Feather pecking and cannibalism is a real thing in chickens. In a final blow in a really bad week after losing Bubba, we had to cull Ruby.
This post is going to show you what to look for in your flock so you can break the habit before it gets out of control and ends up with the loss of a bird.
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With the new fence going up to meet city ordinance requirements for the chickens and the bees, there’s been a lot happening here. The neighbors with the kids who mess around in my side yard are now complaining their trailer doesn’t fit up in their sloping driveway anymore. To be honest I’ve caught my arm on it whilst weeding along the planted borders against their driveway on my property because it overhung so much.
Our other neighbor is disappointed he can’t see our garden anymore but ManBear promised to bring him and his little dog over on the nice summer days to sit in the sun and enjoy the wildlife and the plants.
Then of course is the chickens.
The problem with our chickens
The Cluckers are real peckers and had been picking on and pecking at Ruby the little Australorp (the black hen in the background). They had created a deep wound on her that was bleeding and I had tried to make a chicken diaper to cover the wound below her vent and cleaned up the injury so the others would stop pecking at her.
Unfortunately, the kindest thing was to cull her given her injuries. She never laid, she was being picked on by all of the other birds and we don’t have the room to provide a second coop for her.
I’m not going into the details of dispatch, ManBear did it whilst I was at work.
Learn from our mistakes
We noticed some pecking problems, loss of feathers and bald spots and just made some chicken saddles to stop the hens from getting to the skin. The saddles came off one of the hens who was getting pecked (Count Cluckula, the Jersey Giant) and she’s now getting some unwanted attention.
I added chicken enrichment items to the run like logs, pebbles, stones and rocks, compost, chunks of grassy turf from the garden redesign, sandy soil and leaves. I need to change things out and move items around to provide interest since I don’t want to lose another bird.
I sprayed her wounds with antibacterial spray which colors the area purple-blue to try and deter pecking and ordered anti-peck spray to use on the hens.
What causes cannibalism in backyard chickens?
There are a number of reasons why chickens start feather pecking which escalates to cannibalism in a backyard flock. In my case, I’m sure it is due to boredom.
The winter has been tough and our chickens must be in a run of a certain square footage to meet the city ordinance to keep chickens.
My chickens got cabin fever.
Even though I put scratch grains in the coop, made fermented grains, hung up fruit and veggies they were still bored or couldn’t escape each other and have personal time on their own to put their feet up or enjoy a snack without squabbling.
I suspect it was started by Ginger, she gets very jealous if other chickens are picked up by me and pecks at them when they return.
All of the Cluckers want to get out in the yard and scratch through the ground and are constantly trying to escape. I hope that by next weekend, I can get them into a better run.
Some other causes for cannibalism in backyard chickens include:
Chickens need personal space. They need room for every bird to access food and water. They also need plenty of roosting or perch space to.
- Nesting Space
Inadequate nesting boxes can lead to cannibalism. Provide plenty of nesting spaces which are dark to provide your girls with a safe laying space. After laying, the exposed cloaca may be pecked at by the other birds which can start cannibalism during laying. Avoid bright lights in the nesting area and coop.
High temperatures can cause birds to become uncomfortable. Kind of like when people get hot and cranky in summer. Hot chickens can start pecking at each other. Provide cool water, ventilation and shading as necessary.
Chickens are attracted to the color red and are very attracted to blood. Injured birds can become victims from their flock mates. Make sure there are no wires poking about or sharp edges which can puncture the skin.
- Improper Food and Nutrition
Chickens need a well balanced diet and cannibalism may be caused by low protein, sodium and potassium. Diets high in sugars or carbohydrates such as corn with little fiber can cause the birds to be aggressive. Check labels on the feed to see what is in the food.
Bedding or litter which encourages chickens to scratch and peck the ground means the chickens will be busy scratching that pecking at each other. Grass clippings, leafy greens, straw, hay, leaves etc all encourage natural foraging behavior. Grasses can help keep the bird’s gizzard full meaning they are less likely to peck at each other too.
- Different Ages, Sizes and Feather Color
A flock like mine with different breeds, colors and sizes can lead to cannibalism if they have not all been reared together. Birds which are rather fancy looking with beautiful feather crests can lead to curiosity pecking from the non-fancy birds. Avoid adding young birds or small birds to established flocks. Breeds which are slow t feather should not be raised with faster feathering birds. Tender young feathers are easily damaged and show plenty of flesh which is open for pecking.
- Too Much Light
Extremely bright or excessive lighting during winter can cause chickens to become aggressive towards each other. If the run gets a lot of light consider shading and no supplemental light during winter.
New environments or travel can stress the birds. Ensure you have things in place before moving your flock such as food, water, nesting boxes etc.
- Pets and Pests
Pets and pests can worry the chickens too. Dogs, cats, raccoons, skunks, mice, birds of prey and rats can all stress out your flock. A stressed flock can lead to problems with cannibalism in backyard chickens.
How to stop cannibalism in backyard chicken flocks
Prevention is better than the cure and encouraging natural chicken behaviour can go a long in preventing the problem from arising. However, should it occur, the behaviour needs to be stopped before the whole flock picks up the problem.
Some tactics to help stop cannibalism include:
- Separate the birds doing the feather pecking
If you have the space to do so, move the pecking offenders, especially if the pecking is directed at the injuries or vents of other birds.
- Remove victims of cannibalism and care for them
If you have the space to do so, separate the injured birds to treat their injuries. It may be necessary, euthanize them humanely.
- Dim the lighting
- Add chicken enrichment devices and activities to the run
Enrichment devices include forage-related items and bedding, long grasses, leafy veggies hanging up on rope or string, old CDs attached to string, tree stumps, branches. Be sure to move the devices to keep the interest in the chicken enrichment and not in pecking each other.
- Allow free-ranging time if you can
- Add additional feed and water space
- Add perches to the housing environment
- Add more nest boxes (for laying flocks)
- Use an antibacterial spray which masks the color of blood to treat injuries
- Use anti-pecking spray
- Attach goggles
Also known as chicken eye glasses or blinds. They attach to the beaks of aggressive birds with a special tool. These are most often used for game birds like pheasants.
- Provide feed in a crumble form
- Provide sprouts or sprouted grains and flock blocks to peck
- Add greens
Add vegetables which are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber like chard, kale and cabbage to the run. Provide plenty of grit so the birds can break it down.
- Provide dust baths to help the birds clean themselves
- Consider adding curtains to nest boxes for privacy and to protect a hen from pecking during laying
What do you do to prevent feather pecking, picking and cannibalism in your backyard flock?
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