Yesterday I got my biannual restock of spring chicks, and within moments I was reminded that nature loves a pecking order.
We got 6 chicks — 2 blue-egg-laying auracanas, 2 golden comets, and 2 sturdy Rhode Island Reds. At this point they are about 3-4 days old, furry golfball-size puffballs on spindly legs with oversized, curious eyes.
Their activity varies between racing around madly on their tiny legs, to suddenly falling asleep and awkwardly toppling over. They are incredibly cute, yet even at this nascent furball stage they are already setting the order of their world. That became obvious after watching them for just a few minutes.
The “pecking order” was set within 2 hours of their arrival at our coop, and individual personalities became apparent. Both my wife and I noticed that one of the auracanas (the one in the photo at top) was establishing herself as the leader. She moved quickly from chick to chick, pecking each around the eyes and head. Most just cast their heads downward and accepted their leader. But there was one that showed a slightly rebellious streak — she waited until the auracana walked away, and then when its back was turned she jumped on it and knocked it down. Twice. So we’ll be keeping our eyes on those two.
One other personality trait is apparent in the auracana. It tends to wander from the flock to explore its surroundings and gets close to humans, looking up at us with its big eyes. It’s far more curious and much braver than the rest of its flock. It will be a good leader.
The process of setting a pecking order is an incredibly important component in a poultry flock. If a rooster is present it will take the lead role, and if there’s more than one roster, they will fight for dominance. It usually gets settled quickly, though not always bloodlessly. Roosters are fascinating to watch, though they are usually a lot of trouble. They rage with male hormones, they are noisy, and often they’ll challenge humans for dominance. They also tend to herd their hens to keep them orderly and safe. And as I’ve seen on one occasion, they’ll fight to the death against a predator to protect their flock.
When the flock is composed entirely of hens, it’s a slightly different story. Just like humans and every other species, chickens are hardwired to establish a leader. One hen will step up and take on that role, usually taking on some of the masculine traits that are typically reserved for roosters — like guarding the entrance of the roost at night, getting between the flock and a human, and occasionally even challenging a perceived threat. One of my good friends swears that one of his leader hens grew small spurs on its legs — a feature usually reserved for roosters.
These 6 new chicks will mature fast, and in about 3 months I’ll be integrating them into my existing flock of six 2-year-old hens. That flock already has a dominant hen leader, a wiry, undersized, and very scrappy Rhode Island Red. Auracanas typically grow up to be big, heavy birds with a thick coat of feathers — potentially a real bruiser. They’ll have to blend 2 distinct “cultures” into one. It will be an interesting melding to watch.
John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood organic farm in Amesbury that sells seedlings, fresh eggs, vegetables and fruits. For updates on produce that’s available, “like” the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/