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 old copies and  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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Why it is so Difficult to Sex Silkie Juvenile Chicks?

20180409_083330-1Silkies are among the hardest breed of chickens to sex at a young age.  The old adage that you can’t tell them apart until they crow or lay an egg has a lot of truth in it.  I have found that certain weeks of age are easier than others for telling which are boys and which are girls.

Newborns that are hatched together out of the same color pen can be judged on size.  Males tend to be larger and more curious than the females. This only works with same color chicks. If you want more information about sexing younger silkies, check out “sexing young silkie chicks.

At around three weeks, males will begin to be more aggressive and will play fight with other males in the same pen.  Beware – females can do this also.  The silkie comb on males may begin to show some signs of development from three weeks onward.  A upside down “U” at the top part of the comb may be the beginning of a wider developing comb and signal a male.  Females tend to have a more narrow upside down “V” at the top of their combs.

Males will continue to develop their combs which will become wider and may get bumpy.  After twelve weeks the female comb begins to get wider as well and males and females will begin to look similar again.

AT VJP Poultry we have a rooster return policy.  I had a customer return a rooster for rehoming last week that was around four months old. I asked him why he thought it was a rooster at that young age and he said that it was because it had a mean disposition.  I put my hand down next to it and it immediately pecked it – hard!

After the customer left, I began looking more closely at the bird.  It was a pet quality partridge or buff silkie.  The color was wrong for the show ring. The more I looked at it, the more I just couldn’t get a handle on whether I thought it was a boy or a girl.

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The first thing I did was to trim around the eyes. It was unable to see and this could have been part of the reason that it pecked so hard at my hand.  I took a look at the comb and wattles.  The comb was wider than younger females but at four months female silkie’s combs begin to grow.  I looked for wattles.  At four months they should be showing on a male.  I begin to see them as young as two months old as small red dots.  This bird had just the slightest suggestion of the outline of a wattle.  Again, females will develop very small wattles as they grow towards maturity.

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The crest of this bird had a definite pom pom shape.  Because I didn’t see this bird when it was younger, I don’t know if it went through any Elvis type crest that some males have beginning at two months.  I looked at the back of the head to check for “streamer” development.  Nothing so far, but there are new feathers coming in right at the spot that could later develop into streamers.

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Next I looked at the hackle feathers on the neck.  Males should have longer hackle feathers than the females at this point.  I did not have another to compare it with but they looked shorter and more female to me.

The wings on the bird looked long, especially the primaries.  They also seem to be hard or stiff – not shreddy.  Just because they seem large, it makes me think male.  Females have shorter primary feathers.

The tail is wide and stands up straight.  I also think that this is a male characteristic.  Females often have their tail down in a more submissive position.

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This silkie has large feet and massive foot feathering.  This is another sign of a male.  Females foot feathering are more in proportion to the rest of its body.  Foot feathering depends on breeding but males will have larger feet.

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The stance of this bird is very upright.  Boys stand up taller than girls as a rule and there is more room between the tail and the bottom of the feet.

Behavior is hard to tell since I didn’t see how it developed.  It seems very docile once its eye feathers were trimmed.  It is currently alone so I can’t see how it interacts with others.  Males would be more assertive. If you placed it with another male, they may begin to fight even at this young age.

Males at four months are often crowing especially first thing in the morning.  This bird only made soft clucking sounds like a hen would make.  It did not struggle when you picked it up and did not make grunting sounds like a male may make.

So let’s look at the score card:

Comb- Female                             Wattles- female

crest – female                               hackle feathers – female

wings – male                                tail – male

feet – male                                    stance – male

behavior- either                          noises – female

If I was pressed I would have to go with male, but it certainly could go the other direction.

This article is to show how hard it is to determine the sex of a young silkie.  Mistakes can be made.  Breeders and judges alike are not always certain when sexing silkies.  I do think that it is much easier to sex them if you watch how they grow and develop.  Taking a four month old juvenile silkie and trying to sex it in isolation is much more difficult.  Hopefully, a crow will come sooner or later – or maybe an egg.

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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What To Expect at a Poultry Show

20171028_135827     A poultry show is usually a three day event. The first day is spent “cooping-in”. This is when you arrive and place your birds in their show cages. The second day is when the judging takes place and other events.  The third day is very short and it is known as “cooping-out” or cleaning up and taking your birds back home.

Leading up to this event you will have sent in your entry form to the organization that is hosting the show.  You will need to declare how many birds you are entering in each breed and whether they are pullets, hens, cockerels or cocks.  Pullets are females up to one year of age.  Cockerels are males that are up to one year of age.  Cocks are male roosters over one year old.  There is a small fee for each bird that you enter.  You will also need to have each bird pullorum tested and have that paperwork sent in along with your entry form.  There will be a cut off date for getting your entry forms completed and mailed in.

Leading up to the show,  you will need to keep your bird in condition with high protein food.  Practice handling and cage training your bird.  A week before the show you will need to clip toenails, beaks and bathe your bird. You may also want to do some reading on primping your bird for the show.

Friday evening is coop-in time.  You will need to to load your birds into your car or trailer. Use poultry carriers or cat carriers to transport your birds.  One bird per carrier space is preferred so that they do not poo on each other’s feathers.

When you arrive you will check in and locate where your show cages are. They will not all be together, especially if you are bringing more than one breed of poultry.  These show cages are very small.  There will be some pine shavings already in the cage, but you can bring your own from home to add to it.   Set up your feeders and waterers.  If you are showing silkies, you will want the pop bottle waterer.  I use mini bungee cords to secure the waterers instead of the springs that come with them.   I bring jugs of water from my own home that has electrolytes added to it.

In my cage cups I put a wild bird seed mixture. This will help to keep their poo firmer and not make such as mess in their cages.  Each cage has a card attached to it. Read the card carefully.  It will say the breed, color (variety) and sex of the bird that should go into that cage.  If the information is not correct then you need to find someone in charge and get it corrected.

You can then start to unload your birds from their carriers and into their show cages.  As I do this, I carefully wipe clean their feet with baby wipes or citrus hand cleaner.  Look around to see where the outlets are located in the building. You will need to be able plug in your hair dryer in the morning.  I also put a little Vet Rx on the comb to help their immune system since they are in a new environment.

You can zip tie or lock your cage before you leave, but understand that the zip ties and locks must be off before the judge can inspect your bird.  Then it’s off for a good night’s sleep and an early start the next day.

On Saturday morning you will want to arrive as soon as the doors are open.  Check your birds for water and then remove the food from their cage until judging is over.  You do not want your bird to have a full crop when it is being judges.  Then get out your showbox supplies and plug in your hair dryer.  Carefully check each bird for messy feet or feathers and try to clean it with a baby wipe.  If it is a larger mess, use Cowboy Magic or Citrus hand cleaner.

After they are cleaned up, I spray a cloth with Show Sheen and rub it all over the bird.  I use the hair dryer to dry the show sheen and fluff up the silkie feathers.  Use a slicker brush or a fine tooth comb to tease and back comb the fail feathers to make it look as fluffy as possible.  When satisfied with the look of the bird, put it back in the cage and await judging.

Keep your cage as clean as possible and remove any poo or eggs as they come.  You are not allowed in the judging aisle while the judge is there.  I do like to observe from several aisles over white the judge is going over my birds. It helps me to understand my scoring card later.

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Learn to read a cage tag and interpret the judges markings prior to your arrival. The birds are first judged against others that are the same color, sex and age.  For example, all the white silkie pullets are judged against each other.  They will be given a ranking or 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 for the top five birds in this group.  This is written or circled on the card.  Then they will judge all the white hens, then all the white cockerels etc. until all of the white have been ranked.  Then the judge will award BV (Best Variety) and RV (Reserve Variety).  This is like first and second place.  All of the other colors (varieties) in the breed are judged this way.  When that is completed the judge will then decide BB (Best of Breed) and RB (Reserve best of Breed).  This is based on all the colors (varieties) that are represented by the breed.  The Best of Breed silkie is then judged against other winners that are in the Feather Legged category.  Again, that winner will go to Champion Row and then compete for Best Bantam and Reserve.  The winner of Best Bantam goes on to compete for Super Grand Champion of the show against the Grand Champion Large Fowl and Grand Champion waterfowl.

The judge will often write comments on the cards such as “nice” or “wing?”.  What you don’t want to see is a DQ (disqualification) or a blank card with nothing written on it.  You will need to find the judge later when they are finished to ask them questions about what was written or why they judged the way they did.

There are other things to do besides watching the judging.  Jr. Showmanship will be taking place. It is always fun to watch the kids answer questions about their birds.  There will be auctions and raffles to participate in.  Vendors are often there so you can look at all the new chicken supplies.

Outside you will find many people selling birds from their cars or from specially marked areas.  Food will be for sale as well as a special banquet at night where awards are often given out.

Sunday morning is coop-out time.  Awards will be given at that time as well.  Make sure that you do not remove your birds until the coop out announcement is made.  Then it is a mad dash to quickly take down your food and waterers and load your birds back up in their carriers for the trip home.  Before the bird goes in the carrier make sure that you give it a quick spray of Adams Flea and Tick in case they picked anything up at the show.

The best thing about any poultry show is the time that you get to spend with other chicken people.  You will see old friends and make some new ones.  You will get the chance to talk chicken to your hearts content with other like minded people.  Plans will be made to meet next year again at the show.

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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