Who’s On Top: The Perplexing Social Dynamics of Chickens

Chickens are charming. They’re also opinionated, tend toward melodrama, and are famous for not getting along. I’ve heard plenty of horror stories of one bird in a flock being literally pecked to death by the other hens.

Fortunately, we haven’t experienced anything near that extreme. In fact, our first two hens got along perfectly well before the introduction of a new Ameraucana and Welsummer last summer.

Luma, in molt, and Petunia are best friends these days, but Petunia maintains her dominance.

Luma, in molt, and Petunia are best friends these days, but Petunia maintains her dominance.

Petunia and Luma had been making do on their own for over two years, and though they didn’t seem particularly emotionally bonded, scuffles were rare. Petunia, a slight, intelligent Barred Leghorn with a penchant for human piggyback rides, was decidedly in charge of the larger, food-obsessed Luma—a Barred Rock.

Needless to say, introducing new birds sent all social dynamics to hell. Immediately. (And this was with a cautious, well-planned get-to-know-you period and introduction). Petunia and Luma suddenly had something to bond over and became best friends. Petunia put the young birds in their place and then treated them well enough, though she remained extra vigilant for any sign of revolt.

Luma got ferociously mean, especially toward Fifi, the nervous Ameraucana. While Fifi ran for cover as soon as anyone noticed her, the Welsummer, Bell, was more persistent in humbly asserting herself and running into the fray for as many gulps of food as she could get away with.

But now, six months in, the pecking order is more convoluted.

Sometime in early fall when the older girls were preparing to molt, Bell made her move and came out on top. Petunia and Luma run away when she approaches and defer to her in matters of food. Petunia, especially, is afraid of Bell.

Bell, flaming and regal.

Bell, flaming and regal.

With the shift in dynamics, Bell continued being nice to Fifi, as she always has been. By mid-fall, Fifi must have realized that Bell was the safest bird to challenge. She remains terrified of Petunia and Luma (who continue to chase her away from treats), but she is downright brutal to Bell. For instance, Fifi will now bite down hard on Bell’s wattles, hanging on until Bell gives a shrill, desperate scream.

So who’s on top?

Petunia gets to boss around Luma and Fifi, Bell scares Petunia and Luma, Luma terrifies Fifi, and Fifi tortures Bell.

The infinite wheel of chicken hierarchy.

The infinite wheel of chicken hierarchy.

You’d think they would realize how ridiculous it all is. But they’re chickens.

This convoluted hierarchy leads to some humorous scenes. The other day I watched as Luma chased Fifi away from a pile of greens she was eating. Moments later, Bell moved in to claim the pile, and Luma ran off to avoid being pecked. No sooner was Luma gone, then Fifi returned and chomped down on Bell’s wattle.

 

Petunia in the foreground, with Luma, Bell, and Fifi from left.

Petunia in the foreground, with Luma, Bell, and Fifi from left.

 

It’s tempting to assume all this confusion is due to molting, and that’s certainly possible. But it’s been like this now for months. Petunia began an energy sapping, appetite suppressing mini-molt in October, Luma molted in December, and Bell in January. Fifi’s the only bird laying and the only one yet to molt, but she’s certainly not on top of the flock.

While it may be a confusing social situation for the birds (and it certainly is for us on the outside!), fortunately no one is getting seriously hurt.

But I have to wonder: is this type of pecking order mayhem common?

6 Responses to Who’s On Top: The Perplexing Social Dynamics of Chickens

  1. Great post! I had no idea there was upward mobility among chickens.

  2. Watching them sort out (and reshuffle) their pecking order is fascinating.

    Now if you really want to see things get interesting, put two roosters into the mix. 🙂

    • Yes, it really is. I suspect that in our unfortunately fairly small space, two roosters would not be happy. We did have two rooster chicks once-upon-a-time, but weren’t allowed to keep them in our uptight town. I often think one of our hens in particular might benefit from having a rooster around to be definitively in charge of the whole group.

  3. A Buff Orpington I once had would spend all her time chasing the other hens away from handfuls of corn I’d throw down for their evening snack but of course she couldn’t see them all off at once so individually they’d sneak back to eat while she frantically ran about. She never did work out that because she was too busy flapping she missed out on what she was trying to protect and went hungry!

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