By Cynthia Smith – It’s happened to all of us who raise poultry: chickens pecking each other and feather picking. One day you look at the chicks in the brooder or the hens in the coop and notice that one or more of them are sporting wounds or bald spots, courtesy of their pen mates. This is especially common in the crested varieties and in Araucanas, where they always go for those precious tufts, and, if that pedicle is damaged, the tuft is gone forever.
Do you know how to stop chickens from pecking each other?
Here are some of my thoughts on how I like to handle this issue as a breeder, and what factors can lead to cannibalism and chickens pecking each other.
A Bullying Temperament
You can see it in the brooder — one chick that just pick-pick-picks at all the others. Usually, I will immediately cull such a chick. I found that I did this a lot in my early years of breeding and now I rarely need to — I think because some of that behavior is genetic and I have removed it from my gene pool. If I really need to keep a certain bully chick because it looks like one of the best I’ve bred, I’ll try moving it to a brooder with older chicks, so it gets a little taste of bullying itself. Same thing if I have an adult bird that is a bully. I’ll sell it, cull it or try to move it to another pen with tougher inmates.
In crested birds like Polish and Silkies, crest picking also happens in a non-bullying situation where it is part of sexual grooming. The female who loves her mate shows this devotion by plucking him bald. The boy just sits next to her on the roost, gazing at her with adoration, and lets her pluck him bloody. (Numerous similar situations in human relationships occur to me, but I digress.) I will tape these boys immediately. Using the blue painter’s tape from the hardware store, gather the crest up in one handful and tape it into an up-do. Usually this works. Sometimes the girl is relentless, starting in below the tape until there are no feathers left to tape to. These females will never stop. They must be housed separately from males or sold to a pet household where there are no males.
Put too many chicks or adults in too small an area and chickens pecking each other is bound to occur. (Think of your last Thanksgiving dinner where all the family came over. Whoops, I’m digressing again.) You have two choices here. Build more pens — a lot more pens. This is a solution that appeals to me and I envy those of you who can pursue it. My husband says the place already looks like we should be on one of those shows about hoarders and has put a moratorium on my building. Second choice: downsize so that you can give more space to fewer birds. It seems that all of us start wanting two of these and three of those and eventually your chicken math will overwhelm your space, time and, probably, money. If you have money to build more barns and hire staff, more power to you. For those of us who haven’t made a killing in the stock market, our choices may look more like this: On my day off, shall I cook a nutritious meal, walk for two miles and do the laundry, or shall I clean the barn, knowing that the latter involves wearing my last pair of clean socks and feeding the family at the Golden Arches?
I’m down to two varieties of Polish and two of Araucanas. I’d like to talk myself into going lower. One of the most crucial things you can give a bird to help it develop to its full potential is space, which is every bit as important as feed and water. Space helps our birds develop in a way that crowded, stressed birds cannot. If you are breeding chickens, make it your goal to cull vigorously and raise only the best, giving them the lion’s share of food, water, space, and attention. I am often tempted to grow out a “cute,” weird-colored chick in the brooder, but I try to restrain myself. I have to cull only a few Polish chicks because of defects in crest coloration, but my Araucanas are something else. I estimate that I have to hatch 50 to 80 Araucana chicks to get one I can show, so I give away a lot of chicks to pet homes just wanting blue egg layers. The extra Polish chicks are much harder to place. Because of their limited vision, they are a poor choice for most pet/layer homes. This is something every poultry breeder faces eventually, as there just aren’t enough homes with your friends or in your area for all those extra males. If you’re going to breed, you’ll need to learn to cull. That’s just a fact. The point is that making space for the top quality birds you are going to keep by eliminating (one way or the other) the extras will make a huge difference in a number of chickens pecking each other and other condition problems that you will see if you persist in overcrowding your birds. If this whole paragraph on culling makes you shudder, it’s probably best for you not to breed chickens. Stick to buying females that are already sexed and, again, don’t get too many for the space you have available.
Chickens are meant to get up at the crack of dawn and spend the day foraging for their food. If they eat their fill quickly and have nothing else to peck at, is it any surprise that they go for their neighbor? Add roosts, throw in a head of cabbage or lettuce to peck at, consider getting the flock blocks that make them work a bit for their food, put them in tractors or let them free range on grass if there is a safe area. As soon as I see any chickens pecking each other in my chick brooders, I start scattering grass for them to peck at. It makes a big difference. Adding roosts can help too. It makes their space 3-D.
Once a chicken — chick or adult — starts pecking at its neighbor, it quickly becomes an established behavior. Pin feathers with a splash of blood taste yummy and our tiny T-rexes are still cannibals at heart. For crested birds, I like to tape up males with a soft masking or paper tape when they’re in with the girls. For crested chicks, as soon as I see pecking start, on go the little dunce caps. I like to use a stronger more adhesive tape with them, as I won’t be taking them off. They’ll fall off when the chick fuzz molts off. I use a medical tape but duct tape will work too. Wrap it around the crest above the eyes and stick it together in a little triangle. You can use a similar area for non-crested chicks to cover anywhere fuzz is disappearing or you saw a wound from chickens pecking each other.
Look for the aggressor to cull or move. If you can’t find it, wrap all the crested chicks in the brooder. This will make pecking them unrewarding and hopefully stop the behavior from becoming habitual. If there isn’t enough feather or fuzz for the tape to stick to because the chick is completely scalped, make up a thick paste of flour and water. Use it to stick a cotton ball on the pecked area. You will have to hold it there until the paste dries. It takes a while but stays really well, especially if you haven’t messed it up by putting a bunch of goo like Neosporin on it first.
See if your chicks are too hot or have too much light. Red lights instead of white will dramatically decrease picking. Often, the only red lamps you can find are the 250-watt bulbs from the feed store. These may be too hot for your brooder. I buy the red Exo-Terra reptile 50-100- or 150-watt bulbs on Amazon.
It always amazes me how well chicks raised under one of my Silkie or Araucana broodies do. They almost never pick at each other, feather out faster, and have a much lower illness and death rate. I think this is attributable at least partially to the fact that they have a nice long sleep under mom during the night hours where they neither eat nor drink. Even under the red lamps, the chicks in the brooder munch all night and don’t give their intestines a rest like chicks under a hen do. It’s much worse under a white light. Mom also serves as a jungle gym; watch them jump all over her. When they’re under her for heat, it’s dark, so they won’t pick at each other like they will if they can see each other. True, chicks that are hen-raised are not as tame, but there is a real benefit to raising them this way if you have willing hens and a secure area for them to raise their kids.
Beyond crowding and too much light or heat, consider trying a higher protein food and adding grass and a roost or other enrichment to their environments. I have had my best success with tape, but others use no-pick sprays, or trim an offender’s beak really close, or try the no-pick devices sold for pheasants. I can’t really speak regarding these, but they might be worth a try.
We’re all imperfect. We’re all busy. Sometimes, it just gets away from us and chicken injuries happen. I once moved an Araucana casually into the Polish pen, as I’ve done many times when I’m trying to break up a broody or keep a show bird in condition. By morning, one of my Polish girls was dying, her crest ripped away down to her scalp and she was crouching in a corner in shock and pain. I moved the offender out and went to euthanize the victim, but she showed more spirit than I expected, eating food when I put her in a temporary cage. I coated the exposed scalp and bloody remains of skin with a thin coat of honey (it wasn’t fly season and honey has been used since the Middle Ages for its antibacterial properties), then with tape, ruthlessly pulled the remaining skin together by taping the crest tightly. I gave her antibiotics and time. When the tape came off in a few weeks, she had a bald spot in the center and the skin over her crest was tight but she had skin covering her skull. Darned if that bird didn’t win Ch AOCCL twice after that and one judge complimented her tight dense crest.
A friend called me to look at her layer pen because almost every girl was bald along her back and tail area. In a breeding pen, I’d have suspected damage from mating, but these were all females. We covered their backs with a blanket of duct tape — covering the exposed areas (it came off naturally with the next molt) and made soup out of the one girl who was fully feathered, suspecting that she was the aggressor. Last time I visited, all the girls were in beautiful feather again.
Be especially careful about introducing new birds to your flock; these can be badly picked, or even killed, as a new chicken pecking order is being established. New birds should be caged in the flock area for at least a week to allow birds to get used to each other, and then they should be watched very closely when allowed out. You may have to intervene and move a bird that isn’t integrating well. Preventing picking from ever starting is always easier that stopping it.
Have you dealt with chickens pecking each other? Let us know in the comments
Originally published in Backyard Poultry August/September 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.