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Pecking Order

Deep sigh.

The phrase “pecking order” has new meaning when you have chickens. You start to be aware that this old and venerable phrase—one that has been used just about forever (okay, I’ll have to look this up and find out just how long) in so many situations, both human and animal, to describe who dominates who—is actually pretty profound.

Who gets to dominate whom. Where someone stands in—scary music plays here—“The Order.” And what this can mean when you’re lower down in the hierarchy.

You, in this case, means your dear hens. The thing is, your hens are not always and entirely dear to each other. They are, instead, a flock, one that hangs together in a hierarchy—eats together in a hierarchy, and might happily eat each other (“I’m top hen and I get the first bite!”) if one of them dropped dead. This is the way of chickens.  I’m sorry to be so blunt.  Chickens need each other desperately to live the natural life of a flock.  But, they can also sometimes, at least from the human perspective, be brutal to each other.

 PEACEFUL FLOCKS

Every flock needs to establish a pecking order, and some end up much more peaceful than others. A peaceful flock establishes who has the right to the first bite of a goody or the best roosting spot (or whatever they happen to want at the moment), who has secondary rights, etc., and then it’s all understood. A higher hen need do no more than give a lower order hen the evil eye and all remains quiet.

 THE SINGLE BULLY

Lulu - Queen of the HillIn other flocks, you may have a single bully who is actually not the highest order hen. In my case, it’s a middle hen with a bad attitude— Lulu, who is second from the top and takes it upon herself to make the lives of the hens beneath her miserable. (She used to be in 3rd place, but moved up when Dark Egger died.) Whatever position Lulu is in, it seems she has to spend an unnecessary amount of energy reminding the lower and gentler members of the flock that they are not welcome to … just about anything. Certainly not treats, not food if she’s anywhere nearby, not water if she’s nearby, and not to come in at night to roost unless she’s chased them in there OR chased them out a few times in a row. Lulu lives to be in as much control as possible.

I would like to note here that we don’t love Lulu any less for this, and having chickens is something of a lesson in unconditional love. Not loving the behavior but still loving the hen. We complain about Lulu, sometimes try to protect the others from her badgering, but mostly have to let them manage to work around her.

One solution to the “single bully” problem is to remove the offender to a cage where she can still be with the flock but not participate in their goings on for a few days. When you return her to the flock she will need to re-establish herself in The Order, and her attitude may have changed.

THE PROBLEM FLOCK – OR IS IT THEIR SITUATION?

In yet other flocks, you may have multiple problems that involve jumping on each others’  backs, pecking out feathers, and chasing each other around. In that case, DO YOU HAVE ENOUGH SPACE? Many problems are caused by having too little space, which makes hens feel cramped and anxious and turn on each other.

PROTECTING YOUR LOWER-ORDER HENS

Once you’ve solved, if you need to, the space problem, you may still have a hen or two or more with feathers missing and sometimes places that have been pecked till they’re bloody.

If anyone is being pecked to the skin, the wound needs to be treated and protected!

When spots on the back of our low-ranking Daisy’s became raw, we started by painting them regularly with Blu-Kote, described as “a germicidal, fungicidal wound dressing and healing aid effective against both bacterial and fungus infections most common in skin lesions of domestic animals. Kills ringworm and fungus infections. Dries up blisters and pox-like scabby sores or lesions.”

NOTE: Blu-Kote will stain anything and everything! So be sure to have a second person hold your chicken VERY tightly during application, and don’t wear anything you wouldn’t want purpled. If Blu-Kote gets on your skin, it will take a few days to wear off, so if your chicken shakes him or herself during application – picture a potentially purple-y splotched face, hands, arms…

There’s a great product for letting hens’ backs heal and preventing further injury: hen saddles. The maker of HenSaver hen saddles says the pecking order is “the bane of her existence,” and she started making some wonderful products because of it. Three of my hens wear her “saddles” because their backs were starting to be raw from being jumped on by hens higher up in The Order. You just slip elastic loops attached to fabric around the “shoulders” of their wings to hold on the “saddle,” then add a “shoulder protector” (velcroed on) if necessary, and bald spots begin to grow back in and the new feathers are henceforth protected. Now, when Lulu jumps on anyone’s back, she a) has more of a tendency to slide off, and b) can’t get her sharp claws into their skin.

Daisy Models Her Chicken SaddleDepending on the personality of a given hen, a hen saddle may take some time to get used to. Daisy sometimes walked backwards for a few days, but then she was fine. Puff didn’t seem to notice that she was now wearing a garment.