I used to think chickens were ideal farmyard animals. They’re beautiful, endlessly curious, fairly docile, relatively easy to care for (or so I thought), and they provide a steady stream of food in the form of eggs.
These days, I am having to re-evaluate my stance on poultry.
The last few weeks have been quite a challenge as we have watched our small flock of laying hens (and one rooster) peck one another to the point that all but one have some bald patches on their backs and butts.
Being new to the backyard chicken scene (our first-ever flock is just eight months old), I didn’t pick up on the behaviour right away. Nor did I realize how fast it could spread, or how serious it could become. Once the pecking started, it soon escalated into something that required intervention.
The obvious questions we had were: why is this happening and what should we do to remedy the situation?
We are fortunate enough to have a strong network of friends in the farming community we can lean on for advice. There are also endless Internet resources (never in a million years did I think I would become a regular visitor of www.backyardchickens.com) to turn to. The problem is, everyone we talked to and everything we read seemed to offer a different opinion.
The reasons people gave for our chickens’ disturbing cannibalistic behaviour ranged everywhere from overly cramped quarters to lack of protein to mites to plain old boredom.
Others wondered whether our rooster, Big Beefy, was being overly forceful in his advances on the hens. As far as roosters go, Beefy is a pretty laid back dude, and given his bald rump, he is just as much of a victim as the rest of his harem.
Our girls have plenty of space in their palatial – albeit non-insulated – coop. They also have constant access to fresh water and food (including table scraps) when they’re in their run. And it is likely too cold for mites to be a problem at this time of year.
Which leaves boredom.
Could it be that, with nothing better to do, chickens will start pecking one another just to pass the time? They’re not the brightest creatures, so I’m not ruling it out.
The suggestions we received on how to deal with the issue were equally varied. I heard everything from trimming the chickens’ beaks, which would physically prevent them from pecking one another (some are adamantly opposed to this practice) to applying Vicks VapoRub to deter pecking. Someone even said we should just cull the flock, fill the freezer and try again in spring.
After many phone calls, Facebook messages and frantic research, we decided to separate the two worst pecking offenders from the rest of the flock. They were relatively easy to spot as they both had the majority of their feathers intact.
The second step involved catching each bird and applying a gel-like substance called Stop-Pick to the bald, sometimes damaged, areas. Not only is it supposed to act as a deterrent, it also contains healing properties.
I then cleaned out the entire coop (run, roosting area and laying boxes), applied a generous dusting of diatomaceous earth (keeps mites and other parasites in check) and threw down a fresh layer of straw and pine shavings.
For a bit of amusement (both ours and the chickens), we hung a head of cabbage just above their heads, which they happily picked away at. They also loved scratching through the fresh straw, which contained remnants of grain.
So far, these few simple measures seem to be working. The girls are happy, and while it’s still too early to tell, their feathers look like they’re growing back.