Cannibalism in Polutry
by Manda H
Published July 11, 2023
I remember vividly the first time I went into my chicken coop some 20 years ago, as a new chicken mom, to find a chicken that had passed away and was being feasted upon by those she once considered to be part of her flock. I will be honest, I went inside the house to look up on the internet to see if it meant my chickens had somehow been afflicted with a Chicken Zombie-like illness and also if it meant they could have some sort of negative health fallback from consuming one of their own kind. Mad Cow Disease was a huge issue at the time and my mind and heart were filled with fear over my little flock.
I have since learned that chickens and turkeys are indeed notorious for performing acts of cannibalism when certain situations present themselves. Cannibalism is the act of eating part of one’s own species for food.
The first step in preventing cannibalism is to prevent or reduce stress within your coop. Birds that are stressed or bored will likely start picking on other chickens’ feathers. Through the act of a chicken pulling at a bird’s feather or vent something might get yanked the wrong direction and a wound or scab created. This can also occur in flocks where one or more birds are particularly aggressive and they target other birds as part of establishing the pecking order.
The color red sends out a visual signal for chickens to take a second look. What first draws them in will now create curiosity. Now others in the coop are seeing the same glistening red glaring at them. They peck at it and then they peck at it some more. No one knows exactly what the sight of a wound or blood does within the mind of a chicken. The only thing that is known is that they will not stop until either the red blood is no more or the chicken has died.
Diet and Cannibalism
Diet can also play a role in cannibalism. If the diet is otherwise low in protein, a chicken, especially a laying hen, is going to seek out sources of protein so that she can continue laying her eggs. This is why specially formulated feeds for hens are important. The protein that she is consuming is then converted into eggs. Feathers are a sort of protein. Feathers are a rich source of keratin, which is a type of protein and therefore can become the option of choice when a hen is struggling with her daily intake. Young chicks also will take pin feathers from other chicks to increase their protein, which is needed in higher amounts for their own growth and feathers. While not related to cannibalism, this is also why chickens do not lay well during molt. They need their protein to be used to create new feathers. During molt and while hens are getting in new feathers is also a time when cannibalism can become more frequent as the small pin feathers can be confused for pieces of grain. One wrong pull and now there is some blood and now begins the curiosity.
Stopping the Pecking
So then what do you do when you find one of your birds has a visible wound? You need to get the attention off that bird as soon as possible. On our website, we have a First Aid Page and Anti-Pick Page that have some great options for helping heal your flock before there is an issue. Many backyard flock owners prefer a natural solution such as Rooster Booster Pick-No-More to put on wounds.
Some chicken owners keep a bottle of Blue Kote on hand. Be warned that Blue Kote can cause some pain or stinging to your birds and it does stain, so be forewarned to use gloves when applying. Blue Kote has antiseptic properties in addition to a staining cover that will block the view of red blood while providing the chicken time to heal its wounds without drawing attention to it.
Before addressing any wounded bird, make sure you consult a licensed veterinarian or your local extension office for the best advice for your flock and experience level.
Providing boredom busters, increasing coop size, and choosing breeds carefully to avoid aggressive breeds being around more docile, laid-back breeds can help a lot in reducing the risk factors for problems in your flock. During times of molt, it can also help tremendously to provide some additional sources of good protein so that they can feel like their dietary needs are being met while also assisting with new feather growth. Some people like to add a little high-quality cat food for protein, whereas I prefer Black Oil Sunflower seeds. I love throwing sunflower seeds into loose straw floor bedding during our long northern winters. My chickens will spend hours scratching through the straw for the tiny morsels of goodness.
The important thing to understand is that while it can be disturbing to know that a chicken can and will react in such a seemingly violent way that they are only reacting to an opportunity. Since it is a matter of being opportunistic, you can 100% prevent cannibalism by taking the proper steps to prevent it.
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