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Possible solutions to pecking problems in chicks

KarlenKarlen Junior Member
Hi, everyone,

Although we're first-time "chicken people", with our first batch of 26 chicks (now almost 4 weeks old), we did a lot of reading about raising chickens before they came, and continue to read even more. I know that "book learning" is a poor substitute for practical experience, but I'm finding that it's come in very handy. Although our chicks had a long and traumatic shipping trip, they have done very well. I think we owe our success to all of those who shared their experiences and suggestions in their books, and on forums like these.

I guess it's time for us to share what we've learned, in return.

One of the common problems people have with chicks is that they start pecking each other. They may peck at feathers, at toes, at vents. And, once it starts with one chick, the practice often spreads quickly to others in the flock, and can actually result in downright cannibalism. And, apparently, unless this behavior is corrected immediately, pecking can become a permanent part of the flock's behavior and is then incurable. We sure didn't want that.

Various authors offered differing opinions on what causes chicks to begin pecking. Here are some of the most frequently mentioned:

1. Overcrowding
2. Boredom
3. Diet too low in protein (most chick rations need to maximize profits, so they use the minimum amounts of protein and other nutrients).
4. Chicks too warm.
5. Chicks stressed.

We had two chicks that started "aggressive" pecking at about three weeks of age. As soon as we noticed it, we followed the suggestions in the various books. We knew our chicks weren't too warm, but we dropped the temp by 5 degrees anyway. We do not believe the chicks were stressed. So we focused on the other possible causes.

Here are the "expert" suggestions we implemented:

1. We immediately separated each of the "peckers" from the rest of the chicks (and from each other, of course).

2. We moved the rest of the chicks into a larger space (we increased from .5 square feet to 1.5 square feet per chick, AFTER accounting for space lost to feeders, waterers, roosts, etc.) We could see immediately that the chicks seemed to appreciate this. They had grown a lot in three weeks and apparently needed more room to spread out, more "space" from each other, than the .5 square feet suggested for weeks 1-4 in many books.

3. We increased the protein in the chicks' diet, following the suggestions of various books and one great old technical text on poultry feeding. We crushed hard-boiled eggs, shells and all, in a food processor (just one or two medium sized organic, free-range eggs per 26 three-week-old chicks). We also provided small dishes of raw milk for them to drink once per day. And we chopped up some raw, organic liver from a grass-fed steer for them (just a couple of tablespoons for 26 chicks of 3-1/2 weeks of age). Off and on throughout the day, they would get one of these highly nutritious, high-protein "treats".

4. One book suggested adding 1 teaspoon salt to each gallon of water and giving this water for 24 hours, then repeating 3 days later. This book claimed that this was effective in stopping pecking (if caught early) 90% of the time! (We didn't want to use regular refined table salt, as it is missing naturally occurring accompanying trace minerals and is therefore unbalanced, so we used unrefined sea salt, which provides the full range of necessary trace minerals in the proportions present in healthy blood.) This really seemed to make a difference, believe it or not. Chick starter is supplemented with some vitamins and minerals, but anyone who knows anything about nutrition can see that they are cheap forms of these supplements, and very incomplete in their formulations.

5. We started giving the chicks healthy things to do. For example, we provide a piece or two of fresh, organic greens and let them play "keep away" with it. (They race around after each other, trying to get the greens, and have a great time! Really tires them out!) Later, we may offer fresh alfalfa sprouts or clover sprouts or wheat grass. Later, again, we may scatter a little organic cracked wheat or steel-cut oats on their litter, for them to scratch for. We take them out of doors on sunny, breeze-free days, to let them sun themselves and scratch in the dirt and grass (in a pen, of course, and constantly supervised). And, we play with them. (Our chicks are pets, as well as "utility" birds.) Now that they are bigger, I hang a big lettuce leaf just above their heads so they can "jump" for pieces of it. They love that game, too! The point is to give them things to do, so they're not thinking about pecking at their neighbors.

We do notice that some pecking appears to be gentle, almost grooming behavior, as if the "pecker" is helping clear off the little tubes the feathers have around them when they first come in. So, as long as the receiving chick seems content and happy to be "groomed", we don't consider this activity "pecking", in the aggressive sense.

6. By the way, it's also important to IMMEDIATELY clean up any chick that has blood on its feathers or skin, so that there is no sign of red or blood for the other chicks to see. Chicks are irresistably attracted to pecking at red. We used little styptic sticks that stopped the bleeding AND turned the blood color immediately to black.

We're not sure what worked, whether it was one or all of the suggestions we followed. However, our pecking problem is gone. Our little "pecking" chicks are both happily returned to the flock (after only 24 hours in "solitary") and everyone is doing just fine.

I think the most important thing we learned from the "experts" and their books is that this problem must be addressed IMMEDIATELY, and that any delay at all can mean absolute failure in curbing the problem.

I hope our experience might help someone else.

Cheers,
Karlen
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