One day you may walk out to your chicken coop to find your chickens plucking feathers out of each other. This seemingly unusual behavior can be disturbing to the attentive homesteader: you might find one of your chickens with a completely naked neck or large patch of feathers missing from the vent area. Patches of unfeathered areas on your chickens is a signal that something is wrong. If your chickens are plucking each other’s feathers, or their own feathers, there are a few likely explanations for this behavior.
Reason 1: Inadequate Space or Overcrowding
Chickens need space to roam and peck at things. If your chicken coop is too crowded or you don’t allow your chickens to roam around outside of the coop, they may pluck at each other’s feathers. When chickens have adequate space and are allowed to roam freely, they will feel content and will have the freedom to peck at their own accord. When these conditions are not met, your chickens will become stressed or bored, and they will start engaging in destructive behaviors.
If you cannot give your chickens more living space or let them roam freely for a good portion of the day, provide them with some sort of stimulation inside their coop. One good way for chickens to satisfy their urge to peck is to hang a cabbage from the roof of their coop and allow them to bat it around with their beaks. You can also accomplish the same thing by placing a broccoli or cauliflower crown in a suet container and hang it from the coop roof.
Reason 2: Mites, Fleas, or Lice
Infestations of mites, fleas, or lice on a chicken’s body can cause it to pluck its own feathers out. Mites, fleas, and lice are parasites that feed off of the blood of other animals. When chickens are irritated by these parasites, they will often peck at their own feathers. If left undetected, mites, fleas, and lice can multiply extremely quickly, causing an infestation in your coop.
To control these parasites, make sure that you are allowing your chickens to dust bathe regularly, as this is their natural way of fighting parasites. Isolate and treat any infected chickens with a malathion bath, Adams spray, or Sevin dust. If your entire coop is infected, you may need to do a thorough cleaning of the coop, and treat the wood with an animal-safe disinfectant and a coat of kerosene, change the litter.
Reason 3: Lack of Protein
If your chickens are plucking at one another’s feathers, the cause may be a lack of dietary protein. By plucking and eating each other’s feathers, they are trying to get a small amount of protein-rich blood from the other chicken.
When raising backyard chickens, its important to remember that chickens are indeed omnivores, not vegetarians, and they do require some animal protein as part of their balanced diet. Although some chickens are vegetarian-fed, they will usually obtain protein by finding grubs, mealworms, and other bugs to eat. If your chickens are not eating bugs and are on a vegetarian diet, supplement their feed with some cooked eggs, a small amount of fishmeal, or hamburger meat.
Finally, if you’ve addressed all of the above causes and your chickens are still pecking at each other, you can try adding white vinegar or salt to their water for part of the day. Although a seemingly random remedy, this just might get your chickens to calm down!
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