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Pin-feather eating and possible solutions

Discussion in 'Chicken Behaviors and Egglaying' started by Nambroth, Oct 10, 2012.

  1. Nambroth

    Nambroth Fud Lady

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    Hello all,

    This has been a problem long in the making.

    Background:
    Last year, I had an accidental rooster (1 roo to my 7 hens). He ended up being aggressively amorous, so to speak, and was harming the backs on my hens. I tried to give him a chance to mature to see what sort of roo he would end up being, and so I purchased saddles/hen protectors for my girls. The saddles were robust against stompy rooster feet, and did protect their skin. Sadly, though, the abrasion from the saddles rubbed all of the feathers off of my hens underneath the saddle.

    Because the feathers were broken off at the skin level, the feather follicles still held the tip of the feather shaft, and would not re-grow until molted out.

    I re-homed the rooster, as he became more vigorous with the hens instead of mellowing out when he matured.

    However, all of my hens-- every one of them-- developed a learned bad behavior from one another. I had one hen that would always pick at the others, and for her trouble she earned a set of pinless peepers. The picking stopped from her, but the others all saw her eating the pinfeathers off of one another's backs. They associated this behavior with getting a small, delicious treat.
    The hens all learned that these feathers contained blood, a good meal for any omnivore like a chicken. My hens have never pulled full feathers from one another to eat-- they only do this with blood-filled pinfeathers (some people call these wax feathers or blood feathers-- same thing).

    So, my girls have not grown back their feathers, because each time they got pinfeathers someone else would eat them!
    Ordinary this wouldn't be a problem. When a chicken molts, the new pins are mixed in with old feathers, and do not stand out against a blaze of bare skin. In fact, when they molt, the new feathers are ignored on all parts of my molting hens, OTHER than the bare backs, because they are hidden amongst the other feathers. Only the pinfeathes on their bare backs, that stand out, are eaten.

    One of my hens had health problems, and I had to keep her indoors for a while. In this time she re-grew all her feathers (as there was no one else around to pick them). She looks great and no one attempts to pick her.
    One hen I had to use a 'broody buster' on for two weeks and she grew her feathers back in, too. She also looks great.

    I would temporarily use peepers on everyone, but some of my hens have combs so big and so forward that they cannot wear them. The peepers physically cannot go on unless I cut into their combs, which I will not do.

    I cannot isolate the pickers from the bald hens-- each bird does it to the others. I'd need 7 separate pens.

    My birds are not overcrowded-- there are 7 hens, their run is over 400 square feet now that I've expanded it, they have a large coop, and experience free range daily. I actually give them enrichment to keep them busy when I am not able to range them, such as a chicken garden and hung cabbages for foraging. They also have correct nutrition. I feed countryside organics feed, plus whatever they get on range. I've even had bloodwork done by an avian vet and they are not nutritionally deficient-- I really think this is just a learned behavior.

    Possible solution:
    I am considering making them very soft saddles out of fleece... enough to hide the bare backs and pinfeathers from the other hens, but soft enough not to cause abrasion or chafing of the new feathers. What do you think?
     
  2. sourland

    sourland Broody Magician Premium Member

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    Well since Pinless Peepers temporarily utilized are not an option and separation is logistically an impossibility, perhaps your 'soft saddles' just might protect them enough to regrow their back feathers. I agree with you that this is probably a learned behavior rather than an indicator of any other problem. Good luck at resolving this situation.
     
  3. Wishapup

    Wishapup Chillin' With My Peeps

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    Nambroth, did you ever get this resolved? I no longer have too many roosters, but months later many of my hens are still bare. There are too many to provide saddles for them all. I did make a small saddle for one bantam, which allowed her to grow her feathers back before it came off eventually. I tried to make one for a Marans hen and her panicked reaction was so bad (she managed to wriggle out of it) that it discouraged me from any further efforts.

    Because it's been snowy and they've been cooped up they keep eating the pinfeathers. I have a pen with just 4 chickens in it (BCM trio & an Ameraucana hen) that is especially bad. The Ameraucana is very tiny but dominant and she has grown all her glossy black feathers back. The BCM sisters have huge bare patches on their backs that she might be picking at. I noticed a bunch of silvery quills on a hen one day but they were gone the next, with droplets of blood. I am wondering if Blue-Kote might be the answer to this. I have tried giving them meat scraps to pick at.

    I have one pure white hen with blue/black melanistic skin as well - I don't think Blue-Kote would work on her bald back.
     
  4. Nambroth

    Nambroth Fud Lady

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    Hello! What I did was cut out soft fleece saddles (we called them capes, jokingly) from some fleece I found marked down in the remnants bin at our local craft store. It cost me $4 to do and took about 2-3 minutes for each saddle... to cut them and put them on the hen. I am fortunate that all of my birds tolerate being handled and I didn't have to try to catch them or fight them to do this. It was also less than 10 birds, so it was no big deal. Once they finished molting, they returned to their normal molt cycle, and I haven't had this problem again in the last 3 years! I also don't tolerate "rooster abuse" and my gentle cochin roosters don't seem to pull or tread any feathers off of the hens.
     
  5. Wishapup

    Wishapup Chillin' With My Peeps

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    I also used soft fleece for the two saddles I tried. For the first hen it worked great. They do look like capes! She wore it for maybe six weeks which was long enough for all her feathers to grow back. Not sure what made the Marans so upset as she's been handled since she was a chick. At only a few months of age, she calmly handled a photography session on the dining room table with everyone peering from all directions. She even laid down at one point and closed her eyes. So her response to the saddle made me worry...I think most of my hens are fine with handling, but the saddle might feel too threatening for the hens who are lower in the pecking order. I think I will try again [​IMG]

    Nice that you have gentle roosters :) Mine are usually pretty good, but it was sheer volume that was the problem! Thanks for the response and I'm glad your hens have long since recovered!
     
  6. Nambroth

    Nambroth Fud Lady

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    Does she walk as if she has a mighty weight on her back when you put the saddle/cape on her? I had one that did that for a day or two but she quickly adapted. I think she thought the rooster was mounting her, maybe. It's hard to say. I kept a close eye on it and she did get used to it with minimal stress. If it's really stressing your hen out for more than a day or two, you might have to get more creative, because I'd hate to see her stressed out in the long term.
     
  7. Wishapup

    Wishapup Chillin' With My Peeps

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    I didn't have much time, but I made rough-cut saddles for the 3 hens with the worst bare backs today. I couldn't stand to see them grow in pinfeathers and lose them one more time.

    My theory is that the ones with the worst backs are pecked more because they are lower in the pecking order--which seems to be true--which explains why they are also harder to handle and more easily frightened by the process of being "fitted."

    The 2 BCMs adjusted immediately after the saddles were on and they were back in their pen. No problems there except for the actual part when I was putting it on.

    The bantam EE bites down and tries to rip hers off. I hope she adjusts.
     
  8. Wishapup

    Wishapup Chillin' With My Peeps

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    It didn't work...they all wiggled out of their saddles a week later. (They got balled up and trampled in the mud. Not suitable for re-wear...)

    It's been months and they still can't grow them back. I think it may be part of the reason why my 12-month-old Marans simply won't lay.
     
  9. Nambroth

    Nambroth Fud Lady

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    It sounds like you may need to make better fitting saddles.
     
  10. Wishapup

    Wishapup Chillin' With My Peeps

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    They were as tight as I could make them without discomfort and reduced wing mobility, I thought. They made a fuss about them anyways so I could have been wrong. But they did seem snug enough. I can't free-range all of them, but I'm currently allowing two of them free reign during the day in hopes it will keep others from eating the pinfeathers. If it works, I'll try another two.
     

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