Learn about chicken flock hierarchy positions including rooster, head hen, sentinel, and bottom of the order.
By Melissa Caughey
How to Speak Chicken (Storey Publishing, 2017) explores tips, tidbits, and scientific facts that are essential for raising your own backyard chickens. Understanding the way chickens sense the world and communicate impending danger, techniques for watching your flock, and insights into how they establish pecking order are all covered by author Melissa Caughey. Additionally she offers insight into chicken body language, intelligence, social interaction, emotion, and problem solving abilities.
Within the flock there are a few key functions. In a large flock, the chickens that do not have specific roles sort themselves into their own ranking. When a hen can no longer perform in her specific role, she is quickly replaced by another. Perhaps the replacements were their understudies all along.
Photo by FLPA/Paul Sawer/AgeFotoStock
• As chief protector, he watches out for danger.
• He is above the hens’ pecking order and has the ultimate say.
• He keeps the hens in line and intervenes in squabbles.
• He has his favorite girls, independent of where they fall in the pecking order.
Photo by Isabelle Plasschaert/Getty Images
• She is most often the healthiest, strongest, and smartest hen.
• She leads the flock and controls where they free-range.
• She is usually the first to access food, though she may sometimes allow others to eat before she does.
• She keeps order, with or without the presence of a rooster.
• The other hens often learn from her and follow her lead when exploring, operating new equipment such as feeders and waterers, learning about new foods, and so on.
• She is often the last one to enter the coop at night, making sure her entire flock is home before she roosts.
Photo by Jared Leeds
• In the absence of a rooster, the role of sentinel is assumed by a hen other than the head hen. There is usually only one official sentinel, although the rest of the flock tends to be on alert much of the time.
• The sentinel keeps guard with one eye on the ground and one to the sky, monitoring for predators.
• The sentinel often finds an elevated spot that serves as a lookout point.
• When a threat appears, the sentinel alerts the flock. That alarm call, notifying them whether the attack is from the sky or the ground, is then carried through the flock by the others.
Photo by Aleksandra Mihok/EyeEm/Getty Images
• The bottom of the order is sometimes occupied by a single chicken of a different breed or one with a submissive personality.
• Some birds seem to care more about pecking order ranking than others. A breed such as the Polish tends not to be dominant; a breed such as the Silkie is indifferent to the pecking order.
• The bird at the bottom of the order might be either weak or impaired in some way.
Photo by Zoltan Molnar/Alamy Stock Photo
Chickens do display bad behaviors, as do most other animals and certainly some people. Some chickens just are not nice. Whether it is a hen or a rooster, a bully can turn on other flock members or even their caretakers.
Chickens can become aggressive for a number of reasons. When I talk about aggression, I don’t mean a squabble over a worm, a favorite nesting box, or roosting space. I am talking about malicious and continuous pecking that can draw blood, cause injuries, or even lead to death. This may exist outside the pecking order.
Some chickens are aggressive by nature, but most often this behavior arises from overcrowding, nutritional deficiencies, illness, and other poor living conditions. Ideally, every confined chicken should have at least 10 square feet of space outside the coop and 2 to 4 feet of floor space inside the coop. Chickens should also receive a high-quality feed, with fresh food and other treats limited to 10 percent of their diet. Chickens benefit greatly from being allowed to forage free from their coops and runs on a regular basis. Flocks that free-range all day, every day, have fewer bullying issues.
Factory-raised hens are kept in close quarters from the time they are chicks. They often have their beaks removed to prevent pecking issues, although many wind up almost completely featherless anyway. If they had more space, excessive pecking would go away. This is among the many reasons activists are advocating for more floor space in farms per chicken. Some are lucky enough to be rescued. It is a sight to see these poor hens exposed to open pasture for the first time: they revel in scratching the dirt, looking for bugs, taking their first dust bath, and finally being be free.
I think roosters get a bad rap. A number of people who have raised a rooster from a day-old chick have told me that the rooster was their favorite early on. But many roosters change at around six months of age. They become aggressive, chasing their owners and even sparring at them from behind.
Little do folks realize that the rooster is only doing what comes natural to him. He is possessive of his girls. When his hens go into the submissive squat for mating and you or your children pet them or pick them up, he sees this as you trying to mate with his girls. He is just trying to prevent that from happening.
This is often the point when roosters from backyard flocks are rehomed or added to the soup pot. The risk of injury to people becomes too great. Some flock owners insist that they can change a rooster’s behavior by asserting their own dominance. Techniques might include holding the rooster on his back, diverting bad behavior by shaking a noisemaker such as a can full of rocks, or physically fending off attacks with a rake or broom.
Unfortunately in our situation, our rooster, Chocolate, began to see my three-year-old daughter as a threat. For a few months, I tried everything to get him to change his behavior toward her, to no avail. It became clear that I couldn’t risk harm coming to my daughter, so I found him a home with a new flock and no small children.
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