Feather Picking/Plucking and Cannibalism

Trust me when I tell you that I can think of about a hundred things I’d rather write about than the subject of feather picking/plucking and/or cannibalism in chickens. But I’m afraid this is what we’re going through right now and, in keeping with my promise to share all the ups and downs of our journey into homestead, this is what I’m going to write about today.

Although not everyone experiences feather picking/plucking and/or cannibalism among their flock, it is not really a rare occurrence. When I noticed it within our flock, I immediately began researching the subject to learn all I could about the cause of this disturbing activity and, hopefully, find a cure. What I learned is that there are many, many factors that could possibly contribute to it, and very little hope for a cure once it begins within a flock.

I found several studies, most of which were compiled by universities, and most of which dealt with commercial chicken operations. None the less, I was able to identify a few factors that seemed to apply to my flock and particular situation. If you are interested in researching this for yourself, a simple search engine query on the subject will yield several pages of information.

First of all, we were experiencing only feather picking/plucking within our flock. Although there was no cannibalism, it is extremely common that this type of activity eventually leads to cannibalism. It’s difficult to address one without considering the other.

Interestingly enough, Duke was the only chicken that was the target of this activity. In hindsight, I believe I can pinpoint where this all began. As the alpha rooster, the hens adore Duke. They follow him around and fight to lay next to him when he decides to rest a little. I first noticed that the hens had taken to grooming Duke. They would clean any food from his beak, preen him, and pick out old feathers as he began to molt. This is not unusual activity, so I didn’t think much of it. Before long, however, they began picking out feathers in earnest. Soon they focused on his vent area and began breaking off the new feathers, causing the quills to bleed. It also grew from a few hens engaging in this activity to almost all the hens joining in. I should note that it is not painful for Duke, so he is not inclined to put an end to it.

What I’ve learned is that feather picking/plucking typically begins as chickens go into molt. Picking out the old feathers can escalate into this disturbing activity. While some breeds are prone to feather picking/plucking (and naturally, I have a few of them), it can become a learned behavior for the other chickens as they watch it happening with regularity. I’ve also learned that this behavior is typically a precursor to cannibalism. Needless to say, it should be taken very seriously.

While this behavior does not seem to be completely understood, there are a number of things that have been identified as possible contributing factors. As I said, you can query in a search engine to read all of these factors. I’m am only going to address those that I feel pertain to my particular situation.

The most commonly mentioned contributing factor I read about was boredom. Chickens experience almost everything through their beaks. Even those who have only casually viewed chickens will realize that their pecking never ceases. They peck at anything and everything.

While we provide plenty of space for our chickens, their chicken run has been decimated of anything living. There is not a blade of grass anywhere in it. They have always had toys in their coop, and I routinely sprinkle scratch and treats around the run, but that is not enough to keep them entertained the entire day.

If you’ve followed this blog at all, you know that I have resisted allowing my chickens to free range any more than a couple of hours a day in the evening, when I can be outside to supervise them. I have always been terrified a predator will get them, and I have always been extremely protective of them. After observing their behavior for the past week, I’ve determined that boredom absolutely contributes to the feather picking/plucking. As a result, I have decided to allow them to free range from first thing in the morning until they go to bed at night. And while I am still very nervous about it, I would rather lose chickens to a predator than watch them peck each other to death.

We are only on the third day of allowing them to free range, but we are already seeing positive results. So far, there has only been one incident of feather picking/plucking and it occurred the first day they were free ranging. Although they have the opportunity to go anywhere they please, they are still somewhat attached to their run and routinely return there. The first day, Duke returned to the run to take his usual afternoon nap with a group of hens. As they were laying there, one of the hamburgs pecked at his tail feathers, causing one to break off and bleed. At this point, I believe this activity has simply become a bad habit for some of the hens.

While in the coop, they are sleeping, and while free ranging they seem too busy to think about the feather picking/plucking. As a result, this activity seems to only occur in their run. We have filled their run with leaves and freshly mowed grass, and I’ve sprinkled sunflower oil seeds through out it. There has been no feather picking/plucking since.

There are some who feel feather picking/plucking is a result of the lack of protein in the flock’s diet. I routinely feed my flock snacks that are high in protein, but I also give them some snacks that are high in calories, low in fiber, and not very high in protein. I have eliminated all snacks except sunflower oil seeds, which have 16% protein. I am also withholding the scratch until we feel this situation is under control.

I purchased a couple of Flock Blocks, which are blocks of compressed grains formulated for chickens. It is made by Purina Mills and the literature claims it helps encourage healthy pecking and thereby discourages feather picking/plucking and cannibalism.

I’ve also ordered some Hot Pick to spray on Duke’s tail feathers to discourage others from pecking at him, and some Avian Guard 2000, which is supposed to contain minerals and vitamins that chickens ingest and curb their desire to peck and pick on other chickens.

At this point, we cautiously optimistic that we have gotten this unpleasant issue under control. While I am pleased with that, the best course of action is to prevent this type of thing from happening in the first place. I am certain that if I had known more on this subject, I could have prevented it. There may be many contributing factors, but the largest is most likely my flock management techniques. In my defense, I was unaware of the causes of feather picking/plucking. Hopefully, by posting this, those of you with chickens may learn what to watch for and how to address it before it becomes an issue within your flock.

So, in a nutshell, the steps we are taking to end this feather picking/plucking are increasing the protein in the flock’s diet, insuring the chicken run is filled with items to keep them busy while in there, and allowing the flock to free range during daylight hours. As I said, we are cautiously optimistic that these steps are working.

If you are interested in a day to day update, I have started a thread on BackYardChickens. I have been updating it daily and will continue to do so until we feel confident the situation is under control. There have been helpful comments on the thread as well, so if you are currently experiencing this horrible activity within your flock, or would like to learn more about how to prevent it, you may find the BackYardChickens thread useful.

If you have experienced feather picking/plucking and/or cannibalism within your flock, I would be very interested in hearing about how you addressed the issue. Please post a comment, or drop me an email.

Ending this on a lighter note, I looked out the window the other day and saw Bernie standing by his truck, with Duke at his feet staring up at him. As I walked up to them, I heard Bernie saying “Yes, I know it’s a nice truck. And I know you like it. But you can not get up on it. Do you hear me? You can not get up on this truck. Now, go over there and tell all those hens that no one is allowed up on this truck. OK?” I can’t be certain, but I am fairly sure I heard a snort erupting from the hens.

Bee Free,
Penny

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4 Responses to “Feather Picking/Plucking and Cannibalism”

  1. Interesting post. I have a small flock of hens but have never experienced feather plucking. Then again I don’t have a rooster so maybe that helps. Mine are free range during the winter but but back in the spring/summer because they destroy my garden, roses, and spread the compost pile all over the farm!!!

    After reading your post I think I will rig something up so they can free range without getting into trouble.

    Good luck! Kim

  2. basicliving says:

    Hi Kim. I honestly believe boredom is the chief cause of these types of issues. For the most part, free ranging has brought in under control within my flock, but it has flared up a few times since I initially posted this. Each time has been during a cold/snowy stretch when the chickens won’t leave the coop/run area. I know not everyone can free range – and even those of us who can get tired of dealing with the destruction those little buggers can cause to gardens and yards! But I do believe free ranging is one of the healthiest things we can do for our chickens and I know it has helped with controlling the feather picking within my flock. And we will be using chicken wire to fence off gardens and flowers this year for sure!

    Take care,
    Penny

  3. Christie says:

    I had a very similar experience with my flock. I tried EVERYTHING. I ended up free ranging my hens all day long. They were laying eggs in the bushes, pooping all over the porch and sidewalk but still I had plucking! At that point I realized it was a habit now. The crazy thing is I only once ever ever saw it happen. And I spend a lot of time with my birds. There was one hen who had perfect feathers. I caught her just plucking mouthfulls of feathers out of others bottoms while they were sun bathing. I couldn’t believe they just laid there and allowed it.
    I ended up giving away than hen. There were a few hens with bare spots here and there. They finally all went through their 1 year molt and amazingly everyone is beautiful and fully feathered and there is peace again. I honestly thought that the feathers were just never gonna grow back. Apparently going through molt gives all the feathers a booster and they grow back fast and beautiful.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I am experiencing this right now. I think the main problem is lack of area to run around in. Now I am thinking about letting them into my garden in the winter. We will see what happens. For now I have one hen healing in a dog crate. Thanks for the advice. I will use it!

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