Recently we had to deal with the problem of feather pecking among our laying hens. We currently have a mixed flock. We proudly own two Swedish Flower Hens, one Barred Rock, an Americauna and four Leghorns. Historically, our dominant leghorn tends to be a very aggressive bird. She has the habit of going in phases though and it has never gotten as out of hand as it recently did. She severely injured our barred rock by drawing blood by her tail feathers and attempted to repeat the behavior with our other hens.
As a responsible urban farmer I had to ask myself why did this happen and how can I fix it? Furthermore, how can I prevent this behavior from occurring again? Luckily there are a number of known triggers and common responses.
Overcrowding: Hens need adequate space to thrive, especially if they spend substantial time in an enclosed area such as a run. It is recommended that each chicken should be provided with approximately 10 square feet in order to have its needs met.
It is important to remember that there are other ways to provide separation and space for your chickens if you are unable to free-range your flock such as building perches which in turn allows them some solitude when tempers flare.
Inadequate Nutrition: Nutrition is extremely important. Personally speaking I believe that it was the root cause of my issue. With that said; deficiencies of protein, phosphorus and sodium tend to be most common.
Chickens are natural foragers so if you can provide opportunity for them to work for their food this is extremely helpful as well. Consider scattering their feed in a deep bed of shavings.
Blood in the flock: When chickens see blood they go into a pecking frenzy. It is important to remove the injured hen as soon as possible for her own protection. Monitor the flock and remove the ring leader as soon as possible as well.
Luckily for me I was aware of the situation when I came out to administer the chickens morning feeding and I am 100% sure there was no issue the previous evening. In other words, though bloody, it was short lived.
Heat: Overheating can cause your birds to become irritable and feather peck as well. Always make sure that they are provided with the opportunity to access plenty of water and that their surroundings have suitable sources of ventilation.
Different Ages Among the Flock: When you have a flock similar to ours in which there are birds of different ages and breeds you can run into problems also. It is important to make sure that the new birds that you are introducing to your flock are large enough and healthy enough to handle the initial pecking order that will inevitably take place among your flock.
Chickens naturally peck one another. It creates a hierarchy in an effort to establish order in their world. This is not necessarily cause for alarm but when red flags appear that lead you to believe that injury or death may occur it is time to step in and find a remedy for the situation.
Feather pecking can be discouraged with the proper steps. If left to their own devices it has the potential to lead to cannibalism among the flock.
As a third-generation micro-farmer, Tobias Whitaker had strong early influences in regards to responsibly working the land and taking pride in producing his own food. Tobias is currently working on an urban homesteading book and is also exploring ways to increase his yearly yield and lengthen his growing season. You can visit him on Facebook or find him online at the Seed to Harvest blog. For more MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts by Tobias click here.
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