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Chicken Cannibalism: Why Are My Chickens Picking Each Other?

red chickens in a cage

Did you know that chickens can sometimes eat each other? This gruesome behavior is called chicken cannibalism and can cause serious problems for poultry farmers and hobbyists alike. Chicken cannibalism can harm your flock in many ways. It can lower their egg production and make them more vulnerable to diseases and death. This article will teach you about chicken cannibalism and how to handle it. You will find out what it is, what causes it, how to treat it, and how to prevent it from happening again.

What Causes Chicken Cannibalism?

Chicken cannibalism can begin as a form of feather pecking, which is when chickens peck at each other’s feathers. Feather pecking can be normal and harmless, but it can also escalate into cannibalism when chickens start to peck at each other’s skin, blood, and organs. Cannibalism in poultry can happen because of various reasons, such as:

  • Lighting: Chickens can get stressed and bored if they have too much or too little light, making them peck at each other’s feathers and flesh. It is important to provide adequate lighting to prevent this behavior. For brooding, avoid white bulbs larger than 40 watts and opt for red or infra-red bulbs if higher heat is needed. Once your birds are 12 weeks or older, use 15- or 25-watt bulbs above their feeding and watering areas. Remember not to subject your fowl to more than 16 hours of light per day as constant lighting can cause undue stress to the birds.
  • Diet/Nutritional Deficiencies: Chickens need a balanced diet that provides them with enough protein, calcium, phosphorus, sodium, and other nutrients. Lack of these nutrients can make them behave abnormally, such as pecking and eating each other’s feathers and skin. For example, lacking protein can make chickens crave animal protein sources such as feathers and flesh.
  • Boredom: Chickens are social and curious animals that need stimulation and enrichment. If kept in barren and overcrowded environments, they may become bored and frustrated, leading to severe feather pecking and cannibalism.
  • Stress: Chickens can experience stress from various sources, such as predators, parasites, diseases, temperature changes, noise, etc. Stress can lower their immune system and make them more prone to chicken cannibalism.
  • Overcrowding: Chickens need enough space to move around freely and express their natural foraging behavior. If they are crammed together, they can struggle for resources like feed, water, nesting boxes, perches, etc. This overcrowding can cause aggression and dominance hierarchies among chickens resulting in feather pecking.
  • Genetic Stock: Some breeds of chickens are more prone to aggressive pecking than others. For example, laying hens tend to be more aggressive than meat breeds. Refrain from brooding different species of fowl together in the same pen to help prevent this behavior.
  • Introducing New Chickens to the Flock: The established pecking order is disrupted whenever you add or remove birds from the flock. When adding new birds, consider dividing the pen with a wire wall for at least a week to allow the chickens to get to know one another. You can also place the new birds on the perch at night but always monitor the initial interactions to ensure the safety of your birds.
  • Prolapse Pecking: Prolapse, characterized by the uterus stretching, tearing, and taking longer to return to the body cavity after laying an egg, can occur in very young or overweight laying flocks. When the uterus is exposed, other birds may peck at it out of curiosity, causing bleeding and potentially leading to cannibalism. If you notice blood streaks on eggshells, your flock may be prone to prolapse. Implementing proper management strategies for bringing your birds into production and ensuring appropriate feeding practices can help prevent this issue.

How to Treat Chicken Cannibalism?

You need to take quick and decisive action if you notice any signs of chicken cannibalism in your flock. You can take these steps to treat chicken cannibalism:

  • Identify and Separate the Injured Birds and the Aggressors: You first need to identify the injured birds and the aggressors. Injured birds may have wounds on their backs, vents (cloacas), necks, heads, or wings. Those who start or join in cannibalistic behavior are considered aggressors. You need to move both the mutilated birds and the aggressors out of the rest of the flock immediately. This separation will prevent further damage and infection to the injured birds and reduce the spread of the behavior to other birds. Also, removing the dead birds as quickly as possible will prevent the spread of bacteria that can cause food poisoning, such as Salmonella and other common diseases.
  • Treat the Injured Birds: The next thing you need to do is to care for the harmed birds. Their wounds should be cleaned using warm water and an antiseptic solution. You may also need to administer antibiotics or painkillers if the wounds are severe or infected. Closely monitoring the wounded birds until they have fully healed is important. Do not reintroduce them to the flock until their wounds are healed.
  • Trim the Beaks of the Aggressors: The last thing you need to do is clip the aggressors’ beaks. Beak trimming should only be done when there is no other option, or other methods are impossible. Trimming the beaks reduces their ability to peck effectively and causes them pain and discomfort. Beak trimming should only be done as a last resort when other methods have failed or are not feasible. Beak trimming should only be done by a trained professional using proper equipment and techniques.

How to Avoid Chicken Cannibalism in the Future?

After you have dealt with chicken cannibalism in your flock, you need to take steps to stop it from occurring again. Here are some tips and best practices for preventing chicken cannibalism in the future:

  • Provide Adequate Space: Chickens need enough space to move around freely and express their normal foraging behavior. Depending on the housing system, the space you need for each chicken may vary. For details, check out our blog post on how many square feet you need per chicken.
  • Provide Enough Feed and Water: Your chickens’ health depends on getting enough nutrients. You should provide them with high-quality feed that includes protein, calcium, phosphorus, sodium, and other nutrients and meets their nutritional needs and preferences. You should always provide them with fresh and clean water and avoid feeding them animal by-products or scraps that may contain feathers or flesh.
  • Provide Adequate Lighting: Chickens need adequate lighting to regulate their circadian rhythms and egg production. You should provide them with natural or artificial light that mimics the day-night cycle. Avoid exposing them to bright or continuous light that can cause stress and boredom in chickens. You should also avoid sudden light intensity or duration changes that can disrupt their normal behavior.
  • Provide Enrichment: Chickens are social and curious animals that need stimulation and enrichment. Providing them with various items and activities will keep them occupied and entertained. For example, you can provide them with toys, mirrors, pecking blocks, dust baths, fresh greens, etc. You can also scatter small grains in deep litter or allow them to free range to encourage foraging behavior.
  • Choose a Suitable Genetic Stock: Some breeds of chickens are more prone to aggressive pecking and cannibalism than others. For example, laying hens tend to be more aggressive than meat breeds. You should choose a genetic stock that is not prone to these behaviors or has been selectively bred for reduced feather pecking and cannibalism.

Contact Freedom Ranger Hatchery Experts

The health, welfare, and productivity of your chickens can be hurt by cannibalism. This serious issue can affect your flock. By understanding the causes, treatments, and prevention methods for chicken cannibalism, you can protect your birds from this behavior and promote flock harmony. If you need more information about managing your flock or dealing with chicken cannibalism, please contact Freedom Ranger Hatchery today. We are pleased to support you with any poultry-related issues or queries.