On the Pecking Order of Hens

Submitted by Chris Webster on Wed, 2006/08/16 - 05:38
Theodore Zeldin, 'An Intimate History of Humanity'

In 1922, the year in which Mussolini became prime-minister, Sonjedelrup-Ebbe showed how even starving hens always allowed their leader (the 'alpha' hen) to eat first and did not dare interfere until it had finished; how if it was removed, the hens still did not eat, but waited until 'beta' had had its fill, and so on down the line. The pecking order of hens was revealed to be as rigid as in any army, to such an extent that when taken away for a few weeks and then returned to their original flock, each immediately resumed its own rank. The reward was that the flock lived in peace, did not fight over food and produced more eggs. The price was injustice. Those at the bottom of the hierarchy not only got less to eat, but had fewer offspring, suffered from stress, deteriorated physically and in moments of danger - when food ran out, when the population became too dense - were made scapegoats and mercilessly attacked. The same principles were observed in other creatures: the children of dominant rabbits, wolves, rats, tended to become dominant too; baboons had aristocratic dynasties. Nature seemed to be saying that equality was impossible, and that only the strong can hope to be respected.

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