The midwinter doldrums have hit, and my clients and discussion group colleagues are reporting that their hens have feather loss in large patches on their heads, necks, and backs. Many think this could be molting; however, feather pecking/cannibalism is also a possibility. I recently visited a coop in Winfield and determined that cage agression, rather than molting, was the cause of feather loss. I also surveyed the coop and gave the owner some suggestions for improving conditions.
Molting Patterns A molting bird will lose feathers in cycles, and not all at once in one area. You can see this especially in a wing molt: First one feather will be lost, then the one next to it, successively down the wing. Chickens will lose their feathers in order: head, neck, breast, body, wings, and tail. You will notice large amounts of feathers in the coop and run, and new feathers will appeared (covered by the old, as-yet-unshed feathers).
Bloodfeathers Each new feather will have blood supply, covered by a shiny casing. As the feather grows, the bird will strip off this casing. If is very important not to break these new bloodfeathers; if one does break. stanch the bleeding with cornstarch until coagulation occurs. You can read more about molting here.
There are two kinds of pecking problems: self-mutilation and cannibalism.
The first, self-mutilation, is seldom an issue in flocks of backyard hens. This occurs when a bird overpicks or overpreens its feathers out of boredom, anxiety, fear, or loneliness. This is often seen in lone birds, such as caged parrots. A bird who self-mutilates its feathers may also mutilate its own flesh for the same reason. Parrots are flock animals and need attention from others. Self-mutilation is often a problem with these highly intelligent creatures.
The second kind of pecking problem, cannibalism, occurs when one bird pecks another, damaging feathers or skin, and possibly killing the other bird. Cannibalism can be triggered by a number of things. (Note: Baldness on the neck, head, and back can be due to overmating, as these are the places a cock will contact when mounting a hen. Also check nest boxes and coops for low-hanging splintery surfaces, wire, or nails that may cause feather damage.)
- Coop size: Too many birds in a small coop can lead to cage aggression/cannibalism – hens pecking one another to death. Provide 4 square feet per bird in a coop with a run and 10 square feet per bird in an enclosed coop.
- Breed of bird: Large breeds may bully smaller breeds, and chickens with odd features (e.g., peacomb, crest on head, or feather on feet) may be singled out.
- Fear: Threat of predators can trigger picking. The flock will sacrifice weak members for its own safety.
- Boredom: Birds need constant activity. Wild junglefowl, the ancestors of the modern chicken, continually search for food and try to remain safe from predators. If they don’t have something interesting to do, pecking can result.
- Newness of bird: A flock will often attack and kill new arrivals. Introductions can be tricky (or seamless!). Read more on my post Avian Introductions.
- Previous injury: A bird with a scabbed over area, a missing toe, or an odd wing feather may be targeted in that area. Birds are naturally curious and will pick at things that look different.
- Change in environment: Birds are creatures of habit. They like routine and prefer an environment that is not always changing. Sometimes addition of something new can trigger picking.
- Dietary deficiencies: Lack of salt, protein, methionine, and manganese can cause picking. The birds will eat one another’s feathers to supplement their nutrient intake. Always feed a balanced commercial layer ration purchased from a reputable organization. I do not recommend mixing your own feed or providing supplemental salt, methionine, or manganese unless you are certain the issue is dietary AND you have the advice of an avian certified vet.
- General meanness/pecking order nonsense: If the alpha bird is particularly dominant, it can lead to a deadly pecking war. As a last resort, debeaking, separation of the flock, or removal of the aggressive bird may resolve the problem; however, sometimes the other birds have picked up the habit and will continue to harass their flockmates. Sometimes flock composition simply does not work out.
Signs of Cannibalism
If you think you might have a case of cannibalism, you can examine feathers for signs of pecking (rather than molting). A normal feather (left) will look like the one below, smooth edges, nice contour, a bit of a sheen. A picked feather may have a V-shaped divet (middle) , indicating that the end of the feather was torn off. It may also have ragged edges (right) with bits missing on the part furthest from the body (the rounded contour), and a dull luster. A pecked bird will have multiple feathers with these problems.
Solutions for Pecking Problems
If you have a pecking problem in your flock, consider the following
- Get a larger coop or add a run.
- Remove problem birds.
- Remove stressors or potential threats.
- Allow birds out to forage.
- Provide places for birds to hide.
- Put out several feed/water stations.
- Provide fun, healthy foods in creative ways that encourage foraging behaviors (whole apples, baked squash partially opened, celery suspended from ceiling, live crickets).
- Introduce new birds carefully, and watch them for aggression (see my post Avian Introductions - this may help but is not fool proof.)
- Remove bleeding birds immediately.
- Feed a balanced commercial layer ration purchased from a reputable organization. Nutrition can be lost with pellets, so try switching to a mash/crumble.