Theresia Lavergne, Claesgens, Mark A.
Stress can lead poultry to "pick" at one another, and LSU AgCenter poultry expert Dr. Theresia Lavergne says the problem seems to be occurring around the state.
"I have been getting quite a few phone calls about this problem," says Lavergne, who is an assistant professor in the LSU AgCenter’s Department of Animal Sciences.
"When chickens are stressed they may begin to pick feathers from other chickens," Lavergne explains, adding, "This feather picking can result in open wounds, bleeding and even death at times."
The poultry expert notes that feather picking is a form of cannibalism and can be costly to the poultry producer.
"It also is a vicious habit for poultry. Chickens, turkeys, pheasants and quail have been known to pick each other to death at times," Lavergne says.
Cannibalism usually occurs when birds are stressed by something in their environment, according to Lavergne, who says that once stressed birds begin picking other birds, open wounds develop and the habit rapidly spreads through the flock.
"If the habit gets out of hand, it is difficult to eliminate," Lavergne warns, advising, "Therefore, cannibalism needs to be prevented. Prevention is much easier than treatment, both for the birds and the producer."
Several stressors can cause poultry cannibalism, but Lavergne says the behavior usually is the result of more than one stressor.
Poultry cannibalism can be caused by overcrowding, excessive heat, insufficiency or absence of feed and/or water, dietary nutrient deficiencies, flock nervousness, overexcitement, incorrect lighting, sick or crippled birds left in the flock, mixing of different types and colors of birds, abrupt changes in the environment or management practices, shortage of nesting boxes or just meanness on the part of the birds.
"Prevention of cannibalism needs to be part of every poultry producer’s management program," Lavergne emphasizes, adding, however, "Unfortunately, cannibalism outbreaks can occur in the best-managed flocks."
The better the management, however, the less chance of a cannibalism outbreak, she says, while offering these guidelines.
–Space requirements. Allow at least 1.5 square feet per bird for confined mature chickens (game birds and some other poultry require more space).
–Environmental temperature. When brooding young chicks, keep the temperature at 95 degrees Fahrenheit the first week. Then decrease the temperature by 5 degrees per week until it reaches an environmental temperature of 70 degrees F.
–Lighting. Allow only 16 hours of light per day, because constant light triggers stress.
–Feed and water. Make sure the birds have free access to water and feed at all times, and provide adequate space for all birds to eat and drink.
–Diet. Feed the birds well-balanced complete rations, which are available at your local feed store.
–Flock type. Do not mix birds of different ages or different traits. Do not brood different species of birds together.
–Environmental changes. Do not make any abrupt changes in housing or management.
–Nesting boxes. Allow at least one nest box for every five hens.
–Injured birds. Remove crippled, injured or dead birds from the flock immediately.
–Beak trimming. Bear in mind that beak trimming (performed by an experienced person) is used in the commercial poultry industry, but is not a substitute for proper management.
"If a cannibalism outbreak does occur, stop it immediately," Lavergne advises, adding, "Identify the birds that are doing the picking, and remove them from the flock."
Once that’s accomplished, she says to review all of the management practices and environmental conditions to identify the stressor or stressors that are causing the feather picking. Of course, when you’ve identified those factors, take corrective actions.
In addition, Lavergne says you can apply "anti-pick" compounds, pine tar or axle grease to wounded areas to help stop the picking. You also may want to "keep the birds busy" by allowing them to go outside of their coop or confinement or by spreading greens or grass clippings in their pen for them to pick at, she says.