Chickens are highly intelligent birds and thrive on interactions between their flock-mates and humans alike. They have an exceptionally well developed social hierarchy known as the pecking order. Chickens are born with an innate capacity to create this hierarchy and will start to assert their dominance even as tiny fluff balls.
The Top Chook
The top chook is typically the rooster in the flock. He is much larger than the rest and thus can assert his dominance much easier. In the absence of a rooster, a hen will gracefully rise to the position of top chook. The top hen will usually be the strongest, but she doesn’t necessarily have to be the largest chook in your flock. All she really needs is a very feisty, domineering personality.
Chickens will establish their pecking order by charging at one another and literally bumping into their opponent in an attempt to put it in its place. Chooks also tend to peck, chase and create a bit of a scene on the roost to establish and keep the position as top chicken.
In the pecking order, you get the Alpha chicken which is the top chook, but you also get the beta which is second in command. There is a fine line between betas and alphas. Betas will occasionally be allowed to share the duties of the alpha but will get pecked into place if they overstep their boundaries.
Single Rooster Flocks
If you have only one rooster in your flock, he will most likely be the leader of the flock. Roosters are strong, loyal and confidant and do not take their roles as top chook lightly. His job is to take care of your hens, warning the ladies of danger.
Roosters sometimes choose a particular hen to mate with and are surprisingly gentle with her. His chosen mate will always be ensured the best food to eat and the kindest treatment. Single roosters are often very involved in the fathering of their chicks.
He will offer guidance to the chicks and protect them fiercely. If his authority is challenged by his mate, beta or otherwise, he will lash out and peck them back into submission to show them who’s boss.
Multiple Rooster Flocks
When you have a multi rooster flock, the honour of top chicken will always go to the strongest rooster. This rooster will be known as the alpha rooster and will be strong, diligent and a protector. A top rooster will typically flaunt his status so no chook can forget who he is and will be on duty 24/7 protecting the flock from danger.
As he gets older, he will be challenged by a stronger, younger chicken who if it wins will take his place as the top rooster. The same holds true if he becomes weakened by sickness. If there are only two roosters in your flock, there shouldn’t be any excessive aggression since they would have sorted out their issues. However, if you have many roosters, there will be constant dominance fights to reach the top spot and your hens might get hurt in the process.
All Female Flock
If you have a flock only made up of ladies, you will still see a pecking order among your flock. The alpha hen in your flock will take on the duties of the top rooster and will do her best to keep everyone in line and safe. There will also be a beta chook to help her out, but just like with the males, if you step over the line you will get pecked back into place.
Other hens may challenge her top position every now and then. The pecking order for the ladies is much more subtle, however, so if you want to know which of your hens are top chook, you will have to spend more time observing your flock.
The Benefits of Top Chook
There are many benefits to being top chook. The Alpha gets to eat, drink and taste any treats first and gets to select the best nesting box and roosting spot. If your top chook is a magnificent rooster, he will enjoy the same benefits with the added addition to having the privilege to mate with the hen of his choice. If you have more than one rooster, the top rooster will get to mate first.
The Middle Flock
As the name suggests, these chickens are neither at the top or at the bottom of the pecking order. The middle chooks are every cook in between the top chook and the lowest of the low. Some chooks are happy to be in the middle, it is comfortable without the stress of being challenged all the time, but others may be sharpening their beaks to fight the top chook for the elevated position.
Middle chooks don’t fall into a typical box. They are all kinds of chickens with all kinds of personalities. Some may be loners while others crave constant attention, some are mothers and some are just naughty. These chooks will most likely stay exactly where they are in the pecking order regardless of small changes.
The Hen Pecked Chicken
The henpecked chicken is usually the most submissive of your flock. This chicken will be shy and often skittish due to being a victim of unwanted pecking from more assertive flock mates.
The henpecked chicken is the lowest of the low in the pecking order and thus will get to eat last, drink last and roost last. This bird typically tries to blend in with coop mates while keeping its distance from the top of the flock. This strategy is designed to keep the chicken safe from pecking and possible injury.
What Is The Chicken Keeper’s Role In The Pecking Order?
You may not be sporting feathers, but your chooks may see you as a flock member. You should technically be the most important flock member. You are, after all, responsible for your flock’s safety and wellbeing and you will need to keep the peace among your chickens.
Daily visits and interactions with your flock should keep them firmly in their place and sort out minor skirmishes. You can make sure that even the lowest member in the pecking order gets food and doesn’t get bullied too much. As you get to know your flock, you will be able to spot any health and other problems before they become too extreme.
Implications For Introducing New Chickens To Your Flock
If you want to add new chickens to your flock, the pecking order will have to be considered. Chickens can be quite hard on smaller, weaker birds. If you want to add new birds, make sure that they are of a similar size to your existing flock.
If you have a bunch of young birds, it is better to keep them apart from the older flock until they are strong enough to stand a fighting chance in the pecking order. Always supervise and break up any extreme fights after you introduce new chickens. Let them quarrel but prevent injury.
Taking care of your flock can be a full-time job, but understanding their pecking order and behaviour can open many doors and make life just a little bit easier. Make sure you have the right knowledge for introducing new chickens to your flock. Keep yourself as a top chicken and keep your hens safe always. Remember to let them sort out their own problems, but protect the weaker birds when necessary.