The purpose of this blog is to share general information and is written to the author's best knowledge. It is not intended to be used in place of veterinary advice. For health concerns, please seek proper veterinary care.
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There are several reasons why chickens eat feathers. Some reasons are mild, and others come straight from a nightmare.
Chickens look innocent, but in fact, they are capable of incredible violence if conditions are less than ideal for the flock.
Have you ever seen a chicken with bald patches where all the feathers have been plucked out? Did you see a chicken injured and bloodied with no predators around?
Well, that’s because chickens do that to each other. Chickens attack and can even kill each other. They also practice cannibalism.
In many cases, chickens only peck each other to enforce the pecking order, which is the hierarchy of dominance. Stronger chickens eat first, weaker ones eat later, or never at all.
In this article, we are going to share with you the reasons for this kind of behavior and advice on how to prevent it, and how to stop it if it’s already happening.
According to professor Phillip Clauer of PennState University, chickens eat fathers for various reasons. All of them are indicators of problems that can escalate quickly.
Chickens tend to get aggressive when they are overcrowded. They will start pecking at each other, demanding space to move and forage for food.
If pecking doesn’t do the trick, they attack and pluck the feathers of weaker chickens. As feathers are made of protein, chickens quickly learn that they are a source of nutrition.
Once a bird starts to practice cannibalism, it will continue to do it. Pecking and plucking the weak birds cause them to bleed, and that gets the stronger birds even more aggressive.
To prevent this from happening, adequate space is required for the chickens to move freely. Ideally, chickens will be roaming outdoors, but if that’s not possible, give them space inside.
Chickens two weeks old require a quarter of an sq. ft. per bird. From three to eight weeks, they need three-quarters of sq. ft. per bird.
Birds between eight and sixteen weeks old require one and a half sq. ft. per bird. And chickens 16 weeks and older need two sq. ft. per bird.
Chickens are prone to heat stress. They don’t mind colder temperatures, even below the freezing point, but they can’t handle high temperatures.
The ideal temperature for adult chickens is from 60 to 75 F. Temperatures above 100 F can be fatal to the birds as their core temperature increases.
Overheating the coop can lead to aggressive behavior. As birds try to get more water to cool themselves, they will compete and peck each other.
To prevent this from happening, carefully control the coop’s temperature. If the ambient temperature is adequate, there is no need to heat the coop.
For brooding, little chickens need a bit higher temperature. For the first week, 90 F is the best temperature for them.
Reduce the temperature gradually every week by 5 degrees until you reach 70 F. Maintain this temperature from this point forward.
One way chickens can get stressed quickly is by the wrong amount of light exposure.
It’s best to avoid white bulbs that are larger than 40 watts. If you do require larger bulbs for heat, then red or infra-red bulbs are the best choices.
When you’re raising chickens that are 12 weeks or older, then use bulbs that are 15 to 25 watts above the watering and feeding areas.
Be sure to limit the amount of light you give to the chickens to no more than 16 hours per day, as any more could cause them to become extremely stressed.
Lack of food or space will force the chickens to fight for food and water. Also, if they’re constantly hungry and thirsty, they will become aggressive and pecking will increase.
The best way to avoid this is to make sure the birds always have free access to food and water.
The pecking order determines which chickens get to eat and when they get to eat, and if there isn’t enough food and water, some chickens might never get any.
Ensure that there is enough feeder and waterer space, and though some chickens will get to eat later than others, they will still be fed and hydrated.
If the diet that you provide your chickens with is full of high fiber or it is made up of low fibers, the chickens will get more aggressive.
If the feed you use is lacking in nutrients, especially Methionine will also increase pecking in the coop.
The best way to avoid this is to ensure that your chickens have a balanced diet appropriate for the age of your chickens.
If you mix chickens that are of different ages, sizes, and colors cause pecking by disrupting the pecking order the flock was used to.
Curiosity is another reason pecking occurs. In the first few weeks, toe picking can start through curiosity, and this can escalate.
To avoid this, don’t mix different types and ages of chickens together in the same pen.
If you have plans of moving young birds into another coop, it’s recommended that you move some of their feeders and waterers with them to help them adapt.
In the case of you getting new, bigger feeders, keep the old, small ones in the coop for a few days to help the chickens get used to the new ones.
Chickens have the instinct to lay eggs in safe, secluded places, where the danger of damage and predators is minimum. Having too much light near the nesting boxes can negate that feeling of safety, and cause the chickens to stress out.
Make sure to keep bright lights away from the nests, as well as ensuring that there is at least one nest per five hens. If this isn’t done, vent pecking can become an issue.
Nesting boxes allow chickens to relax before laying the eggs. Scientific evidence found that chickens that are provided with nesting boxes, and use them, have lower stress hormones in their body after laying the eggs.
Keeping crippled, injured, or dead birds in a flock will make them prime targets for the other chickens, which will increase pecking.
If this does happen, pecking will become rampant, and all the chickens in the flock will become more aggressive.
Be extra careful with slow feathering birds. Most cannibalism happens during the fathers’ growth in younger chickens.
Birds that experience slow feathering have non-fully grown feathers, keeping the chickens exposed, making them easier to damage from pecking.
It’s best to keep the slow feathering birds away from the other birds to ensure their safety.
If you add or remove birds from the flock, this disrupts the pecking order of the flock.
It’s best to introduce new birds to the flock by splitting them with a wire wall. This helps the birds to get to know each other.
You can also add birds to the perch at night to help this.
When introducing new birds to the flock make sure you are constantly supervising it. Be ready to take out the new birds if the pecking is getting out of hand and birds are getting hurt.
It may take approximately one week for the flock to re-establish the pecking order after you remove or add birds from and to the flock.
There is a chance that prolapse will occur in flocks of young chickens. Prolapse is when the uterus of the chicken takes longer than usual to return into place.
Prolapse is most common in flocks that have started laying too early, prior to 20 weeks.
If the uterus is exposed for too long, other chickens may spot it, and then they’ll peck it out of curiosity, which will cause the uterus to bleed.
Once the uterus starts bleeding, the pecking quickly escalates into full-blown cannibalism. One sign that this may be happening is streaks of blood on the eggs.
To avoid this issue, it is best to properly prepare how you bring your chickens into production, as well as maintaining proper feeding practices.
Feather plucking is usually a harmless procedure, in which chickens pull out their own feathers for grooming reasons, but don’t eat them. Feather pecking is when chickens eat feathers off the floor or off the bodies of other flock members.
Sometimes you can see some signs in a chicken and you think “Oh, they are pecking each other.” But there are some reasons why chickens show some symptoms resembling those of pecking.
Chickens shed their old feathers and replace them with new ones once a year. This natural process takes place between summer and autumn. This can cause your chickens to develop temporary bald patches until the new feathers grow. It’s nothing to worry about.
The major signs of annual molting is excessive shedding, and feathers that cover large areas of the floor. And although you can see the bald patches, there is usually no redness and no bruises on the exposed skin.
Some roosters have “too much” energy, and they can cause damage to the chicken while mating. Either because of aggressive mating, or because of repetitive copulation, the chickens might develop bald patches, and bloody bruises.
Younger roosters tend to be more energetic than older ones. They can mate with several chickens within a few minutes of each other. If he holds on to the hen’s neck too tightly, he might pull out some feathers, and cause damage to several chickens.
The chickens will grow back their feathers, eventually, after proper treatment. But this can take some time, especially if the annual molting is still a few months away. To help your chickens grow back their feathers quickly, you have a few options.
- Provide a high-protein nutrition for the chickens after treating their wounds. It’s better to keep them isolated from other chickens until their feathers grow back properly.
- Use feather-growing vitamins and supplements. They can be found in stores and can be supplied online as well.
- Removing the stressful conditions help the chicken grow back their feathers quickly with the help of a protein-rich diet and vitamins.
- Let your chickens use up their energy in a run outside in an enclosed space.
Not only will this keep them busy, and it will also allow them to peck some greens, ground, and insects instead of each other.
- Make sure to give your birds a handful or so of fresh greens every day.
This will increase the fibers in their diet and will keep their gizzards full, as well as keep them content.
- Putting shiny objects into the coop will distract the chickens, and they will peck them instead of other chickens.
Cannibalism can still occur due to multiple reasons, you may not be able to tell which one, though the main reason is stress, no matter how little.
- Do your best to stop any practices that may have started the outbreak.
- Darken the coop with red bulbs, as these have a soothing effect on chickens.
- Move any overly injured chickens out of the coop.
- Applying an anti-peck ointment to any injured birds, they usually stop chickens from pecking each other.
- If possible, slightly lower the temperature of the coop.
Do not take any chances with possible cases of cannibalism in your coop, as it can quickly escalate and start causing serious damage to your chickens.
Have cannibalism control be part of your management plan for your coop. Reduce stress, provide proper nutrition, wide spaces, adequate lighting and heating, and your chickens should live pecking-free lives.