Monday, March 19, 2012

Feather Picking

Feather picking is a nasty habit that is easier to prevent than cure.  We have found that feather pickers as chicks can lead to feather pickers as adult brood fowl.  If left to free range the behavior may not turn back up, but once penned with a rooster and/or another hen let the feather picking commence.  I have yet to see a brood cock feather pick a hen, but a feather picking hen is a nasty little devil.  She will destroy a good looking brood cock before you know it.  We feed the best feed from birth to adulthood so nutrition is not the answer.  Some say they do it out of habit as a "learned" behavior.  The most common places we have noticed hens to pick on a rooster are around the face, where the hackle feathers begin, the neck, saddle feathers, and tail feathers.  On other hens, they commonly pick the back, breast, and tail.  In laying hens, the feathers are an easy source of protein and other vitamins but only in a malnourished hen that is lacking such nutrients from her feed.  Just like nail biting is a bad habit amongst humans, feather picking is a bad habit amongst chickens and needs to be stopped before it is ever started.

When you notice a brood cock's feathers are starting to look a little thin in places, remove the hen and replace her with another.  If there are two hens or more in with a rooster and you are unsure which is the picker, look at their feathers.  The feather picker will usually be the one that is not missing a single feather.  Unless you have more than one picker.  You can leave the rooster separate from the hen and only place him in her pen every few days to allow mating, then he can be taken back out.  A hen may pick another hen as a display of dominance in the pecking order.  Sometimes moving a feather picking hen in with a more aggressive or seasoned cock will stop the behavior. 

If keeping older chicks with younger or smaller ones, feather picking can be a display of dominance.  There is nothing more aggravating than looking in on your brooder to find a chick with a bloody tail or shoulders.  We remove the injured chick and isolate it until the injuries heal because if the chick is left in the brooder with the others, they will begin to pick the bloody chick as well out of curiosity.  Once they realize they like the taste of blood, the feather picking spreads like a wildfire.  Feather picking needs to be addressed as soon as possible to prevent serious injury to your birds.  First, switch the "white" brooder bulb for a red one.  This makes everything have a red cast so blood isn't as easy to distinguish and thus it loses its appeal.  Keeping the feeders full at all times also helps to prevent the behavior.  Another way to prevent the behavior is to keep the chicks entertained with fresh litter or straw.  If they have plenty of stuff to scratch they are less prone to feather picking.  Since the behavior is more common amongst older chicks, we will also start to scatter feed and grain amongst the bedding to encourage them to scratch and forage.

 Chicks may feather pick as a display of frustration from a hot or overcrowded brooder, boredom, bullying, and/or hunger or thirst.  It can also be a sign the chicks aren't getting enough protein or sodium.  If a chick doesn't get enough protein or sodium in their diet they often look for it in the feathers, flesh, and blood of other chicks.  Chickens are cannibalistic and once blood is drawn they often won't stop pecking until the chick or chicks are seriously injured or dead if they are not removed immediately.  Try increasing their protein intake by supplementing their diet with hamburger meat, eggs, and so on.  They should also be getting a good quality chick starter/grower.  We prefer 20% but if picking is severe the 20% can be mixed with some 28% gamebird starter/grower for extra protein.  It is not recommended to feed young chickens straight gamebird starter as it can cause weak bones and legs because it causes them to grow and put on weight very rapidly.  Sodium can be supplemented in the chicks' water for a few days by adding 1 tsp of table salt to one gallon of water in their morning water.  Replace the salt water with fresh water in the evening and repeat this the next day.  This should stop the feather picking if the problem is sodium related, but do not give salt water for more than two days.  Puppy chow can be blended into smaller morsels and fed for extra protein and sodium.  Do not allow chicks to eat whole dry dog food as it can swell and lodge in their throats causing them to choke. 

Also, determine whether the brooder is too hot.  Chicks don't have to be kept at roasting temperatures to survive.  They need to be kept warm, but not so warm they are holding their wings from their bodies and panting.  Chicks that are too hot will move as far away from the heat lamp as possible.  You can raise the heat lamp or exchange the heat lamp for a regular 100 watt bulb if the chicks are getting too toasty.  Just be sure to put the heat bulb back if temperatures drop to prevent chilling or "piling."  Piling is when chicks huddle on top of one another or "pile up" in a big mound to keep warm.  They often smother chicks to death that are on the bottom of the pile.

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