Got new chicks….only to have your hens pick on them? There’s an easy explanation why – and you don’t have to worry.
Did you know that “pecking order” came from chickens? True story. Chickens love to peck.
They usually like to peck at the ground to see what kind of treats they can dig up, but every once in a while while owning chickens, you might notice your older chickens pecking at the baby chicks that you’ve just introduced to the flock.
One question I’m asked a bunch is “Why do older chickens bully (‘peck on,’ if you will) younger chickens, and in particular baby chicks?”
- Hens bully chicks because they’re sorting out the pecking order
- If chicks are not being hurt, then let them stay in the coop. The hens will eventually stop
- If the chicks ARE being hurt, then isolate them immediately, and put them back with the hens when the chicks are older (12 – 16 weeks)
- If the chicks can’t get to food or water, remove them ASAP
- You can also introduce slowly, and give them all mealworms or other treats when they’re playing together. This will help everyone associate being together with the treats, and distract the hens from potentially bullying the chicks.
It’s All About The Pecking Order
The main reason why older chickens can sometimes bully baby chicks is simply because of a pecking order issue. Suddenly, there are new chickens in the coop, and the older chickens want to establish themselves at the top of that pecking order. (You can learn how to safely introduce chickens here).
The pecking order is literally who gets first dibs at food that is distributed to a flock. Sometimes, establishing this order results in clashes. Now, in most cases, this isn’t a problem.
Older chicks, and especially hens, are not going to actually hurt the babies; they’re just trying to figure out who this newcomer is, what they’re about, and to establish their own dominance over them.
It becomes an issue if you start to see the baby chicks get consistently picked on to the point of where there are open sores on them and they’re bleeding.
So it’s usually establishing who is at the top and who is at the bottom of the food chain and what their social standing is.
It’s the same thing as if you put humans in any situation: we are going to want to sort out who is the leader and who’s not the leader and where everybody stands. That’s essentially what’s going on when the older hens bully the younger chicks.
If you just hear the baby chicks are cheeping loudly, nine times out of ten, the older chickens aren’t even touching them. The youngsters are just not sure what to do about the older chickens.
Sometimes in cases of extreme stress, the older chickens will pick on the younger chicks simply because they’re stressed out. Issues of stress come from things like if the coop is too small, if there’s not enough food, if there are too many roosters; that kind of thing can contribute to too much stress.
The older chickens will then bully the younger chicks simply because they didn’t have an outlet. They have that built-up aggression and the younger chicks are simply that outlet.
In most cases, specifically with pet chickens, that’s not even really an issue.
The thing to watch out for, though, is if you have roosters around your chicks. The roosters, especially if you have more than one, will try to compete over the chicks. That can just go south really quickly. If you see your rooster going after your baby chicks, I would definitely separate the two and figure out some other solution.
If you have enough food and water for everybody, there’s plenty of space, and you see the older hens going after the younger chicks, it’s almost undoubtedly an issue of them just trying to figure out the social order.
To sum up the reason that the older hens will pick on younger chicks isn’t necessarily that they’re bullying them, it’s more they’re trying to figure out where the baby chicks stay in the social order and just to establish their dominance.
Maat van Uitert is a backyard chicken and sustainable living expert. She is also the author of Chickens: Naturally Raising A Sustainable Flock, which was a best seller in it’s Amazon category. Maat has been featured on NBC, CBS, AOL Finance, Community Chickens, the Huffington Post, Chickens magazine, Backyard Poultry, and Countryside Magazine. She lives on her farm in Southeast Missouri with her husband, two children, and about a million chickens and ducks. You can follow Maat on Facebook here and Instagram here.