How to Prevent Feather Picking in Chickens

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Chickens in field.
Chickens in field. (Image: Dmytro Sobko/iStock/Getty Images)

Feather picking not only creates an ugly chicken, but feather picking behavior can cause injuries, which can cause chickens to escalate to cannibalism fairly quickly. Sometimes an inherited behavior, certain bloodlines are more prone to feather plucking than others. Chicken breeders can breed to reduce aggressiveness in offspring. Typically the cause of stress or environmental factors, solving your chicken's picking behavior requires you to do a little troubleshooting and determine the root cause first.

Things You'll Need

  • Chickens
  • Chicken coop or enclosure
  • Perches
  • Food bowls
  • Water dispensers
  • Grass or straw
  • Low-intensity lightbulbs

Provide Adequate Housing

Build a coop large enough to accommodate all birds. Overcrowding causes chickens to compete for nesting space, food and water. When raising chicks, ensure you provide each chick 1/4 square foot of space in your coop for chicks between birth and 2 weeks of age. From 3 to 8 weeks, provide 1/2 square foot per chick. At 8 weeks until 16 weeks of age, provide 1 square foot of space per bird. Finally, for birds aged 16 weeks and older, provide a minimum of 1.5 square feet per bird.

Provide an adequate number of food and water dispensers. Competition for food and water creates more aggressive birds, who peck at the weaker birds to keep them away from food and water stations. Ensure you have adequate space for all birds to eat or drink comfortably at one time.

Install perches in your coop. They allow docile birds to escape the more aggressive chickens on the floor.

Keep Your Chickens Cool

Ventilate your coop. Overheated chickens become uncomfortable and aggressive. Ensure your coop or chicken enclosure provides adequate ventilation, and ensure there is plenty of cool water for your birds to drink.

Regulate your temperatures. Brood chicks at 95 degrees for the first week of their lives, then decrease the temperature 5 degrees per week until your brooding temperature matches the outside temperature, or reaches 70 degrees.

Install low-wattage, red or infrared light bulbs in your coop. Choose your lighting carefully and never use white bulbs of more than 40 watts. Maintain lighting intensity at 0.5 to 1-foot candles -- the amount of light produced by one candle at one foot away.

Set a curfew for your chickens. Don't allow your chickens more than 16 hours of light per day, and follow those hours with eight hours of darkness. Young chicks, from up to 18 weeks of age, should only receive 10 to 12 hours of light. Once they move into your coop, increase light exposure in 15-minute increments until they receive 16 hours of light per day.

Provide Complete Nutrition

Feed a well-balanced diet appropriate for the type and age of your chickens. Feather picking and cannibalism have been linked to dietary deficiencies such as lack of protein, sodium or phosphorous. Of particular importance is the amino acid methionine. The lack of methionine can be caused by low-protein diets and can promote feather plucking. Dietary needs will change as your chick develops into an adult bird.

Check your birds' salt intake. Oil from the preen gland, normally used for feather grooming, has a salty taste. Sodium-deprived birds may begin pecking at the preen gland in an attempt to fulfill this deficiency. Feeding a balanced diet that includes the proper amount of salt helps to discourage this behavior. Providing perches off the floor also helps to discourage preen gland pecking.

Cover your enclosure's floor with straw or grass and hide their food in the flooring material. Chickens naturally spend a good portion of their day scratching, hunting and pecking for food. If a bird isn't allowed to express her natural behaviors she may engage in feather picking. Greens from grass provide fiber that help fill the bird's crop, which in turn makes for a satisfied bird who is less likely to begin feather picking.

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