Chickens are social animals, meaning that a large portion of their time is dedicated to interacting with fellow chickens. It also means that these interactions, as with cannibalistic pecking, can be negative sometimes. The last thing any chicken farmer wants is a situation where interactions like pecking are a regularity. But to ensure that such never becomes the case, we must first understand why chickens peck each others’ feathers out.
Chickens generally peck each other due to curiosity and to protect social norms. Chickens engage in cannibalistic pecking if there is an injured animal or there is a shortage of life-sustaining resources. Cannibalistic pecking can be prevented while normal pecking will continue to occur.
Ready to learn more about why chickens peck each other? Let’s cover the why – and then we’ll talk about how to prevent the problematic cannibalistic pecking.
Why Are My Chickens Pecking Each Other?
Before we dive into the reasons for cannibalistic pecking, it should be noted that not all pecking is abnormal and, in some scenarios, it is quite natural for chickens to peck at each other. The two major examples of such normal pecking cases are curiosity and maintaining the natural pecking order. Then there’s the abnormal pecking, generally referred to as cannibalistic pecking.
Reason #1: Curiosity (chickens peck each other to learn)
Chickens are highly inquisitive animals and their primary instrument of investigation is their beak.
A chicken’s beak “is a complex sensory organ with numerous nerve endings. The beak not only serves to grasp and manipulate food items, but is also used to manipulate non-food objects in nesting and exploration, drinking, and preening […] At the end of the beak is a specialized cluster of highly sensitive mechanoreceptors, called the bill tip organ, which allows chickens to make fine tactile discriminations.”According to Lori Marino, writing for Animal Cognition (source)
So sometimes, pecking is a way for chickens to explore their surroundings and this includes other chickens. This type of pecking, however, is usually too gentle to inflict injury.
Reason #2: Maintaining the pecking order
As mentioned earlier, chickens are social animals and so they, by default, form social hierarchies. Pecking, along with some other forms of aggression, is sometimes a way to establish dominance over other chickens and climb the social ladder.
Climbing the social ladder is important because the chickens at the top get privileged access to food, water, and mates (for males). However, the pecking associated with establishing hierarchies is temporary; once dominance has been established it should cease, so most times all you have to do is wait it out.
Reason #3: Cannibalistic pecking
Cannibalistic pecking happens when your chickens aren’t curious or maintaining social status, but they’re still pecking at each other. Often it means pecking out and eating feathers – from themselves or their flockmates. It can also mean pecking visible blood or meat, even if the visible meat is on an injured chicken.
Most cannibalistic pecking happens when your chickens aren’t getting enough macronutrients – and it’s almost always protein that’s in short supply.
Don’t worry – we’ll talk about how to prevent cannibalistic pecking later in this article.
Why are my chickens pecking each other and eating feathers?
Chickens who peck at and eat feathers are generally experiencing a nutrition deficiency of protein. These chickens need more protein in their diet, and feathers are rich in protein. Chickens will continue to eat feathers until they have a richer and more reliable source of protein in their diet.
How Long Does It Take to Establish the Pecking Order?
The pecking order is a very important part of interaction among chickens. As violent as it may seem, this process is what maintains peace among members of a brood.
The strongest and healthiest chicken is usually at the top of the hierarchy. That usually means the strongest rooster. But if there are no roosters, then the position goes to the strongest and healthiest hen. Conversely, the bottom of the hierarchy is where you find the weaker and younger chickens.
The pecking order is very fluid and changes, either when the younger chickens mature and begin to challenge the older members, or when new chickens are introduced into the brood. When this happens the order is disrupted and must be established all over again.
Generally, establishing the pecking order can last for up to two weeks, and apart from pecking, it involves displays such as challengers preventing rivals from access to food, and severe clashes (depending on how aggressive the average brood member is). If after two weeks you notice that some of your chickens are still missing feathers, or have lost weight, then you may have a case of cannibalistic pecking on your hands. Read on to learn how to manage the situation.
This Is How to Stop Chickens From Pecking Each Other
In the previous section, we examined the two major natural causes of pecking among chickens and established that neither of those poses a permanent problem. Rather, the real problem arises when the conditions that cause natural pecking are absent and pecking still continues.
This is when a pecking situation has become cannibalistic. It can happen for a variety of reasons, but most of these reasons are centered around the chicken coop and the daily patterns you’ve set for the birds. So curbing pecking is basically ensuring that you establish the right patterns in your farm.
Here’s a list of things you can do to prevent cannibalistic pecking.
Tip #1: Run a general examination of living patterns
Chickens are subject to emotions such as boredom and frustration. They can sometimes express these emotions by pecking at weaker members of their brood. These emotions are mostly brought on by changes in their environment such as the addition of new chickens to the fold, overheating, overcrowding, and so on.
So the first thing you should do is a general examination of the living conditions within and outside the coop. You may want to take notes over several days. Watch what they eat, what they do, and where they go. This data will help you know what adjustments to make.
Tip #2: Ensure each chicken has enough room
An overcrowded coop is a recipe for frustration among your chickens and can lead to pecking. Ensure that the dimensions of your coop follow the general rule of thumb for housing chickens (which is 2-4 square feet per chicken), and that each chicken has an outdoor range of 8-10 square feet.
If you’ve got a pasture or space for your chickens to free range, then you can err on the lower side of indoor coop space for your birds. After all, they can go outside when they need space!
Just make sure you account for weather changes in your “they can just go outside” plans. Our chickens have a large covered run so that outside is still an option for space in all but the worst of snowstorms. Then they don’t care about space, and they just want to stay inside to stay warm!
Tip #3: Isolate injured chickens (and prevent injuries)
Chickens are attracted to blood, and so an injured bird is like a walking sign that says “peck me!” To prevent curiosity from escalating into a potential bloodbath, ensure that you regularly inspect your chickens and separate the injured members from the rest of the coop.
Also, do maintenance checks on the coop’s cage to check its condition and ensure the absence of jagged edges, and similar damages, that can hook and cause accidental injury to any of the birds.
Tip #4: Limit overall light exposure (chickens need night times, too!)
Chickens need no more than 16 hours of light and 8 hours of darkness each day. Excessive lighting can induce stress in the birds and may lead to violent behavior. They also need periods of winter where there are fewer daylight hours. This will help them stay in a more natural rhythm with the seasons and sunlight patterns.
If your coop uses artificial lights, then ensure that you avoid white bulbs with more than 40 watts of power. If you need a more powerful bulb to help provide heat, the recommendation is to go for a red, or infra-red, bulb.
Tip #5: Keep coops cool and properly ventilated
Chickens don’t do well with excessively high or low temperatures. They also do very poorly if there’s a huge temperature swing from one day to the next. So you need to make sure that they’ve got a coop that can insulate them from crazy weather patterns and yet is properly ventilated.
Ensure the temperature matches the needs of the flock. This is usually more problematic in summer than winter. So make sure you look at seasonality, too. And if you need tips on keeping coops cool during the summer, make sure you read my guide to summer-proofing coops. It’s got some good year-long advice, too, so I recommend you check it out.
Pro tip: chicks require higher temperatures than older chickens and should be brooded at 95 degrees Fahrenheit for a week after they hatch, after which a weekly decrease in temperature by 5 degrees Fahrenheit should follow until the temperature indoors is the same as the temperature outdoors (source).
Tip #6: Provide toys or entertainment if needed
Just like with people, keeping chickens entertained is a very effective way to keep them from mischief. There are a variety of options. And you can also decide to make some yourself if you’re into crafts, or improvise using items like logs to make chicken swings. Your only limit is your imagination.
You can also introduce items specifically made for pecking like any of the various chicken-specific seed blocks. It’s basically a compressed block of grains, that contains vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, among others. It kills two birds with one stone in preventing the pecking of other birds and providing extra nutrition for the birds.
However, you don’t always need to give your chickens toys. In fact, there are some times when it’s just not needed. But don’t worry – I’ve got a whole guide to when your chickens do (and don’t) need toys here. You’ll want to read it, too.
Tip #7: Give your chickens a balanced diet
Providing all their nutritional requirements is paramount to ensuring that your birds don’t get the idea that their fellow chickens can be used to supplement their diets. The most common nutrition deficiency for chickens is protein. So make sure your chickens get enough protein in their feed or by supplementing their diet with protein-rich food sources.
Adding greens like kale, lettuce, turnips, and clover to their diets provides fiber that keeps them full. Also, intermittently giving them electrolyte solutions to drink (usually at one tablespoon per liter of water) keeps their salt and sodium levels high enough to curb any cravings for blood.
No matter what you’re feeding your chickens, make sure you read my article on chicken nutrition. It’s aimed at helping chicken owners know how to transition towards a feed-free diet, but it’s got what you need to know about chicken nutrition in there. So make sure you give it a read!
Tip #8: Put the offending chicken in timeout
If every other thing is in check and pecking has yet to cease, then you may want to consider isolating the offender for a while. It should take between 3-7 days. This should help them mellow out.
If the chicken offender has injured another chicken, make sure you also put the injured chicken in quarantine. This is to protect the injured chicken from the rest of the flock.
Tip #9: Trim the offending chicken’s beak
Beak trimming dulls a chicken’s beak and reduces its capacity to harm other chickens. If you’re not knowledgeable in this area, it is recommended you hire a professional and/or talk to a veterinarian. Please don’t do this yourself – especially if you don’t know what you’re doing.
And if you don’t know how to do it? Don’t feel bad. I don’t know how to do it right now, either. It’s one of the things on my to-learn list. Or to not learn and ask a vet to do.
Tip #10: Rehome or remove repeat offenders
If after trying everything on this list you can’t get pecking to stop, then it may be that you have to rehome the offender. It could be that the bird is just too aggressive for that particular brood, among a host of other options.
Chickens are complex animals and pinning their behavior to one particular action is near impossible and short-sighted.
If rehoming the chicken isn’t feasible, then you may also need to consider culling it or removing it from your backyard homestead via another humane option.
Final Thoughts on Stopping Chickens From Pecking Each Other
Chickens peck. It’s a fact of life – especially when you own chickens. But when you see your flock in the midst of a hostile takeover in the pecking order, it’s stressful to watch. And it’s most definitely not fun.
But there’s not a whole lot you can do – the pecking order has to be there or you get chicken chaos. The best you can do is make sure that your whole flock has access to plenty of resources (food, water, space, etc.) while they figure out who’s the boss and who’s not-the-boss.
And know that the pecking order will change. Just a few days before writing this, our flock experienced some hostile negotiations – and restructured the pecking order. One of the hens who’d been #2 fell a few places. And a young hen, who’d been the scape chicken, asserted herself and became not-last-in-the-pecking-order. She’s still not the boss – but she’s not in last place any more.
And so while the older hen lost a few feathers, this is (in the long run) going to be better for the whole flock. Because now they all get along again. For now, anyway.
So hang in there – and make sure you go see all of our chickens over on YouTube – because they really are a lot of fun! My chickens love having subscribers. They’re kind of vain like that. Oh well. We hope to see you over there anyway. 😉
It’s important to learn from your own experience, but it’s also smart to learn from others. These are the sources used in this article and in our personal research to be more informed as homesteaders. 🙂
- “FEATHER PECKING AND CANNIBALISM IN SMALL AND BACKYARD POULTRY FLOCKS.” Small and Backyard Poultry, poultry.extension.org/articles/poultry-behavior/feather-pecking-and-cannibalism-in-small-and-backyard-poultry-flocks/.
- Marino, Lori. “Thinking Chickens: a Review of Cognition, Emotion, and Behavior in the Domestic Chicken.” Animal Cognition, Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2 Jan. 2017, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10071-016-1064-4.
- Phillip Clauer Associate Teaching Professor and 4-H Youth Poultry Coordinator Expertise 4-H Poultry Programming Embryology in the Classroom Poultry Judging and Training Incubation Small Scale Poultry Production and Management Exhibition PoultryMore by P. “Poultry Cannibalism: Prevention and Treatment.” Penn State Extension, 18 Apr. 2021, extension.psu.edu/poultry-cannibalism-prevention-and-treatment.