Pecking Order and Who Rules the Roost

20180429_133813-1If someone says that they “rule the roost” at their house you may wonder where that term came from.  The top chicken gets the best place on the roosting bar at night as part of a complex hierarchy commonly called “the pecking order.”  The pecking order has an influence on feeding, drinking egg laying, roosting, crowing, mating and even dust bathing.

Chickens are a social animal and enjoy the company of their flock mates. Chickens will become lonely for others of their own kind if they are deprived of them. However, the pecking order is anything but gentle and chickens are very aware of their own place in that order.

Everyone knows their place in the pecking order so when a new chicken is introduced, problems arise until the pecking order is reestablished  again.  Pecking order rank determines the order in which chickens are allowed access to food, water and sleeping spot.

The top chicken is usually the strongest and healthiest.  It is their responsibility to protect and take care of the flock, keeping it safe from predators and mitigating disputes between lower members.

The pecking order is a sort of cooperation between members of the flock. It ensures the survival of the flock by giving the best chances to the fittest birds. Unless a member of the flock is removed or added, the pecking order will remain the same for a long time.  However, it is a fluid thing and is never permanent. The younger will always challenge the older.

A flock of chickens who were hatched and raised together establishes a pecking order early on.  Pullets and cockerels that grow up together will play games of running and bumping chest together.  The strongest one is usually chasing a weaker one around the food dish.  Serious games of pecking order start at around six weeks.

The most dominant bird will be the rooster if you have one in your flock.  The lowest bird will be the meekest and the gentlest. Older birds will be dominant over younger ones until the younger ones start challenging them.

Gender has a lot to do with what the pecking order looks like.  If you do not have a rooster in your flock, then the strongest hen will take this spot. It will usually go roosters, hens, cockerels and pullets at the bottom. The order is established by pecking, chasing, blocking from food and water and sometimes violent fighting.  If there are several aggressive birds fighting for that top position there can be blood shed.

Pecking order positions are fixed when one flock member confronts another.  The weaker will back down and become lower in position than the stronger one.  Do not try and interfere unless bleeding is occurring.  They need to work it out themselves.

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Flaring hackle feathers with a lowered head is one form of intimidation.  Loud wing flapping with the head held high and the chest puffed out is another form of letting everyone know who is the boss. They may also use the wing dance to challenge one another.  The dominant bird will come up sideways to the other bird. Then he will lower his outer wing and dance in a half circle around the other chicken.  If the other chicken walks away, the dancer is now higher than the other bird in the pecking order.

Roosters who copulate with hens throughout the day are asserting their dominance over the other roosters who are not allowed to. Roosters who are lower in the flock crow less and rarely mate.  They only get a chance to when the other rooster is not around.

Alpha roosters will crow to signal their dominance to the other chickens.  Roosters who are the flock leaders will look out for the hens by watching for predators, finding them treats, mating and chasing other roosters away from their group of hens.

Hens who are at the top tend to be fearless and boisterous.  Hens high in the pecking order will chase other hens out of the nesting boxes.  Chickens high in the order get to eat more and have a better spot in choosing where they will roost.  Weaker hens have to wait to drink or eat and will often be pushed away by others. If one of the low ranked chickens tries to feed before their leaders, they may get a nasty jab or peck to teach them a lesson. If a bird tries to go out of turn, she will earn glares, pecks and feather pulling from higher ranked hens.

Establishing a pecking order can take anywhere from two days or up to two weeks.  Once everyone knows their position, the stress will go down and disputes will be settled very quickly.

The less space chickens have, the more violent they are in establishing and maintaining the pecking order. They need around four square feet of space per bird inside the coop and eight square feet outside in the chicken run.

Use hanging feeders and waterers in the middle of an open area rather than in a corner if you are having problems.  There should be three inches of feeder and waterer space per chicken.  If you have more than six birds, use multiple feeders and waterers.  One inside the coop and one outside the coop if smaller birds are being pushed away.

There should be one nesting box for four hens and eight inches of roosting bar per bird.

Problems can occur when a new chicken is introduced to an existing flock. This upsets the pecking order and an new one must be reestablished.  If the new chickens are younger and outnumbered this can create additional problems.  Chickens have a habit of ganging up on any chicken that is bleeding and pecking at the red wound.  They are very attracted to the color red.  Remove and bleeding chickens and apply an antiseptic wound spray.    Silkies can be very territorial.

When introducing new flock member, fence off an area inside the chicken run for the new chickens.  After a couple of days remove the fencing and let them mingle. For more ideas on how to introduce new flock members,  check out “How to Integrate New Members Into Your Flock.

Humans are also part of the pecking order.  Roosters see you as part of their flock and will seek to overthrow your top position. Aggressive roosters can be dangerous especially if you have small children.  Never leave them unattended with a rooster who has shown past aggression towards humans.

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Doing the chicken wing dance around you and charging towards you are some clear signs that a rooster is challenging you for top spot.  Pecking and jumping at you to claw or spur you should not be allowed.  Never run from a rooster.  Stand your ground or run and chase after him.  Grab him and hold him down to the ground.  Put your hand over his head and back.  Hold him until he calms down and then let up on him.

Segregate any bully birds that you might have. Place them in a crate for a few days.  The pecking order will change while she is in isolation and when she is reintroduced, she will be the “new bird.”

In order to avoid problems in your coop make sure that there is always enough space for your birds and enough hiding places for members of the lower ranks.  The “hen pecked” chicken is always your most submissive and is often a silkie in a mixed flock. Try to keep to one rooster per pen.  A happy, stress free flock will give you more eggs.

For tips and tricks for raising outstanding silkies check out our Chicken Learning Center at VJPPoultry.com .  VJP Poultry is an NPIP and state inspected hatchery located 30 miles north of St. Paul.  We hatch out silkies all year long so we always have stock available.  Like us on Facebook to get weekly updates on what we currently have for sale.

Victoria J. Peterson

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A Look at the Silkie Standard of Perfection

20171020_121935-1The American Standard of Perfection is a wonderful book published by the American Poultry Association. In it you will find all kinds of valuable information on all of the breeds of chickens that are recognized by this group.  Their main purpose is to list characteristics of each breed at their highest level.  This information is used by judges to help them judge the qualities of individual birds against what has been decided as the “perfect” bird of that breed and variety by the American Poultry Association. It is also used by breeders to improve their birds through breeding towards the standard and by exhibitors who want to place well in poultry shows who use the standard as a guide for choosing birds.

In judging, there is a scale of points that equals 100.  Points are assigned to different attributes of the bird.  Points will be deducted if the bird does not meet the standard given.  There are also disqualifications that can be given which will eliminate a bird from competition.  Since silkies  have crests and beards their point system is adjusted to include points for those areas.

The disqualifications specifically for silkies include :  Bright red comb, face and wattles.  Shanks not feathered down outer sides.  Feathers not truly silky (except in primaries, secondaries, leg, toe and main tail feathers.) Vulture hocks. There are other disqualifications that are for all birds, not just silkies.  You would find those under “General Disqualifications” elsewhere in the book.

The standard weight for a silkie cock is 36 oz.  The standard weight for a silkie hen is 32 oz.  The standard weight for a silkie cockerel is 32 oz.  The standard weight for a silkie pullet is 28 oz.

The standard then lists descriptions of each of the areas of the silkie’s appearance.  This is all part of the bird’s shape.  It is best to obtain a copy of the standard so that you can read in detail what the standard entails. I will mention a few of the items of interest but there is much more information listed in the book. I will be discussing the Bearded Silkie only.

The comb should be walnut shaped. In the males it should be circular shaped and have a horizontal indentation across the middle of it. Females should also be walnut and smaller. The wattles should be small and concealed by the beard in bearded silkie males.  The females should be very small and concealed.

The crest should be medium sized. The beard and muffs should be thick and full. The neck should be short and gracefully curved.  The back should be short and broad and rising back in a curve towards the tail.  The cushion of the tail should be broad and round and very fluffy.  The tail should be  shredded at the ends.

The wings should be closely folded and carried well back being nearly horizontal.  Primaries should be concealed  by secondaries.  The tips should be well shredded with tips being concealed by saddle feathers.

The silkie needs to have five toes. Three in the front and two in the back.  One toe in the natural position and the other placed above it curving upwards and backwards.  Feathering should be to the middle toe.

Comb should be deep mulberry colored.  Beak should be slaty blue and eyes should be black.  Earlobes should be turquoise blue. Skin should be dark blue and toes slaty blue.

Silkie’s feathers come in different colors and not all colors are recognized by the APA. Here are the ones that are recognized: white, black, blue, partridge, buff, gray, splash, self-blue (lavender) and paint.  There are separate descriptions for each of the different color varieties indicating what is accepted and what is not.

Symmetry, as well as, condition and vigor are also important in judging.  The overall shape and balance of the bird is important.  The silkie should look like a “S” curve with the bottom part of the “s” continuing upward.  They almost look completely circular, like a bowling ball when they stand correctly.

There is much more to the silkie standard than I have talked about in this article.  If you would like to purchase a copy, you can get one through the American Poultry Association here.

There are also knockoff copies at Amazon that are not printed through the APA.  I think that they are basically  xerox copies and have the same information.

Hopefully this will answer some of your questions concerning what the standard of perfection is.  As a breeder, we are constantly trying to improve our silkies and have them come as close as possible to the standard that has been set. It is important to show your birds as a breeder or attend shows so that you can talk with judges and other people who are knowledgeable about silkies.

For tips and tricks for raising outstanding silkies check out our Chicken Learning Center at VJPPoultry.com .  VJP Poultry is an NPIP and state inspected hatchery located 30 miles north of St. Paul.  We hatch out silkies all year long so we always have stock available.  Like us on Facebook to get weekly updates on what we currently have for sale.

Victoria J. Peterson

Information for this article was taken from The American Standard of Perfection 2010 published by American Poultry Association, Inc.

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How To Integrate New Chickens Into Your Flock

20161106_123815Chicken Math is a very real thing.  We enjoy adopting new members to our flock and we want it to go as smoothly as possible.  Every year new birds are added and older birds are replaced or die off naturally.  A hen may chose to raise a clutch of chicks or new breeds catch our eye and we then must figure a way to incorporate these new birds into the standing social order.

Chickens are very social animals.  There is an order of dominance or what is called a “pecking order.”  The correct  integration of new birds is important.  You need to manage the pecking order so that new birds and chicks do not get hurt and the original flock does not become overly stressed.

When you first acquire new adult birds, they will need to be quarantined before you can mix them in with your home flock.  This is for the safety of your flock.  Do not quarantine them in the same area as your current birds.  Have a separate pen or crate away from the others.  They will need a place they can stay for thirty days.  You do not need to quarantine chicks that you buy from a hatchery as these are not exposed to an adult flock that may contain germs.

Each flock of chickens has their own germs that make them immune to certain things in their environment.  A new bird will not have that immunity.  This would  be a good time to give it some probiotics or Rooster Booster to help supplement its immune system.  A feed with extra protein will help it deal with the stress of being in a new place.

The new adult bird may also have some hidden issues.  Check for lice, mites, breathing problems or discharge from the eyes or nostrils.  A little poultry dust in case of mites or apple cider vinegar in the water for general health wouldn’t hurt.  Disease can take up to a month to show itself in a healthy bird.  Make sure that you practice biosecurity  and wash your hands when handling new birds.

It is best to introduce new birds in pairs or more. Do not buy a single bird and expect it to smoothly be accepted by the others.  Being alone and new is a double disadvantage.  If there is more than one bird introduced at the same time , they will then have a buddy to hang out with.  There is also more than one bird to take all of the pecks that will be directed their way.

Always add birds of a similar size to the flock. Larger breeds are always more dominant and will bully the smaller breeds. If you have a flock of Jersey Giants it would be difficult for a small bantam to be accepted.  Try to wait as long as possible to introduce young birds.  They should be done making baby noises and be as fully feathered out as possible.

The first step is to separate them in the coops and outside runs.  The idea is to keep them separate but visible to each other.  Seeing but no touching each other. They may try to fight through the fence but they can’t hurt each other.  Poultry netting is a good way to separate them.  Even just a dog crate sitting in the run will work.  Do this for a few days to a week.

When it is time to actually put the birds together there is a few ways you can do it.  Some people think that the best time to do it is at night after they have gone to bed.  Stick the new ones on the roost and they will all wake up together the next morning and may be more accepting.

Another method is to do a free range situation.  Let the new birds out to free range first.  Then let the rest of the flock out.  There is plenty of room for the new birds to run and hide or just plain get away from any unwanted pecks.

If you don’t let your birds free range, you can put the new birds in the run first and then let the older flock out. By letting the new birds out first, they can find out where the food and water is first. Distract the flock with treats so they won’t be so focused on the new chickens.  Make sure that you have multiple feeding dishes and watering stations.  The older flock may try and block the new birds from eating and drinking.

Make sure that they have plenty of room.  Overcrowding will stress everyone out and make the older birds resentful.  Put out more food and treats than they actually need.  Flock blocks can be helpful.  Hiding places are also important.  Just placing a piece of wood against a wall can provide a hiding place for a scared bird.

I know that it is hard, but the less interference from humans the better.  Unless there is blood it is best to let them work it out themselves.  If a bird is super aggressive towards a new one, put it in a dog kennel for a few days.  When it comes out, it will become a “new” bird and be taken down a peg or two.

Two or more roosters will not get along unless they are raised together and are not where they can see hens.  Ten hens per rooster is the recommended amount.  Don’t introduce a new adult rooster to a flock that already has a rooster. They will fight for dominance.

After you have introduced new birds, watch to make sure that they are eating and drinking.  Give them plenty of places to hide behind.  Put everyone on the same food and have separate dishes of oyster shell.

The introduction of new birds can cause your old flock to stop egg production for awhile until things settle down.  It will take a few weeks but soon everyone will have a new place in the pecking order.

For tips and tricks for raising outstanding silkies check out our Chicken Learning Center at VJPPoultry.com .  VJP Poultry is an NPIP and state inspected hatchery located 30 miles north of St. Paul.  We hatch out silkies all year long so we always have stock available.  Like us on Facebook to get weekly updates on what we currently have for sale.

Victoria J. Peterson

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Why Your Chicken Needs a Dust Bath

20180323_145950-1   All chickens should have access to dust baths.  It doesn’t matter what breed or age of chicken, it is instinctual for them to wallow in the dust and dirt.  It is their way of getting clean and practicing good hygiene.

When you first witness this dust bathing, you may think that something is wrong with your bird.  It almost looks like they are in trouble or having a seizure.  They are lying on their sides with one leg sticking out and the other scraping dirt and dust in kind of a circular motion.  The wings are throwing dirt up into the air so that it falls back down on top of them.  It looks scary , but it is perfectly normal.

Chickens will create a dust bath area all by themselves.  A chicken scratches and digs out a bowl shaped depression in the dirt or will even use the shavings inside of the coop.  The chicken settles into this hollow, fluffs up its feathers and then scratches up the dirt.

It might look like they are making a nest to lay eggs because it is round in shape but these are preparations for dust bathing.  Chickens use their feet and wings to get loose dirt throughout their skin and feathers.  Once they are completely covered in a layer of dirt, the bird will fluff and shake off the substance to evenly distribute it on their bodies.

A chicken’s dust bath helps to remove excess oil, as well as parasites such as lice, mites and ticks.  Dust bathing is an important part of keeping chickens healthy and clean.  It is important that your chicken has access to areas where dust bathing can take place. Most will look for a sunny spot with loose dirt.  Even if they never get to free range, you can set up a dust bath in their coop or pen.

There are four main behaviors when dust bathing: vertical wing-shaking, head rubbing, bill raking and scratching with one leg.  The hen scratches with her feet and beak at the ground.  She then erects her feathers and lies down. They create deep bowls as they wiggle and squirm to get dirt deep under their feathers.  They make happy noises while flipping dirt all over themselves.  The dust collects between the feathers and then is shaken off.  This helps to give the feathers good insulating abilities.

Chickens clean their feathers and skin by preening with their beaks and using an oil gland at the base of their tail. After a dust bath a hen will spend time primping and pecking at their feathers. This helps to smooth their feathers and removes sheaths on new feathers.  Feather maintenance is very important.  Birds of all kinds take dust baths and certain mammals do as well to keep clean and remove parasites.

Most dust bathing occurs in the middle of the day. Warm temperatures increase dust bathing behavior. Hens will tend to dust bath if they see other hens doing it.  It ends up being a very social activity.  It is not just hens that will dust bath, but roosters enjoy doing it as well.

The need for a dust bath is ingrained in their behavior.  They will dig holes if you don’t provide them with a spot.  Free ranging birds will find a place in your garden if you let them.   Battery hens in cages will sham dust bathe.  They will go through the motions of dust bathing even if there is no other material in their cages.

Here at VJP Poultry, we decided it was time to create some dust bathing areas inside of our runs.  We used treated 1″ X 4″ lumber and made 18″ X 24″ boxes with no bottom.  We set them in the run and filled them half full with play sand.

There are other things that you can use to create your dust bathing areas. Any large shallow pan such as a kitty litter pan or small kiddie pools.   Fill it with a variety of substrates.  Some examples would be :  Fine sand, dry dirt,  or peat moss.

Some people like to add food grade diatomaceous Earth or DE.  The sharp edges pierce the soft body parts of parasites and kills them.  Be careful with DE as it can be very harmful if inhaled and can damage lungs.  Use a small amount as part of your substrate.

Firepit ash or ash from a wood stove is another product that can be used. Birds can absorb magnesium, calcium and vitamin K from the ash.  Use ash from hardwood trees and make sure that if you remove it from your own fire pit that there isn’t any additional chemicals such as in treated lumber.

Dried herbs are natural pest repellents.  They can get rid of mosquitoes, flies and ants as well as parasites such as mites, lice and ticks.  They provide calming aroma therapy and have antibacterial properties to heal minor scratches and wounds.  Add them to the substrate as well.

You can also purchase ready made dust bath products.  It is easy to add to what ever other products you want in your dust bath mix.

Remember that you will need to periodically clean out your dust bath area.  I pick out the big chunks daily and give it a good raking.  A cover or a beach umbrella will help to keep out the rain.  You want your dust bath to stay as dry as possible.  One of those turtle sand boxes with a cover or any plastic cover sandbox can make a great dusting area.  If possible, move your dusting area inside in the winter to prevent the substrate from freezing.

For tips and tricks for raising outstanding silkies check out our Chicken Learning Center at VJPPoultry.com .  VJP Poultry is an NPIP and state inspected hatchery located 30 miles north of St. Paul.  We hatch out silkies all year long so we always have stock available.  Like us on Facebook to get weekly updates on what we currently have for sale.

Victoria J. Peterson

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