Chicken Behaviour

Feather Pecking

Cockerel with feather pecking damage
Example of signs of feather pecking behaviour

Feather pecking is a potentially serious issue in chickens. At best it can look rather scruffy, but at worst it can result in chicken death. Take a look at Peter Pecker in the photo. Notice his cream coloured feathers (his saddle) have v-shaped tips. This is classic feather pecking behaviour. The feather pattern of plucking is known as barbering.

The hens in his flock are being over attentive and because he is a kindly cockerel, he is letting them do it. He sees it as a mutual preening exercise which is a normal type of behaviour in birds. They often preen each other as it cements their bonds, however this can continue to a destructive level. Eventually the barbering gets closer and closer to the skin and if it does not stop then it becomes a feather pecking habit. Chickens will then start to attack the pin or blood feathers as they are starting to poke through the skin. This will draw blood and blood is bad. Chickens then begin to actively hunt feathers especially those of chickens that are lower down the pecking order. They do not know when to stop when they start to draw blood and it can turn fatal.

The reasons behind feather pecking are complex and not well understood. Some people believe that the hens realise they have a deficiency in protein and eat feathers to make up the deficit. Others think it is a boredom or a stress response. In parrots that is surely the reason but is it still the case for chickens? There could be a similarity for sure. Allo preening (bird mutual preening) is a bonding and very natural behaviour so we may be just guessing. It is all too easy to attach human emotions and reasons behind animal behaviour. At the end of the day we can only make assumptions but not know for sure.

One thing is for sure, when the birds are in a moulting period and every bird is in the same state of undress then they actually (mostly) leave each other alone and stop the feather pecking to allow the feathers to re-grow. Maybe it is more to do with the heightened stress of hormone surges during the peak laying and fertility periods of spring and summer.

Day-old Chicks

Newly hatched chicks

Day old chicks need special care

Looking after day-old chicks is a rewarding experience for everyone, no matter their age. However, there are some things that needs to be in place before you contemplate looking after dayold chicks in your home.

The list below is considerations that need to be addressed BEFORE embarking on this exciting adventure.

  • Day old chicks are delicate and can easily die
  • Young chicks need a heat source in their first weeks
  • Day-old chicks can drown in a water source
  • Chicks need to be kept indoors for at least 3 weeks in summer
  • They must be indoors for longer when the weather is cold
  • Chicks need cleaning out regularly otherwise they will smell
  • Raising young chicks indoors creates massive amounts of heavy dust from their feathers. This can cause breathing issues in sensitive individuals
  • Most non-hybrid dayold chicks cannot be sexed accurately until they are 6-8 weeks old
  • Unsexed means there is a risk that you will get cockerels which can cause neighbour issues
  • Most important if we have sold them unsexed we cannot take the boys back due to a biosecurity risk for our stock.

All our day-old chicks get sent to their new homes with a full care sheet. The minimum needs are listed below.

  1. Brooder to contain the dayolds. Rabbit or hamster cage. They must NOT go outside in a coop till they are at least 3 weeks old in warm weather. This will be longer in cold weather.
  2. Water dish or drinker, which should be shallow initially
  3. Food dish or specific feeder with chick crumb constantly available
  4. Warmth minimum 28C for the first week which can be reduced as they feather up. Suitable heat sources are electric hens, reptile heat mats or heat lamps. Bear in mind a possible fire risk from unsuitable equipment
  5. Safety from other animals including and especially other chickens
  6. Companion of other day old chicks because a solitary chick is very noisy indeed

Finally please don’t ask us for young chicks if you have no equipment ready we will not sell them to you.

Warning!!!

Don’t expect that a broody hen will take on the day-old chicks you present her with. Always have a backup plan. Broodies can be remarkably fickle, moody and dangerous. Unless a hen is showing clear signs of being very broody then she will NOT look after chicks. She will more than likely try to kill them. If she has not looked after young chicks before then please supervise any introductions and be prepared to intervene quickly if she decides to attack the chicks. A swift angry peck to the head of the chick can render them unconscious or severely bruised. A normal broody/chick communication is a gentle tap to the head. This is the broody telling the chick to pay attention to what she is telling it. If she sounds angry then she is so watch very carefully. More info on broody hens here

Broody Hen

Broody chicken

Is a Broody Hen a blessing or a curse?

Broody hen season is from Spring to Autumn and this is where your chickens sit and sit and sit and sit. Even when you lift the hen out of her nest she remains in a sitting position like she has lost the use of her legs.

I have been waiting for any of my girls to go broody because the easiest way to care for eggs and then chicks is to get a mother hen to do it for you. It’s the lazy persons way, but the best and most natural way to raise chicks.

How do you know your hen is broody?

  • She will be making a noise that sounds like “clock” “clock” “clock.
  • Your hen will be flattened in the nest box.
  • You may get pecked when you try to remove her as broodies can get rather moody and irritable.
  • Every time you look for her she will still be there in residence.  
  • When she moves around she will look and sound angry to the other hens and they will most likely attack her for her insolence if she is far enough down the pecking order.
  • On leaving the nest she will produce the most enormous poo that can be seen – and smelled – from space.

What can you do to stop her being broody

Either you want her to hatch eggs, in which case add some fertile eggs under her. This is best done at night if she is a bit cantankerous. Or you will need to “break” her out of her broody phase.

Contrary to popular belief, broodies are not hot. Their body temperature is normally about 41C which is higher than our own. An egg needs incubating at 37.5C which is cooler than a hens normal temperature. Eggs overheat at the normal chicken temp so it would be a fair assumption that a broody is actually cooler than a normal hen. She will pluck her breast feathers so that she has less insulation.

To break her you will need to keep her in a cage such as a dog cage with a wire bottom. This is to make her uncomfortable and unable to nest. Put food and water in her cage as she will need to be kept in there day and night for at least 2 days. It is important she is safe from predators and the weather. Test her after 2 days. If she returns to her nest, add another day in the “broody gaol” until she is no longer wanting to sit.

You can also prevent her from getting anywhere she can make a nest by locking her out. Your other hens will need access to the nests however. She can go back in with the others overnight if you wish but turf her out each day until she gives up. Cage will take 2-4 days, lockout will take about the same.

Why do I need to break her

Broodies that do not have a job to do will only eat and drink once a day. They will lose condition if allowed to sit indefinitely. Some breeds can literally broody themselves to death. Either let her hatch or break her. She may have repeated episodes of broodiness if she is particularly prone to it. Silkies, Pekins, Wyandottes, Sussexes, Goldtops, Orpingtons are some of the most broody breeds.  If you are unhappy feeling cruel to be kind, then it is a good idea to avoid getting any of the above breeds.

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