How to Stop Chicken Pecking & Cannibalism
Dealing With Aggression Beyond The Chicken Pecking Order
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Chicken cannibalism is an unfortunate problem many first-time flock owners face. Inexperience, circumstances, and accidents can ignite a ruthless chain of destruction within your flock. Let’s talk about the things you can do to prevent chicken cannibalism, and how to stop chickens from pecking each other to death.
Chicken cannibalism is seldom a problem that occurs spontaneously, but instead, it’s usually a reaction to something else. The experienced poultry keeper will note that cannibalism is a symptom of an underlying issue in the flock, and it’s up to you to play chicken detective.
The number one instigator of chicken cannibalism is limited space. Commercial birds typically require a minimum amount of floor space per bird. These birds should get along with each other, as long as they’re in a homogeneous flock.
Most backyard chicken keepers don’t keep a homogeneous flock, which creates problems if we’re not careful. When mixing chickens of different sizes, breeds, ages and energy levels, we need to provide ample coop space. Be conscious of the fact that birds lower on the pecking order need to have space to evade the more aggressive birds in your flock.
Room To Move
To avoid chicken cannibalism because of crowding, supply ample square footage of floor space when planning your coop. According to Penn State University, adult chickens require a floor space of at least one and a half square feet per bird in a full-time coop. For those of us using an outdoor run, we can make do with reduced floor space if our flock ranges every day. Perch space is equally important. Be prepared to supply six inches of linear perch space per bird to give everyone a place to sit.
When chickens perceive a shortage of food, water or space, they fight for it. The stronger and more aggressive birds win, and the lesser birds suffer. This fighting can lead to bloodshed, and bloodshed leads to chicken cannibalism.
If using a water trough style dispenser, supply at least one inch of trough space per bird. For feeder space, a three linear inch allotment per bird is suggested. If you’ve gone over to nipple watering valves, have one valve per eight to 10 adult chickens.
It should go without saying, but if you’re looking for potential problems, check your water and feed supply. Is the water freezing in the winter? Is someone shirking their duties and not keeping the feeder full? Any situation that causes food or water shortages can incite chicken cannibalism.
Chickens are extremely photosensitive, so light intensity and duration can make or break your flock. For optimum laying, provide a total daylight span of 16 hours; be it artificial, natural, or combined. Exceeding sixteen hours of white light per day will agitate your birds, which will result in fighting and picking, which can lead to chicken cannibalism.
Bright lights are also an issue. If you use a bright white light, such as a 100-watt incandescent bulb (or equivalent), body features become more apparent to other birds. A small wound, glistening skin or colorful feather may go unnoticed in lower wattage lighting, but in bright light, it draws other bird’s attention. Keep light bulbs to a 40-watt incandescent (or equivalent) to avoid these issues. Nightlights should be red if needed.
A common source of chicken cannibalism is “blowouts.” Blowout is an industry term associated with the aftermath of a hen who experienced a prolapse. Prolapsing of the oviduct occurs when a bird passes an egg too large for her body. When a hen prolapses, she exposes her oviduct, which other chickens see.
Chickens are notorious for cannibalizing prolapsed hens. Some high production breeds are prone to the situation, such as commercial Leghorns and Red Sex Links. The condition can be spontaneous, but a common cause of prolapse is a sudden change in your lighting schedule. If you need to change your lighting plan, do so slowly to avoid blowouts.
Sometimes you can’t prevent aggressive behavior. Introducing new birds into your flock, especially younger birds, can be problematic. I suggest adding them to the flock at night when the coop lights are off, so they wake up together, instead of creating an immediate challenge to the pecking order.
Knowing things like when do chickens molt will help you plan for regular chicken life events that could lead to chicken cannibalism. Additionally, if you bathe your chickens for any reason, be sure to let birds dry fully before replacing them into a flock because they will stand out in the crowd and be harassed by pen mates.
Not all breeds are the same when it comes to personality and disposition. I’ve found many red-type breeds and red hybrids to be more aggressive than most, and the commercial Easter Eggers to be excessively timid birds. That’s my personal experience, but temperaments can vary between bloodlines. Mixing a high-strung, aggressive type of bird with an exceptionally timid bird is another recipe for disaster.
Sometimes you may have a particularly aggressive bird in the flock. You’ll have to choose if you want to remove that bird from your flock or not. If you can’t bring yourself to “kick them off the island,” then consider using a blinder.
Poly peepers are a device that clips to their nares (nostrils) and makes it hard for an aggressive bird to see directly in front of them. There are different styles of poly peepers, some require an intrusive anchor mechanism, and some just clip on, so investigate them before ordering. I’m not a fan of them, but if it’s a blinder or the stew pot, I suppose the blinder will do the job.
Roosters are notorious for fighting. It’s in their nature, however, you may need to intervene if they shed too much blood. Unlike a staged cockfight, most roosters will battle it out and stop when they’ve decided amongst themselves who won, and who is the underdog.
You can sand your bird’s spurs to blunt them, and you can trim the hook off their beak (not de-beak, that’s different) with a fingernail trimmer and a file. Doing this may reduce the viciousness of the battle. Additionally, avoid continual fighting by making sure your rooster to hen ratio is about ten to one. Having too many males just will add fuel to the fire.
Chickens can get bored easily. Those of us who let our birds free range, or give them access to a fenced-in yard, seldom have issues with boredom ending in chicken cannibalism. Sometimes we need to keep our birds in for a while, such as during harsh storms, snow or to protect them from a persistent day predator. In cases like this, you may run into boredom issues.
Chicken boredom is easy to resolve. You can try bird toys, especially hanging mirror type bird toys. Food is also a great way to keep chickens busy. I like to hang a head of cabbage from the ceiling of my coop to give my pullets something to peck at during the day. You can screw an eyelet into the base of a head of cabbage and hang it by a string, making it an interactive food toy.
Sometimes your best efforts are laid to waste. Despite keeping a safe, enriched environment, chicken cannibalism may still rear its head occasionally. The solution becomes a matter of training, and I prefer to use a product known as “pick-no-more” by Rooster Booster.
Anti-pick lotion such as the pick-no-more product is a lifesaver, and every chicken keeper should keep it in stock. When you begin to see the effects of aggressive pecking or the beginnings of chicken cannibalism, spread this paste on the affected area of the battered bird.
Releasing the injured bird back into the populous will invite further aggression, but it won’t last long. This lotion is as eye-catching as it is horrifically disgusting to a chicken. Aggressive birds will attack the lotion, realize just how disgusting it is, associate that taste to that bird and they should learn in short order not to pick on that bird.
I’ve been using this type of product for over 20 years. The brand names have changed, but the effect hasn’t. I trust these anti-pick lotions to stop the problem, which is why I recommend them without hesitation.
Chickens are good at getting into trouble, and sometimes they get injured in the process. I’ve seen healthy chickens survive some gruesome flesh injuries. Additionally, roosters who have been duking it out too much may also need medical attention.
I’ve seen birds escape from the jaws of foxes, survive an aggressive encounter with hungry raccoons and manage to injure themselves on fencing or farm equipment. If you have a bird that has endured a flesh wound, address it with an aerosol antibiotic covering.
Being segregated from the flock may throw them into depression, but if you release them to the hoard, the other birds are likely to cannibalize them. I like to suggest caging them inside their home coop, so they still can interact with the flock, but not be exposed to aggressive pecking. I use a small dog crate when I need to isolate a bird like this.
Chicken cannibalism is one of those unfortunate realities of keeping poultry, but it’s a reality we can handle easily. Be sure to avoid situations that can cause aggression in the flock, be wary of changes to your lighting plans and treat injured birds promptly. Training aids and distractions work wonders, but be sure to use these interventions early, before you end up in a vicious circle of chicken cannibalism.