• Diana Reed

Chickens Pecking Order - Chicken Bullying?

There is nothing quite as upsetting as watching a flock of chickens single out and bully another chicken. Understanding why chickens peck on each other can help you take the proper measures to fix the situation. After all - only healthy and happy Chickens lay eggs!

pecking order dominance chickens hens

Merriam-Webster Dictionary Defines:

"Pecking Order" noun Definition 1: a basic pattern of social organization within a flock of poultry in which each bird pecks another lower in the scale without being pecked in return and allows the pecking by one of higher rank

2: a social order with ranks or classes

 
hen pecked chicken pecking order injury
Top of Head Pecked by more dominant flock members causing injury to the underdog hen.

This is a Real Thing - Chicken Flocks establish a Hierarchy and they practice it. Chickens can peck each other for several reasons, but the solution will depend on the reasons behind why your chickens may be exhibiting this behavior. Here are some common reasons why chickens may peck each other:

  • Sickness / Injury

  • Dominance

  • Boredom

  • Nutrition

  • Food Availability

  • Stress

  • Overcrowding

  • Too many Roosters

  • Breed specific aggressions

 

Sickness / Injury A Chicken with a sickness or injury commonly leads to chicken bullying.

Chickens will naturally always peck at each other - but will gain significant interest if the compromised chicken does not react or is unable to react due to injury.

This is dangerous because it can swiftly become an unhealthy behavior.


sick hen chicken cocci

A Sick or Injured chicken becomes an easy Target because they lack the strength and health to defend themselves from an attack. The dominant individuals are likely to take advantage of their weakened state to entertain themselves and try to assert their dominance. This is dangerous because it can swiftly become an unhealthy behavior.

Injuries can commonly lead to chicken bullying.

Sick animals should be separated from the abusive chickens and allowed to rest and heal without interruption. Give the chicken time to heal, and if you see that they are not progressing, an exam by a vet proficient in working with poultry should be sought if at all possible. Since other factors are likely involved, read on for additional actions you can take to prevent harmful pecking.

 

Dominance Chickens will peck at each other to establish the pecking order or hierarchy within the flock. This is a normal behavior and doesn’t usually result in injury. It can occur with more frequency if the flock is moved to a new location, or if new members are added to the flock, Anything that is a change in the environment can result in a reestablishing of the pecking order. While this is usually a generally harmless process, sometimes problems can arise. A particularly dominant individual may cause harm with much more pecking than necessary. This will be obvious if one chicken has beautiful, healthy plumage while several others have had their rump feathers picked at or pulled out.

dominant chicken hen pecking order

If there are one or two chickens in particular who are picking on the others, you may need to remove them from the flock. They can be placed with a separate flock, or given to a friend to see if they will fit in better in their flock. Or, if you raise chickens for meat, simply cull these individuals next. They likely have a larger body and therefore more meat than many of the others. If there are a couple of weaker individuals being picked on by all the others, the same solutions apply. However, because this problem could be associated with other causes of pecking among flock members, you may want to consider whether expanding the pen or decreasing boredom could help distract the pushier individuals from the weaker ones before trying anything more drastic.


 

Boredom It is natural for chickens to spend the majority of their time scratching and pecking at the ground for food items. This is a normal behavior and what would usually take up most of their waking hours in the wild. But in captivity, when they are fed once a day in one place and have nothing to do the rest of the day, they get bored. When the ground isn’t suitable for expressing that behavior they feel naturally driven to perform, they get frustrated. Boredom and frustration come out in unfortunate ways.

In some cases, there may be a particularly weak bird who many other chickens enjoy pecking at because it’s easy and something to do when they’re bored. Chickens who are bored and frustrated at their inability to perform that natural behavior in a satisfying way may take to pecking other flock members. Chickens will eat anything, including each other. And out of boredom and desperation, cannibalism may occur. This difficulty is exacerbated by overcrowding, inappropriate temperatures, and inadequate amounts of food.

If you are using a Chicken Tractor - move their coop to a new location from time to time so that the ground they have thoroughly ravaged can be replaced with new ground, potentially with grass and bugs and all kinds of interesting things to investigate. Try spreading some of their grains out all over the ground, Chickens are focused hunters for their food, so this extra step gives them more areas to hunt and also makes the eating take longer. Just like it would in the wild, anytime you can make food available in a foraging way it is preferable and entertaining. Throw in extra treats unexpectedly. Instead of giving a few mealworms every morning, throw in a big handful every few days so that it’s not predictable and, therefore, is more interesting. Hang a delicious Produce item from a wire, scatter garden clippings out for foraging, put the compost pile in different parts of their coop or scatter it all over the floor rather than throwing it in the same corner every time.

Add a Sand Bathing Tub. Chickens love to "bathe" in clean sand and they will toss sand through their feathers to clean their skin and preen their feathers. Add Nature items to their coop like fallen logs or other bits of nature that can be safely engaged with.. Chickens love to perch and are curious investigators.


 

Nutrition

A lack of nutrition in their food and clean cool water is another major cause of pecking.

If chickens have certain deficiencies in their diet it can cause them to pick at feathers.

Most all pasture raised chickens tend to hunt and scratch for their nutritional needs, but if you are supplementing your chickens with feed mill bagged feeds, be sure to check

your package label for the amount of proteins and nutrients offered. Make sure that your chickens are receiving a healthy diet by using a high quality feed that includes all the necessary nutrients.

Also it is also important that your chickens are receiving a lot of water in their diet, so providing a constant supply of freshwater is extremely important.

preen oil gland on tail of hen chicken

A lack of salt in the diet can specifically cause pecking at the preen gland (circled in Red in photo above) This gland produces an oil that chickens use to groom themselves. It is salty in taste so chickens peck at each other’s preen gland in order to compensate. Occasionally adding a tablespoon of table salt to a gallon of drinking water tends to show promising results in reducing this aggressive behavior.

 

Food Availability

One telltale sign that the situation is getting out of hand is that the bullied chicken is not permitted to eat or drink from the feeders and waterers.

chicken feeder hen eating grain

This can cause your hens:

If you are feeding chickens on a schedule then consider switching to free feeding to allow constant access to food and water throughout the day. This gives the bullied chicken an opportunity to eat whenever the bully is asleep or is not around. Always offer Multiple Feed Stations.

However sometimes bullies will guard the feeders and waterers all the time so more serious intervention will be needed. Standing with your chickens to referee as they eat may be an option you try before isolating the weak member of the flock.

 

Stress

Another sign that the pecking is getting out of hand is chicken stress. Just like with food,

chicken stress ill sick drooping hen

stress can show itself in a variety of ways including weight loss and loss of feathers. Stress and anxiety can also cause skittishness and personality changes. If your once-cuddly chicken suddenly stops running up to you at feeding time then they may be afraid of the rest of the flock and stop being friendly.

Chickens will pick on each other just like humans will when tensions are high for whatever reason. There are a number of things that could cause your chickens to be stressed and to express that stress through pecking others.



 

Overcrowding It is important to provide enough room for all of your chickens. As your flock grows, you may need to add additional space to accommodate a larger number of animals. This could mean adding more food stations at least, and potentially also extending pens and adding more roosting areas.


Lack of space, in general, can bring out the worst in anyone, even humans. And chickens are no better. Altercations break out more frequently among many animals in a small space, and sudden movements in crowded areas can cause injuries, such as wings spread and flapped in outrage getting snagged on a piece of fencing or a nail that’s been pushed out of the wood a bit over time. Chickens can be quite brutal to others with injuries, and even if they are strong enough to stand up for themselves, once blood has made an appearance, the other chickens will likely peck the bleeding chicken to death out of curiosity or frustration. Overcrowding also means more fecal matter in less space, which may raise the likelihood of sicknesses due to filthy conditions. This will start a whole other cycle of chickens becoming ill and being pecked to death by healthier flock members.

overcrowding chickens feed lot hens sick pecked

Perhaps the most important part is ensuring that there is enough room for all chickens to eat at the same time. If there is not, then larger, more dominant birds may prevent other flock members from eating. If this happens regularly, the birds who don’t get to eat will weaken and eventually starve. Birds in this condition may become subjects of pecking and even cannibalism in an overcrowded chicken coop.

The Size of a Flock can also cause pecking.

In large flocks (30+ chickens) it is difficult to recognize who are the higher class and lower class chickens. This causes stress and anxiety for the chickens and makes them more aggressive and more likely to peck and bully each other.

Overcrowding is the most common cause of chickens pecking each other.

A lack of resources will also cause competition between members of the flock. This encourages pecking between the more assertive members of the flock and the weaker ones. By providing enough space and resources, such as more feeders and waterers, weaker birds will be able to eat and drink without having to compete.

It is also important to have enough space for chickens to live if they are kept in a run. This discourages competition and gives them enough space to run from the bullies if the situation turns for the worst. enough perches should also be provided in order to provide some safe, high spaces for the chickens to escape too. A coop made to the size of your flock is essential to your chickens’ well-being. They will go in a coop to roost for the night and to escape the elements and extreme temperatures.

 

Rooster Injuries

If you have a hen who's suddenly missing feathers on her back, you can be pretty sure it's due to a rooster paying her too much attention. Although this is not "pecking" per say - it is in the "Pecking Order" category as you will see this behavior unfold.

As a male mates with a hen, he will cling onto the base of her neck and use his spurs to "tread" her back. The typical result is a loss of feathers on her back and neck.


chickens mating rooster hen

Sometimes these areas go past the feather loss and turn into skin loss and scabbing - It's then necessary to isolate a hen, until her feathers have grown back. -Or- of course, you could also exchange out the male, who's the source of the problem. "Hen Saddles", also known as "aprons", are pieces of material you can attach to your hen which help protect her back from the male's feet.

Note that blood attracts heavy hen pecking within the flock.

These overbred ladies are usually hens who are picked on by others, as they become

weak and do not fight back when Mr Rooster steps on by to do his thing. She will be mated more than necessary because the Rooster chooses to practice on these hen-pecked ladies when he is bored.

 

Breed Specific Aggression


There are multiple breeds or classifications for the chickens within their scientific group.

The most typical chickens are the Production Layers, most used on homesteads and family farms. These include breeds such as Rhode Island Reds, Barred Plymouth Rocks, and Leghorns. There are Fancy Breeds, like Silkies, usually shown in fairs and competitions, and of course there are the smaller breeds like Bantams, and many more,


MIXING too many classes of chickens can cause breed specific aggression - or Hen-Pecking. Mixing Large breeds with Smaller breeds, or Fancy breeds with Production Layers can cause bullying within your coop, and this is a situation that should be avoided no matter how cute these guys are! Plan your Flock carefully, and keep your birds well suited to coexist and