How to Stop Chickens From Pecking Each Other’s Feathers Out … and Other Chicken Behavior Problems
Preventing Behavioral Problems such as Aggressive Chickens and Feather Pecking
Reading Time: 7 minutes
Chickens in the wild have complex interactions with their surroundings and each other, leading to an active and varied experience of the world. Through domestication, they have adapted really well to human-made environments. However, some artificial systems test their ability to cope, and this can result in behavior problems. Aggression and feather pecking can become serious issues affecting health as well as welfare. We need to know how to stop chickens from pecking each other’s feathers out, how to avoid bullying, and how to make sure that all chickens can access what they need.
Most issues occur where there are high stocking densities and little opportunity to express natural chicken behavior. So, comfortable, interesting surroundings that provide for chickens’ behavioral needs are key. Moreover, we need to watch out for any behavior problems developing and take action as soon as possible to prevent long-term stress. As chickens learn from each other, the problem could spread throughout the flock if left unresolved.
Avoiding Aggressive Chicken Pecking
Chickens establish a hierarchy to prevent aggression, with subtle warnings and submissive gestures and only occasional pecks or chasing. However, if the flock is disrupted by unrecognized birds, aggressive pecking will resume until a new ranking is settled. Aggressive pecks are sharp downward attacks to the head of the rival. Roosters give an elaborate display of strength to encourage submission before physical contact is necessary. However, dangerous fighting results if unfamiliar mature roosters are put together.
Social problems can occur if chickens are unable to form a normal hierarchy. This may result from raised flock size or stocking density. Chickens can remember up to about 80 other chickens’ identities. So, in larger flocks, they frequently come across individuals they do not recognize and fighting may break out.
In confined spaces, lower ranking individuals may suffer both bullying and loss of access to food, water, roosts, nesting boxes, etc., and may end up losing condition. Overstocking can increase frustration and competition—the pecks may fly—with the alpha hens ruling access to resources. If necessary, reduce stock or enlarge runs and introduce more roosts, hiding places, feeders, and environmental enrichment.
A study* identified broiler roosters who injured or killed their mates during mating. These males did not perform the ritual mating dance, due to a genetic fault where courtship behavior had been inadvertently bred out. More commonly, young subordinate males may attempt a sneaky mating while the dominant rooster is not looking and neglect the courtship ritual. The hen usually objects and calls to the alpha male to rescue her. I took on a new young male who was subordinate in his previous flock. Initially, he pounced on my hens with no courtship routine. Fortunately, he settled down, started to court, and won the females over.
Aggression Towards Humans
Finally, you may find aggressive chicken behavior with humans from roosters who have lost their fear of people and view them as competitors. This sometimes occurs with hand-raised cockerels as they mature. A helpful approach is to hold your ground, wave your arms, but otherwise make it clear you are not after his girls.
How to Stop Chickens Pecking Feathers and Cannibalism
Chickens sometimes do not stop pecking the feathers of their companions, mainly around the body, tail, and wings. This is not an aggressive act, but normally due to boredom and lack of foraging opportunities. Avoid chickens pecking each other by providing plenty of fresh dirt, litter, and frequently rotated pasture. Adding scratch grains will keep chickens motivated to forage.
If there is nothing to scratch or the pen is too densely populated, feather pecking can become a habit that spreads throughout the flock, because chickens copy each other. Chickens may start pecking each other’s feathers gently, but non-stop, damaging the feather structure. This may progress to vigorous pulling and removing feathers.
Too long light periods can cause hyperactivity and an enhanced desire to forage, which can lead to feather pecking if unfulfilled. Take care that artificial light is on no longer than 16 hours. In brooders, use red or dark heat lamps so that chicks can get enough sleep.
How Chicken Cannibalism Develops
Feather pecking not only hurts, but denudes skin and can damage flesh. Red skin and blood naturally draw attention. Instinct urges them to peck at red marks, as chickens find the taste of blood rewarding. Soon many chickens may be pecking at wounds on one bird. This leads to cannibalism—not as a predatory or aggressive act, but as a response to the lure of blood. The result for the victim is catastrophic and often fatal.
A similar effect can occur in the nesting box where the vent of a laying hen is exposed to companions. Curious hens are attracted by the red, shiny vent, and may peck it, causing bleeding. Again, the pecked hen risks being cannibalized. We can avoid exposure of laying hens’ vents by making nesting boxes private and dark, setting them apart from communal areas, adding curtains, or raising them above head height, and ensuring that they are large enough.
Watch Out for Abnormal and Repetitive Chicken Behavior
Chronically frustrated chickens can develop abnormal behavior that is rigid, repetitive, and serves no function. A distorted habit develops from useful actions that are thwarted. Here are some examples:
- Chickens in a restrictive cage or coop may pace back and forth.
- Hens with no opportunity to build a nest or nest privately may do likewise, attempting nest-seeking behavior.
- Chickens with no dust bath may imitate dust-bathing on the floor of their cage.
- Hens with no access to nesting materials may peck at their drinker, move away, then peck the drinker again, repeatedly.
- Feed-restricted birds often peck continuously at a single spot.
These repetitive behaviors indicate that welfare is severely compromised.
Issues with Litter Eating and Excessive Drinking
Litter eating restricts intake of nutritious food and can block the gut. Artificially-raised chicks may copy one another eating bedding material. You may need to show them what is good to eat, much as a mother hen would. Litter eating can also be a sign of having ingested moldy feed. Feed-restricted broiler breeders may eat litter or drink excessively due to hunger. Wet bedding can then lead to further health issues.
Why do Chickens Eat Their Eggs?
Egg eating normally starts by accident, by an egg breaking and a hen finding a tasty treat inside. Then, she might start breaking them intentionally, and other hens will quickly copy her. You need to halt this behavior quickly before it spreads throughout the flock. Blown-out eggs refilled with strong mustard and put back in the nest, golf balls, and artificial eggs can teach them that breaking eggs is no longer worthwhile. Prevention is the best solution, by keeping boxes topped up with straw, removing laid eggs frequently, and ensuring that hens have enough protein and minerals in their diet.
Avoiding Laying Problems
Chickens need a secluded, undisturbed nest to lay efficiently. Competition for a laying box or human disturbance can cause laying to be delayed and eggs to be laid on the floor. Floor eggs become dirty or broken, while delayed laying can give rise to shell abnormalities. Avoid these issues by providing sufficient secluded boxes to give your hens the choice of nesting site.
Providing space, choice, and enrichment that keeps your chickens occupied will help stave off stress and frustration that lead to behavior problems. For more information, join me on the University of Edinburgh’s free online course on Coursera.org (see Sources below).
- The University of Edinburgh and Scotland’s Rural College. 2015. Chicken Behaviour and Welfare MOOC.
- Jensen, P. ed. 2017. The Ethology of Domestic Animals: An Introductory Text. CABI.
- *Millman, S.T., Duncan, I.J. and Widowski, T.M. 2000. Male broiler breeder fowl display high levels of aggression toward females. Poultry Science, 79(9), 1233–1241.
Originally published in the Backyard Poultry Special Subscriber 2020 issue — Comb to Tail Health — and regularly vetted for accuracy.