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Chickens Are Bullies – Can Their Behavior Teach Us About Our Own? (medium.com)
107 points by sfrench531 15 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 68 comments

When I was growing up on a farm, my Aunt Hattie had chickens and it was normal when we went to her house for dinner to watch her chop the chickens head off (on a farm, such things were fairly common and not at all shocking when you are brought up with it).

I remember asking her how she decided which one to take. She said that when she went out to get their eggs, whichever one pecked at her the most would be the next one to go. I asked her if that worked, did it send a message to the others. She very flatly said no, they are too stupid to understand that but it makes me feel better. I just thought that was funny and somehow is something I remember.

We had over a dozen chickens growing up in rural New England. The one at the bottom of the pecking order lost a toe due to it being pecked at by all the others. Our chickens were only for eggs. My Uncle & neighbor had a flock as meat birds; one fall we had a get together where we killed them all, de-feathered and cleaned them, and ultimately froze them. He said sorry to every chicken. You're right; such things are not shocking if you grow up with it.

Chicken pecking orders can be brutal.

We had multiple flocks for eggs when I was growing up, and they were usually placid but some hens were so aggressive that I wish we had made dinner of them.

One in particular systematically pecked to death every other hen, working down the pecking order until it was the only one left. She was eventually taken out by a fox. We raised them all together from chicks, so I have no explanation for it. As the Simpsons put it, some animals are just jerks.

> One in particular systematically pecked to death every other hen, working down the pecking order until it was the only one left.

Is this where the term "pecking order" comes from? It seems particularly apt in this case.

It's mentioned in the first paragraph of TFA.

None of our chickens were taken out by a fox. However, we had a half-dozen ducks taken out by a fox. The ducks had an enclosed area that they were allowed to roam in during the day, but for their safety they needed to be put back in their duck-house at night. I was around 14 and it was my chore to ensure that the ducks were back in their duck-house. One night, around 4:30pm (after the sun had been down for half-an-hour), I realized that I had forgotten to put the ducks in and I ran outside. 6 out of 7 ducks had already been gotten. It's something that still bothers me when I think about it, but it's an experience that taught me to take responsibility seriously. I would say "Sorry for your [chicken] loss", but it sounds like she was, indeed, a jerk.

Was that "down the pecking order" or "up the pecking order"?

Wouldn't it have started with the weakest one?

Since we've had a rooster, there is a lot less fighting going on, even when we introduce new birds to the flock. He really does keep the peace between all the hens.

That's ~similar to one approach in TFA:

> Negative reinforcement was one proposed option. The suggestion is to stand by the chicken yard with a loaded water gun and squirt a bullying chicken as soon as it pecks at its target. Negative reinforcement isn’t exactly a groundbreaking idea and this didn’t strike me as a tactic that I wanted to pursue further, although the mental image of a school administrator blasting a bully in the hallway with a SuperSoaker was enjoyable nonetheless.

Maybe school administrators can't blast bullies. But they can ignore bullies getting blasted. When I was 9-14, I changed schools a lot. So I tended to get bullied. But I was typically the top math and science student, so teachers tended to like me. So when I blindsided bullies, they played dumb.

I had a small flock of about 50 cockerels two years ago. And the bullying issue made me swear never to raise cockerels again. They were petty, jealous, constantly fighting, noisy and downright nosy.

The big shots would peck any insolent runt who tried to steal a bite. They'd sit down to relax after they'd had their fill but still wouldn't allow the smaller birds to feed. I lost quite a number to pecking injuries and outright starvation - in a cage filled with food.

I however enjoyed turning the bullies into the bullied by isolating them for a few days and reintroducing them.

Broilers on the other hand were a joy to own. All they cared for was food, water and a clean, dry spot to rest. It's a pity they shit too much.

>50 cockerels

You recreated the chicken version of an American prison, no where in nature would you find a gathering of 50 male chickens in tight living quarters. They, and humans, aren't built for that sort of living situation and it is unsurprising that behavioral problems materialize.

My favorite flock composition was a base of all female birds, add in a cockerel and see how he and the hens interact. If you find a good match leave him there and then as new male chickens are born watch how they interact with the current cockerel. Sometimes they get along fine with each other and you can leave them, other times they go at each other like mad and then I'd usually kill the younger male. I never liked broilers because _all_ they liked was food, they were just so boring! I like curious chickens!

Yeah. I mean, what do you expect to happen when you put a bunch of animals in a social and physical environment they are not well-adapted to? It's humans who are the bullies.

I can't imagine that modern chickens aren't well adapted to coop life. We've been raising them that way for quite a few millenia now. And look how, for example, dogs have evolved from wolves in the same time frame. At any rate, my mother raises chickens and tried to raise them free range (with full access to 3 or 4 acres) for a while, but she would lose them constantly to coyotes. I think that nowadays, chickens are ill-adapted for the wild.

That’s preposterous. There’s no way chickens with the best adaptation are the ones being bread; they’re in cages. Selective breeding could’ve easily developed a selection bias of large chickens that are obscenely aggressive and fight their confines.

Large chickens have certainly been bred for but this is part of the reason modern domesticated chickens are ill suited for wild life: they are too fat and too slow besides being flightless. Hens in particular have no natural defenses against predators.

I can't believe this even needs mentioning, but the life of a factory-farmed chicken today is entirely different from the life of a chicken even a hundred years ago, never mind a thousand. A coop of a dozen chickens at most definitely does not have similar behavioral problems as a vast hall housing a hundred thousand individuals.

It depends on the confinement, the overcrowding of industrial production may be unadaptable. There are still enough instincts programmed that unfamiliar males would rather avoid each other.

I do not beleive that industrial breeding is selecting for anything that makes such prison life tolerable. Birds in production generally aren't reproducing, so nothing in the henhouse is affecting evolution.

Dog domestication is possibly at 40kya or so, so in that case much different than the rest of domestication events.

I assume chickens don't live as long as dogs though, right? If that's the case, presumably chickens go through a larger number of generations per unit of time

Chickens don't have natural selection. They are bed for fatness.

Neither did dogs. Suffice to say Wolves don't become Chihuahuas in 40k years without some very artificial selection.

Pretty remarkable how short a period can create some monstrously different creatures, even if they are still technically sexually compatible - not that I think a wolfhuahua would be a good idea!

Adapted? No.

But modified? Yes. They trim their beaks and claws.

Edit: See https://countrysidenetwork.com/daily/poultry/feed-health/tri...

>50 cockerels You recreated the chicken version of an American prison, no where in nature would you find a gathering of 50 male chickens in tight living quarters.

Is it only American prisons that hold males in tight quarters?

Even with my free range birds, the roosters will fight until they establish a hierarchy. I've had some lost to predators, and when I raise up a couple of young ones, the fights will start all over again. I've never lost a bird to fighting injuries, but they can be quite brutal to each other.

I only ever lost one male to male-male fighting. Lost quite a few more with the hens as the aggressors.

>I however enjoyed turning the bullies into the bullied by isolating them for a few days and reintroducing them.

That reminds me of the story of a baboon tribe Robert Sapolsky studied:

"The males [...] had contracted bovine tuberculosis, and most died between 1983 and 1986. Their deaths drastically changed the gender composition of the troop, more than doubling the ratio of females to males, and by 1986 troop behavior had changed considerably as well; males were significantly less aggressive."


I wonder if a similar phenomenon would occur within a flock such as yours (or within chickens altogether)

The critical point of that story was that it was not random which baboon died. The garbage dump area which had the infected food "belonged" to an other baboon squad, so it was only the most aggressive males that dared to invade in order to eat there. Naturally the troop overall got less aggressive when the top 50% most aggressive males died.

What was surprising to Sapolsky and scientific notable was that the lower aggression continued even when the troop returned to the original gender composition several years later, including new males which had no genetic relatives with the troop. The theory is that a culture of low aggression was introduced by the eradication of the aggressive males, and new males simply adapted to that culture when they joined.

If they made both genetic and environmental/cultural arguments for the same effect, they had no idea why and were making up just so stories

The phrase "pecking order" has some reality to it.

Though, I'd like to mention that most chickens aren't bullies. In fact, I'd say something like 1 in 10 or 1 in 20 is a bully [0]. The rest just get along.

Now, if you want to see a really mean bird, go watch some turkies for a while.

[0] I grew up around a lot of chickens.

>Now, if you want to see a really mean bird, go watch some turkies for a while.

...and if that's not enough, wander within 50' of a Canada goose. Those things are powered by distilled spite and angry honking.

My theory on why Canadians are so nice is because the geese are downright assholes, and the entire country evens out.

I am now picturing some Lovecraftian Ritual, purple tendrils of evil snaking into a white goose, turning its head black with hate, its body singed from the hellfire, while the human contingent of Canada suddenly feels the urge to be friendly and apologise for something.

We appease them by making sure they have a plentiful food supply of well manicured grass.

A ritual they seal by promptly shitting all over it

So Canada must be the nicest place on earth during the times of the year when the Canadian Geese are visiting not Canada.

> visiting not Canada

(Apologies for hiking hijacking the thread, but I need to complain about the geese)

I grew up in the Boston area. When I was younger, there weren't too many Canada geese around, but by the time I left after graduating high school, they were basically everywhere all year round. I'm guessing that they've come even further south than that now (if they hadn't already). Given the amount of faeces in basically any sizeable open grassy area in the town I grew up, it seemed pretty clear they weren't just visiting any more.

Geese are some of the most fiercely protective animals I've ever encountered. They're also incredibly sweet when they have no one they've tasked themselves with protecting. Their assholery is noble.

We used to keep geese when we lived in Laos because they kept the snakes out of the yard. They did a really good job. I can't say I ever saw the sweet side, though. Best we could hope for was a civil truce when I tossed them treats. But woe the man who approached them without bearing gifts!

I've only ever had the pleasure of experiencing it with a lone goose. He started out protecting a flock of hens and perfectly fit the stereotype. Once he was separated from them, he did a complete 180.

Guinea Fowl have a reputation for warding off snakes but can be worse than chickens as far as the bullying.

They are also stupid and I've heard many stories of them wandering as a group, crossing paths with a dog and the whole flock getting wiped out.

Same with chickens. Get too close to a chicken's young and they will stand their ground and chase you away.

My mother kept four turkey hens last year, and they were the sweetest things. They'd walk up to people, expecting back-scratches. Some of the more obnoxious chickens would walk up to them, and try peck them in the face, and they'd just shrug it off.

Her ducks, on the other hand, were vicious bastards.

We had chickens when I was a kid and they can really be mean to each other. I witnessed bullying and the killing and eating thing happened once as well. They were always happy to see me because I was the one that fed them.

I imagine dinosaurs behaving like chickens, and that's a scary thought. Chickens will eat pretty much anything organic and a giant chicken would have no problem eating people.

They had a fenced outdoor area they could wander around in, but they always ate everything that grew, so it was just dirt. We did let the chickens out of their pen in the late fall and winter when we didn't have a garden planted. They were really happy roaming around and pecking at things. They'd all wander back into their coop in evening to go to sleep, so all I had to do was close the door at the end of the day.

> They had a fenced outdoor area they could wander around in, but they always ate everything that grew, so it was just dirt. We did let the chickens out of their pen in the late fall and winter when we didn't have a garden planted. They were really happy roaming around and pecking at things. They'd all wander back into their coop in evening to go to sleep, so all I had to do was close the door at the end of the day.

Hmmm... I did the exact same thing. Only difference is that I did it in Stardew Valley. =D

> but they always ate everything that grew

I remember when I was growing up we also had about 20 chicken, they would clean the yard. They would clean any potato peels, any leftovers (we were giving them all leftovers apart from meat). They really eat everything!!

I believe Terry Goodkind notoriously used this as a plot point (evil chickens).

Having worked on a farm, I can confirm that chickens are unsympathetic and occasionally cannibalistic, especially when large numbers live together. (We had one case where eggs were getting eaten, and discovered the culprit one day with yolk on its beak.)

If you converted them all to humans, they would be a bunch of jerks of breathtaking stupidity. The Biff Tannens of Back to the Future. I love that Sarah French is looking at how to mitigate the bullying.

I'm not sure you can blame the chickens if you force them to live in an unnatural, stressful environment that they are not well-adapted to. As the article mentions, the primary reasons for "bullying" are stress, boredom, illness and overcrowding, all four of which are caused or controlled by the birds' human keepers.

My family cared for 50-150 layers who were given free range during the day to go wherever they wanted and a safe coop at night with plenty of room for everybody with cool roosting spots.

Even in this configuration, the chickens were massive assholes to each other. Chicken rape is the worst too, the hens scream and run like crazy. Feathers fly.

It's interesting too that all 4 of those are present to some extent in our schools where much bullying takes place.

Quite so. Workplaces, as well.

Already mentioned, but prisons.

As a kid we had 3 chickens in our garden. One day some farmer gave us a rooster that while small a small one, consistently bullied all the other animals in his farm. Our 3 black hens somehow decided to act together against him. Until we found him killed and half eaten. Nature can be nightmarish!

I agree with others that this is an over-generalization.

We had many hens, and the only one that was a bully was the bottom of the pack. We had babies and this one chicken would try to bully the babies. I think being the bottom of the pack, it might be understandable.

We've also had a few roosters. Two of them were absolutely docile and really lovable. The third, although lovable, really was bossy with humans, but he was a really good protector of the hens. He took his job seriously.

Those pinless peepers are an incredible invention. Forwarding that info on my urban chicken family.

Interesting insight into some of the mechanisms that go on. We had 4 hens that got on pretty well for the most part. We also had a few ducks housed in the same pen. They also got on fairly well. I wonder how different species interactions in birds could be mapped to human behaviour? We have probably a dozen different wild birds that visit our yard and it is interesting watching how they interact.

You put too many people in a confined space and they go nuts - is this a surprise ?

John B. Calhoun studies are pertinent.


AFAIK chicken systematically and thoroughly pecking at open wounds need proteins.

Children are bullies too! Why do we need to extrapolate from chickens.

I've worked in offices with full grown adults that are bullies, on a few occasions. I don't mean physical. But small minded people talking and sneering in groups, or managers taking credit or lying or blaming staff. Can take months of dropping positive metaphors, analogies, idioms like "I don't care who did it I just want it fixed" etc.. while turning the cheek or forgiving their ignorance/stupidity until they're reprogrammed to have more decency or be nice. Also takes a lot out of you. But worth it in the end. Especially if you join an office where it's coming from the top down and it's miserable and full of blame, then months later people are smiling and working together. I agree with you here, why extrapolate specifically from chickens?. There are many types of abuse; discriminatory, psychological, financial, hierarchical, neglect, sexual, modern slavery, domestic, physical, verbal. Chickens are not complex enough to understand much more than the obvious. Any threat to our needs will be fought off however we instinctively know how or have learned. Sounds strange but many people are unaware they are bullying and if you call out the behavior they will feel bad and amend it. I doubt you could do that with a chicken.

I wonder to what extent this is a manifestation of a lack of growth opportunities in the environment.

In my experience, when a company is growing quickly, customers are abundant, there are more new projects than people to do them, and everybody's stock options go up each year, people tend to be cooperative, energetic, and generally delightful to work with. Once growth slows, promotions & raises stop coming, exciting new projects are scarce resources, and customers don't really care what you do, the office politics gets insufferable. It's like as soon as people run out of worthwhile things to do, they invent oppressive status games to pass the time.

My recollection of middle & high school was similar. When kids are engaged, learning things, able to pursue their interests, and have adequate adult attention, they're cooperative and well-behaved. When they're all corraled into the same track and have to compete for grades & attention, they get nasty.

My experience has been that while companies are relatively small or unknown, people tend to work happily together. As soon as they start to make money, they are targeted by people who primarily just want a slice of the action. Quite a lot of these people tend to be bullies. From that point, the company either dies a horrible death or some kind of balance emerges. You never really get rid of the bullies/gold diggers, though, unfortunately.

Completely agree. It's founded in needs and resources. Also it's not all about the bully. Hierachies exist. There's not much we can do about that, it's nature. No one calls a shark a bully. All we can really do is try and make them less abusive. The 'victim' can also bring a lot of it on themselves by being a 'snowflake'. A victim can quite quickly become a bully when their aloofness pays off and everyone turns on the person that was 'bullying'. I guess when it's really 'bullying' is when it's unnecessary? If someone is being assertive or pushing you to see you evolve, is that bullying? nope. not in my book. But can be percieved that way.

The OP states that this specific line of inquiry was an exercise in lateral thinking for a project on adolescent bullying.

"So, rather than starting off my research with the deep dive into research papers, think pieces, and news articles that’s all too familiar to me from past endeavors, I decided to embrace lateral thinking."

Thanks for your comment! Did you read the article?

Sounds like school to me.

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