Keeping chickens is a lot of fun because they are such social birds not only enjoying the company of other feathered friends but loving any attention they get from people who look after them too. Hens will follow you around hoping for a kitchen titbit and they adore it when you dig out any borders because this is when they'll happily devour any earthworms you happen to throw their way.
With this said, as with many other animals, chickens like to have a bit of order in their lives and this means they create a hierarchy in a flock, no matter how big or small it happens to be. The social structure they create amongst themselves is called a "pecking order' and the hen or cockerel at the top is the boss!
Chickens work out their pecking order amongst themselves with each hen having their place in the flock. This hierarchy can be seen at meal times when the dynamics of a hierarchy is most evident. Hens higher up in the ranks will feed first, they will be the first on a nesting box and will even be the first ones to use the dust bath.
If you have a cockerel or two, the top bird will crow to let all other birds know of their dominance. They will take care of their hens looking out for them on a constant basis. This means they always keep an eye out for any predators so they can warn all the other birds of their proximity. Dominant cockerels will also find their hens lots of treats and chase any other cockerels away if they dare to approach to close.
Any roosters further down the ranks would not be allowed to mate with any hens although they do when the dominant boy is not looking – albeit at their own peril if he catches them.
Dominant hens can be particularly bossy and will even chase other chickens off a favourite nesting box when they want to sit on it to lay their own eggs. Some dominant hens will also steal chicks off other hens if they can! When it comes to roosting time, the hens higher up in the ranks get to choose the best perches so that birds lower in the ranks have to sleep on any perches they can find once the dominant birds have settled down for the night.
Very often dominant hens will continually knock off a lower ranking bird until night falls which can be a problem. If you find this is happening, you may have to help the fallen hens back onto their perches making sure you do this when it is dark so the bossy hens don't knock them off again!
Chickens sort out their pecking order from an early age when they live in a flock whether there are lots of birds in their environment or just a few. Chicks start will play fight to establish just who is the more dominant bird and this is especially true when there is food around. The stronger a chick happens to be, the better their chances of getting to eat first which means they typically get the juicer bits of food that are on offer leaving the rest for the others.
As they grow up, this pecking order is established with each of the birds knowing exactly where their place is amongst other birds and this is important because it prevents nastier fights from breaking out which can cause a chicken a serious and sometimes even fatal injury.
Having said this, there will always be an occasional spat between hens and young cockerels as they try to get up the ranks. But these don't last that long and each of your hens soon knows which other chicken can be pushed around and which cannot. As long as no birds are taken out of the flock for any length of time or new chickens introduced, this pecking order typically remains the same with younger birds always trying to get up the ranks if they are allowed to.
It is usually the more dominant chicken that will establish just who is boss by giving another bird a sharp peck or two although, occasionally she may also have to chase a "pretender" to her throne away which she will do in a flurry of feathers, a lowered head and quite a bit of noise! Both hens and cockerels will do this to prove their dominance and it really does work because weaker birds are not that silly and will run for their lives to avoid injury.
The only time you need to watch out for injuries is if two or more cockerels have a "set to" which can result is some horrific injuries not only to their bodies but to their eyes too. Many birds end up losing the sight in an eye if you don't separate them quickly enough. Hens too can be pretty vicious to one another and again, you need to separate the chickens as soon as you can to avoid serious injury.
As the owner, you too will have your place in your bird's pecking order. If you have a cockerel, he will typically be at the top of the ranks but if you don't have a male bird, it would be the dominant hen who takes on this role. Whether it's a hen or a cockerel, they will keep a watchful eye on the other birds and put them in their place when needed.
Just occasionally, a cockerel may even challenge an owner which should never be taken too lightly because if your boy has spurs, he can really hurt you if he charges you. All too often, a cockerel that's just a little too dominant will charge you as soon as you turn your back on them – which is all very cowardly! However, you need to nip this kind of behaviour in the bud because if you don't, it will just get worse as he tries to dominate you more and more.
If your cockerel does behave in this way towards you, the one thing you should never do is run away from him because this is a sign of weakness and it will just make matters worse. You need to stand your ground or better still charge at him and then carry on chasing him. If you can catch him, you should very gently pin him to the ground and hold him there for a minute or two until he calms down.
Once he is quiet, you can let him go having proved your dominance over him. As long as you do this when the cockerel is young, it should work even if you have to repeat your actions a few times. However, with older cockerels it can be a real issue and this technique may not prove as effective.
Chickens are fun creatures to have around and watching them establish a pecking order can be a fascinating experience. However, if you notice any of your birds getting a bit of a raw deal, you need to do something about it because stressed out hens can get very ill so it's something you need to avoid if you can. Once a pecking order has been established and your flock remains the same, it will stay that way with top hens having their place over other birds keeping a happy balance.