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 solution 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.
Chicken Feather Loss & Cannibalism: Causes & Solutions
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 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, feed 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 life-threatening injuries inflicted by many chickens. By nature,
chickens are cannibalistic- they can and will kill another chicken.
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.
20+ boredom busters for backyard chickens
Chickens kept on a restricted feeding program vs free-feeding regimen may become bored in between feedings, leading to feather picking and problem pecking. 
Growing sprouts is a great way to create a foraging opportunity for chickens.
SOLUTIONS
Same solution as overcrowding, above and introduce boredom-buster type activities. Growing sprouts is a great way to create a foraging opportunity for chickens.
Provide feed in crumbles form
instead of pellets to extend the amount of time birds spend procuring feed to
satisfy their appetites. Treats or snacks can be
employed as an occasional distraction, but should not be relied upon as a primary form of entertainment. No more than 5% of a chicken’s daily diet should consist of
extras other than layer feed as obesity is a major problem in backyard laying hens.
Growing sprouts is a great way to create a foraging opportunity for chickens.
Free-feed chickens instead of rationing their food several times per day. Being allowed to pick up small amounts of feed often throughout the day eliminates competition for feed and provides an activity with a purpose.
Adding green, high-fiber treats such as kale, cabbage, etc. to a brooder or run can help alleviate boredom, but always ensure grit is available (sand, for example) to help digest fibrous foods and remove treats after 15 minutes.

NUTRITIONAL DEFICIENCIES
Chickens that are deficient
in protein, sodium and/or other dietary essentials will seek out sources of the lacking item to satisfy their nutritional needs. The deficiency can cause a chicken to peck 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 daily nutritional requirements, causing aggression and problem picking behaviors.
Chicken Feather Loss & Cannibalism: Causes & Solutions
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 5% 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 time, treading can result in feather loss to both areas of the hen’s back.
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.

Over time, treading can result in feather loss to both areas of the hen’s back.
Marilyn Monroe with a bald spot from treading.
Over time, treading can result in feather loss to both areas of the hen’s back.
SOLUTIONS
Ensure a reasonable rooster-to-hen
ratio of no less than ten hens per rooster. Trim or 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.
Chicken Feather Loss & Cannibalism: Causes & Solutions
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 are 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 provide 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. Much more about the care of an injured chicken HERE.

How to Care for an Injured Chicken
Safe housing for an injured chicken away from the flock.
Amazon affiliate disclosure
Kathy Shea Mormino, The Chicken Chick®

Comments

avatar
Paula Wolf
Guest
I have seven, 9 month old Araucana chickens and one Rhode Island Red. These are my first chickens and I have been enjoying them very much. Their eggs are beautiful, blue, green, pink and brown. One of the Araucana's is a bully. She never shuts up and is constantly pecking the other chickens. She has a favorite one that is looking pitiful now. I have applied the Pick-No-More to her back, but she is so afraid for me to get close to her now, that it is almost impossible to catch her. I can hold all of the others including… Read more »
tabithahthompson
Guest
Hi there, I am new to raising chickens and have 3 lovelies which i got last spring as 2 day olds. They are now 10 months old, one a Jersey giant, one a cochin and the last a wynodette. The other morning i noticed feathers missing from the wynodettes neck area. Not completely naked, there are pin feathers. I checked her thoroughly for any visible parasites but can't see anything. I thought somebody may be pecking them out. Let them roam around and also tied up a cabbage pinata to play with. Now, on the 3rd day, my Jerseys neck… Read more »
Tarah
Guest
I have a 7 month old Leghorn who keeps pecking and plucking feathers out of my 5 month old Easter egger. I have to keep them in a separate coop because she pecks the crap out of my Easter egger. It get really cold in the winter here in Lake Arrowhead CA and I don't want them cold. How do I get Shirley (leghorn) to stop pecking Gretchen (Easter egger)? It has been happening since we have tried integrating them together. In the run Shirley is less aggressive but as soon as we try to coop them together she starts… Read more »
susan
Guest

I finally had to deworm my girl and after a series of previous challenges, she wound up with diarrhea. She is on the slow mend, still not 100%. Now I'm noticing a lot of feather loss. I am unsure, still observing, if she is pulling them out (she was in the bathtub while getting well and wonder if she started this out of boredom) or could it be due to stress and illness that she is losing them. She is a buff orp, 9 mths old. Thanks Kathy!

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