Feb. 8, 2024

Myths “Cracked” – Is Hen Pecking Real?

Animal Welfare

Myth: Chickens don’t actually peck each other.

Myth Cracked: Hen pecking is a natural behavior among chickens and can seriously compromise health and egg production.

The Scoop on Barnyard Bullies

Hen pecking, inter-bird aggression or just plain meanness – chickens are famous for being barnyard bullies. Chickens are the nearest living relatives to the T-rex, so this shouldn't be surprising!

While gentle hen pecking is a normal and valuable behaviour that keeps stray feathers and parasites at bay, it can escalate.

The social structure of chickens is very strict and hierarchical. Aggressive hen pecking is one way the birds establish dominance as they jockey for territory like perching and nesting areas or resources like food and water. In fact, establishing and protecting the pecking order in a flock is a full-time job for chickens.

Hen pecking can be very serious and jeopardize the health and well-being of the birds and ultimately reduce egg production. That’s not good for the birds or for the many consumers who rely on safe, nutritious eggs as part of a healthy – and delicious - diet. Most farmers focus on providing ample resources and taking additional steps to make sure the chickens “play nice.”

Aggressive pecking is not as common in commercial flocks because we have a lot of science that tells us how much floor space, feeder, water, perch and nest space is needed to keep competition to a minimum. However, the type of housing on commercial farms makes a difference.

For example, there is much less aggression when hens are kept in smaller social groups like they are in enriched colony housing – modern housing system that is becoming an egg industry standard. Provided perches and nesting areas, hens in enriched colony enclosures are in group sizes small enough for chickens to know their place – typically groups of 30 to 60. There’s little need to establish a hierarchy.

In cage-free environments where there are large numbers of birds in open areas, there is much more aggressive hen pecking. Why? The more birds, the greater the need to establish dominance. The chickens seek to establish and re-establish pecking orders as they interact with new flock members.

While “hen pecked” is a term that most commonly is equated with people nagging one other, its true origins are another story. Hen pecking on the farm is serious – impacting our birds, our egg supply, and farmers and veterinarians who dedicate their lives to ensuring animals receive the highest standards of care.

Interested in learning more about hen pecking and related behaviours? I encourage you to read my full blog on the topic on my Mike the Chicken Vet website .