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Fights Among Flock Members

Each flock of chickens have their own established pecking order. A pecking order is a system of hierarchy in chickens that is related to status (dominance). The most dominant bird has the highest status, and is above all other flock members. The second most dominant bird has the second highest status and outranks all birds other than the most dominant. The bird that has the lowest status within the pecking order is usually the least dominant or often a recently introduced or reintroduced bird.

Flock status is reinforced by birds whenever desired resources are involved, such as food, water, shelter, roosting space, dustbathing area, and nestbox availability. The flock's pecking order is usually most obvious during feeding time, as the top (alpha) hen will eat first and will chase off any lower-ranking birds that try to sneak in a bite. Roosters will typically always wait to eat after all the hens have already eaten. When there are multiple roosters in the flock, the head rooster will eat after the hens are full, followed by the lower-ranking roosters.

Chicks will usually start fighting to determine pecking order when they are around 16 days of age. Depending on the ratio of female chicks to male chicks, the pecking order may take up to several weeks to work out among the birds. Groups of male chicks tend to take the longest to figure out the pecking order. Once the pecking order is established, fighting usually stops. However, sometimes a member of the flock may grow tired of its position in the social hierarchy and will decide to challenge a higher-ranking bird. When this occurs, these birds will fight each other to determine who is the most dominant bird. Fights also will usually occur when a new bird is introduced into the flock, in order to establish its place in the pecking order, or when a bird is reintroduced into a flock after being absence, such as when recovering from an illness or injury.

Rooster vs Rooster
Fights occur between roosters as well as hens, however when fights break out between two roosters they are usually more violent--often leading to multiple severe injuries or to the death. Even roosters that were raised together will often have violent fights when it involves hens. This includes fathers and their male offspring. The offspring will eventually, usually challenge the father, often killing him. Therefore, it is a good idea to separate them before this occurs.

When two chickens are about to fight one another, they will eye one another and often casually circle each other while pretending to peck at something on the ground. Once the fight is initiated by the challenging party, both birds will raise their neck feathers and point their wings downward, spreading them apart from their bodies. Next both birds will try to face one another, each standing as tall as thy can. Sometimes at this stage, one of the birds will back down. However, if neither chicken yields then they will start physical fighting with the intent of inflicting damage to the other. At this stage birds will start pecking, jumping at each other, scratching, and beating each other with their wings or spurs (if roosters). Rounds of fighting will continue until one of the birds backs down and submits to the other bird by running away, meaning they accept their role as a lower ranking flock member.

Clinical Signs

Black spots on comb and/or wattles
Bleeding
Isolation from other flock members

Diagnosis

  • History
  • Clinical signs
  • Physical exam

Treatment

NameSummary
Separate injured birdsIt is important to remove any injured chickens from the flock, especially if blood is visible. This is because chickens have a tendency to peck at and cause worse damage to those flock members who are injured and bleeding.
Clean wound(s)To accomplish this, any feathers surrounding the wounds that may interfere with cleaning it need to be gently plucked or trimmed.
Cleanse wounds through lightly "scrubbing" with clean sterile gauze and/or pulsed lavage using a curved tip irrigating syringe combined with sterile isotonic saline with or without chlorhexidine or 0.5-1% povidone iodine solution (Betadine).

Prevention

  • Only keep one rooster to a flock of hens or keep all roosters and all hens separated from each other.
  • Provide plenty of enrichment items to keep them occupied
  • Ensure you don't overcrowd birds
  • Provide multiple feed and water sources
  • Monitor birds and how they all get along with one another daily
  • Don't just immediately throw in new flock members into an existing established flock, gradually introduce new birds into the flock, not only for quarantine purposes but also to prevent attacks.

Scientific References

Risk Factors

  • Overcrowding
  • Lack of enriching items
  • Poor nutrition
  • Sick or injured chickens
  • Introduction of new chickens to an existing flock
  • More than one rooster in the same flock
  • Reintroduction of a chicken that has been absence from the flock.