If your chickens have developed a taste for feathers, you’ll likely be wondering what is going on. While a certain level of unique behaviors is somewhat expected with a flock; this one can seem particularly odd. What can this mean or indicate? Is there something as a keeper that you need to do? Let’s find out!
So, why do chickens eat feathers? Chickens typically will eat feathers as a means of getting more protein, which is likely deficient in the diet. Although, it can also indicate disease, parasitic attacks, or stress resulting from bullying or excessive light.
Chickens are generally not fussy eaters and are willing to consume a number of different things to get the nutrients they need.
And while this may seem strange to you and me, they instinctively know what they need to eat.
Foraging is perhaps a tell-tale sign that these birds know how to live off the land.
Nevertheless, a high-quality and nutrient-dense poultry feed should always form the staple of the diet; and if this is lacking or inappropriate, then your flock is going to encounter problems.
Feather eating is common; so let us now take a closer look in further detail at exactly what this is all about. Covering everything you need to know.
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Why Do Chickens Eat Their Own Feathers?
Chickens will primarily eat their own feathers as a means of boosting their protein intake. Besides, these birds have quite a high requirement for protein in the diet.
And they cannot synthesize it themselves. In fact, there are 9 specific amino acids (the small building blocks that make up proteins), that a chicken must get through the diet.
And chicken feathers are perhaps one of the best, easy to access sources.
Chicken feathers contain more than 85% of crude protein, along with 70% of the required amino acids, other high-value elements, vitamins, and specific growth factors, according to this research paper.
So, the first place to look at is always the diet.
Are your birds eating enough poultry feed, or are they eating too man treats and scraps?
High quality feeds will always contain sufficient protein, and you’ll often see it marketed on the product packaging. Its always given as a percentage.
Take this high quality layer feed for chickens, on Amazon, for instance.
The truth is, it is uncommon for a healthy chicken to want to eat feathers. At least in any significant quantity.
So, ensuring that protein is sufficient in the diet is the first thing to check. But this does not always solve the issue of feather loss in the flock.
In the following section, we explore the other potential reasons!
Other Reasons Why Chickens Eat And Lose Their Feathers
Chickens do lose their feathers for a variety of different reasons. So its important to make the distinction between actively consuming feathers, and losing them to other causes.
Stress is a big one here, which can come through a variety of forms.
Let us now take a closer look at potential areas to look into:
Parasites, such as lice and mites may attach themselves to the bird’s skin, right under the feathers. They can weaken these feathers, causing them to fall out.
Of course, this will be accompanied by pecking at the skin due to irritation and as a means of relief.
Sometimes, a chicken will proceed to eat the feathers, or so do inadvertently.
This is one of the most overlooked reasons why your chicken may have bald spots.
A tell-tale sign of too frequent or aggressive mating is bald spots at the back of the chicken’s neck.
Roosters can be aggressive while mating and may pluck and eat the chicken’s feathers during the process.
Isolating the roosters can help determine if this is the case.
Bullying And The Pecking Order
It is normal for chickens to peck at each other. In fact, it is a crucial part of establishing the pecking order.
The top hen pecks at others in the hierarchy, while the lowest chicken will be pecked at the most.
In most cases, this is not a matter of concern.
However, if you’ve noticed that a particular chicken in the flock has been losing its feathers, it is time to investigate and take a closer look at what’s happening.
Heavy scabs and bloody patches are a sign of bullying.
The bullies may be pulling, pecking, and eating the feathers.
If you don’t intervene in time, the bullied chicken may even end up losing its life.
Deficiencies and Aging
Eating feathers can also be linked to other nutrient deficiencies and aging in chicken.
When chickens get old, they start losing their feathers – in the same way, that humans tend to lose their hair. The feathers simply lose their strength and fall.
Or, your bird may end up with mouthfuls of feathers while preening herself.
Of course, you may be wrongfully assuming that she’s eating the feathers.
Molting is an annual process; a natural way to prepare for the upcoming winter and have a good set of feathers to keep warm during it.
As such, a chicken will naturally lose its older, worn down feathers and replace them with new ones.
It’s important that we do not confuse the molt with the eating of feathers, or other causes of feather loss. It’s natural and to be expected, often coinciding with a lack of egg production.
Thankfully, molting only typically lasts for 6-16 weeks per year.
Cannibalism And Feather Pecking In Chickens
Cannibalism is another area to look into if your chickens appear to be eating and/or losing feathers.
And its important to start this section by sharing the definition of cannibalism in chickens.
According to the University of Kentucky’s Dr. Jacquie Jacob, the definition of cannibalism in birds is the “pecking, tearing, and consuming of skin, tissue, or organs of flock mates.” The issue can begin at any age.
This learned behavior can quickly spread itself through the flock. If not monitored closely, cannibalism can often result in serious injury or even death.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common reasons for cannibalism and the feather plucking that comes with it.
High temperatures are uncomfortable for birds and this can lead to pecking. The ideal temperature to raise chickens is around 70ºF, or matching that of the outside.
While younger birds need a warmer temperature of about 95ºF for the first week of their lives, you should reduce the temperature by five degrees every week until it reaches the recommended temperature.
Excessive feather pecking has been long linked to overcrowding.
When birds in a flock do not get adequate space to move, eat, and drink, they are more prone to pecking at each other.
This is mainly due to increased competition.
The dominant birds peck at the others to maintain the hierarchy, leaving the bullied malnourished and scared.
Excessive light may be another reason why your birds become cannibalistic and promote feather pecking.
Chickens do not need more than 16 hours of light every day. Increased exposure to light can be stressful to the flock.
Excessively bright lights are linked to increased hostility between the birds. A 40 W bulb is more than adequate for the birds.
If you keep a flock of different breeds, sizes, and ages – it is generally harder to keep things social and for a pecking order to naturally develop.
Especially if new birds are introduced regularly, or there are drastic differences between the two.
Dead or Injured Birds In The Flock
Chickens are attracted to blood. So, if a chicken dies or is bleeding through an injury, pecking and cannibalism can soon result.
This is why you will need to keep any injured bird away from the flock, at least until they’ve regained their health and are ready to move back in with the rest of the birds.
Ensuring the chickens get adequate nest boxes and laying conditions will help keep cannibalism at bay.
Keep in mind to have bright lights away from the nests as a dark nest box provides the hen with a safe space to lay its eggs.
Is It Normal For Chickens To Eat Feathers?
It is not considered normal for chickens to eat feathers, at least it is not an expected behavior that occurs in healthy chickens.
While many chickens may resort to it, taking the definition of the term normal to be ‘conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.’ this is simply not the case.
So, if you do notice any feather eating, pecking, or general loss, it’s important that you investigate and remain vigilant at all times.
How Do You Stop Chickens From Eating Feathers?
Stopping chickens from eating their feathers primarily depends on the root cause, although addressing the diet is perhaps the best place to start.
Let us now take a closer look at the different areas and approaches for each one:
First and foremost, you should review the diet of your flock, and subjectively consider whether they are consuming enough protien.
It could be that you are not providing the right feed, treats/scraps to often, the wrong type of treats/scraps or if could be as simple as not providing enough feeders for all your birds to access.
So, ensure that you are providing a good quality pelleted feed of sufficient protein. This is probably the highest quality you can get from Amazon.
From there you might want to consider adding some higher protein foods through scraps. These can include:
Its also important that you let your birds free range, as much as safely possible, and enable them consume bugs and insects; which are naturally high in protein and other important nutrients.
Keep in mind that birds need more protein when they are molting.
Feathers are made of up to 85% of protein; so consider that these need to rebuilt.
And also consider that during molting season, all of the bird’s protein resources go towards feather-making.
Of course, there could also be another nutritional deficiency at work.
Calcium for instance is perhaps the main one; so ensure you are providing sufficient access to crushed Oyster shell at all times.
If your birds have contracted parasites, such as mites, lice, etc, then they will need to be given appropriate treatment.
That being said, never give medication to your bird without a vet’s advise, expertise and recommendation.
Which leads us to the next point.
Seek Veterinary Expertise
Veterinarians will be able to help identify specific causes of stress and ailments which may be contributing to feather pecking and eating.
Keep in mind that each case is different and may need different interventions.
Remember, it is easy to mistake feather eating for general pecking and or cannibalism, so it needs investigating.
Other than that, be sure to keep any suspected injured birds away from the flock to prevent any further injury or issues with bullying.
Other Useful Strategies
Whether its changing the living conditions or generally improving them, the following have been reported by chicken keepers to help with feather eating:
- Using red bulbs in replacement of white fluorescent or incandescent light bulbs; consider this will not provide the supplemental lighting a chicken needs for egg production.
- Allowing chickens more time to roam about freely,
- Using blinders or plastic peppers for aggressive birds
- Giving your birds shiny items that chickens can pick at and entertain themselves with.
- Applying anti-peck ointments on the most troublesome birds
- Lowering the coop temperature
- Beak trimming is something to be considered as a last resolve
Chickens can resort to eating feathers; and the majority of the time, its not good.
Chances are, if your birds are eating feathers there is something going on that needs addressing, and fast.
Whether its one bird in particular or an entire flock, the urgency to resolve must remain the same.
Besides, feather pecking and eating is usually just the start.
I am an experienced pet owner with decades of experience owning a number of different pets, from traditional pets like dogs and cats, to the more exotic like reptiles and rodents. I currently own a Cockapoo (pictured) called Bailey. I am also the main writer and chief editor here at Pet Educate; a site dedicated to sharing evidence-based insights and guidance, based on my vast pet ownership knowledge, experience, and extensive research.