If you’ve ever spent time around chickens, then sooner or later you may notice them start pecking at each other and it’s absolutely natural to wonder whether this is healthy behavior or the sign of something more sinister? Well, it could be either of these things and if it’s something sinister, you’ll need to take quick action to ensure the health and safety of your chicken.
Want to know why your chickens are pecking each other? Well, rather like people, some chickens are horrific bullies and thanks to the “pecking order” they often bring other chickens in to help them pick on the weakest or lowest ranked birds. The good news is that you can do something about this, and your chickens don’t need to suffer needlessly.
Here’s what you need to know.
Let’s Talk About The Pecking Order
The term “pecking order” comes from the bird world. It is quite literally a hierarchy within any given group of birds. Thorlief Schjelderup-Ebbe was the person to coin the term thanks to his research into the dynamics of flock hierarchy back in 1921 and somehow, it caught on and was popularized in the 1930s and onwards.
This means that each bird has a place in the pecking order. High ranked birds are entitled to their pick of roosting spots, the best food and as much water as they can drink and the lower ranked birds, get whatever is left.
If a rooster is part of your flock, he occupies the top slot in the pecking order. However, roosters tend to be fairly disinterested in what goes on between the hens and their place is based on their ability to defend the birds from outsiders.
This might seem mean at first glance but it’s actually an evolutionary trait. This kind of organization means that the well being of the strongest and fittest (and thus the most likely to survive and the members of the flock whose genes are best passed down to the next generation) is always prioritized over the weakest and least fit.
The Hens And Their Pecking Order
This all means that in your flock, there are some matriarchs holding the top slots and a bunch of other hens looking to move up. Chickens get involved in rankings early in their lives, they are included in the pecking order by the time they are six weeks old.
This order is set in stone and resembles at time, a gang of teenage girls and yes, chickens are every bit as bad as the girls at enforcing their group rules. The moment a bird on the lower rungs tries to step out of line and go ahead of their turn – the higher ranked hens will start to get angry.
They usually start with a bit of a glare or a scowl to tell the hen they’ve messed up but if things go any further – they will start pecking at each other.
In the worst instances a full-blown pecking order assault takes place. This is absolutely horrific to witness. The older birds go to town on the younger one and they draw blood and may even kill the younger bird. Don’t be fooled, chickens take their pecking order seriously and “pecking” is a fully literal term and not a metaphor.
The Pecking Order Breeds Bullies
The pecking order is a necessary part of chicken life and you shouldn’t be concerned if a bird is earning the occasional none-to-gentle reprimand, that’s how things are, and interfering will just upset your chickens.
However, there are occasions when one or more hens in the high ranks turn from managing a flock into full blown bullies and there are four typical reasons that chickens turn into bullies:
- They are bored
- They are stressed out
- They are unwell
- They’ve been living in cramped conditions
Winter Is Coming: The Warning Sign For Chicken Boredom
No, George R Martin is not scripting your chicken’s reactions to the world, but rather like the world of Westeros, the world of chickens is much less happy when winter comes. The thing is that chickens don’t like the cold very much and the weather is dangerous to their health.
So, they (as we would in their shoes) tend to opt to avoid it completely. So, the flock opts to stay in the coop all the time. All that energy they’d normally burn running around? They still have it. And while a day or two may pass with everything running smoothly – eventually they need to channel it elsewhere and that’s when the pecking begins.
Sometimes, this is just a little handbags at dawn and can be fully ignored. Other times, it devolves into a pack pecking for one unfortunate chicken. This chicken will quickly become fearful of her flock, she may even try to stay out at night. The flock may also try to prevent her from accessing sustenance, so, it’s vital you have more than one food and drink source available.
Chicken Stress? It’s All Too Real
Chickens are creatures of habit, probably because, not to put too fine a point on it, they’re not the brightest birds on earth and that means they’re prone to become stressed whenever somebody shakes up their day with something new.
Key stresses for chickens include:
- Loud environmental noises
- The presence of predators
- New birds in the flock
- Members of the flock dying
- New food or food delivery mechanisms
- A new coop
- And pretty much anything else that might cause stress
The usual reaction to chicken stress is to stop laying and become withdrawn but every now and again the introversion becomes aggression, instead. Then they go on the attack.
There’s No Room For Sentiment For Sick Chickens
Human beings are a very privileged species. We have doctors and medicine and we’re not afraid to use them, either. That means when one of our family gets sick, our first instinct is to nurture them and ensure that they regain their health.
Chickens may have access to a vet, through you, but sadly, as far as they are concerned – that’s not how the world works, and they think they are out in the wild world. In that world, there’s no medical care and thus, a sick chicken presents a clear and present danger to the flock.
The flock will then turn on the sick chicken and drive it out because that’s exactly what chickens do in the wild, this isn’t cruelty – it’s survival instinct.
You Have Too Many Chickens
While all of the above can cause chickens to peck at each other, there’s one cause that is head and shoulders the most common reason for this behavior and it’s over crowding in the coop and this, is our fault as chicken owners.
It’s hard to resist the temptation to just squeeze in another laying hen or to pick up a new chicken when we’re offered the opportunity to do so. During the summer if your birds are allowed to roam freely, this won’t hurt either – chickens are generally fine as long as they are using up their excess energy.
But come winter? This is a recipe for a bloodbath in the coop. Each bird needs 4 square feet of space, no less. This isn’t an arbitrary number – it’s a number chosen because it keeps pecking attacks to a minimum and that’s what you want.
Imagine if you had to live and work with the people in your office 24 hours a day in a space about the size of your bedroom, it would make you crazy, right? Well, that’s what overcrowding is to chickens and their madness is quite understandable.
How Do You Tackle Chicken Bullying? The Basics
OK, so the pecking has moved on beyond the usual chicken reprimands and turned into bullying but what can you do put a stop to it?
Firstly, try and work out which of the four causes above is playing a part in the bullying and then:
- Winter boredom? Try to make life inside the coop more fun. Get some toys for them. Throw down some scratch for them to enjoy. That kind of thing. Also, see if you can push them to go out, if you put some straw down, they may be tempted just for a while.
- Think they’re stressed? Then work out what the source of stress is and either remove it or minimize it – this isn’t rocket science. Or you may have to wait for it to pass.
- Think the bullied bird is sick? Check them over or get a vet to do it. You may be tempted to isolate them at this point but be warned you can further damage the bird’s standing in the flock by isolating them and it can be a nightmare to get the flock to take a bird back after a period of removal.
- Think it’s overcrowding? Then you need to get rid of some birds. We know this is a painful idea but the only sensible way to do this is either to move some birds on or build a bigger coop (which is usually not practical in the slightest). If you decide to set up a second coop, move all the low-ranking hens into that. But be warned, this means that the pecking order needs to be established in both and there will be some pecking for a little while.
Tackling The Bully Directly: Distraction
OK, so you’ve tried the tactics above and you’ve still got birds being beaten up, what next? Well, assuming you are around to witness the bullying then you can tackle this head on, yourself.
You need to stop the bullying as it begins to start by distracting the bully. The old classic is to buy yourself a squirt gun and whenever the bully starts an attack, to give them a quick squirt in the head. This, when delivered on a repeated basis (hens will learn but they may be quite slow to do so) will eventually ensure that the hen stops.
You can also use a noise maker to provide the distraction. Buy one or make your own (fill a tin can with some loose pebbles, seal it, shake vigorously to make noise).
Both of these techniques buy the bullied hen some time to disappear and stop the bully in their tracks for a little while too. However, not everyone has the time to deal with the situation in this way, it can take days of close watching to get things resolved satisfactorily.
Tackling The Bully: Humane Blinders
We need to make it very clear that we are talking about temporarily blinding the bully and in such a way that they will have their full eyesight once the training period is up – this does not, under any circumstances involve harming their eyes.
You get some “pinless peepers” on Amazon or from your vet. These are like sunglasses for chickens but instead of stopping UV-rays they prevent the chicken from seeing directly ahead of them. They can see out to the sides (and chickens have amazing peripheral vision – they’re not really “blind”) but whenever they go to peck at another chickens’ feathers, they can’t see them.
You place the pinless peepers on the beak and they should stay in place until you physically remove them.
Tackling The Bully: One Last Try
If the bully still isn’t responding as you want, the final solution is simply to remove them from the flock. This should be in a temporary basis at first (say 3 days) and then return them. If the problem is cured – great. If not, it’s time for a longer spell of time in the chicken clink – take them out for 7 days.
This should reset the whole pecking order and put the bully back on the bottom rung, hopefully, by the time she has climbed the ladder again – she’s a reformed character.
If, however, when she returns the second time, things aren’t any better… you’re going to have to get rid of her if you want the bullying to stop or you’re going to have to get rid of the victim. Sadly, some birds, rather like people cannot be reformed.
The Exception: When The Rooster Is The Bully
This is rare but it does happen. Roosters that start pecking usually do so because they’re a bit “over enthusiastic” during the mating process. In our experience, you can only move to the end of the process when this is the case.
Try isolating him from the flock, sometimes this will calm a rooster down and when they return they’re better behaved but because, by definition, he’s already top dog in the pecking order, it’s unlikely that this will change his behavior.
If he keeps it up, then you have to part with this rooster and find another one that will play nice because a bullying rooster is likely to harm most of your hens rather than just one.
So, know you know why chickens are pecking each other and better still, you also know how to handle chicken bullies so that the misery they inflict is short-lived and that the victims can carry on to live happy and healthy lives.
Fortunately, while bullying is not that rare amongst chickens, serious bullying is and you shouldn’t face this problem too many times as a chicken owner. Always remember that as a last resort, you can separate the bully or the victim completely from the flock in order to restore order and promote the safety of the victimized chicken.