The planet is awash with chickens. Nineteen billion at the last chicken census. That’s three chickens for everyone on Earth. I expect an Amazon drone to lower my trio directly onto the barbecue this afternoon. While I’m waiting though, I might as well tell you about pecking orders. It’s a tale of cruelty, gratuitous aggression and utter selfishness, perpetrated by chicken-kind on their own species (PG 13).
Not only do chickens outnumber us three to one, but the English language is bursting at the seams with references to them. We seem eternally curious, for instance, to know why one of these dinosaur descendants dithered across the drive. Less frivolously, in the giddy throes of a Descartes moment we stroke our chins, gaze into the middle distance and wonder which came first – the hen or the double yolker?
Do remember that chickens are not milling about aimlessly, shoving in time between eggs. Assume this and you underestimate them. And you underestimate them at your peril. They are organised. Their organising principle – from Buff Orpington to Scots Dumpy – is the pecking order.
Chickens aren’t the only species to institutionalise bullying – which is what pecking orders boil down to. Many animals, from African wild dogs to giraffes have pecking orders. They’re caste systems by which their social lives are structured (Yes, I know. It’s a push to accept that chickens have a social life. But I can assure you there are Leghorns out there with better social lives than me).
Would you recognise pecking order behaviour if you saw it? Perhaps not – some clues are difficult to spot. It may help you grasp the basic concept of pecking orders by considering the one you are currently living in. Imagine a Saturday afternoon trip to Burger King. Dad gets a super-sized double cheeseburger, a side of onion rings, thirty two chicken nuggets, a pound of ‘slaw and a litre of Coca Cola.
Now, because you are further down the pecking order, you and your sister will share a portion of normal fries and a half litre of Lidl’s own-brand cola (two straws). At the bottom of the food chain there’s your little brother. He gets the cardboard party hats – to eat, not wear. That, with its inherent unfairness, is how a pecking order works.
Applying this newfound understanding of pecking orders to the chicken coop, the eagle-eyed farmyard-gazer is likely to come across several bully-boy behaviours displayed by alpha chickens to keep lesser chickens firmly in line.
Deference is common, but difficult to spot. Here, subordinate chickens simply make themselves scarce when the alpha chicken swaggers up to the food bowl. They might sneak back again later, hoping to scratch up some discarded husks.
Other pecking order behaviours are a tad less genteel. These include the psycho-tactic of power-staring. When I do something which my wife has forbidden – even though I didn’t know it was forbidden at the time she forbade it – my wife pins me to the couch with her kamikaze death stare – a look that could wilt lettuce through a garage door. Chickens use a similar tactic, mesmerising underlings with withering glances and driving them away.
It is not known whether chickens chastised in this way feel anything like the crushing guilt I feel under my wife’s pitiless gaze even when I have done nothing wrong (allegedly).
Some matriarchal hens kick subtlety onto the henhouse roof, preferring a more in-your-face approach. They barge around the yard, elbowing (Do chickens even have elbows?) limper specimens out of the way or pecking them for no good reason. This is chicken body language for “Listen up. My yard. End of!”
It’s not nice, but pecking orders among chickens are characterised by physical attacks, intimidating stares and blustering matriarchs behaving like security staff at a U2 concert. In my opinion, this level of delinquency rules out trusting your average Buff Orpington. Like, forever. I’m not saying that chickens see us humans as potential underlings – yet. But I’ve seen I, Robot and this could go the same way. Just saying.