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.
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.
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.