The Origin Of The Chicken Pecking Order And Alpha Animals

Chicken Pecking Order, the origin of dominance and alpha male

The theory of pecking order was born from the observation of domesticated chickens whose top ranking members use pecking to reinforce their superiority during squabbles for food.

The pecking order, however, is not about food but about the social behaviour of the hens who try to establish hierarchy through dominance.

Hens are social animals and form themselves into a hierarchy according to strength to subdue each other by pecking.

The dominant ones peck the less dominant, and it takes that trend down the chain. This resulting hierarchy is known as the pecking order.

The strongest and dominant is also designated the alpha status and is the leader of the brood.

In the early 20th century, Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, a young boy of about 19 was fascinated while observing chickens in the yard during vacation.

He relinquished his attention to studying birds and their behaviours.

He had names for the birds for identification, took good care of them and became obsessively interested in the birds that began to write about the patterns in behaviours of the birds.

When not in town, he would be eager to travel just to catch up with his chicken friends and see how they are faring and for more new patterns in their behaviours.

He however, was able to observe hierarchies which followed the order of pecking. The strongest which also seemed to be the healthiest had upper hand and pecked orders into submission.

Harmony and order in the flock

Schjelderup-Ebbe observed that chickens ranked themselves in understandable ways which emerged from fights over food.

A defeated chicken would forever submit to the winner.

All members know their rank and position, and the highest member at the top of the rank is called a “despot.”

The dominant chickens reminded their stubborn subordinates of their top position by giving them painful pecks.

From this hierarchy of the birds, we get the “pecking order,” term which was coined by Schjelderup-Ebbe.

However, in the following decades, his research on chickens became popular and other researchers based their studies on it.

Researchers developed such areas of research as the intelligence of chickens, the social hierarchies of birds, and social ranks in cattle and other social animals including humans which would later give rise to what is now called alpha animals.

It was obvious that social dominance is a constant feature in the social lives of creatures across the animal kingdom.

Konrad Lorenz, an ethologist cited the work of Schjelderup-Ebbe in his research and the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine went to him with Karl von Frisch and Nikolaas Tinbergenfor, for their studies of patterns of social behaviour.

The pecking order theory

Before the work of Schjelderup-Ebbe, nobody had paid much attention to the social activities of chickens and other animals.

His early efforts to research chickens’ hierarchies didn’t yield any results.

His obsession for chickens grew with age and at 19, he wrote a paper “The Voices of Chickens: A contribution to the Psychology of Chickens.”

He was influenced by the zoologist Kristine Bonnevie as a student, the first woman professor in Norway.

During this time, Schjelderup-Ebbe found that his work on the chicken hierarchy could not pave way for him to the social hierarchy of humans.

In 1925, Schjelderup-Ebbe was in his 30s and had returned to Norway but the academic social hierarchy was not in his favour.

Bonnevie and her allies blocked his unrelented moves to gat a Norwegian Ph.D. and this destroyed him, but he recuperated. According to Dag, “it was most unfair.”

According to his son, Dag, years later, he got an honorary doctorate from the University of Copenhagen, but still he was low in the academic pecking order. In Denmark, he felt downtrodden because he was never liked.

Schjelderup-Ebbe successfully influenced the study of hierarchies of animals notwithstanding his low status in academic science.

His dominance hierarchy is now thought to apply to such varied organisms as insects, primates and fish.

If only he knew how to navigate human hierarchies and in his interaction in the society.

The implication of the pecking order theory

Pecking order reflects the order in which chickens struggle to access food, water and other niceties. It determines who gets the most comfortable nesting and the best areas to source food.

However, in a group of chickens that grew up together from the same mother hen, the order the chicks peck is established very early and there is relative harmony with only minor squabbles from time to time to reiterate who is in charge.

The topmost chicken in the pecking order also has a special role to play by guiding and protecting the entire flock.

They are strong, and healthy and can ward off threats from predators like hawks and strange rustlings from the bushes nearby.

Being at the top of the hierarchy also means it should be an expert at sniffing out food sources such as termites in a fallen log of wood, or a bunch of scraps and crumbs from the kitchen dropped off.

Though the top dog chicken is at the top of the hierarchy, it shows love to its subordinates and let them feed while being vigilant for predators and eats after everyone else has had their fill.


Pecking Order Theory


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A Personal Development Content Creator and an author. I write about life ethics and love to document and share life hacks and experiences of people to help others make good life decisions.

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