Chicken Coop Chatter©
The other day while talking with a follower on the Facebook page, the topic came up about *feather picking*. It was believed that when the temperatures rise to the 100 degree mark, that the chickens were picking their feathers to cool down. You also may have noticed this behavior. I thought that was an interesting observation and theory, so I decided to research that a bit to see if in fact Chickens do pick their feathers to cool down.
Typically there are reasons for picking feathers. The most common and expected reason is to molt. But they will also pick feathers if there is any kind of parasite infestation. A broody hen will pick her breast feathers out to *feather her nest*; so her flesh is against the eggs for optimum warmth and humidity while incubating those eggs. There may also be a feather picking behavior amongst the flock that can lead to cannibalism. You will want to be aware of any of these feather picking behaviors and know the signs of the different behaviors.
We'll address the feather picking that leads to cannibalism first. If you notice that the feather picking is overly aggressive or blood is appearing from the feather picking, you must act upon that behavior. Anytime blood is drawn, this is an attractant to the fowl, they will continue picking at that until there is a wound, which can become infected or be a target for aggression and cannibalism where the birds will start eating at the wound. Overcrowding, confinement without enough activity, low protein in the feed, can all lead to cannibalism. Provide more protein or a higher percentage protein to the feed and provide stumps, rocks, large limbs to provide entertainment areas to keep the chickens busy, in addition if there's overcrowding, reduce the numbers within the flock, by either providing a larger pen or culling out the extra birds, and especially the birds you've observed that are doing the feather picking. If a wound appears from aggressive pecking, use Blue Kote to disguise the redness or bloody area. Blood will always attract others to start pecking as well. Feather picking can become habitual and needs to be curbed, either by isolation of the one being pecked or the one doing the pecking. If isolation does not curb the behavior, then culling out the bird or birds with that behavior is the best remedy.
Another common reason for feather picking is parasites. In summer, the parasites and particularly the roost mites multiply, and can cause your flock to become infested with mites. If this happens, you will need to clean your coops, disinfect and spray an insect repellent on the floors, roosts and perimeters of the coop. Painting the bottom of the roosts will help keep the roost mites from their continued breeding habits. The mites are virtually invisible in daylight and come out at night from cracks in the wood and roosts to invade the chickens flesh to nourish themselves with the blood. If you're seeing blood spots and feather picking you need to start examining for parasite invasion. Treat the birds and the coops until all evidence of parasites is under control.
Often, if you have a new rooster or hen in your flock, a pecking order will be established. You may witness feather picking, if not a full out aggressive attack on the new inductees. Unless there is serious blood drawn or you see potential for serious injury, just monitor, to make sure the behavior does not get out of hand. If you do see serious damages occurring, remove the attacker. The attacker is almost always the lead bird, whether that is a hen or a rooster. Others that attack, are usually only doing it at the command of the lead bird. But know which bird is causing the overly aggressive behavior, before any are removed. A hen can kill a rooster if he is not accepted, so if you are trying to introduce a new rooster, be aware that he may have to be removed and another rooster offered. It is not unusual for a rooster to be completely rejected by any or all of the hens. We've had our own experiences with this. We've also had the experience of hens killing a rooster that was not accepted. ANYTIME you introduce a new bird to an established flock, you MUST monitor the behaviors. Make sure when you do introduce a new bird to your flock, that it has been quarantined at least two weeks, that you introduce at night when they are all settling down in the coop, and that you have the time to be there to observe the flocks behavior. There may be a couple of days you will need to be very vigilant to make sure all is well in the coop and run. Unless things get completely out of hand, just leave the flock to sort out their grievances.
Roosters, especially young roosters or having too many roosters to too few hens in a flock, you are apt to see a lot of feather loss in your hens when those roosters are in active pursuit. If young roosters, that behavior will usually tone down and the hens or pullets will set him in his place if he's overly active. A rooster may choose a favored hen, if he does, she may be shed of most of the feathers on her back. If you have more than 3 roosters to a flock of hens and you see a lot of bare backed hens, remove the extra roosters. They are wearing the girls out. There are *saddles* that you can purchase or make yourself, to keep the wear and tear down to a minimum, however if you have a lot of hens this may not be a practical or economical solution.
We have had the experience of a feather-legged birds being introduced to non-feather legged birds. In that case, the non-feather legged will feather pick out of curiosity. We had one rooster, completely shed of his leg feathers by the hens. They did not hurt him, they were merely so curious, that they pecked the feathers to see what that was. This same behavior, may occur with crested and non-crested birds. Chickens are very observant and very curious, so they will peck at things they are not familiar with.
As for feather picking as related to the summer heat, I found no evidence that the heat of summer alone will cause feather picking. It is more likely that the chickens are so hot, that they are trying to molt, even if it is not a complete molting that would occur naturally at another time during the season. Chickens shed and pick feathers throughout the year, much like our own hair sheds. They may also grow extra feathers in cold weather to ward off the cold, and when heat sets in those feathers that have not shed will be picked out.
Regardless the reasons for feather picking, always monitor your flocks for unusual behaviors, for any heat stress, for any signs of aggression and any signs of low protein or parasite infestation. Deal with the problems when they occur, which is easy if you have been monitoring and understanding your flock daily. The above list of things to watch for will help in your observations.
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