Pecking Order Changes Can Present Problems For Keepers

When changes occur in a flock's pecking order, it can create chaos in the coop. There are potential remedies, but sometimes the answer is elusive.

by Frank Hyman
PHOTO: Kirsten Bühne/Pexels

My wife, Chris, and I’s Easter Egger hen, Frittata, just could not bear to have Carbonara anywhere near her. This was strange because Frittata is the smallest of our hens and had always seemed at the bottom of the pecking order. Plus, they had been hatchlings together and gotten along fine for a couple years.

But something had changed. 

We assumed this was just an attempt by little Frittata to move up the pecking order and things would settle down once the new arrangement was accepted. Hens will do this from time to time as they get bigger or feel bolder or as a higher-up gets older and loses stamina.

The higher up one is on the pecking order, the sooner it gets to eat and drink. And it gets more of any limited amounts of food, such as treats. It also can claim better spots on the roost.

So there’s plenty of incentive to promote oneself. 

But after a couple weeks, Frittata was still pecking Carbonara, who made no moves to defend herself. She was willing to acquiesce to demotion.

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For Frittata, though, this still seemed personal. She was being a bully. So we sequestered her in the folding dog crate with food, water and shade just to separate the two for a few days. She and the crate were inside the pen, so she was safe from predators and close to her sisters. 

The Plot Thickens

But with Frittata out of the picture, Gelato took over her job and chased Carbonara around the pen. We noticed that to catch a break, Carbonara, the younger of our two Buff Orpingtons, started spending her days mostly in a nesting box … everyone’s favorite nesting box.

We moved the wooden egg to another box, but everyone still seemed peeved about the whole thing. Carbonara even slept there at night instead of joining her sisters on the roost. 

So, we furloughed Frittata, scooped up Carbonara and put her in the crate so she would be out of everyone’s way. Everyone stayed calm, so after a week we returned her to the general population and things were fine again. While sitting in our Adirondack chairs for our nightly “chicken television,” we watched Gelato and Frittata pal around with Carbonara as if nothing had ever been awry. 

That is, until Frittata looked up at Carbonara. We could really read her change of heart on her face: “I remember who you are now. And I suddenly can’t stand you again.” Pecking, chasing and harsh squawking ensued. Carbonara retreated again to “her” nest box. 

Read more: Click here to learn more about the politics of the pecking order.

Hen Dilemmas 

Chris and I checked through our chicken books. We compared notes on what we’d each seen in our chicken habitat. We made a significant effort looking for a way to solve this problem and remove reasons for conflict. 

  • plenty of food or water: check!
  • plenty of roosting space: check! 
  • sufficient outdoor space (only six hens in a space built to house as many as 10): check!
  • no bleeding or deformities in any way that would attract “beaky” attention: check!

The only questionable thing we saw was that she did like to climb on top of the waterer—which was difficult to do—and sort of crow for an extended period once a day at least. She was not crowing like a rooster, more like the crowing that happens when one chicken has laid an egg and a general celebration goes up.

They all did that briefly at appropriate times. 

chickens chicken pecking order
Frank Hyman

But this crowing was very lengthy and not related to egg-laying. And it didn’t seem to be that she was suffering from testosterone poisoning either. We live in town, so we don’t have a rooster.

She wasn’t challenging our oldest, dominant hen, Buttercup, for position. And she didn’t fight back against Frittata or any of the four others when the rest of the flock decided they wanted to do the popular thing, too, and lay into Carbonara and be part of the general, noisy, stressful mayhem.

Try, Try Again

We put Carbonara back in the dog crate and things went back to normal. The other hens ignored her, and she didn’t crow. Since leaving her for one week the first time helped for a while, we decided to sequester her for two weeks and see what happened. 

We released her. Everyone got along. For about twice as long as the last time. Then, everyone suddenly remembered what they didn’t like about Carbonara. The pecking order tipped back, and it was like watching that movie Mean Girls. 

We never saw any blood, but the amount of noise was constant unless Carbonara was in her nest box. We worried that she would not get enough to eat or drink under these circumstances.

Read more: How should you handle a bully chicken? Here are some tips.

Bird Brain

As a general rule, when the pecking order stops being a source of productive harmony for chickens, it’s because the other hens sense some kind of threat from another chicken and want to exclude her from all their reindeer games for their own safety. 

We wondered if Carbonara’s pointless crowing could be a form of mental illness. And perhaps the other chickens saw her behavior as some kind of threat.

Did they worry that she would attract predators perhaps? Did we need to dose Carbonara with something like poultry Prozac?

Neither medication nor talk therapy seemed like a viable option. Yet here we were watching Mean Girls 2: The Sequel. But it was in our own backyard and not make-believe. 

Something had changed in the pecking order. Carbonara couldn’t do anything right. The others were henpecking her in an effort to restore the harmony of the flock. But she somehow wasn’t complying with protocols.

She didn’t fight back. So she didn’t seem to be disputing her position in the basement of the pecking order.

It seemed that the hens had an unresolvable problem. And neither our efforts to sequester the victim or the main bully resolved the problem. We were stumped.

chickens chicken pecking order
Frank Hyman

We put Carbonara back in the crate a third time just to have some quiet and to make sure she would get enough to eat and drink. 


In my main business, designing and installing plants and garden structures, I sometimes advise clients that we first have to engage in a practice that we professionals call “landscaping by subtraction.” 

Your yard may have some perfectly good plants that are just not a good fit for your future garden for any number of reasons: too big, too weedy, stinky flowers (yes, some flowers prefer flies over bees as pollinators).

It can be sad to remove plants sometimes. But they often may find a home somewhere else, and the opportunities revealed by their absence always make up for that. 

We realized we had to engage in a bit of “hen-keeping by subtraction” for the good of our flock. Because we thought Carbonara’s behavior was provoking conflict with what had been a peaceful flock for seven years, we couldn’t in good conscience give her to another chicken-keeper.

And because our chickens are our egg-providing pets, we literally couldn’t stomach the idea of slaughtering her for our own consumption.  

I asked one of my rural colleagues if he would be interested in a free hen for his table. His eyes brightened, and he said his sister could make a very good soup. So, we had a few kind, last words with Carbonara.

She had been a good, beautiful and productive hen for a couple years. For some reason, she had started annoying her sisters, and consequently, she wasn’t happy either. We gently put her in a pet carrier and gave her to my colleague who was respectful and whispered to her as he put her in his truck. 

Chris and I both let out deep breaths as he drove away. We sat outside to watch some more “chicken television.” The pecking order was stable. The hens cooed as they foraged.

It was a pleasant relief that Mean Girls was not playing on any of the channels.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Chickens magazine.

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