure and therefore less likely to adopt bullying techniques again. 

The key thing to remember is to allow plenty of space, food and water and keep an eye on your flock. The pecking order should be established after two weeks or so but if you have any questions about merging flocks, call our Hen helpline on 01884 860084. 

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