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Feather pecking and cannibalism

undautriundautri Senior Member
edited November 2016 in Poultry Health and Welfare
Feather pecking and cannibalism is a big concern for commercial farmers, especially the egg industry as it's a really common bad behaviour. You are more likely to come across this problem in ex commercial hens than in hens bred as pets or on smallholdings.
 It used to be thought that feather pecking was due to a deficiency of protein in the hens diet but this has been disproved, after all, the feed used has been scientifically balanced yet the hens continue to exhibit this odd / bad behaviour.
 There is some evidence that feather peckers usually come from feather pecking mothers (cocks rarely do it) so why doesn't the industry just breed this problem out ? ...money of course and the prospect that egg production could be lowered because of it.
Although feather pecking can go on to cause vent pecking and cannibalism it isn't in fact an aggressive act. It is not bullying and has nothing to do with the pecking order, in fact most feather peckers are more timid and less confident than those that they peck. The fact that it's not done with aggression in mind means that often the hen who is getting pecked will just put up with it and only move away if a feather gets pulled out or she gets hurt.

Different types of pecking -

1 Aggression where the hen will lift her head up high and hit down hard usually aiming at the head area. These pecks are usually reserved for determining the pecking order but odd ones may be dished out by higher ranking hens to put lower hens in their place
2 Gentle pecking where the ends of the feathers are merely nibbled and not much damage is done. Chicks can start this at an early age then go on to become vigorous peckers
3 Vigorous pecking is a bit rougher and may look mean but it isn't aggressive. It can lead to cannibalism if left unchecked though, despite the fact that this isn't the original intention of the pecker.
The gentle and vigorous pecking is sometimes aimed at the neck and breast but most commonly at the tail area . There are two reasons for this - the feathers here are easier to pluck out and their proximity to the preen gland means they are usually covered in oil.
It is possible for hens to 'learn' feather pecking from each other. As chicks, commercial hens have no broody to imprint on so dont get taught properly what is good and what is bad to eat. Instead they copy what they see the others doing or explore by pecking at everything around themselves. Getting rewarded with a tasty morsel means they will repeat this action. It's interesting to note that, apart from broodies who pluck feathers from their breast to line the nest, hens do not feather peck themselves in the same way as parrots do.
Some hens may start the habit as chicks but they only account for a small number of feather peckers. A few adults learn it by copying others in their group but the most common cause for feather pecking is because hens in commercial settings have been deprived of the abilty to perform a behaviour that comes naturally to chickens. It's connected to eating behaviour. When a hen is hungry her brain gets a message not to eat but to go searching for food, so they go around scratching at the floor and pecking at things to find food.
Have you ever noticed how sometimes a hen will scratch around underneath a food hopper to find food even though the hopper if full for them ....or Georgies favourite trick - you put a pot of treats on the floor and along she would come and upset the lot because she insisted on scratching the floor before she ate.
This is a behaviour that comes naturally to chickens and cannot be bred out in the same way as broodiness has been in commercial hens. Denying the hen the ability to forage forces them to do an alternative action out of frustration  such as feather pecking. A similar thing can be seen in wild animals in a zoo - they pace back and forth as a substiution to hunting as well as frustration.
Its not just caged hens who are affected but barn and organic chickens as well, in fact it may be a more widespread problem in free ranging commercial hens as the peckers have many more victims to choose from, a hen pecked by several feather peckers in succession will get injured quicker which means the act of cannibalism is more rapidly spread. Although they have more room than a caged bird barn birds are just as limited in where and how they can forage - they still don't get much floor space.
Unfortunately, allowing commercial flocks time outside free ranging usually doesnt solve the problem as with so many hens together in one place there are very few rewards to be found by foraging in over worked ground.
The use of purple, nasty tasting spray on a victim may deter pecking for a while but thats just helping the victim and not the pecker.
 Here's some things you may like to try to solve this problem or to prevent it from starting -
1  Provide plenty of foraging material . Make hens work for their food - hang things up to peck at- not just cabbages but bird treats and millet sprays for example. Dont' just give food in the same place all in one container - move things around a bit so they have to go looking for it, also switch to mash rather than layers pellets as the pellets fill them up quicker
2  Make sure hens always have access to an area where the ground is soft enough to scratch around in.
3 Provide perches with adequate space - the recommended per hen is 15 cm at least - make sure that your perches aren't positioned in a way that a hen can peck at others from aove or below when perching and bear in mind that if a hen accidently deficates on another from above then the dirty area will attract more attention
4 Reduce light intensity especially make sure that the nesting area is dark enough so that a hen in the middle of laying an egg isn't accidently exposing her reddened vent to her flock mates, thus inviting exploratory pecks. If lights are used in your coop try using red ones if possible as they make red areas and wounds look black rather than red.
5 Even though overcrowding doesn't force hens to feather peck it does make matters worse so don't overcrowd. 
6 A  LAST resort, and only to be used if all else fails is to use an abrasive material on the inside of feeders to make sure beaks never have a chance to get too pointy so plucking out feathers and actually breaking skin is less easy to do. This works on the same theory as the method commercial farmers use but is a lot less barbaric and not half as painful as burning off a part of what is the most sensitive part of a chicken 

Hope this helps

Just one small titbit of fascinating info - as well as seeing what we see, chickens can see in ultra violet which means they see a lot more colours than us, so a plain white chicken to us could be a multicoloured patterened chicken to other chickens. Groovy man
xx Kath




  • solarbatssolarbats Senior Member
    It all sounds like fascinating stuff Kath.  I assume this is all part of your course material?

    I would definitely agree about the 'learned behaviour', having had a cockatiel who was a plucking addict. Any other 'tiels who were added to the flock (usually random rescue cases) started to copy him after a short period of time.

    I would also add another cause which I have noticed in the past year, and that is that hens will peck the vent feathers of other hens who have mites around their vent. I have one particular pure breed who is a 'mite magnet' and the others soon let me know if the mites are back.  They don't peck her if she's mite free.

    Keep those facts coming!
  • undautriundautri Senior Member
    Thanks Helen
     Marie is having this problem at the moment so i thought id write it out fully to help any other rescuers that come across it ....the more you know about the cause the easier it is to understand from the viewpoint of the pecker.
     i wonder how many rescues have been mistaken for bullies and returned or moved on or even culled because of it.
    xx kath

  • doormousedoormouse Senior Member
    edited November 2016
    Thanks so much Kath...That is so interesting that feather pecking is not a bullying act - I always wondered about my Galinda as she is so sweet otherwise and from what you say - almost an insecure act? Yes, Yorkie just seems to get bored...and also seen Elphaba learning feather pecking from Galinda - she does it too...half heartedly - she's even timider than Galinda!

    I will keep an eye on her - while studying your post - also interesting to note that Galinda is an organic rescue. I can't see that their space or environment is an issue - 25 x 12 ft run with loads of logs and 'hanging things' - don't want to switch from pellets to mash though as the chicken food is attracting rats so take it up at night (and wait for my cat Poppy to deliver the rats to the side of the bed!!):-O

    Will revisit it over the weekend...meanwhile - I want those groovy chicken eyeballs!~:> M
  • solarbatssolarbats Senior Member
    I suspect it could be arranged - for the right money 8-X
  • undautriundautri Senior Member
    edited November 2016
    hi Marie
    youd think that free rangers would be less prone to feather pecking than caged birds but in fact the opposite applies for two reasons -
    1 free ranging hens dont have their lighting controlled so its harder to prevent or stop the habit by reducing  light intensity or colour
    2 although they are outside , free rangers have more space to forage but the land will soon become overworked by the number of chickens there, so faraging wont bring rewards which will further frustrate the chickens and lead to feather pecking.

    things are slightly different in organic farming as they dont use any pesticides or chemicals to treat the land so unless the birds are moved around regularly they would soon be over burdened with worms and pathogens . Organic poultry farmers can use movable sheds so that the chickens are put onto fresh pasture but the sheer cost and work needed means that they are usually only partly moved - so some fresh ground and some stale , which reduces their risks to pathogens and parasites but does little to stop feather pecking.
    movable sheds are usually placed straight onto the ground and so are easy for rodents to get under so this brings more probldems for the farmer and stress and possible illness to the hens.
    trouble is , once developed it can be very tricky to stop the habit and a rescue whos feather pecked all her life is going to be almost impossible to break
     heres some things that commercial farmers use to relieve feather pecking ..... a scratch mat in cages that gets food thrown onto it daily (- trouble is its usually so small that only 1 or 2 birds get any help from it before the food disappears and theres none left for the rest to find.)

    some farmers put bales of bedding or straw for hens to jump onto and over and also have a good peck at and scratch through
     some tie up bundles of string which hens seem to like pecking at
    broiler farmers string up vegetables and greens and throw food into the litter

    feeding mash rather than pellets makes a big difference apparently and if you could put it in a spill proof bowl it could be picked up every night ?????????????????

    my lot love millet sprays that can easily be put around the pen / coop in different places ...i poke some into holes in the wood or lace them into the wire and the hens seem to enjoy spending time pecking at the tiny seeds ....im now thinking its more to do with satisfying their foraging needs than the taste ...trouble is, its what the squirrels were coming into the run to get last year so no doubt would be tasty for rats too.
     maybe you could try something like the scratch mat that can be moved around and taken up every night to keep the rats off it -it looks a bit like those polypropolene door mats you can buy that are murder to vaccuum because of the ridges in them
    basically the message i got from the course was that because chickens NEED to forage and scratch around then we must make them work for their food not just give it to them on a plate
    and can i borrow poppy please to teach my willow how to kill rats
     xx kath

  • doormousedoormouse Senior Member
    edited November 2016
    That's fab Kath thanks...when it ever stops raining I'll enhance the run (not that I'm a fair-weather chicken keeper but they stay in the inner covered run dust bathing when it's raining so no point pushing myself! :-? )  Poppy's paying a virtual visit...we've had her 3 years on Remembrance Sunday...she spent 2 years before that in a rescue home and is still half feral...if it moves, she has it...including our hands! >:) M
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