Mar 6, 2013

Chicken Feather Loss & Cannibalism: Causes & Solutions

I get lots of questions on my Facebook page about chicken feather loss, usually asking how to stop it, but before any solutions can be offered, the underlying problem must be identified.  Feather loss and bald spots are often the result of stress-related conditions that must be fixed so that feather picking does not degenerate into a flock-wide problem. Chickens are cannibals and they learn to pick from each other, so ending unwanted picking as soon as it begins is critical to avoiding a bloody epidemic.
MOST COMMON CAUSES OF FEATHER LOSS

Bald spots are common in chickens during a molt. Molting is the natural, regular shedding of old feathers and growth of new ones. Molting occurs at fairly regular intervals for each chicken, and ordinarily begins as daylight hours shorten at the end of summer, however, it can occur at any time due to lack of water, food, or sudden change in normal lighting conditions. Broody hens tend to molt furiously after a period of broodiness Chickens molt in a predictable order beginning at the head and neck, proceeding down the back, breast, wings and tail.

Chickens are vulnerable to pecking during a period of feather re-growth due to the visible presence of blood in the newly emerging pin feathers.
Emerging pin feathers contain a blood-filled vein that can attract unwanted attention from other birds.
SOLUTION
Learn the normal molting patterns of flock members so that bald spots due to molting are recognized as normal. Be alert for broken pin feathers and pecking from other flock members. Separate any bird with damaged or bleeding pin feathers from the flock to prevent further injury.
Freida is just re-growing feathers after a period of broodiness. Someone has been picking at 
her pin feathers as is evidenced by the broken feather shafts and blood.
Broody nest, feathered by the mother hen.
BROODINESS  
A broody hen is one that is inspired to sit on a collection of eggs until she hatches chicks. She plucks her own breast feathers to expose the warmth and moisture of her skin directly to the eggs, hence the expression "to feather one's nest." After a period of broodiness, a hen’s hormones begin to return to normal levels as do her eating and drinking routines, all of which results in the loss of large amounts of feathers.
SOLUTION
Break up broody hens that will not be permitted to hatch eggs to stop the hormone roller-coaster and prevent a prolonged interruption in normal eating, drinking and elimination routines. After a hen has hatched chicks, provide her and her chicks with starter ration, which is higher in protein that the layer feed she had been eating prior to becoming broody and will help supply her with the protein and energy needed for feather re-growth.
The Broody Breaker: a temporary, wire-bottomed housing unit that discourages broodiness.
OVERCROWDING
A chicken is naturally inclined to forage for food by scratching and pecking at the ground. When too many chickens occupy too small a space, pecking opportunities are limited and chickens get on each other’s nerves. Aggression can result from overcrowding which leads to feather picking and cannibalism. Birds with little personal space will also begin picking at novelties on one another such as a fleck of dirt, a feather shaft, or an insect. Innocent exploration very easily results in small skin wounds. Chickens are drawn to the sight and salty flavor of blood and one small skin wound can quickly become a life-threatening injury inflicted by many chickens. By nature, chickens are cannibalistic- they can and will kill another chicken by others to death.
SOLUTION
Space is one of the keys to happy, healthy chickens. The bare minimum space requirements are four square feet per bird in the coop and ten square feet per bird in the run. If chickens will be confined primarily to the coop and run daily, a much greater space allowance must be made to avoid feather picking and boredom. 
Flock Block Substitute can serve as an occasional boredom buster.
BOREDOM
Just as with children, bored chickens will get into mischief. Chickens that are confined primarily to the coop and run daily are more inclined to begin feather picking out of boredom and curiosity than free-range chickens. Free-range chickens seldom run into trouble with boredom, but when inclement weather prohibits free-ranging, boredom-busting activities can be offered.

Chickens kept on a restricted feeding program vs free-feeding regimen may become bored in between feedings, leading to feather picking and problem pecking.

Foraging opportunities can be created for chickens that cannot free-range.

SOLUTIONS
Same solution as overcrowding, above and introduce boredom-buster type activities such as adding a bale of hay to the run. Chickens will spend hours scratching and pecking through a hay bale. Sprinkle some high-protein treats into it such as mealworms makes the activity even more enticing. Grow sprouts or Chicken Salad to create foraging opportunities.

Provide feed in crumbles form instead of pellets to extend the amount of time birds spend pecking up feed to satisfy their appetites. Treats or snacks can be employed as an occasional distraction, but should not be relied upon primarily as entertainment. No more than 5-10% of a chicken’s daily diet should consist of extras other than layer feed as obesity is a major problem in backyard laying hens.

Free-feed chickens instead of rationing their food several times per day.
Adding green, high fiber treats such as kale, cabbage, etc. to a brooder or run can help alleviate boredom.
Nutritional Deficiencies
Chickens that are deficient in protein, sodium and/or other dietary essentials will seek out alternative sources of the deficiency to satisfy their nutritional needs. That search will often lead to pecking excessively at their own preening gland, the feathers around it and feathers of other birds. Protein-deficient birds may pick and eat feathers. Feeding chickens too many treats/snacks/kitchen scraps can interfere with their daily nutritional requirements, causing aggression and problem picking behaviors.
This is the preening gland, located at the base of the tail feathers. Oil in the gland is salty & hens will over-work the gland when deficient in certain essential nutrients.
SOLUTION
Provide a nutritionally complete feed appropriate for the age of the bird. Limit treats/snacks/extras to 10% of their total daily diet. Treats should be limited to healthy, high protein, high fiber choices.
Excessive or aggressive treading of a hen by a rooster cause feather loss.
OVER-MATING
When a rooster assumes the mating position on top of a hen, he balances himself by holding onto her neck feathers with his beak and standing on her back (also known as treading). Over time, treading can result in feather loss to both areas of the hen’s back. Roosters can favor particular hens, giving them more attention than others, thereby causing excessive damage to their feathers and skin.
Marilyn Monroe with a bald spot from treading.

SOLUTION
Ensure a reasonable rooster-to-hen ratio of no less than ten hens per rooster. Clip and file a rooster’s nails to minimize feather and skin damage to the hen. House the rooster apart from the hens or pen his favorite hens away from him when necessary. Purchase or make a hen saddle for the affected hen. A hen saddle is a cloth cape worn by a hen for the purpose of protecting her feathers and skin. 
EXTERNAL PARASITES
Mites and poultry lice damage the feathers and skin of chickens, often causing bald spots. Irritation from these external parasites causes a bird to pick their own feathers and skin to obtain relief.
SOLUTION 
Monitor the skin and feather health of birds routinely for external parasites. Provide dust bathing areas for birds to maintain the health and appearance of their skin and feathers. Loose sand or dirt is sufficient for dust bathing purposes- no additives are required.  Treat all birds and coop when an infestation is discovered.
NEST BOXES- Too Few or Too Public
Too few nest boxes: Hens will fight over nest box space, using their beaks to express their preferences. A shortage of nest boxes can result in feather picking and injuries.

Too public: When a hen lays an egg, her cloaca becomes visible as it escorts the egg out of her body. The sight of a red, moist cloaca can attract curious flock members who naturally investigate by pecking the area. This can lead to picking, injury and cannibalism.
SOLUTIONS
Make available one nest box for every four hens in a flock. Keep the nesting area dimly lit and private. Hang nest box curtains to ensure privacy, reduce stress and keep the cloaca from public view during egg-laying.
Egg laying is a particularly vulnerable time for hens. Nest box curtains supply privacy and safety.

TOO MUCH LIGHT
Lights that are too bright or lights that are kept on too long can cause boredom, stress, aggression and picking. Lights kept on in brooders 24 hours per day often result in chicks picking themselves or each other. 
SOLUTION
Limit the number of hours of light hours to 16 per day for chickens of all ages. If using heat lamps in brooders, only use red light bulbs. Ideally, a brooder will contain a radiant heat source that does not employ light at all, such as the Brinsea EcoGlow, which will allow chicks to benefit from natural diurnal sleep-wake cycles.
OVERHEATING, Particularly in Brooders
Just as people can become irritable and prickly in the heat, so too can chickens. Chicks in brooders are at particular risk of being overheated when heat lamps are employed and overheating can result in agitation and pecking. One solution is to provide a large enough brooder to permit chicks to escape the heat when needed and monitor the brooder temperature. More about brooder heating here.  Another solution is to use a radiant heat source for keeping chicks warm, avoiding any possibility of overheating entirely. Brinsea EcoGlow brooders are one such radiant heat option.
STRESS
Many of the above cited conditions fall into the catch-all category of stress. Chickens do not manage stress well and it can result in feather picking and cannibalism. Some of the most common stressors include: housing changes, excessive heat, excessive light, overcrowding, predator attacks, new flock members, lost flock members and change of any type.

Any time a bird is injured from feather picking or the skin is compromised, the bird must be housed separately from the flock until the injury is completely healed to avoid further injury, cannibalism and death.
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43 comments :

  1. Melanie Christopherson3/7/13, 10:14 AM

    Excellent post, thank you!  I've already made a list of things to alter and tweak before any problems arise.  

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  2. Marie James3/7/13, 12:15 PM

    Thanks for this great article. I needed it today! One of our hens has obviously been pecked by her sisters. With snow on the ground for quite a while, they have been literally "cooped up" more than normal and boredom has probably been an issue.

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  3. TheChickenChick3/8/13, 7:25 PM

    My pleasure. I hope it helps!

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  4. shaie humphries3/14/13, 1:30 AM

    Hi, we have our very first set of chicks who are about 2 weeks old with a 5 week old thrown in the mix. I noticed a picture above with chicks at the water with a veg/herb hanging from above. At what age can you add veggies into the brooder (in addition to the starter food) and how do you do it (ex: does it need to hang form above?)?

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  5. TheChickenChick3/17/13, 6:15 PM

    This should help with the when question, Shaie: http://www.the-chicken-chick.com/2012/08/chicken-treats-guide-dont-love-your.html

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  6. What a great blog! I'm so glad I found you. Thanks for the advice on snacks for chickens, I really needed that.

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  7. Hi, we had 6 hens and 1 rooster last Sept. We now have 2 hens. They are dying 1 at a time. There seems to be small areas of feathers out, and we noticed some seemed to be breathing heavy within about 24hrs of dying. We are only putting this together as the last one died today. They seem fine otherwise and then 1 just seems to die. They have appropriate housing, a run, water, warmth during the winter, feed and I just don't know what to do anymore. Any thoughts?

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  8. Cathy Piner5/3/13, 9:19 AM

    Thanks Kathy. I had this problem. It's tough to get them to stop once they develop the habit. The hen saver/saddle was the saving grace for my hen. I tried everything else, blue kote, anti-pick, lots of room, meal worms for protein and boredom busters. I even gave 3 hens to good homes to give them more room per square foot. They still pick but not as bad. My little hen that wears the saddle is just as happy as can be now and doesn't take any mess from anyone anymore. I think they've created a monster (not really, she's a sweetie). My question is - How long can she wear the hen saver? She's seems fine with it and I'm almost afraid to take it off of her now that she's healed since I think it makes her feels secure. Have you used these? Thanks

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  9. great article very good info:)

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  10. my leghorns both have bald "back sides"how can I help them ?
    My RIR are fine..

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  11. Kristin Bennett8/17/13, 1:10 PM

    Thanks for this article! We have three hens in our backyard and one of them just ended a broody time...it looks like she's being "pecked" on and also lots of feathers are coming out...good to see it's normal to molt after being broody and that the pecking is normal too, going to put her in a kennel for a while to give her a chance to heal up.. Thanks again!

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  12. TheChickenChick8/21/13, 4:56 PM

    You can try it, but it seems unlikely that they are picking each other at this point. It may just be that the feathers are not going to grow back.

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  13. Rebecca Webb9/2/13, 12:24 AM

    I have one hen in particular that has quite a dirty, um rear. Is she just a messy hen or could this be a sign of a more serious issue?

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  14. Hello, did you ever figure out what it was? I have had 5 seemingly healthy girls die in the past 8 months as well and I just can not figure it out. I think I have done everything and they seem great and then bam..Just today I have one who is walking around really ouchy like she is having a hard and painful molt, but she barely has any feathers missing. She is thinner than I thought when I did pick her up today...I hope it is a weird molt, but if not...back to the drawing board.

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  15. This article is very informative. I was kind of worried about one chicken loosing her feathers. It doesn't appear to be caused by parasites as I've checked on her already. Got to try to figure out the other causes you have indicated. Thank you, at least now I have a guide on how to trouble shoot the cause of the hen's feather loss. I wouldn't be groping in the dark. Your blog is really helpful to us who are new in chicken raising.

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  16. Michelle Hoyt10/19/13, 11:57 PM

    This is really interesting information, I'm going to get a bale of hay for my flock for the winter, is a mixed alfalfa bale good forage for them? I'm in ND and we have bitter cold, deep snow and they'll be inside for several months, this will help with the boredom and surely give them extra nutrition! Thanks!

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  17. Hi Kathy! I'm running out of ideas. I read this post along with your other post on molting. I still am having issues with my flock. If you have any ideas to help my girls out that would be greatly appreciated.

    I have a flock of thirteen. One rooster and twelve assorted hens. Two hens are white crested black polish. They're almost five months old. After their first molt they lost a great amount of feathers on their heads. Other birds began to peck at them naturally so they have been separated from the flock ever since. Its been two months with on and off improvement. The feathers have grown back some what, but just as i'm ready to mix them in again feathers fall out and they're pour heads become targets again. From the beginning I believe the problem was molting and they needed time separated to let the feathers grow back. Diet has not changed and they always are with the flock just stuck in a dog crate. I don't believe parasites are a problem since the rest of the flock is healthy and happy along with the fact that I don't see any parasite related clues. So I guess the problem is these birds have yet to have healthy feathers since their first molt. They're seperated from eachother and the flock what can I do? I want them to return to their flock without being attacked. Any advice at all is greatly appreciated! Thanks!

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  18. Hi Kathy, I read this blog post of yours along with the molting topic. I can't seem to figure out a solution to our chicken molting problem.

    I have thirteen chickens. One rooster and twelve pullets. Two of the pullets are white crested black polish and after the first molt they had bloody heads so I put them in separate dog crates so the other chickens would not hurt them. They have been separated for two months now. The problem is every time they look healthy I let them out and they get pecked on. Then blood appears and the problem returns. They were just let out without any blood visible and the chickens had pecked spots bald on both girls. What can I do differently to stop the flock from picking on these two girls? The chickens are not free ranged so they can't really get away to help themselves. None of the other chickens get picked on so roughly. Any advice you have would be greatly appreciated. I really enjoy raising these girls and hate to see them get picked on.

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  19. my chick is 3 months old and her vent is like hell becoz of another chick pecking ... she is so pale like there is no blood left inside her body ... i don/t no how to treat this chick as she is eating not much not even drinking as much as it should be ... first day today (from india)

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  20. Chicken Friendly12/19/13, 4:54 PM

    I read an article about feather loss and it said that a diet rich in methionine could help the feathers grow back because of the sulfur content in methionine. the website was at msucares.com then do a search for poultry feathering.

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  21. chicken friendly12/19/13, 4:57 PM

    great post!!

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  22. I learn so much from you. Thanks for sharing!

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  23. Michele' preston12/20/13, 9:50 AM

    oh girl this is a excellent article & I can see you really did your research thur all the examples...you & I have got to meet someday since we are in the same state as you have the same desire to raise & understand chickens...again excellent article :)

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  24. Great post. I've been raising chickens for seven years. Chickens need lots of space and exercise. I'm fortunate to have five acres and my chickens are out from dawn to dusk. It's amazing how far they will go. amanandhishoe.com

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  25. Tammy Townsend2/8/14, 9:30 PM

    I'm really worried about one of my chickens ~ we put plastic around the chicken run because of the freezing temps. One of my girls has stopped laying eggs, she has lost all her tail feathers and tonight I noticed a bald patch on the back of her neck. We have put flock blocks in to help with boredom, and they are barely pecking at them. We notice that they had very loose poop, too. I bought a supplement to add to their water, and it doesn't appear to be helping. I don't know what else to do. They do not free range like they did before the snow and cold temps. They do not like venturing into the snow, even with a path shoveled. Should I remove the plastic? Isolate the chicken?

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  26. TheChickenChick2/8/14, 10:26 PM

    What is the cause of the feather loss? It doesn't have anything to do with the plastic.
    If the bird is injured or vulnerable to attack by other birds, yes, remove her.

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  27. Tammy Townsend2/9/14, 7:56 AM

    We thought that it was the stress of putting up the plastic around the run. I cannot figure out what is causing the feather loss.

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  28. We have two hens and one of them was trying to "nest" outside the hen house in the dirt and scratched a little nest right against the house. I began noticing her feathers were "rubbed bald". The feathers were there, but bare. I quickly filled the hole (she was mad) and thought that would be end of it. Now I am noticing her other side is getting that way too and a small area on her neck. I can't imagine our other girl doing that to make it look as if she's being scraped. Any help would most welcome. Our poor girl looks like she has the mange.

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  29. I have a Buff getting picked at. I have 3 and coincidentally, she is the largest one. I have done all your suggestions but wanted to know your thoughts on the pinless peepers. I have a set w/ the tool ordered but wanted to know if you have any experience with them.

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  30. TheChickenChick3/2/14, 9:23 PM

    I have never used them and never would.

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  31. Okay. I have put a saddle on the one getting pecked and it appears to have helped a lot. I'm going to go with just the saddle and monitoring closely.

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  32. We have a 10 month old rooster and nine 11 month old pullets. The rooster has segregated one pullet and doesn't let her eat and attacks here when she come out of the coop. Whenever I put out water and food or handle a pullet, he attacks me. We lost a chicken this winter and now I wonder if it was because of the rooster (I noticed he was picking on her but never attacked her like this one, so I thought). Today I heard loud banging and thumping noises coming from inside the coup and when I ran in the coup, he had the pullet pinned in the corner. and was throttling her. She was panting and extremely stressed. It was so sad. We immediately separated him from the flock. I would like to re-home him but who would want an aggressive rooster? He does very well with my husband and does not attack the other chickens, although he seems to mate rather aggressively too (some are over mated so I have saddles on them). It really is sad because we really wanted to keep him. I can hold him and walk around with him in my arms and he does fine. We extended our 15x20 run to a 30 x 60 run in hopes this would help slow down his aggression but it hasn't. Any suggestions?

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  33. TheChickenChick3/16/14, 8:34 PM

    Protective roosters are an asset to a large farm where the hens free-range and need the early-warning alerts.

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  34. He is protective and you are right, he would be good on a large farm, we are trying to re-home but can't find any takers as of yet. It's confusing as to why he would target his hens like that though? Thank you

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  35. Heather Williams-Henson3/20/14, 10:13 PM

    We have six two-week old chicks. Three are Rhode Island Reds, and there are three yellows (breed undetermined). We've googled every step to make sure we're doing everything right. Two of my yellows have pecked themselves absolutely raw on the backs of their necks and on both sides of their wings. (I have pictures I can send.) We've separated them into a different box from the other 6, and have checked them for mites and lice (found zero evidence of either). We used Vick's to keep them from pecking until we could get another box, and coated them again with Vasoline tonight. We're leaving on vacation for a week and were planning on leaving them with a close friend whom we trust, but I'm not sure we should leave the two. What caused this, how do I treat it, and is it safe to leave them with my friend while I'm gone? We're visiting my parents, and they have chickens too. I don't want to bring any kind of illness that could infect their chickens. :(

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  36. TheChickenChick3/22/14, 1:33 AM

    My guess would be that their brooder is too small and/or too hot. That's the main reason for picking in chicks that age. Don't use Vick's, it's painful and pointless. If they are picking each other- they need to be kept apart from each other until the areas heal completely. I would treat them with Vetericyn VF hydrogel spray.
    If they are picking at their own feathers and skin, try something like this: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.380725695303480.82388.186188768090508&type=3
    I would be concerned about going away unless I knew that the chicken sitter was going to be very attentive to them.

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  37. I have 4 hens (2 standard 2bantam). The largest is pecking at the smallest and has drawn blood at the neck. I brought the injured bird into my house while she healed but she's now back in the coop. She is still getting pecked at. I have applied Blu Kote and Peck No More multiple times. I'm not sure why this started but could be one or more of the following: too cooped up during winter, small bird had an injured toenail, red brooder light ( added when temps got down to -45). I'm now letting them free range most of the day but now that the pecking started will it ever stop?

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  38. If your fermented feed begins to smell like vinegar, what can you do to adjust the culture?

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  39. TheChickenChick4/1/14, 10:13 PM

    I don't ferment feed, Sara, so I can't help you with that one. Sorry.

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  40. Hey there! We have had 5 hens for almost a year, they are almost a year old. They have a small hen house with 6 nesting boxes and then a big pen area and most of the day time are free to run on our seven acres. This morning when we went to let them out of the little hen house one was dead. :( We are so sad and being new to having chickens we have no idea why or what caused her death? My gut is that the others killed her but why??? Could she be sick, are the eggs bad now, what would kill her?? I know you can't know for sure but any ideas and tips would be greatly appreciated! Thank you.

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  41. Denise Allison Magil4/5/14, 6:01 PM

    well i have 5 chickens in the house we have a situation of bullying i will be building a bigger penned area we do need to weed out the bully and say goodbye

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  42. Howdy I bought a RIR laying hen 3weeks ago. The lady said she was fertile because she was with a rooster. Well as of today no eggs :( Today I picked her up and noticed her saddle feathers are gone, like someone took a razor to her. What could this be? HELP!!! Please

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  43. TheChickenChick4/7/14, 7:12 PM

    She is not laying eggs likely due to the stress of the move and it may be weeks, even months, before she starts laying again. Whether she was with a rooster or not has NOTHING to do with her laying eggs.

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