What I am learning about feather picking and cannibalism

Discussion in 'Emergencies / Diseases / Injuries and Cures' started by basicliving, Oct 20, 2008.

  1. basicliving

    basicliving Keepin' the sunny side up

    Mar 20, 2008
    Shenandoah Valley, VA
    I started a thread last week about my hens picking out and breaking off my alpha rooster's (Duke) tail feathers - making his quills bleed. They were relentless in this effort - and Duke did not seem to feel any pain, so he didn't stop it. I've spent the past several days researching this issue and although Duke did not act any differently than usual, I certainly learned it was something I needed to stop.

    Many people told me that my hens must be lacking protein in their diet - so I upped that with fresh scrambled eggs, yogurt, cat food and anything else I could think of. Some recommended debeaking, and while I absolutely abhor the idea of that, it is something I decided to consider as a last resort measure.

    As I continued to find research on this subject on the internet - and most of it was submitted by universities and/or through study results - I began to read several factors that I felt applied to my situation that could contribute to the reason this began in my flock.

    I am going to document what I'm learning and how I'm dealing with it here - so that perhaps others going through it can learn from it, or perhaps even prevent feather picking and/or cannibalism in their flock. Let me state that I am no expert and I am only just beginning to put all this together and plan a method that I am very hopeful will end this issue in my flock. All of this is based solely on my flock and what I am learning. Unfortunately, I did not keep track of all the documentation and websites I found that reference what I'm learning, but a simple google search on "feather picking" and/or "cannibalism" will yield many, many pages on this subject if you prefer to research it yourself.

    I should state that most of the studies and documentation I found focused on this issue of feather picking/cannibalism within commercial chicken operations. None the less, I found that many of the contributing factors they mentioned seemed to apply to my flock.

    I've learned that feather picking and eating is typically a pre-cursor to cannibalism. I first noticed this happening in my flock a couple of weeks ago. Oddly enough, the only chicken this effected was my alpha rooster. It began with hens "grooming" Duke. They would clean up any left over food from his beak, and pick out little fluffy baby feathers as he began to molt. He would lay down and several hens would gather around him. They hens have always adored Duke and followed him around and fight to lay next to him. So they began preening him. I never thought much of it. Several of the studies I read said that feather picking usually starts when one chicken begins to molt and others begin picking out the old feathers. I believe this is where the issue with my flock started.

    Before I knew it, the hens seemed to become obsessed with picking out/breaking off new feathers from Duke. They began to focus on his vent area as he was standing. The vent area is apparently a very popular area for this behavior - and it seems that when they are picking at the vent area, this is a huge warning that it may escalate into cannibalism. I don't know why - I just know that much of what I read stated this.

    I also read a couple of studies that indicated tail picking/cannibalism seems to be more prevalent in some leghorns and in Mediterranean breeds - of which I have both. I have 23 chickens and the breeds I have are Silver Leghorns (6 hens), Phoenix (1 rooster, 4 hens), Golden Penciled Hamburgs (7 hens), White Faced Black Spanish (4 hens), and 1 Silver Gray Dorking (rooster - Duke).

    It seems that once the tail picking/cannibalism is started by one or more chickens, it is then a learned behavior that others pick up. I noticed only 3 or 4 hens doing this to start, and it quickly escalated into almost all of them doing it.

    The one factor that seemed most prevalent within my flock in all that I read was boredom. While we provide about 4 square feet per bird in the chicken yard, their yard has been decimated of anything living. There is no longer any grass and they are down to bare dirt. I provided them an abundance of fall leaves and sprinkled scratch through out the run over the leaves, and they busied themselves with that for hours - during which time I did not notice one chicken pecking at Duke's tail feathers. This really verified for me that the biggest issue was likely boredom. Also, in the evenings, I've been turning them outside in the yard to free range for a couple of hours - and have noticed there is no tail picking during that time. Again, it really verified for me that the chief issue is likely boredom.

    While I have always been very afraid of letting my chickens free range, due to the many predators in this area, I have decided that I would prefer to lose one or two to predators than have them peck each other to death due to boredom.

    I have also ordered some Hot Pick and Avia Charge 2000, both of which are purported to help stop pecking and picking. I should receive the order this week and will begin using them immediately.

    So, right now, I am letting my chickens free range. When I receive the Hot Pick and Avia Charge 2000, I will begin using that as well. I am only two days into this, and so far the free ranging seems to be working. There has been no feather picking.

    I'll continue to update this thread to document the results. I am really praying I can stop this feather picking - something that virtually everything I've read says is very difficult to accomplish, once it's begun.

    Certainly flock management differs from person to person. I am *hopeful* that what I am doing will work for me. I have no idea if it will work for others. Just thought I'd try to document this whole ordeal as I live through it

    Wish me luck!

    ETA: Link to original thread
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2008
    1 person likes this.
  2. FisherMOM

    FisherMOM Songster

    May 7, 2008
    Bergen, NY
    Great read Penny... thanks for the info.
    You did a lot of work and it is awesome that you shared what you found.

    My flock has their run down to the bare bones too.
    I recently started letting them free range for a couple of hours or more each day, and they really look forward to it and do not wander far at all. They aren't hurting each other yet, so I hope that I am on top of this and they never do.

    Good luck and hopefully this cures your flock!
  3. basicliving

    basicliving Keepin' the sunny side up

    Mar 20, 2008
    Shenandoah Valley, VA
    Thanks, FisherMOM. I am pretty convinced right now that boredom is likely the main issue with my flock. I've read hanging things around the run (like lettuce, bird seed, etc) will also help relieve boredom.

    I'm really glad you aren't having issues. Just keep an eye out. I wish I had caught this MUCH sooner than I did!

    Take care,
  4. I saw your earlier post and appreciate this one. I also have seen in my own flock since the first frost an increase in pecking and am working to eliminate that before it gets out of hand. In my case, the birds are doing this first thing in the morning before I let them out of the coop for the day to free range.
    They have more than 4sq ft per bird but I built a second coop this weekend to separate them. It looks bad...but what else to do with an unwanted set of bunkbeds and old wooden doors?
    I've been hiding things in there at night like cabbages to distract them in the morning.
    The aggressors seem to be the younger birds on the older.
    I'm going to try to increase the protien over the next few weeks to see if it helps.
    Mine have not yet gotten to the level of cannibalism so I hope to stop the behavior now and really appreciate your posts as a heads up to what could happen.
    Thank you for the time you are taking to document and research. I know that losses are always demoralizing and frustrating no matter what the cause.
  5. Jenski

    Jenski Songster

    Jun 17, 2008
    Middle Tennessee
    Good job researching, basicliving, and thanks for sharing your insights.

    My suburban hens live in a covered run during the day when I am at work, but I let them range my larger fenced backyard every day, weather permitting. This gives them a welcome chance to run and flap, to scratch new and interesting things, chase bugs and generally get into mischief. Like us, they thrive with some degree of freedom!

    When my girls are in their run, I see that they always have something to do: cabbage, pumpkins and other squash, hay or straw, melon quarters, chopped greens and other goodies are always available. I also have perches of various heights in the run, for exercise and to provide interesting activities ~ and also to give the girls places to get away from each other. Two nice "spa holes" also provide something to do, and one also has a modified stool over the top to give some privacy and provide cover in case any squabbling ensues.

    As you have found, chickens are active, precocious little creatures who are naturally ranging (broilers may be excepted on the "active" part). Like us, they are much happier with an occupation of some sort.

    Thanks again for sharing! Please keep us posted on how things work out.
  6. jmc

    jmc Songster

    Jul 22, 2008
    South Central MA
    Penny, thank you; and keep us posted. Wanna hear how the Hot Pick works; I've been thinking of getting some.............

    huge success to you!!
  7. basicliving

    basicliving Keepin' the sunny side up

    Mar 20, 2008
    Shenandoah Valley, VA
    Leah, thanks for the kind words. I think it's good you've recognized the potential for a problem and are looking to solve it now. Best of luck to you. Let me know if hiding things int the coop for them to stay busy with in the AM works for you. While mine do not seem to pick/peck in the coop, it would be good to know if busying them there would help. They are only inside while sleeping and I am good at letting them out at daybreak - but when we leave for the weekend, the gal that lets them out doesn't come that early, so if you think hiding food for them in the coop helps occupy them in the AM, I may tell her to do that when we travel.

    Jenski, and Chickenmonk - thank you for the words of encouragement. I have routinely let mine out for a couple of hours in the evening to free range, but that was apparently not enough. They always have treats and toys in the run, but again, that was apparently not enough. Now I am letting them out at the crack of dawn and letting them stay out all day. I work from home, so that makes it easier for me to keep an eye on them. I'm nervous about it - but like I said, I'd rather lose a few that are out enjoying freedom than watch them peck each other to death from boredom. It's still nerve racking - but I'll learn to deal with it.

    I never dreamed I would have an issue like this. My flock has always been so good. They don't fight much at all, and I always have one, two, or three on my shoulders and/or heads when I go into the run. Even while feather plucking it doesn't appear to be done out of malice at all. Chickens are certainly fascinating creatures. I have enjoyed them immensely. I just hope we can get past this.

    As an update - I let them out at 7AM, just as it was cracking daylight here. I've been going out and checking on them every 15 or 20 minutes. Duke has his usual harem following him around, and he's alerting them to nice insect treats he finds. I did see one of the Silver Leghorns peck at his tail one time - but she only did it once and then starting pecking the ground. I'll keep my eye on them through out the day and report back what I find.

  8. basicliving

    basicliving Keepin' the sunny side up

    Mar 20, 2008
    Shenandoah Valley, VA
    Well, I just tucked them in after a full day of free ranging. I did a head count and was missing two. Traipsed through the woods and found a hamburg and leghorn roosting in trees. Shooed them to the coop and all is well.

    Around noon Duke went to his usual "napping" spot inside the run, beside the coop. His usual little harem of hens went with him. I work from home and can see them from my office, so I am aware of their habits. They all layed down and about 10 minutes later I went in to check on them. Duke had a bloody quill. My presence got them stirring and they all headed back out to free range. I checked on them every so often through out the day and didn't notice any more bleeding on Duke. I suspect it is mostly habit for them to pick at his feathers at this point. The rest of the day was uneventful.

    I am going to continue free ranging them and adding grass and leaves to the chicken run with scratch sprinkled on it to hopefully entertain them when they go in there. I am determined to break this cycle.

    Wish me luck!

  9. nerfy

    nerfy Songster

    Aug 4, 2008
    Western Illinois
    Thanks so much for taking the time to post this great info.
    I am in the process of introducing my younger hens (4 months) to the older ones (8 months) that rule the roost.
    They free range all the time with a few squabbles when the older ones get a bug up their tail feathers.
    Still paranoid about leaving all of them in 1 coop since I cannot be there to supervise. Hopefully, when the time comes, I won't have issues. If I do, I know I can resort back to this post for help.
    Thanks! [​IMG]
  10. I would just like to add something that may be helpful to you.
    When the weather gets especially bad and the chickens cannot get out, whether its rain or being snowed in, there are these blocks that satisify the urge to peck and to help alleviate boredom while also supplying them with protein and nutrients.
    I bought some for each coop and they are made by Purina and the 25lb block cost $12.99 at my local feed store.
    I would use them if you notice them getting bored at anytime.
    I will post the info below and you can also go to the purina website to find a store near you that carries them, although your store should be able to special order them for you as well.

    Edited to add that these are also a good idea to add to the coop or run when you are integrating some new or younger chickens to an existing flock, it can be used as a diversion.

    Flock Block SunFresh[​IMG] Recipe

    What it is...

    Whole Grain Enrichment Supplement

    For free-ranging poultry and game birds
    Encourages natural pecking instincts to help reduce cannibalism
    Contains oyster shell and grit
    Available in a 25# block
    Guaranteed Analysis
    Protein, not less than 8.0%
    Lysine, not less than 0.30%
    Methionine, not less than 0.25%
    Crude Fat, not less than 2.5%
    Crude Fiber, not more than 4.0%
    Calcium (Ca), not less than 2.3%
    Calcium (Ca), not more than 2.7%
    Phosphorus (P), not less than 0.65%
    Salt (Nacl), not less than 0.70%
    Salt (Nacl), not more than 1.2%
    Sodium (Na), not less than .35%

    Cracked Corn, Whole Wheat, Whole Milo, Whole Barley, Whole Sunflower Seed, Molasses, Oyster Shell, Calcium Lignin Sulfonate, Dicalcium Phosphate, Granite Grit, Salt, Propionic Acit (A Preservative), Choline Chloride, DL-Methionine, L-Lysine, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Thiamine, Biotin, Vitamin A Acetate, Nicotinic Acid, Riboflavin, DL-Alpha Tocopheryl Acetate, Cholecalciferol, Menadione Dimethylpyrimidinol Bisulfite (source of Vitamin K), Folic Acid, Cyanocobalamin, Manganous Oxide, Zinc Oxide, Copper Sulfate, Calcium Iodate, Sodium Selenite.
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2008

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