Last year, I became a chicken mama with my first flock of hens along with one, very flamboyant, very-serious-about-his-business, rooster. My first flock is very tight-knit with a real pecking order that becomes very apparent if one spends any time watching them, which I do. Our goal was to expand our chicken population to twenty-four laying hens so that I could begin to sell eggs at a farm stand up at the top of our property. I know that sounds so…rural. It is. It’s nearly the opposite of what Duran Duran is, I suppose. Welcome to my life!
So, this past spring, I’ve gotten two sets of chicks in between the lockdowns, mask-wearing and store closures. I had one first set of eight chicks in the brooder that you can see below; and then later, another five were raised from teeny tiny babies to become hooligans that needed more room.
I swear there’s a point to this talk of chickens, so stick with me!
Tom rules the roost
As I mentioned before, there is a true pecking order in a flock. We call it a “pecking” order because that is exactly how the social hierarchy of a flock is determined. There’s some pecking, and hopefully not a lot of bloodshed, before it is determined which hen is at the top, and bottom. (did I mention that chickens are cannibalistic??) When new chickens are introduced – including when our rooster, Tom came to live with us (pic below) – it throws the pecking order out of balance and it shakes things up a bit.
Tom (I call him Tom-Tom) is at the top of the pecking order now. For a long time, he was not – but he’s made it very clear to a few of the hens that he’s not putting up with their BS. His relationship to the flock is different though because he’s the only male. The girls may not listen to him much, but they don’t challenge his position either. They accept that he’s there, and in some ways, he is their King.
Meanwhile, back to those chicks. The first set of eight chicks quickly grew out of the brooder and were moved to the halfway house at around eight weeks. Then the second set were moved out, and the first was integrated into the flock. Yesterday, we allowed the same of the second set of chicks.
None of this has gone smoothly. Many of the older hens were not, and are still not, enamored by the younger chicks. In fact, the youngsters were told, in no uncertain terms, that they were not welcome to drink from the larger waterer. They were not allowed to eat at the same time the big girls ate, and they were absolutely not allowed anywhere near their roosting area (where they sleep at night). For the most part, the older hens want nothing to do with the new inhabitants of the coop.
Lately, I’ve been spending a considerable amount of time watching the flock figure it all out – the fact is, we’ve got one coop, and they are going to have to learn how to get along. We’ve added more roosting areas, expanded the egg-laying boxes, put out more waterers and feeders, but the rest is up to the girls. The process has been fascinating.
The pecking order
First of all, it isn’t ever the hens at the top of the pecking order that fight for position. In fact, it appears to me as though they couldn’t care less about who joins the flock. They know where they belong, they know they’re among Tom’s favorites, and so they have no reason to be mean to the chicks. I wouldn’t say they’re overly friendly and hanging out with the younger girls, but they’re not pulling tail feathers out of them, either. The newer chickens seem to understand that these girls are way above them on the pecking order, and they never go after them to assert themselves, either. It is as though they’re just too powerful to be challenged.
The hens in the middle of the pecking order are actually friendly with the new ones. They’ve stayed on the run (the fenced-in, secure yard set up for the chickens so that they’re safe from predators) with the younger ones, they eat with them, and seem fairly happy to have new friends around. However, when it comes down to it, they won’t defend the newbies, either, though. That might upset their own position in the hierarchy. So while they’re nice to the new chickens, if some other hen wants to rip their tail feathers out or peck them, they’re not going to stick their own neck out to defend them.
Tom-Tom is an interesting wrench thrown in the mix. He’s our only male, the only rooster in the flock. At night, he used to plop himself right in front of the door leading from the coop to the run so that way if someone dared to break into the run, he’d be the first line of defense for his hens. Tom-Tom would lay down his own life to save the girls. Chivalry is not dead in the poultry world. However, after the first set of chicks were introduced to the flock, Tom moved from sitting in front of the door at night to being up on the roost with his favorites. Literally, he sits in between Nugget – a Buff Orpington, and Lucy – a Barred Rock, which are his girls (or sex slaves, as I like to call them, for obvious reasons). Clearly, either Tom has decided on his own that the new girls (who aren’t of the age where they’re laying yet, meaning they’re not mature enough to mate, either) aren’t his problem, or the existing flock has told Tom that the new girls aren’t his problem. Either way, it’s a noticeable change.
That bottom rung
However, the real problem lies at the bottom of the pecking order. These hens are fighting to keep their position. They see the newcomers as a threat, or a potential opportunity to prove they ‘re not at the bottom of the heap, so to speak. So, they beat the crap out of the younger ones. Oddly, at this point, it is the middle set of chickens – the Gang of Eight, as I call them – at the bottom of the pile. They get beat up on more often than the youngest chicks, and as a result they stay in the coop and keep to themselves. The younger ones have been pecked and had feathers pulled, but they’re standing their ground quite nicely. They hang out with the rest of the flock, even though they are only about eleven weeks old and much smaller than the rest (The Gang of Eight are about fifteen weeks old now, in contrast).
Check out those weapons, sister
What has been so interesting to me about this “social experiment” amongst the poultry-sect, is how completely similar they are to humans …and this fan community in particular. While there might not be bloodshed, there have certainly been plenty of squabbles between fans over the years. The scenarios I’ve shared between hens aren’t much different from what I’ve seen take place at shows! Amanda and I have spent several years watching the way the social hierarchy of this fan community is developed, maintained, and sometimes challenged. Who knew that everything I needed to know about fan communities I could have learned from watching my hens?!?