There are many reasons why you might catch your chickens eating feathers. It might seem innocent for a chicken to eat a feather off the ground, but it’s about as innocent as them eating a freshly laid egg.
Why Are My Chickens Eating Feathers?
Stick around until the end to find out the biggest reason why chickens might eat feathers!
Catching your chicken eating feathers is one thing, but if notice your chicken has feather loss, that a whole other subject!
Cannibalism: Learned Behavior And Genetics
Cannibalism is defined as eating feathers, tissue, skin, and even organs. Chickens often peck each other to remind them of their place in the pecking order. However, aggressive chickens may turn to cannibalism if there are certain factors in place.
Firstly, feather eating could be a learned behavior. If this behavior isn’t stopped it could lead to fatalities. This behavior can also be passed down to their descendants. Careful breeding of chickens can help you have a healthier flock, that aren’t so cannibalistic.
This behavior can also spread quickly through a flock because chickens tend to imitate each other quite often.
SOLUTION: Remove the aggressor from the group if possible. I keep a 2-door dog kennel for sick, injured, or troublemaker chickens. Quarantine the troublemaker for a couple of weeks. This will reset their place in the pecking order, and they might come back with a better attitude.
If the chicken that was attacked is too badly harmed, quarantine her/him and care for their wounds. This is where having a chicken first aid kit comes in handy! If the chicken only has minor wounds like bloody feather shafts, spray them with Blu Kote. Then release them back into the flock.
Blu Kote cleans the wound but also covers up the red color of the blood, which can entice chickens pecking mechanisms. From my experience, it helps cut down on the pecking of wounds.
Note: Blu Kote is made with gentian violet. It is a deep purple and it can stain clothing and even your skin for a little while. So be careful when spraying this on your chicken. Don’t do it near your cars, or spray yourself or your clothing on accident.
Overcrowding Can Cause Chicken Feather Loss
Tight spaces can be a big catalyst for chickens eating feathers. It starts with pecking and ends with actually eating feathers, tissue, skin, and more. This is a behavior that needs to be stopped A.S.A.P.
Chickens might peck each other to let them know they are not to be eating first with the big girls. That privilege is only for the girls who are on the top of the totem pole (pecking order). So they may get pecked away from the water or food source.
This is completely normal, however, when there are a lot of birds in the mix, things can get out of hand pretty quickly.
Not having enough space, water, and food sources can inhibit an environment of excessive pecking, which can lead to cannibalism.
SOLUTION: Provide several feeders and waterers, and an adequate amount of ground or floor space for the birds to roam around. Also, provide more than enough space for roosting during the day. Break up large flocks and provide separate housing and fencing for them.
It’s also a good idea to give them plenty of things to keep busy with. Later in the post, I’ll be sharing a list of things you can use to keep them busy and healthy.
Too Much Light
How can too much light cause feather eating in chickens? People who raise chickens indoors, or who add lights to the coop during the winter (to extend daylight hours or other reasons) could actually be causing their chickens to be more hostile towards each other.
Chickens who are exposed to really bright lights or are exposed to light for long periods of time can become irritable and hostile towards each other.
SOLUTION: Don’t use anything more than a 40-watt bulb. Unless you are using infrared bulbs for heating purposes. However, if chickens can live in Alaska without heat, your chickens are probably fine in the winter without a heat source if the coop doesn’t have a draft…
Don’t give the birds more than 16 hours of light in one day. Too much light is stressful.
Knowing what chickens eat is very important when raising chickens. You must give them a well-balanced diet and a good source of clean water.
Cannibalism can be linked back to nutritional deficiencies of phosphorus, protein, and sodium.
The overall message here is if they are lacking the proper nutrition in their diet, they will go and find it, wherever they can!
SOLUTION: Make sure you feed your birds a well-balanced diet. I’ve had to educate many people who thought chicken scratch was actually food. IT IS NOT! Chicken scratch is actually just a snack. Giving chickens too many snacks, or even too many kitchen scraps can ruin the delicate balance of their nutrition.
Another thing to read about is How Much To Feed Chickens Per Day. If you don’t give them enough food, especially for chickens that are not free-range, then they will suffer nutritional deficiencies.
No Room For Scratching & Pecking
Scratching and pecking or foraging for food is a great boredom behavior. Chickens who are busy foraging for food are less likely to peck each other.
Another part of this is when you have a food dispenser. These aren’t always a bad thing. So don’t get me wrong.
However, if you’re birds are locked up (not free-ranging) and you use a food dispenser and they don’t have much room to scratch and peck the ground this might exacerbate chickens eating feathers and other cannibalistic acts.
SOLUTION: If your birds are not free-ranging, encourage them to scratch and peck by throwing their food on the ground. You can also deter this behavior that often starts as boredom or agitation, by giving them treats or toys they have to work for. Here are a few ideas that you can buy on Amazon…
Overheating: Why My Chickens Are Losing Feathers?
We live in Florida, it gets really hot here. High temps can make birds irritable. Um, me too! Think about it. You don’t want anybody touching you when you are hot, and you are more likely to snap! Also, don’t stand too close to me either, I don’t need your body heat, I have plenty of my own.
Baby chicks can even be prone to pecking believe it or not. This can be a learned behavior super early on.
When baby chicks get too hot, they may get pretty irritable and start pecking at other chicks who are too close to them while they are trying to escape the heat source you have provided.
SOLUTION: Make sure to provide more than enough water for all of the birds. For baby chickens make sure you are not overheating them. Consult my guide for How Long Baby Chicks Need A Heat Lamp to learn more about reducing the heat each week.
Dead Or Injured Chickens Can Cause Feather Eating Chickens
I hate to see my girls hurt that’s for sure! We talked a little bit about quarantine and first aid before, but we’ll touch on it lightly once more.
If you have a mildly injured bird: Treat the wounds appropriately. Cover any blood remnants with Blu Kote to cut down on pecking and it helps clean the wound.
For Severely injured Birds: Quarantine them and consult my Chicken First Aid Guide. Depending on how severe the injuries are, you may decide to take your chicken to the vet.
Promptly Remove Dead Birds: Chickens are curious creatures, and well…they can be gross. They may start eating feathers, tissue, skin, and even organs if they get the chance. This could turn on a switch inside their tiny little pea brains that says they could do this to their other flock mates also. So it’s a good idea to remove them as soon as possible.
Different Breeds, Ages, And/Or Sizes
Believe it or not, having different breeds can cause a bit of tension. Some breeds are more aggressive than others.
For example, I have Red Sex Links and a mix of RIR & Orpingtons. The RIR-OP are very docile birds. They are friendly. However, the Sex Links are aggressive. Rarely ever will you find one of them at the bottom of the pecking order.
Subsequently, we don’t have very many problems with them pecking each other. Although, years ago I did have to quarantine a few birds to correct their behavior but since then we haven’t had any major problems.
As far as age and size goes, I’ve always told people that when you are adding new chickens to your flock, they really need to be about the same age or at least the same size.
Now I’ve seen someone with bantams in the same flock with regular-sized birds and they were free-range and I didn’t notice any issues with them. So, it’s totally possible for some people to pull this off. Much of it has to do with temperament.
SOLUTION: If you have a troublemaker in the group pull them out and quarantine them for a couple of weeks. This will reset their spot in the pecking order. Sometimes this can help.
It’s best to not add lighting to nesting box areas. Lights in the nesting boxes can draw attention to the tissue where the egg comes out which can be a trigger for pecking. This is not a good place to be pecking, okay? So keep those lights out of the nesting boxes. Besides chickens kinda like their privacy while laying eggs.
Changes & Other Stressors
Chickens are sensitive to changes and stress like being attacked by a predator, a change in housing, adding new birds, or a change to the pecking order.
Stress can make the birds irritable. When they get irritable they peck more. They may end up plucking a feather or more.
SOLUTION: Try to keep the stress to a minimum. Any changes you make, do them slowly if possible.
When it comes to predators, it’s important to try to minimize their ability to access your livestock. It’s a good idea to predator-proof your chicken coop. Lastly, most people try to eliminate the threat if possible. However, that’s not always possible.
Simply because there are some animals you can’t kill or even trap legally! So be sure to do your research and follow laws before eliminating those threats.
On the other hand, sometimes being attacked by a predator can result in feather loss. Have you ever seen a bunch of feathers laying here and there? I have seen this after a hawk attacked my chickens, and I’ve seen it when a raccoon got a little daring and tried to take a chicken.
Seeing a bunch of feathers in groups strewn about here and there might be a good indicator that you’ve got a predator on your hands.
What Is The Biggest Reason Why Chickens Eat Feathers?
If you catch your chickens eating feathers it might mean that they are lacking protein. When chickens molt we give them extra protein to help them grow new feathers. Thus, hinting at the fact that feathers contain protein.
Who knew that feather meal is a thing? Yep, they actually process feathers and add them to things like pet feed.
Feathers have about 85-90% keratin. It’s a structural protein that has the kind of protein that animals need.
Overall, this behavior is similar to eating freshly laid eggs. Chickens will eat eggs/eggshells when they need protein and possibly calcium.
A Remedy For Feather Eating Chickens
So what do you do if chickens are eating feathers? That’s pretty simple. They need more protein, so give it to them. Often times we do this by giving them high protein treats. Like mealworms.
Here’s a list of high protein treats to give your chickens.
Finally, I’ll just leave you with this. It’s better to prevent pecking, feather eating, etc…than to have to deal with sores, wounds, or dead birds.
Prevent pecking by providing plenty of extras around their living quarters. Plenty of waterers, feeders, toys, swings, roosts, and other things to do, etc…
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