• Michelle Hunniford

Pecking Part 3: Prevention and Treatment

Updated: Jan 8

This post is a continuation of two previous posts on pecking (Part 1 and Part 2). As with most things, it is less costly to prevent something from happening than to deal with the fallout. In the case of pecking, and especially severe feather pecking, there is sometimes very little that can be done once the birds start doing it. Although aggressive pecking and feather pecking have very different motivations, there is some overlap in terms of prevention and treatment strategies.


RISK FACTORS


There are some key risk factors that may cause problematic pecking behaviour to develop in the first place. Some strains of chickens are more prone to pecking, like brown birds tend to be worse feather peckers than white birds. Birds housed in non-cage housing systems also tend to feather peck more than birds in cages. As stated in Featherwel, the most common cause of injurious pecking is change. So if changes need to be made in lighting, the feeding program, or transitioning birds between barns, it should be done gradually or with strategies in place to minimize the impact.



PREVENTION


Here are a few strategies that may help prevent both feather pecking and aggressive pecking:

  • Maintain good litter quality -- dry, friable -- including providing early access

  • Provide pecking enrichments -- this helps to fulfill foraging motivation and prevent feather pecking, and may distract birds from being aggressive

  • Make sure there is enough fibre and protein in the diet

  • House birds at lower densities

  • Install housing systems that provide enough resources (e.g. feeders, drinkers) for all birds and do not make resource guarding possible -- will help minimize aggression due to competition

  • Provide perches so birds can escape each other

  • Match the birds' rearing environment to their layer environment

  • Walk the flock! Often. Wear different clothes. Make some noise. Try and get the birds used to different stimuli so they will be better prepared if/when something scary happens (e.g. loud clap of thunder). Stress can trigger pecking.


INDICATORS


Some early indicators of feather pecking include:

  • Feathers disappearing from the floor -- indicates an issue as soon as they start to disappear

  • Broken feather tips -- wings and tails

  • Feather damage, particularly on the back of the hen at the base of the tail

Some indicators of aggression include:

  • Feather loss on the head and neck

  • Wounds on the comb -- scabs or cuts


TREATMENT


If you notice signs of feather pecking and aggression in a flock, it is important to intervene. Here are a couple of treatments or things to check to try and prevent pecking problems from getting worse:

  • Provide enrichment -- this works better used as a prevention strategy but it may slow progression. Enrichments should be periodically changed to keep birds interested

  • Emergency beak treatment -- may need to be done if a flock has not been beak treated and there are signs of severe feather pecking developing. Even in countries that have banned beak treatment, this is allowed as a last resort treatment to prevent cannibalism from developing

  • Remove pariah birds (lowest in hierarchy) or if possible identify highly aggressive individuals and segregate

  • Check the diet and make sure there is enough protein and fibre

  • Check to see if the birds are experiencing a disease challenge. The stress caused by disease (also including mite infestation) can trigger feather pecking

  • Lower light intensity levels -- this is a common initial intervention strategy in North America but is a last resort in Switzerland. It should not be done lightly because it cannot be raised once lowered

Hens using a Pekstone enrichment

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