Social Feather Picking

It’s an epidemic. Every day I field email queries about it. People are resorting to pinning peepers on their birds, protecting them with aprons, isolating the culprits, and busting their food budgets by buying bags of leaf greens. But, nothing stops it. Few flocks have escaped this scourge of the winter doldrums. The hens are feather picking.

I’ve written about Feather Pecking before. If your hens have feather loss, read this FAQ. When hens lose their feathers due to one of their flock mates plucking them out, I call that feather picking. I’ve written about that here. What I’m going to write about today is when this behavior becomes the social norm.

Sometimes feather loss is due to a nutritional deficiency. The birds need roughage and calcium. Provide grit and oyster shell. There have been studies in industrial flocks that link aggression with lack of protein. If you’re overdoing the corn and bread treats, and your hens are filling up on kale and cabbage, this might be the case, but for most backyard flocks added protein doesn’t resolve the pecking. I’ve tried adding meat-based cat food and shelled sunflower seeds. The pecking continues.

Sometimes feather loss is due to one aggressive hen attacking another The feather pecking occurs along with other dramatic gestures, like pinning down the hapless lower status bird, and sometimes drawing blood. When this happens, isolating the aggressor can take care of the behavior.

But, sometimes feather picking is a learned social behavior. It starts in the fall when the hens molt. Loose feathers are a tease for hens, they like the flutter and movement. They pluck one out, eat it and like it. It doesn’t hurt the hen that has just been plucked. Preening and dust bathing are social behaviors, and this sort of feather picking fits right in with their hard-wired sociability. In the winter, when the ground is too hard to dust bathe, and there’s not a comfy warm and sunny place to do it in, the hens look for other ways to interact. Some hens seem to like to be the picked at hen, others like to do the pecking. Here you see Jasper offering her neck to Etheldred.

social picking


About a quarter of my hens have naked strips on their necks due to this sort of feather picking. Owly is practically bare, while Veronica’s throat is patchy.



None of them object to the behavior.

Some hens seem to truly enjoy having others pull at their feathers. Jasper has always, since her days as a chick, let the others pull out her tail feathers. I honestly don’t know why.

Jasper tail


So, what to do? Often, with animals, you have to look not at your ideal (in this case the fluffy, fully-feathered flock) but what is healthy and normal for the birds. Jasper is not getting harmed. I see no blood or wounds. They are all eating, drinking, and busily going about their days. No one is hiding in a corner. I don’t see stressed hens, in fact, everyone is laying. Yesterday, each of the six Ladies laid eggs, as did six of the ten Gems.  I’m observant. If it escalates, I’l know. If a hen is harmed, I’ll know. But, I doubt it. It’s a bad habit that doesn’t seem to bother anyone but me.

I’ve made peace with the feather picking. I don’t think it will ever fully stop, bad habits rarely do. But, I’m ever hopeful that when the snow finally melts away and the hens have dirt to scratch and wallow it, bugs to find, and sunshine to bask in, that the feather picking will subside to a subtle quirk of just a few hens.



If you want to learn more about chicken keeping, and to see this feather picking in person, there are still a few spots in my workshop on April 5! Sign up here.


  1. Thanks a million for writing on this topic today, Terry, as it’s the #1 topic on my mind these days. In my flock of 8 hens, only ONE does not show bare spots…on the neck, at the base of the tail, on the chest. It’s been driving me to distraction. Unfortunately, much to my utter dismay, on Sat. i did discover that my barred rock has been bloodied on the upper thigh, under the wing, so it was fairly out of sight! I was/am so upset with myself for not noticing it earlier.:(
    We brought the injured hen inside. Gave her a good epsom salt soak, cleaned the wound with iodine, blow dried her and she’s now residing in a wire dog crate in the breezeway until she’s completely healed. She’s not overjoyed with this situation but the alternative is pretty grim for poor little Aunt Betty.

    The hens have a great coop and run. They each have over 8 sq feet inside and another 8 sq feet per hen in the run, lots of south facing windows in the coop, plenty of layer, grit, oyster shell to choose from. I clean the coop daily and rake and clean the run each weekend. WHY is this happening?!! I give them cabbages, squash and other green stuff to peck at and yet,…my beautiful flock looks like they have been picked and plucked. My only consolation is that they continue to lay beautifully. I’ve been gathering between 6-8 eggs daily for the last month or so.
    What would i do without HenCam to help!!??

  2. I think that my main purpose in life is to calm everyone’s worries :)
    If you can, put the injured hen in a crate outside within view of everyone else. Otherwise, you’ll have major pecking order issues when you go to reintegrate her.

  3. Good thinking! It’s still pretty cold at night, should i bring her back inside once it’s dark?

    • Depends on where you are and what the crate is like. If she’s bedded nicely and it doesn’t get in the single digits, she should be fine outside.

  4. Would you do anything differently for the injury? It’s a pretty good sized hole…about the size of a quarter.
    Good thinking! It’s still pretty cold at night, should i bring her back inside once it’s dark?

    • Hens heal quickly, If it’s deep, worry about infection when it heals over. So, make sure it is clean and douse with antibiotic ointment. But, otherwise, no. And get her back with the flock as soon as possible.

  5. Terry, I too have the same thing going on. Last yr. one of my Silver duck wing bantam hen allowed the front of her throat to be plucked in a perfect little strip. Then all molted normally. Upon new regrowth, the narrow strip again, same girl and none of the others. The main one guilty is a self blue. I too observe very closely my dear ladies. I have caught a pick or so every once and a while but obviously she got plucked until the same exact pattern was appearing. Not one of the others have been picked on and not one more area on her~~~Yard drama…so thankful all is well otherwise.

    • I’ve noticed that it’s often the best layers who like being pecked! When it’s mutual you can’t do much about it.

  6. Thanks so much! The flock may be hens but I’m beginning to believe I’m the “mother hen”! LOL
    I will follow your advise to the letter.

    • After I read Eileen’s posts, I wondered about two things: 1. Is it possible that the one hen who isn’t showing any bare spots can be the culprit, or is there more than one hen doing the pecking? 2. Is your coop big enough to put the crate inside?

      • In these social feather picking dynamics, it almost always goes both ways. But some hens, like Misty are just too fast and restless to let others pick at them much. Sometimes you’ll have one hen that picks on the others and the behavior doesn’t spread. But during a winter like this one, they all pick up the habit.
        The crate does not have to be inside of the coop. You can put it outside of the run, as long as everyone can still see each other.

  7. Have to admit, this winter had much more snowfall so your girls were indoors most of the time. Looks like your snow is FINALLY starting to melt!

  8. I as well am hopeful that the warmer Spring weather will bring an end to the feather plucking in my flock. No one is hurt, isolated or acting strange in my flock, and I have caught all of them plucking a feather over the winter. It will be nice to see fluffy backs again, hopefully Spring will bring that! Thanks for the article!

  9. Your snow is almost gone! I finally have a snow free yard. Fingers crossed yours is soon as well. The Ladies seemed thrilled to have more dirt. I do believe every square inch of available dirt has been thoroughly eyeballed and tested! :)

  10. Good to know that I’m not the only one with these things on the mind. I have 16 hens and one Rooster. One or two of my girls pluck a feather from the others here and there, but no major issues. However, all of my girls like to pick at my Roo! He’s a beautiful bird, all white, except for the neck area on both sides, where the girls have broken or plucked his feathers. They also tend to peck at his backside. Sometimes he just stands there with his head lowered and lets them do it; other times, he walks off and they leave him alone. I just hope that the feathers all come back in, poor thing.

  11. I am so glad you posted further about this. I know who my culprit is. I even tried isolating her fr 4 days. But not 1 day after put together with the rest of the flock it started up again. Even my lead RiR let’s the culprit have her feathers. No aggression at all. Just like you said. As much as offering them selves. Crazy. So I am just keeping a close eye on this and raying for better weather. Here in MD the weather Sat was so nice I had all my girls out for a long while. I have a similar setup as you with an enclosed run. Thanks again for sharing.

  12. Thank you Terry for posting this! This is my first flock and they are almost a year old now. One morning, I noticed one of my Easter Eggers lost most of her beard. I checked her over for creepy crawlies and wasn’t able to find any but I still worried. Then that evening as I was saying goodnight, I saw one of my Wyandottes reach over and pull out three more feathers from my EE’s beard. Since then, two others are showing signs of missing feathers on their backs near the tail. I’ve checked them over carefully. I think the Wyandotte is doing the feather pulling either in the evening or early morning before I let them out. Other than that they all seem happy and healthy, I am getting plenty of eggs from all of them. I feel much better after reading this, but I am still keeping an eye on them. I hope this behavior stops once the snow melts and they are able to get out in the yard instead of being confined to their pen.

  13. I saw some of that on the feed the other day and wondered. Thank you for addressing it in a post.

  14. Terry do you think when a hen does pluck a feather from another that endorphins are being released when the feather is removed during the social grooming ?

  15. I also thank you for this post. I have been frustrated with this for a year now. My girls are spoiled and have every thing they could want as well as a healthy diet and healthy treats. They enjoy plucking each other in the dust bath as you have described before as a kind of preening gone haywire. They target necks, heads and bottoms and as you say the hen being plucked seem to offer themselves.

    They had bare patches all summer then moulted and looked lovely again for a couple of months. As soon as they got back in to egg laying they resumed the feather plucking and it’s following the same pattern, I have just put out a post on my blog about it if you would like to see where I am at now.

    I have resigned myself to the fact that they are happy and healthy and laying, five eggs from five hens today, and it worries me but not them. There is nothing I can do to stop this. I am also reading a lot about it on forums and it seems a common problem. It seems to happen if free ranged or not. I am glad I am not alone. My girls are happy and healthy and laying well and never any blood so I think I have to except that once it’s a habit they enjoy there isn’t much that can be done about it.

    • I’m glad I’m helping your peace of mind! Just because we don’t like seeing it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong from their point of view.

  16. I think my feather picker is deranged.

    I have one hen, previously the meek one, who suddenly turned into the dominant, brutal feather picking machine she is now. She violently rips feathers out of the other two, and left them with bare, occasionally bloody spots last year. After the molt this winter, she started up again. In an effort to drop her down in the pecking order, I removed her for a few days… she came back just as fierce. Then I removed her for a few weeks… again, ferocious. She basically been a house chicken all winter now, and every time I bring her outside around the other two they get attacked and she immediately begins stalking and picking. She’s absolutely wonderful around people, but seemingly hates the other hens, even attacking them if we try to pick the other hens up. Completely bizarre to me- I thought for sure after her absence she’d get her feathery butt handed to her by the other two hens… instead, they stood there and looked like they were in shock, eyes dilating and not moving. She’d make a great guard chicken, but I’m afraid between the feather picking and aggression toward the other hens, she may have to go.

    • If she is truly aggressive and not just feather picking, and if she pins down others and bangs on their heads, then sending her off might be best. However, every time you remove her and try to return her to the flock, there will be pecking and status shuffling. It will never go smoothly or without drama. It can take days to settle down. If no one is getting seriously hurt, I’d put her back with the flock and look the other way until the dust clears. I don’t think that it’s good to keep house chickens (I’ve blogged about that…) One issue is that you have only three hens. Flock dynamics are more intense the smaller the flock. So, the solution is to get more chickens :)

      • Terry this might be a dumb question but why are the flock dynamics more intense with smaller flocks ? I would think it would be the opposite with more hens in a flock because of competition of resources and more interactions of different type hens.

        • First there’s management – hopefully, the larger flocks have more space, and more places to move away from the aggressor. Also, more hens means that the the aggressor has more to distract her. More hens means more birds to chose from – there’s surely to be one to make friends with, or another to keep the aggressor in check. One hen chasing another might be stopped by a third simply because she’s in the way.

  17. In 3 years with 24 chickens, this is the first year I have ever had feather picking, I had 2 white silkies and for being tiny they held rank, then one died, and the other white silkie a few weeks ago started missing feathers on her bum, and thier was actually a little blood shed, and red blood on white feathers well needless to say it would have made her a target… So now she has a blue bum, and the picking has stopped and the hen that was doing the picking is one of the most placid gentle hens…

  18. Wow, am I ever glad to read these posts today. How very timely, for me. My flock will be a year old in May and my feather picking issues began with my Wyandotte last fall. Sadly, one day in December, we lost her. I was out of town, so I never got to see her to try to figure out just what happened. Then, I thought the picking would stop, but no. My Buff Orpington slid right in and picked up that same bad habit. She has picked the back of my best layer, my black Australorp. She has a huge bare spot the size of a softball on her and with her black feathers and white skin…talk about a target. Terry, do you suggest to apply a spray or antiseptic, or that purple spray to their bare spots so that those spots are less obvious? Thanks a million for this website. I simply love it and so appreciate all of your hard work to maintain it for brand new Mother Hens like me!! Like Carol’s post, my hens don’t want for much. They have organic food, plenty of greens, fresh organic hay, a large coop, outdoor time, and healthy treats. I even sing to the them. My coop is called: Patti’s Poultry Palace. I know, I know, but I love my feathery gals. Thanks again.

    • Blu-cote (called gentian violet in the UK) is an antiseptic, and it also darkens the skin which lessens the pecking. I spray it on bare skin (do wear disposable gloves, as you’ll be purple for a week afterwards!)

  19. Thanks so much Terry! It really is so comforting to know others share these challenges.

    Have you ever thought of offering an “Advanced Chicken Keeping” workshop? Maybe you have and I haven’t heard of it? By advanced I was thinking maybe covering topics such as this and others like illnesses, injury, worming, euthanasia detail? It seems there is so much of the basics out there like setting up the brooder and early chicken care etc. but such limited information on these unexpected challenges down the road.

    My ten 9 month old girls have been picking each other all winter. I love each of them dearly and have learned so much more in the last year than I would have ever expected. Chickens are really such wonderful creatures…picking or not :-)

    Thanks again Terry,

  20. Terry,

    I’m wondering if you’d noticed an upswing in the number of feather picking queries in the last 6 months?

    Also wondering if anyone has noticed a change in the color of the feed in that time?

    I suspect more soy has been added due to the drought and dearth of corn resulting.

    My flock started with feather picking in January, and we finally found the culprit and she made a fine stew. But it has again started in March and it’s pretty much confined to the 6 remaining Australorps (the culprit was one).

    I’ve also had an exceptional year with laying, ranging from 72 – 100% ROL. Sometimes having 100% up to 5 times a month. The flock this year is Australorps, Barred Rocks and Delawares.

    We feed animal protein daily at a set rate and it had eliminated the problems we were having the first year. As they still get it, and the laying rate has been so high, I’m suspecting the higher estrogenic effect of the soy is tied in somewhere.

    I’m trying to locate soy-free feed now but if I find some, I expect the cost will be prohibitive. Outside of trying to construct my own feed (which is not feasible here), I’m sort of at a loss. Today now that it’s to warm up, I plan to coat the worst victims with Blu-Cote, as red spots are appearing.

    I’ve tried all the other ideas, to no avail. If it continues to warm, I’ll be able to put up their portable outside pen, and maybe that will stop it.

    It’s not that they look so bad, but that it continues and is aggravating skin, turning it red. This red is a cause for concern as they go for it even more. Having dealt with cannabalism that first year, I’d not like to revisit it.

    • I do not think that this is a feeding issue. I think that it is social/behavioral. In fact, my best layers are often the ones that like being pecked the most. (Not the ones doing the pecking necessarily.) Also – watch out with the organic/soy free feed. If it’s not pelleted, the hens will pick and choose what they want. I’ve heard from several people who’s hens had laying issues because they don’t like the field peas used as an alternative for protein.

      • Yes, this is a concern. I always feed pelleted commercial feed to make sure they get all the nutrition.

        You didn’t mention if there was an upswing in inquiries, tho.