Feather Picking

A chicken is designed to peck. It’s beak is hard, pointed and curved just so to be able to peck and pull. A hen’s neck is built so that it can turn quickly, and jab in a sudden motion. A chicken’s eyesight can zero in on the smallest speck, and stay locked in even when she juts out and pecks. A chicken’s beak serves her well for the sort of food she eats, but it also is crucial to her social life. Status is determined by body language, and if posturing doesn’t convince a flockmate to back off, a hen will resort to a swift peck. I’ve written about pecking order, and how to stabilize it and keep it in check here. Sometimes, though, even in flocks with no pecking order drama, a related problem arises that causes no end of consternation on the owner’s part – feather picking.

The feather picking that I’m going to talk about here isn’t the aggressive, status-seeking pecking that happens with pecking order squabbles. Feather picking can occur in the most peaceful of flocks. I’m currently seeing it with my Ladies (the six young hens raised together as chicks, seen on the HenCam main cam.) For awhile now I’ve noticed that Owly’s neck feathers have been looking sparse.


I didn’t worry much about this. There are no bare or red areas, and everyone else is in good plumage. But, over the last few days, as I’ve reintegrated Beulah into the group, I’ve been watching flock dynamics closely and I haven’t liked what I’ve seen.

I observed that the dominant hen, Misty, is a confirmed feather picker and eater. I watched as she walked up to Owly, pecked a feather off of Owly’s neck, and ate it whole.


Owly as much as offered her the feather. She didn’t budge. She didn’t look concerned or bothered. I watched as Misty walked over to other hens, eyed their feathers, and pecked. She targeted specific feathers, purposefully plucking one at a time and eating each. None of the hens seemed to care a whit. This is how feather picking can go on and the henkeeper won’t notice until there are bare spots. The exposed skin isn’t pretty for us to look at, but it’s not a big deal to the hens themselves. However, if the feather picking escalates and blood is drawn, then you have a serious problem, because when chickens see red they will peck, sometimes causing severe wounds or even death.

Sometimes you’ll see feather picking occur at only one time of day or in one place. Betsy used to have the habit of going up to dust bathing hens and plucking out their soft vent feathers. This behavior stopped when the weather turned and the girls no longer dust bathed at length. Feather picking is also prevalent at roosting time, when one hen will pluck the feathers off of another’s back. This can get so localized and severe that a hen can have a hole pecked into her. Years ago this happened in my flock, and it was only chance that I discovered a large wound under the covering of hard outer feathers. Removing the hen for treatment changed the pecking order. When she returned she no longer roosted in that spot, and the issue disappeared.

If it was just a dominance issue, it’d be easy to solve – remove the offending hen for four days, and when she returns, she’s lower on the pecking order and therefore won’t feather pick. That’s what I’ve done to Misty. Not only is she a feather picker, but she is also an overly assertive hen who had become too pushy. She’s now in with the Gems, who I’m hoping won’t let her near them to get a feather or peck at a comb. (I’ve been watching, and she’s tried to feather pick. It’s too early to know how this will play out.) I’ve fortunate to have the Gems, a sensible and calm flock of hens who don’t put up with nonsense. They reformed Edwina, who was a bully, and would have killed Buffy if she could have, but in with the Gems she is a polite old lady. I have confidence that Misty, too, will settle in and behave herself.

The first thing to do when you see signs of feather picking is to assess the damage. Is it cosmetic, or are there wounds? Bare skin should be darkened with blu kote (in some countries called gentian violet.) Hens won’t turn cannibalistic if they don’t see red. If the skin is broken, or if there are serious wounds, then that hen must be removed until she heals. If there is only one hen doing the feather picking, you can remove her from the flock and hope that she won’t go back to the habit when she returns. One hopes that the hens will tell her to stop, but there’s not much to be done when the picked-on hen encourages the behavior, as Owly did with Misty. It’s hard to understand chickens, sometimes.

One theory about feather eating is that the hens are looking for roughage. There might be truth to that, so always have poultry grit (coarsely ground granite) available free choice. They might also be looking for calcium, so supply oyster shell in a dispenser. Although I have these things out in the pen, looking back, I realize that there were many winter days when they were frozen under snow or ice.

You also want to provide as many interesting and nutritious things as possible for the hens to be distracted by. Feather picking is often worse in winter when hens are confined and bored. Put out cantaloupes, squash, cabbage and kale. Don’t close up your hens in cold weather – as long as they have clear ground to walk on, they can go outside. Sunshine and exercise is essential. Reevaluate how much space your hens have. Provide outside roosts. Give them a compost pile to scratch in. All of that will lessen the severity of the picking.

But, nutritional deficiencies and boredom don’t explain all of feather picking. This bad habit often starts during the molt, when feathers are on the ground. A hen tries one and likes it. Then she sees feathers loosely fluttering on another hen, pecks and eats that. Soon, she’s plucking the feathers off of her neighbors. It is often is the dominant hen that feather picks. Perhaps she pecked at another hen to assert her claim over a treat and ended up with a feather in her mouth. She ate it and decided to get another. In some flocks only one hen will be the feather picker, but in others it might be several.

Meanwhile, I’ve uncovered another feather picker in with the Ladies: Nancy Drew. And, I’ve just added Beulah, who’s reason for return is that she was harassing and feather picking the other hens at the nursing home. Both hens are Black Stars and look alike. This just might solve the problem. Hens of a feather flock together and so already the two are hanging out. Yesterday I saw them companionably next to each other on an outside roost. Nancy pecked at Beulah who snaked her head and said no. Then Beulah tried to peck at Nancy, who also made it clear that she wasn’t a source of edible feathers. Perhaps they’ll cancel each other out? Meanwhile, despite a bit of feather loss, the flock is healthy and behaving like happy chickens. I’m going to do what I can (grit, oyster shell, healthy distractions) and leave it at that.

UPDATE: I’ve been looking further into feather picking. There’s quite a lot of research (much done in the European Union because of their new poultry regulations)  that sheds light onto what causes feather picking. Genetics, diet, and housing all come into play. I’ll be reading the scientific papers and distilling it with a bit of my own commonsense to come up with suggestions for the backyard flock keeper. Stay tuned!


  1. I was wondering while reading this article if hens don’t get all clogged up if they keep eating feathers! Boy, backyard hen keeping is a LOT of work!

    • All food goes into the gizzard – which is where that granite grit is. The gizzard is a very strong muscle, and the grit pulverizes everything. So, no teeth for chewing, but something even more effective further down!

      • Thank you. My grandfather had hens and I even helped clean out the coops when visiting. But I was a child and wouldn’t have known all the chicken keeping work involved. Altho, living on the coast of CT, I know my grandfather fed them ground up oyster shells. He clammed a lot too. All this “backyard hen” fad makes it sound so easy. Phew. It’s not!

  2. Terry I “feel” for you. This is one of the hardest habits along with egg eating to stop.
    I hope a change of scenery is the cure.

    Like you my hens are enjoyment as well as egg providers but being the old country boy that I am I will send them to freezer camp if necessary. ;-(

    • I should have mentioned that as an option. I’m fortunate that I can swap hens around to get the right dynamics in each flock. But, if you know how to harvest a hen for eating, it can be the right thing to do. (Although, honestly, Misty is so scrawny! Great eggs, though.)

  3. Feather picking is so frustrating especially when the victims just stand there! My feather picker is a sweet, quiet Light Brahma whose two victims are a Jersey Giant and a Wyandotte. You are right about the dust bathing Terry. It seems like she knows that they are in a blissful stupor, and that’s when she makes her move. I have used the chicken saddles on them especially in the summer to prevent sunburn, and since she only goes for the area on the back it does help. Luckily, I’ve never had any wounds or blood. I also use Blue Kote on the spots, but it doesn’t seem to deter any picking.

    • You’re right, blu-kote doesn’t deter feather picking, but it does help to keep things from escalating to blood-letting. I’ve heard that Jersey Giants are big placid birds, but I’m surprised your Wyandotte is party to it!

  4. Oh, boy. Looks like winter is hitting you hard again, and the ladies will be spending some quality time together indoors. Good luck mitigating the boredom. Perhaps a 24-hour streaming broadcast of the soap opera “Hencam”?

  5. Its almost like OCD with some hens and feather pecking. It’s too bad you cannot retrain them to peck at something like bone that will keep them occupied pecking something for a long time, and keep them from pecking the other’s feathers. It must not hurt the other hen so much to have the feather plucked out. I wonder if the other hen gets addicted to having feathers plucked out as the plucker does to eating the feathers.

  6. Terry, what are your thoughts on saddles? As you know, my little Barred Rock is still recovering from some substantial pecking on her back and the skin in that area is continuing to be a target for all involved. I thought maybe the saddle would give that lower back area a break. She is not bloody but still raw. I’m keeping Neosporin on it and don’t think it would take much to break the skin.

    • Saddles are a useful, temporary fix. In a pinch I’ve made a few protective coverings out of duct tape! What I don’t like to see are chickens wearing saddles for their entire lives. If there’s a rooster that’s treading too much on a hen, remove the rooster! I also don’t like chicken sweaters and diapers. Chickens are designed for feathers, not clothes. A bit of bare skin doesn’t hurt them. Even scrawny rescue hens are better off without (keep them dry and out of drafts!) But a saddle, used to protect a wounded area, is a good solution until she heals.

  7. I’m having this feather pecking and eating problem in my flock too. Once winter started, the pecking started. I give my pullets a lot of treats like cabbage, melon, lettuce, oat meal, and bananas to keep them bust for a while, but once they go to roost, the pecking starts. It’s most around the bases of their tails, and around their necks. Some hens have it worse than others, and I’ve put saddles on them. The saddles help the tail feather pecking, but the neck is still a big issue. many of my hens have bare patches, which isn’t a big concern, but its the feathers that are growing back, that get pecked out. One of my Buff Orpingtons will sit on the roost next to my calm and sweet Easter Egger, and pull of the ends of her neck feathers! Another one of my EE’s has very little vent feathers left.
    If I knew which hen was pulling feathers out, I’d but her in a dog crate for a few days, but it seems as though every hen is doing it!

    • Yep, you’ve described it. A perfectly nice flock with a very bad habit. I think that we have to learn not to worry about it unless there’s blood. Remember Jasper when she had no tail? It grew back and no one pecks her now. I certainly didn’t do anything to change the dynamic other than to blu-kote her. Perhaps you can hang bumpers over the roosts?

      • I’ve been curious as to once spring arrives, and I can let them out to free range for a bit, and they’ll have more room in the run, if the pecking will stop. Like you said, chickens always peck. I’m guessing mine are just bored being closed in for a while, and have gotten used to pecking even when they have lots of room. I’ll try the blu-kote again on the bare areas, and see if it helps. What are bumpers?

        • Bumpers? I just invented them! :) I imagine things like those swimming noodles hanging down, so that when the hens reach over to try and peck the girl next door, they bump into them. Anyone want to try?

          • Lauren made one to keep Lil’White from pecking Lucy. She is so good with power tools.

  8. I too have this problem. It started when I lost my top hen, I felt it was the stress of her going as they had never done it before. This was last Feb and the behaviour went on through the summer with them all doing it during dust baths and seemed friendly as you say. No aggression and all allowing it. I tried sprays which didn’t work. Some of the girls had bare necks and even bare heads all summer.

    They then moulted and looked lovely and it seemed to have stopped. As they have returned to laying eggs after their moult it has suddenly started up again. It is so frustrating because it does spoil their looks and I can’t separate as they all do it. They seem happy and healthy and I give them healthy treats of greens and things to peck and lots of space and variety but nothing makes a difference.

    They snuggle up to each other and do it happily. I give protein too and grit and oyster shell and they often don’t eat the feathers but just seem to like to pull them. I have just used the blue spray on one of them with a bare neck. I have found this so frustrating. I am glad I am not alone.

    • What we worry about is not always what the hens worry about. You have gorgeous hens, and I’m sure it’s frustrating, but I think you can leave well enough alone.

  9. I love the idea of two hens’ behaviours cancelling each other out…kinds of like two wrongs making a right? :)

    • Much of this link is problematic. I do NOT like the pinless peepers. They interfere with eyesight. They don’t solve the problem, as she finally admitted. As far as the supplement – I don’t buy it for a minute that it worked. Much of what you read on BYC is not true. Correlation and effect are not always linked.

      • If the hens are pecking feathers when they roost, would it help to hang something over the roosts that they can get at to interest them in pecking that instead of feathers ?

        • That’s why I thought about “bumpers.” But, in all seriousness, roosting is an important social time for chickens. Where a hen sleeps, and who she settles in next to is all about status and friendship. From what I’ve observed of the non-aggressive feather picking, it is like social preening gone haywire. I don’t know whether anything can distract a hen bent on plucking another’s feathers.

      • I just thought all of the opinions were interesting. I totally get that most of the stuff isn’t true. I’ve learned to form my own theories and go from there.

        • I also wanted to add that I would never purchase pinless peepers. They’re just wrong in several aspects.

  10. Curiosity question. Maybe you brought this up in a post I haven’t read. But do you ever use cuttle bone as your source of calcium? The reason I bring this up is that I have had lizards, a turtle, and hermit crabs that won’t touch the oyster shell powder. One lizard I had would sniff every single cricket before eating it to make sure I hadn’t tried to sneak one dusted with it past him. A lack of calcium, as you know, will kill. So I tried cuttle bone (powdered it in the blender for the lizards). All the ones who refused the oyster shell gobbled up the cuttle bone. Maybe the feather pickers are getting ‘just enough’ calcium to keep functioning but not ‘enough’ if you get my drift. And the feathers are a tasty supplement. What are your thoughts on this?

    • I haven’t used cuttle bone. I know that there are studies that show that, counter-intuitively, the larger-sized pieces of oyster shell are the most readily absorbed. You’ve piqued my curiosity and I’ll take a look at cuttle bones.

      • Wow. That was fast. I just finished reading that one link and you answered my question! Hi! *waves* I’m not sure about the study on piece size. I’d have to read it. For everyone but the lizards, I just throw pieces of cuttle bone in the habitat as they can bite or pinch off what they want. So I wonder what they’re using to base their piece size on? Hmmm…. the never ending quest for critter knowledge! :)

        • Oyster shell piece size. Specific to chickens. Studies not done on cuttlefish. But, I have to say that cuttlefish are one of my favorite creatures in the entire world. I’d rather not feed them to my hens.
          As far as quick answers… have you seen the snow here? I’m at my computer! :)

          • *snort* Yes! Where I am it was first snow and then ICE which I hate. I had to cut my shopping short last night when we started having trouble stopping the car, LOL! I went out to get the mail and the ice is 1/2 to 1 inch thick. It was just deep enough that when I broke through the ice on the way to get mail that I would literally have to lift my foot straight up and out to go forward. I ‘high-marched’ my way to the mailbox! :)

  11. Terry, WOW, you are getting a ton of snow there! I have had my share of feather pickers/eaters too and I am experimenting with a couple of things to combat this. I have a 7 month old Ameraucana hen (Phoenix) that never picked feathers until she started laying eggs 2 weeks ago. She is dominant over the other two Ameraucanas whom she has picked at their lower backs….bare! She doesn’t mess with the 3 Barred Rocks. None of the others are picking and Phoenix doesn’t eat feathers on the ground! I increased the flock’s protein level by feeding a handful of dry cat food twice a day in addition to their normal diet and it seems to be helping! Also, I feed a supplement called FORCO, once a day in addition to their normal diet of Purina Layena plus fruit and veggie treats. Fingers crossed it stops for good =)

    • Protein is good. Too much protein can cause kidney damage, so be careful. The Forco is a horse supplement. You might do better with probiotics and supplements made for poultry. Also, once they start feather picking, even if it started due to nutritional needs, it becomes a self-rewarding behavior. So, changing diet alone won’t change the established behavior.

  12. Ok, so now the question becomes: those feathers that get ‘snipped off’ at the top (but aren’t pulled out), will they grow back? I’ve read that they do, and that they don’t- I’m betting they don’t, since our feather picker snapped off quite a few feathers last year and left the downy white exposed, which is how the hens remained until their molt. Is that right?

    • The answer is – it depends. The plucked hen might not get full-feathered again until after the next molt. However, I’ve seen injured hens, once healed, regrow feathers before the molt. Sometimes the picking destroys the feather’s ability to regrow. For example, Jasper got back some, but not all of her tail.

  13. Thanks for the warning on too much protein. I will reduce to just one handful a day. I give the flock liquid vitamins in their water so they should be ok there. The Forco I read was helping others so I bought some to try it. They love the taste of it and it smells sweet. It’s so frustrating but as you said, as long as the flock is happy and healthy and there isn’t blood everywhere, which there isn’t here, then let the chickens just be chickens! Thanks again Terry! =)

  14. It’s been my experience that feather picking starts when the need for animal protein becomes acute. Chickens can not make an amino acid called methionine. This is an essential amino acid which means the body can’t make it and it must come from food. Methionine comes from animal protein. There is no animal protein in commercially made chicken feeds. Feathers are something like 75 – 90% animal protein.

    One way to determine if the picking is nutritional is to see if there’s feathers laying around. If there are none, then chances are real good it’s nutritional.

    Terry is right about too much protein. Animal protein supplementation should never exceed 10% of the total diet. Two reasons:

    1. It will prevent the chickens from getting their other nutritional needs met from the ration. This is because chickens feed to a certain weight in their crop, then stop. If they’ve eaten too many goodies, or animal protein supplements, or too many liquid things, then the nutrition they need for health and production will suffer.

    2. As Terry says, possible kidney damage.

    But there have been times when picking has occurred in my flock and continued due to boredom, usually in the winter. It’s a learned behavior, so the quicker it’s caught and stopped, the better.

    To help hens who have lost lots of feathers regrow them quickly, feeding animal protein up to 1/2 oz/day/bird will shorten the growing in period by 1/2, maybe more. Once feathers are back in, returning to the maintenance level of 1/4 oz/bird/day will keep the behavior, and other unwanted behaviors from recurring.

    We’ve found it easier to process large amounts of animal protein into daily allotments and freeze it. Then just thaw out 2 – 3 days worth at a time and feed it each morning. That way you know they aren’t getting too much or too little, and it’s not hard to feed regularly. Just like doing the water.

    • If feather picking in flocks like mine were due to a nutritional imbalance, then I think you’d see it in all birds. It’s a rare flock, that gets a ration of 16% protein ration, and few treats, that’s going to be that nutritionally deprived. Possible, but not probable. My guess is that lack of grit is more of a contributing factor. Even then, I think that it is mostly behavioral in cause. Where do you get your data about the growing in period being shortened? Observation, or is there research that I can look at? I keep files of such things :)

  15. Its really nice to hear I’m not alone with this issue. Even though I know its a common problem from books etc. its nice to hear about it firsthand. I’m not as worried about my girls as I was a week ago. I have taken Terrys advice to allow them to be chickens if no one is being injured. I have 10 hens and they are looking like quite a motley crew these days. With their missing feathers and blue painted bottoms looking like a bad tattoos I’ve told my girls they should think about starting a roller derby club. As I open their pop door each morning, I have visions of a hen coming rolling out down their ramp in the way a cowboy would in a saloon fight in an old western…maybe my imagination has gotten the best of me? I’m keeping everyone safe and trying to sum it up as just another chapter in learning about chicken keeping. =>) Good luck everybody!

  16. I have a large flock, with 3 distinct roosting areas within the same barn, all are open to the other through halls. I have grit and oyster shell in 2 of the 3 feeding areas and when the winter is in full force I have a flock block and occasional cabbage heads that I put out to keep everyone spread out and happy. My flock of very mixed birds with a few roosters is at 60+ including a dozen or so bantams (bantams never have been the subject of the pickers – interesting to me). They free range when weather permits. So, I think they have a pretty sweet life and yet we still have picking issues occasionally. Frustrating I know. Blue kote is their friend, although I forget it’s on them and a friend ‘loved’ those 2 birds with violet tipped feathers. ‘What kind are those?’ Haha, I had to admit in previous molt that those white rocks were the subject of poor behavior in the flock. I too have separated a bully out with good results. Thanks Terry for your continued good advice, I show all my non chicken friends your site and I I know they watch frequently.

    • Thank you for spreading the word about what I do here! I’m doing further research into this feather picking issue. It turns out that there’s quite a lot of scientific data out there – but little is reaching the backyard keeper. There’s a genetic link, a housing causality, and dietary requirements not met. I’ll try to distill it all and come up with something useful for we non-commercial chicken keepers. Stay tuned!