Feather Picking

There’s always a hen at the bottom of the pecking order. That’s just the way it is. The chicken on the bottom of the totem pole will be the last to get the tossed treats, will wait to eat from the feeder until the boss-hens are done, and will, literally, rest on a lower rung of the ladder.

In the HenCam barn, Betsy, being a tiny thing, is told, by the other girls, to “shove off.” Betsy might be at the bottom of the pecking order, but she’s no wimp. She darts quickly out of the way of stabbing beaks, she dodges and dashes and does just fine. Buffy is also at the bottom, but it’s of no matter to her. She keeps comfortably to herself and no one bothers her. A visitor to this barn would see little drama and would have a hard time picking out who’s at the top of this peaceful flock.

The Gems have also sorted out their pecking order. As I expected, the Rhode Island Reds are on top. In my experience, they’re a breed that is possessive about food, which makes them avid free-range foragers, but when kept in pens, they’ll dominate the others. Opal, the Delaware, is a big hungry hen, and is also on top. However, once the pecking order is established, everyone plays by the rules and gets along fine. There’s no squabbling and no fights. The flock should be a calm unit. If there are problems, it’s usually due to mismanagement by their humans.

Jasper is on the bottom of the Gem’s pecking order. She’s a Welsummer, which is a lighter-weight, mild-mannered breed. Jasper is also the only Welsummer in the group, and that makes a difference. The old saws that birds of a feather flock together and there’s strength in numbers ring true. The Buff Orpingtons, Amber, Topaz and Beryl, form a troop of their own and no one bothers them; but I know if there was only one Orp that she’d be near the bottom with Jasper.

About two weeks ago, when I picked Jasper up, I thought that she felt light and I was concerned that she was getting enough to eat. Worried that she was being kept away from the pellets, I hung a second feeder in the coop. Last week, I noticed feathers missing near the base of her tail, and then a couple of days later I saw skin. Once there’s a raw, red patch, the other hens, even the ones who aren’t bullies, will peck. It’ll quickly turn into a gaping wound, and that can lead to cannibalism and death. Hide the red and sometimes the pecking stops. I sprayed on blu-kote (gentian violet) which colored the base of Jasper’s tail dark purple. That seemed to do the trick.

Yesterday the rain finally stopped and I let the girls out for a scratch and forage in the flower bed.

I was watching when Ruby trotted up to Jasper, pecked a feather off her tail, and ate it.

So, what I had was not just a case of dominance, but had become the very bad habit of feather eating. It can start from hunger or lack of nutrients, but that wasn’t the case here. It can start because an aggressive hen pecked at a subordinate and discovered that feathers are edible. That was likely what happened. Or, it can start from boredom and closed quarters, which, with the rain and being kept in, probably contributed to Ruby seeing Jasper’s tail feathers as an addition to her diet.

I need to break this habit. Ruby has a taste for feathers, but I’m sure that she’d prefer to eat other things. I’d like to let them out more – which will be possible soon. Today I’m having a fence installed to keep wandering dogs off the property. I’ll rest a lot easier when that is up. Meanwhile, I put a pumpkin in the pen. I’ll fill the compost area with weeds and leaves to keep Ruby and the Gems busy. It’s possible that I might have to switch Jasper into the HenCam flock. She’ll probably be on the bottom there, too, but at least she won’t be treated as a walking snack bar.


  1. That is one of the hardest things to stop.
    Here is one more suggeston you might try once the wound has healed.
    Place very hot sauce on the area the other hens seem to want to peck.
    It’ a last resort but have done this and have had some success with it. Now with Jasper it appears the “spot” it’s near her oil gland so there can be concerns with that. Quite possible it will burn and it may cause her to stop preening.
    I know it’s maddening when they do this as you know there is no deficiencies in their diet.
    Years ago I had a black austrolop I had to cull. She was top hen and all below her were her walking cafeteria.

    I would like to let mine free range more as well but the red tail hawks are thick as thieves around my place. They come and land on the dusk to dawn light pole and look at me like what are you doing in my hunting grounds. I have a can filled with sand I fling at them when they perch there, but they usually just watch it fly by as I’m no Bob Gibson (great Cardinal pitcher of the ’60) ;-)

  2. Out of curiosity, if you move Jasper to the older flock wouldn’t Ruby turn to eating the feathers of other gems who are low in the pecking order? I’ll cross my fingers that her taste for feathers isn’t generalized to the others. Sounds like a particularly vexing problem.

    • Hopefully, Ruby only thinks of Jasper as the snack bar. Animals don’t always “generalize.” But, if she does, I instead of putting Jasper in with the old girls, I’ll put Ruby in there. Those old, savvy hens won’t put up with feather picking!

  3. On the matter of pecking order, I have an odd behaviour at the moment. I have two ducks, Khaki Cambells, who each evening climb to the top of the ladder into the coop, stand there and stop the youngest hen of the group from getting in. Eventually, as it darkens, she does get in and a peace of sorts settles.

    • I have friends who love their Khaki Campbells! They sound quite clever, although I’m sure your youngest hen doesn’t appreciate them.

  4. Ahh, so sad :( but I know how it goes, I have rare canaries and there’s also a clear pecking order so I have 2 – 3 feeding stations and cover them early eve. We were wondering if you are going to do “bio’s” on the gems?

  5. I used a product called “Bitter Apple” to keep my cats from chewing on no-no’s such as electrical cords- I wonder if that would work too?
    It’s hard to find, and comes in two forms, a lotion and a spray.

  6. I have bitter apple. Alas, it doesn’t stop Lily from playing with the wood stacked for the fireplace. Chickens have a good sense of smell, but not taste. I could try it.

  7. Identical problem here with our Reds. Unfortunately, I just discovered the Reds taught the Buff Orps this bad habit. The two Wyandottes are now in our “recoop” due to the consistent pecking and skin exposure. The Reds previously picked on our Light Brahmas, but once they healed it stopped.
    Looking forward hearing any solution!

  8. We also have a heavy predator load here and can’t let them free range. Though the pen is at least 10 times as big as necessary, we still do have the occasional pecking problem.

    We early on discovered that if there was sufficient animal protein in the diet, the chances of this happening, or continuing to happen were far less.

    We also discovered that having a constant consistent amount of animal protein in the diet was a critical component of having it work.

    Because DH is an avid deep sea fisherman, we have a large free source of fresh pollock, not at all a favorite of ours. We grind this, package it in daily allotments (1/4 – 1/2 oz/bird/day) and freeze it. Just thaw 2-3 days worth at a time and feed it out in the morning.

    Because we do our own butchering, we have large animal waste meat. This is ground and packaged, and because it has a higher fat content, fed in the depths of winter, providing protein and fat for energy to keep warm. This can be fed at night also, when the need for energy is highest.

    This has worked well here for several years. They are also fed Nature’s Best organic layer feed, garden stuff, grit (we have NO stones here), oyster shell, and diatomaceous earth.

    • Great advice. In the past, farmers would grind up “green” bones and feed that, too. I can’t believe you have no stones on your farm in MA – you must be in the river valley!

  9. Just found this site and love it! I’ve got about a dozen chickens and they are fun, aren’t they? Mine free range and are shut up at night. I’ve never seen one eat feathers.

  10. I picked up three pullets from a young man who had them with too many others in too small quarters earlier this summer. Most had tail feathers picked so I knew I was taking a chance bringing them home but they were going in their own coop and run. One girl continued her picking and after months of blu kote and finally making a saddle for one of the girls- no more picking. I thought it’d never end, but it finally did and now everyone in there is starting to sport tails again. Hope you find a resolution soon.

    How many of the gems are laying now? My tiny Old English bantam started laying this past week- tiny little white pearls. What a treat.

  11. WOW! another thing i’d never heard of/read about until now! thank you SO much, Terry! you’re an invaluable resource to the urban flock keeper :)

    my little tiny Dominique is at the top of the pecking order inmy flock and i have no idea how it happened as she’s certainly the smallest of all the hens. huh.

  12. Hooray for your eggs! About the pecking problem, I’ve been researching because I am interested in having some backyard hens. So it would appear I would need a minimum of two of each breed I am interested in?

    • Having two of a breed is no guarantee that you won’t have pecking. It somewhat eases flock dynamics, but won’t solve pecking issues. Space, diet and relief from boredom is more important.

      • In my experience, space and lots of interesting things to scratch around in are the key. I rescued a badly pecked hen who was in a too small pen with too many others. Now she and the chief offender share a big yard and are doing fine. They just get terribly bored and once started the habit is hard to break. We separated them dor several months in spacious surroundings before reintroducing them in the new location.

  13. I’ve e-mailed you about this issue before Terry! My two Black Rock girls are still feather pecking, but only each other and none of the other three. I spoke to the lady I got them from and she suggested that I stop all fresh and mixed corn feeding. This was because she said the corn could contain the E numbers that affect their behaviour, in the same way that some sweets affect children. I have stopped all corn from about 4 days ago and am hoping it will help. I am also going to give the two offenders some tinned tuna – we will see!

    • Sometimes the behavior becomes so ingrained that even when the diet is changed it doesn’t stop. But, I hope what you do works! Let me know if it does.

  14. I have had the same flock of hens for 2 1/2 years and they started feather picking in November of their first year with me. It drove me wild for about a year and I literally tried EVERYTHING that was suggested to stop them from doing it (diet changes, blue kote, ichthammol, lots of toys and distractions). Nothing worked. Finally, I tried putting pinless peepers on the offenders and the problem is now manageable. I have 11 hens and I keep the peepers on 9 of them. The two that don’t have them are the lowest in the pecking order and I never see them pick. In the spring, the problem is the worst and one hen, Matilda, can pick even with the peepers on. But the picking is cosmetic only now, instead of causing open wounds and bleeding. It’s annoying but we live with it and I won’t be adding any more hens until this batch have passed on to the hen pasture in the sky. In the winter, I do still give my girls as much distraction as possible–a flake of straw a day to pick through, a cabbage frequently, kale daily, treats in suet feeders, a Purina Flock block, etc. It helps, too, but the peepers were the only thing that saved my sanity and the girls don’t mind them and function fine with them on. Here’s a photo of my girls last winter with their peepers and a cabbage. Notice how they are not too scraggly, except Matilda who is molting: http://www.flickr.com/photos/21708545@N06/5398216563/in/set-72157624891346470

    • Interesting. What’s funny is that you can find those peepers at antique stores – sold as something quaint and no longer in use! Your tale speaks to how deeply ingrained this pecking issue can be. It has a genetic component. Now that factory farms are under pressure to use floor systems, they’re developing strains that don’t peck, even under stress of crowding.

      • I want my next chickens to be those strains! It is a very stressful problem to both the chickens and to the chicken keeper! UGH!

  15. Also, I have a system for getting the peepers on successfully and preventing mass chaos, so if anyone needs more info, let me know.

  16. Excellent information. I’ll definitely refer back here if I have this problem in the future. All pecking and peepers aside though, these two photos are beautiful, Terry. Nice work.

  17. I had 2 Salmon Faverolles and I noticed the muff on Sasha was thinning out. She’s the lowest on the pecking order and I figured she was being picked on. I gave the girls extra things to peck at, extra time on the grass when I could. It didn’t get better.
    Once day I sat outside watching them and all of a sudden I saw Lily (an EE) peck at Sasha’s dwindling muff. Want to know what Sasha did??? Sat right down, closed her eyes and presented her muff to Lily who kept pecking feathers out!!! If Sasha could purr, I bet she would. Maybe she was grateful for ANY attention. That’s when I realized no amount of BlueKote or distraction was going to solve this… Oiy vay!

    • Sometimes the feather picking starts with mutual grooming and lice picking. Years ago, Snowball thinned everyone’s vent feathers, and they didn’t mind until she went for the big quills!