My Chickens Are Losing It!

It’s that time of the year… molting season. Simply put, when chickens molt, they lose their feathers and grow new ones. Think of it as their way of refreshing their wardrobe before winter.

My chickens are experiencing their first big molt and I am learning things about chickens I’d rather not know. Not only are they molting, but they are picking on each other. When I say “picking”, I don’t mean teasing and name calling. They are literally picking (pecking) each other! Last weekend, I was horrified when I noticed that two of my white Tetra Tints were bleeding from the vent area (backside) due to excessive picking by the other birds. We immediately soaked the birds, Sue Sylvestor and Sally, in a sink of warm water for 15-20 minutes, followed by an application of Neosporin. We then separated them from the bullies. The next day, we made a trip to Tractor Supply and picked up Blue Kote (a blue tinted wound spray that discourages picking and aids healing). It’s not pretty, but it does the trick. We also added vitamin and electrolyte powder to their water.

Several hours after rescuing Sue and Sally, we discovered that one of the Red Stars, Frieda, had also been severely pecked! Her wounds were much worse than those of the other two. In fact, we wondered if she would survive. Seven days later, and another trip to Tractor Supply for Tylan (an antibiotic), Frieda is holding her own. She is still not out of the woods, but she gets around fine and has not lost her appetite. To protect her, we confined her to a large Rubbermaid bin in the basement for several days and kept the lights low/off to discourage egg production. Imagine passing an egg through a vent that has been pecked to bits! For the past several days, we’ve let her free range for an hour or so every morning and evening. This allows her to be her little chicken self as well as socialize with the rest of the flock. My hope is that giving her co-foraging time will make her permanent reunion with the other chickens a bit easier. Chickens are funny about their coop mates. If one is injured, they will torture her. If the tortured chicken is removed, they might attack her again when she returns… as if she is a dangerous stranger. Flocks truly do have a pecking order and are not afraid to enforce it. They also have short memories.

Fortunately, I stopped my chickens before they murdered one of their own. Yes. Chickens will kill each other. It’s hard to believe, but chickens have cannibalistic tendencies. They will ruthlessly peck at a less dominant, or injured, chicken. If left unchecked, their pecking could lead to pulling the victim chicken’s intestines out. Disturbing and disgusting, isn’t it? I shudder to think that my chickens could do this to one of their own.

So, why did my chickens turn on each other? I blame molting for this sudden spree of bad behavior. Until they started losing feathers, they were peace-loving, happy birds that never quarreled. When their feathers started to fall out, they turned into bullies, mercilessly pecking the balding spots on their molting sisters. Until I researched molting and picking, I didn’t realize that when chickens molt, they need extra protein. It just so happens that feathers are a good source of protein. That explains why they were feasting on each other’s feathers! It’s the best answer I can come up with anyway. The internet is filled with possible explanations. I chose the solution that seemed the most correct.

I feed my chickens layer feed with a 16% protein content. Some people switch their molting hens to meat bird feed, which contains 20-22% protein. I’ve also heard of people feeding their chickens raw hamburger, cooked eggs, and various other forms of “people food” protein. I’ve been giving mine meal worms and letting them free range several hours a day for natural forms of protein (bugs and worms). They also seem to be much happier when given more space to roam and are too busy scratching for goodies to worry about pecking at each other. Since I started the extended foraging time routine, I haven’t had any more incidents.

I will keep you posted on Frieda’s progress. So far, she’s been a trooper. We hope to reintegrate her into the flock in a week or two. Tips, advice and suggestions are greatly appreciated!

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