On a visit to Drumlin Farm the other day we couldn't help but comment on the sorry state of their chickens. Many looked distinctly patchy, and a few were tail-less or sporting big bald patches on their backs. Anticipating visitor concern, signs on the cages announced that the "bald chickens" were molting, which is probably at least partly true: at Drumlin they're using lights to even out egg production over the winter, and hens laying year-round have a harder time regrowing feathers after their molt than relaxed, natural-cycle hens like ours. But as I watched one hen chase another around their run, pecking repeatedly at her pink back, I knew that not all those feathers had fallen off on their own.
As it turns out, the "pecking order" is a real thing among chickens. Hens aren't very nice by human standards, and the high-ranking birds spare no opportunity to show their subordinates whose boss. Our alpha hen reminds me of Harvey sometimes. You're taking a dust bath? Move, it's my turn. Oh, now you want a drink of water? Sorry, my bath is over and I'm thirsty now. You know, (and this I address to both the hen and Harvey) being in charge might be more fun if you used your power to enjoy the things you wanted to, rather than constantly responding to the actions of your fellows. Oh well.
Unlike the Drumlin hens, though, ours manage to keep the social structure in place without resorting to real violence. The boss hen needs only to jerk her head half an inch or so in a vague pecking motion to get the message across and make the others scurry out of the way. This means that all four of our girls are plump, unharried, and fully feathered. Beautiful hens, really. Their relative placidity is probably due the fact that they all hatched on the same day and have been raised together their whole life, so no leadership issues have ever really needed to be negotiated.
Actually, that's not entirely true. A couple months ago I accidentally closed the run door on one hen's foot, pretty much amputating the outside talon on her right side. While the wound was open and for a little while longer until the talon fell off she was firmly at the bottom of the totem pole, because she was so much slower than the other hens (and really preferred not to walk at all if she could avoid it). But—with minimal attention from us—she soon made a complete recovery, and now is back on top of the pecking order, not having any problems enforcing her will with a mere seven talons. (And on the upside, the injury means that I can now tell at least one of the hens apart! Remember when they used to have names? Not so much now.)
Someday we'll add to our flock, and we won't make any promises if the relative peace the hens currently enjoy will prevail. Who knows, maybe our own mellow personalities also play a role! We can hope, certainly, because ick nobody likes looking at naked chicken skin!