Feather Pecking in Poultry and How to Avoid It

Monday, May 12, 2014 

Understand what causes it and the best way to deal with a common but destructive habit.

Feather Pecking in Poultry 

Feather pecking is a behavioural problem that occurs most frequently amongst domestic hens reared for egg production and amongst game birds (pheasant, partridge and quail) and water fowl. Feather pecking occurs when one bird repeatedly pecks at the feathers of another. Two levels of severity are recognised, gentle and severe. Gentle feather pecking is considered to be a natural process of establishing a ‘pecking order’ within the flock and should not cause any harm or too much concern. Examples we have noticed are birds preening each other when dust-bathing or just hanging our socially and pecking at each other’s feathers affectionately – a bit like chicken bonding with the bonus of parasite control! We have even witnessed in some of our breeding pens the odd individual, or sometimes the rooster losing his illustrious hackle feathers – purely due to his roost mate/s excessive ‘’neighbourly’ preening. Gentle feather pecking is a key part of social hierarchical behaviour within a healthy flock. However, if pecking becomes aggressive birds may be seen with bleeding pecking wounds and, in severe cases, cannibalism and death can occur. Feather pecking is considered to be re-directed behaviour. Domestic birds are very often kept in barren environments with limited foraging opportunities and in addition, are usually fed a nutrient-dense diet which can be eaten in a few minutes rather than the hours it would require to acquire during normal foraging. In combination, these cause the birds' foraging activity to be re-directed to the feathers of their flock mates.

Feather pecking is not aggression. During aggressive encounters, hens peck exclusively at the top of the head or the comb, whereas during feather pecking, the areas of the body that are usually targeted are the base of the tail over the preen gland, the back, the tail feathers and the wing feathers. Although feather pecking activity may be related to dominance relationships or the pecking order, formation of the dominance hierarchy is not involved in the causation of feather pecking. Feather pecking is also distinct from another psychopathological behaviour called feather-plucking or feather-picking. In feather-plucking, birds, often housed in isolation, remove feathers from their own body; in feather pecking, however, birds peck at each other's feathers. Sometimes, feathers that are removed are then eaten, in which case the behaviour is termed "feather eating". Feather pecking is known to be a major problem for intensive indoor flocks. The birds are kept at high stocking rates hand have little opportunity to express natural behaviour. Injurious pecking leading to cannibalism and is the major reason for debeaking (removing the lower end of the beak) It is important to distinguish between feather pecking and feather loss. As birds come to the end of their laying cycle they begin to enter a moult phase and will naturally lose their feathers. This alone is not a cause for concern.

What are the Causes of Feather Pecking?

There are several possible factors that contribute towards feather pecking, these include: Nutritional imbalances and mineral deficiencies: Are you feeding out a complete, nutritionally balanced feed that contains essential animal proteins? - Especially methionine, lysine and threonine (amino acids) Animal by-products are high in amino acids – and that includes the flesh from another chicken! Deficiencies in these can cause feather pecking and cannibalism. If deficiencies are suspected, consider using a mineral and vitamin supplement in feed or water to boost micro-nutrients to the birds. Check the salt levels in your feed – an increase from the 0.5% to 0.7% in salt content can help alleviate pecking problems. It may seem obvious but check to make sure all birds have easy access to food and water and that there are no blockages in feeders and drinkers. Make sure all birds within the flock ‘pecking order’ receive sufficient feed daily – in other words they all get a turn to feed. Using automatic or step-on feeders will allow access to feed all day long and reduce the stress created when feed is throw out for a few minutes on the ground. Outbreaks of feather pecking can also occur from stress caused by their immediate environment: their house and pen. Avoid sudden changes in light - strong shafts of light or too large pop-holes as this stresses birds. Light bouncing of glass or reflecting /moving in a hen house agitates birds. Keep birds occupied by using a deep, variable dry, floor litter like wood shavings so they can peck and forage in it and exhibit their natural behaviour. Add a handful of maize or wheat to keep them busy or hang up bunches of silver beet or CDs to for them to peck at. Give them outside perches to jump up and sit out of potential danger. Providing distractions for birds to peck at can help minimize problems. Finally, check there is adequate ventilation in the hen house yet ensure that at the same time the hen house is dry and draught free. Make sure the house and run is not over-crowded – do not overstock.

How do I Avoid Injurious Feather Pecking Occurring in the First Place?

Prevention is always better than cure so consider the following: • Check your birds regularly: Check for overcrowding, thermal stress, check for underlying lice or mite infestations. Remove any individual bird’s that are seen regularly pecked and bullied by others... it is fair to say happy hens do not feather peck. • Ideally, rearing your own pullets from chicks is the best way to go as they are raised under your system of management and get to know your routine from day one. Remember chooks are creatures of routine and habit. Make sure birds have access to free range from as early as possible. Buy birds that have been reared in hen houses and accessing runs via pop-holes as this layout is what they have become accustomed to and should fit nicely with your hen house, pop-hole and run layout. Find out what food the birds are accustomed to and try to contain continuity of feed as this further helps to reduce associated stress on birds. • Ensure all birds are free ranging. Having longer access to free range and ensure all birds go out together helps to reduce the levels of feather pecking. Make the range area is attractive and as interesting as possible, plant cover crops and provide shelters. Ensure the range is safe by discouraging aerial predators and preventing land-predators by using secure netting runs or electrified poultry netting. • Provide enough feed and water and make sure birds have easy access to it. Sometimes having two feed and water stations means everyone gets a good feed and drink when required. • Resent research Nicol et al (2003) revealed that if there is more than 3 changes of feed in a bird’s life the risk of injurious feather pecking is increased. If you have to change feed do so gradually to allow the birds plenty of time to adjust. Always make sure the feed is palatable to the bird. Make sure it is fresh and the birds enjoy it. Finally providing sufficient fibre in the diet can help to minimize pecking – ensure your commercial feed contain the right balance or feed out carrot or meadow hay/straw - this will also be an additional interest for the birds.

So to sum it up – Prevention is Better than Cure When it Comes to Feather Pecking.

An outbreak can be difficult to stop and can have horrific effects on the birds. If an outbreak does occur in your flock act quickly. Isolate and treat the injured birds accordingly. Remove all wounded birds and treat with wound spray and /or anti pecking spray. Do not leave birds in a flock with open wounds. Removing the main pecker is sometimes the best option too or placing a bumper bit on her and other potential peckers to stop her/them causing more damage to other birds. Bumpa bits used in conjunction with anti feather pecking spray help to reduce the damage but the habit can sometimes be ingrained and sometimes dramatic actions may be needed if you have a serious pecker. It is a learned behaviour so can easily be passed on to the rest of the flock. Here at Appletons we stock a great range of products to treat wounds and helps inhibit feather pecking in poultry. We have been using the wound spray and found it fantastic – it is quick and easy to apply and the violet residue hides the redness of the wound. Wound spray is very useful in helping to disguise wounds and damage caused by other birds and can be used in conjunction with anti pecking spray. The anti-feather pecking works a treat too and the foul taste deters further pecking plus it assists with the healing process. Using a two pronged approach is often the best way.
Unfortunately the wound spray and anti-feather pecking spray are no longer imported into NZ.

Essential Items to Have in Your Poultry First Aid Box! 👍

Using wound spray in conjunction with anti feather pecking spray works well to heal the wounds and also discoulour the wounds with a purple hue.

Wound Spray

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These are very effective. Used in conjunction with the Ani-feather pecking spray will reduce any feather pecking immediately.

Bumpa Bits

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Tastes horrid but is effective. Follow instructions and avoid getting any spray or drift on yourself. Wear gloves.

Anti-Feather Pecking Spray

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 Agrivite Mite Rescue remedy is a good all round supplement.Especially if they are low in proteins. Low protein intake is usually a reason why hens start to peck.

Mite Rescue Remedy

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