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.

Blog Tour #7!

Today I get to announce the last stop on the Farmstead Egg Guide and Cookbook blog tour – at Lisa Steele’s Fresh Eggs Daily. Hop on over and enter for a chance to win my book.

Happy Springtime, everyone! Yesterday was the Vernal Equinox. Not that the official transition of the seasons meant much here. Snow is in the forecast for tonight. *Sigh* Please leave a cheerful, sunny, “the daffodils are up” sort of message for me here. Together we’ll loosen this long, long winter’s grip, at least in our imaginations!

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Blog Tour #6!

My friends at Root Simple have are running a giveaway for The Farmstead Egg Guide and Cookbook. If you haven’t checked out Root Simple, do. They have a small yard in Los Angles, and make the most of it. Erik is a master baker, Kelly knows herbs, and they both have very interesting takes on life and how to live it.

They’ve posted my Zucchini and Mint Frittata recipe, so go take a look!

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Tea Eggs and Spaghetti Carbonara

A little while ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down at my dining room table with Jenn Stone-Grimaldi to talk about my favorite subject – good eggs. I’m doing a book signing at The Toadstool Bookshop in Milford, NH, an area covered by her paper. She’s a free-lance writer for The Telegraph, and also a mom of a toddler and a person who cares about what she eats. I sent her home with a carton of fresh eggs. Being a conscientious reporter, she tested recipes from my book. Later, she emailed me to let me know that she’s “ruined for sub-par eggs now.”

Here is a link to the article. In it is my recipe for Spaghetti Alla Carbonara.

Jenn also made my Tea Eggs. This is what they look like:


photograph courtesy of Jeremy Grimaldi

I’m so pleased that Jenn picked that recipe because it epitomizes what I try to accomplish with my recipes – simple, yet flavorful, and beautiful without being fussy. You’ll find 100 of them in The Farmstead Egg Guide and Cookbook. Let me know if you try the Spaghetti All Carbonara recipe that the Telegraph shared!

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Pony Joy



That pony’s expression, pert ears and squared stance tells the whole story. It’s playtime, but she’ll take care of her charge.

I have a feeling that the photograph was taken right about now, in mid-March. Shedding season! No doubt the children will be covered in horse hair when done. I’m off to the stable later on this sunny day, and I know what I’ll look like when I’m finished grooming Tonka!