Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Leader of the Peck

In 1921, Norwegian zoologist Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe described a hierarchical behavior in which individuals in a group would demonstrate their dominance over fellow group members. Challenges for leadership positions, according to Schjelderup-Ebbe, resulted in in-fighting, with those ultimately of higher rank claiming the best food, shelter, and mates for themselves, while those at the bottom submitted either of their own will or because they'd lost a challenge.

Schjelderup-Ebbe defined this behavior as establishing a "pecking order." Ninety years later, the pecking-order theory is well known to sociologists and those whose lives are spent in the corporate sector. When Schjelderup-Ebbe defined it, however, pecking order was connected not with humans but with animals. Chickens, to be specific; Schjelderup-Ebbe wrote his PhD dissertation based on his observations of the hens and roosters in the flocks he'd raised since age 10. According to Schjelderup-Ebbe, chickens begin to exhibit pecking-order behavior at about four weeks of age, with males challenging each other to determine the dominant males, likewise for females, and with the lead males and females duking it out to determine who ruled the roost.

Apparently, our chicks must have skipped the part about age.

From the start, we'd described our brown Americauna chick, Eggbert, as "likes to peck." Eggbert went around, pecking the other birds on the back, at the vent, on the wing, on the head. We were concerned when we saw this, because we'd read that pecking at each other continuously could lead to cannibalism. To prevent this gruesome condition from happening, we'd spent the extra money on red heat-lamp bulbs; red light supposedly disguises injuries and molting skin by casting a rosy glow on everything. Despite this, here was Eggbert, happily going around, pecking at his brooder mates.

Now that we knew he was male, everything fell into place. Eggbert was simply letting the others know he was the cock of the lot. The only ones who ever pecked back at Eggbert were Dennis, Gloria, and Barbra. Mind you, none of these pecks were malicious intents to cause injury. The chicks were just determining their leader and their own place in the flock.

Barbra caused the most surprise for us. For two weeks — since we brought the chicks home — we'd wondered why on earth Barbra, the klutzy chick, kept pestering Eggbert. Barbra was gawky, uncoordinated, had suffered from two cases of pasty butt, and all the other chicks seemed to leave her alone. Every now and then, however, Barbra would dash, kamikaze-style, at Eggbert, peck him a couple of times, then retreat. Eggbert, for his part, just seemed to glare at Barbra like she was a minor annoyance and not worthy of his attention. Now that we knew Barbra was a he and not a she, we understood the motives behind the sneak attacks: Barbra was challenging Eggbert... and failing miserably.

Dennis, however, was another story. Tiny little Dennis had been happily digging through the brooder's bedding for days, scattering pine shavings everywhere and on everyone. I began to notice that Dennis only began his massive excavations when one of the females — Cutie, Belle, or Gloria — was nearby. One of a rooster's jobs is to forage for his flock of hens, and Dennis was doing a mighty good job, foraging for the newspaper that lined the bottom of the brooder. Eggbert was not amused by Dennis' antics, however. Every now and then, Eggbert would purposely stroll into the middle of Dennis' dig, forcing Dennis to back down and move elsewhere. Sometimes Dennis would glare at Eggbert, who'd then hold himself fully upright, towering over the little Seabright bantam. Most of the times, Dennis would just scoot away to find another of the females and dig for her.

Eggbert — King
Dennis — Prince
Barbra — Jester

The ladies were no exception to the pecking-order rule. It quickly became obvious that quiet, shy little Cutie was the lowest-ranking of the four females. She was usually the last one to eat or drink, and she held back while the others ran around with bugs or mealworms. For a while, we thought that little Belle, the adventuresome little Old English Game chick, would be Head Hen. She was always the first to run over for mealworms and amongst the first four chicks — Eggbert, Dennis, and Gloria being the others — to arrive at a refilled feeder. As the days passed and the chicks began to resemble little birds instead of little fluffballs, however, Gloria made her move. She'd be right next to Eggbert when the feeder arrived, and she was the first of all the chicks to start jumping up to reach a treat held out overhead. At about six days of age, Gloria suddenly jumped in front of Belle as the little bantam chick made her way to the feeder. Belle startled, then backed down away from the larger Orpington chick. Gloria was now rightfully the First Female.

It's been a precarious reign for Gloria. Loving, gentle Blazekin, our Ameraucana pullet, suddenly began asserting herself. She stopped being the three bantam chicks' nanny and started showing up seconds behind Gloria for fresh water or food, and soon was jumping as high as Eggbert and Gloria whenever mealworm treats were offered. At one week of age, Blazekin issued her challenge. While all the other chicks stayed to the outskirts of the brooder, Blazekin jumped in front of Gloria and, stretching her neck out to appear taller, stared the lavender chick down. Gloria responded in kind, and after a tense series of staredowns, hops, and wing flaring, Blazekin backed down. Not that this settled matters. Blazekin continued her challenges throughout the day, sometimes by the feeder, sometimes by the pecking block, sometimes by the toy bell, and sometimes by the chicks' roost. Occasionally, one of the other chicks would unwittingly get in the way of the two pullets and scramble, squawking, to avoid being pounced on. Only once did Gloria submit to Blazekin, but I think that's because the poor thing was sick and tired of the Ameraucana's challenges and just wanted a little peace and quiet, away from the constant pecking.

I'm sure Barbra could agree. At the bottom of the pecking order for the males, Barbra found himself scorned by the females, too. Even Cutie would occasionally wander by and peck at him. It seemed that Barbra's only shot at climbing higher in pecking order would be to introduce new chicks to the equation.

Which would be happening very shortly. King Eggbert and Queen Gloria would soon find themselves the rulers of almost 50 peeping, cheeping chicks, some of which undoubtedly would disagree with the local government. Anarchy, protests, and a possible coup d'etat were only four days away.

Perhaps Dennis should start digging some bunkers now.

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