3. Vitamin and mineral deficiency
Feather pecking often starts when the cold weather comes in, hens are very routine creatures and a disruption to their daily habits can cause stress. Snow will stop most hens from getting about their daily routine thus frustrating the hen to the point that she becomes stressed. A fox/dog strike or the removal/death of one of the group can also trigger stress.
The minimal recommended ground space for a run kept hen is a meter square per chicken, in my opinion it’s not ideal but it’s a guide. Try and make this space as varied as possible with some logs & perches, a dust bath and plenty of shade – make it like a play pen for them to amuse themselves during the day. Previously free range kept hens who are now run kept will find the transition hardest.
The most common cause of feather pecking is caused by a vitamin and mineral deficiency, 99% of the problems are caused by food quality and quantity. As a guide chickens can only eat around 150g of food a day, given a choice they would rather eat corn and leftovers and be allowed to rummage round the garden daily. However, if they are run kept or free range in a garden they need to eat layers pellets/mash in order to keep up their protein, vitamin and mineral levels.
Feather pecking is usually caused by a lack of good quality nutrients in the diet, she will start to feather peck by pecking out the small sweet feathers round the vent, at the top of the legs and at the base of the tail where it meets the body of the other hens in the flock. By doing so she is substituting what she is lacking in her diet with the keratin found at the base of the feather, very quickly she will become addicted to the keratin and, given the opportunity, will never stop.
In order to prevent this from happening make sure you are giving them the best quality feed affordable to you. Get them into a routine of feeding which consists of pellets/mash all day and only a handful of corn each in the afternoon. Because hens don’t digest their food during the day ideally you want to fill them up with pellets/mash and top them up with treats. Any treats should always be given in the afternoon once they have had their fill of the good stuff!
If you have a hen that has already started to feather peck you need to address the situation straight away, left to her own devices she will peck at all the other hens in the flock. It only takes a nicked pull of a feather to draw blood and she will quickly descend into cannibalism along with the rest of the flock resulting in severe injury or quite possibly death of the pecked hen.
If you don’t know who’s doing it there are a few tell tale signs –
Who in the group has a fully feathered bottom?
When they sit on the perch at night does one sit the wrong way from the others?
Do the pecked chickens sit in the nest box at night?
There are various ways to prevent/stop this from happening please read the descriptions from the other boxes.
Feed & treats
If you think they are not eating enough of the layers pellets then try layers meal, it’s the same feed only in a different form. The idea behind pellets is that they get more in a mouthful of pellets than in a mouthful of mash so free range chickens will fill up faster on less with pellets – they would far rather be out scratching around than in eating their pellets. It’s unusual for a free range chicken to return for pellets when there are bugs and slugs to be found. By feeding run kept hens mash they will take longer to eat their feed therefore amusing themselves more. Never mix corn and pellets together – they will eat all the corn and leave the pellets.
The quality of feed is also very important, try and buy the best quality affordable to you. By doing some research into the different feed companies you'll see what actually goes into their feeds. Four hens should eat roughly a 20kg bag of feed in a month.
A chickens’ natural reaction to any feed is to stand in it and break it up with her long claws into manageable pieces. By hanging their feeder level with their back will stop them from scratching through the feed, this will avoid spilt feed withch in turn will encourage little furry creature activity.
Treats should be limited to the afternoon once they have finished their pellets/meal, a handful of corn scattered in the run will make them work to find it taking up their time. Corn is a very heating food for chickens so should be limited in the warmer months and given more in the winter - heat your chickens from the inside out.
Hanging up a cabbage/cauliflower will entertain them too, try hanging it above a log so they have to balance on the log to get at it. Another way is to hang it from a bungee so it moves all the time.
Any treat that is hung up for them should be removed by the morning, vary the treat daily whether it be a pecker block, cabbage, mealworms – keep them interested.
The recommended run space is a minimum of 1 meter squared, not a huge space so the more space you can give them the better. If possible move the run onto fresh ground regularly; if this is not possible make sure the ground they are on is suitable for them to scratch through to look for food. Provide a dust bath for them, give them a log/perch to sit on, hang up a small mirror or a CD – anything to amuse them!