Feather Picking/Plucking and Cannibalism
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 feather picking/plucking, and very little hope for a cure once it progresses to cannibalism 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 and I believe approaching a solution is basically the same for both. It is worth noting that feather picking/plucking in the vent area is virtually always recognized as a pre-cursor to cannibalism.
Interestingly enough, my alpha rooster, 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 was not painful for Duke, so he was 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 (Leghorns and Mediterranean breeds), 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 mainly 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.
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've begun 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.
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 now fill their run with freshly raked leaves and mowed grass, and I sprinkle black oil sunflower seeds through out it each morning and evening.
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 black oil sunflower seeds, which have 16% protein. I am also withholding the scratch until we feel this situation is under control.
Thanks to The Simple Life (userid) 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.You can read about Flock Block on the Purina Mills website , and find the closest dealer to you.
When the feather picking/plucking initially began, I sprayed Duke's entire rear with blue kote and then sprayed it with Hot Pick to discourage the activity. I eventually started applying pine tar very liberally on his rear. This seemed to help a great deal as the other chickens really did not like pecking that stuff. I also began using Avia Charge 2000 on a daily basis.
So, in a nutshell, based on my experience, this is what I would recommend to anyone else who is experiencing feather picking/plucking or cannibalism among their flock:

  • If you can begin free ranging your chickens all day, do so. I believe this is the key thing you can do to end this behavior.
  • Make sure the coop and the chicken run are large enough to accommodate the size of your flock.
  • Identify whether this activity seems to primarily occur in the chicken coop, or in the chicken run. Whichever it is, fill that area with things to keep the chickens busy while there. Hang cabbage, lettuce, and other vegetables from a heavy string so they can entertain themselves trying to peck at them. Spread raked leaves, mowed grass, etc. all over the floor and sprinkle black oil sunflower seeds all over it. If you can purchase Flock Blocks, place a couple of those in the area. Do what ever you can to provide them with things to keep them entertained and busy pecking anything but each other.
  • Eliminate all snacks that are not high in protein and/or fiber. Do not feed anything high in calories and carbohydrates that are not also high in protein and/or fiber.
  • Try adding a good vitamin/mineral supplement to their water, such as Avia Charge 2000.
  • Be sure to apply Blue Kote to any wounds or exposed skin
  • Apply pine tar liberally to the pecked area(s). Reapply every two or three days as needed.
In many cases, one or two chickens will begin this disturbing behavior, and the others will join in. If you can identify one or two chickens that seem to be instigating this behavior, separate them immediately and keep them separated until the victims have healed. When you reintroduce them to the flock, watch them carefully and if the behavior begins again, you will need to seriously consider culling the offender(s).