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Feather Pecking in Poultry and How to Avoid It

Updated Sunday 10th Sept 2022 -  First published Monday 12th May 2014 

Why are My Hens Feather Pecking?

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

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 waterfowl. 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 and have little opportunity to express natural behaviour. Injurious pecking leading to cannibalism 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.

Feather Pecking
Feather Pecking
Feather Pecking
Feather Pecking
Feather Pecking

Feather pecking can happen in any backyard flock.
As soon as you see any signs of it act quickly before it becomes a habit and is hard to stop.

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 (usually the birds showing no signs of pecking) is sometimes the best option 
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 spray works well if used correctly and the foul taste deters further pecking plus it assists with the healing process.
Using a two pronged approach (wound spay and anti-feather pecking spray) in conjunction with our recommendations above is often the best way to have results. 

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

Wound Spray

Using wound spray in conjunction with anti-feather pecking spray works well to disguise any wounds (purple colour) and also assists with the healing process (anti-bacterial)

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Feather pecking is not an issue when hens have ample room to free range

This large flock of heritage hens has ample room to free range so feather pecking is not an issue.

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