Addressing Behavioral Problems in Chickens

Dec 05 , 2019

Addressing Behavioral Problems in Chickens

Does your backyard flock have behavioral issues? Are you looking for solutions? Here is a list of common poultry behavior issues, what causes them, and how to fix them.

Don't feel like reading? Watch our YouTube video below and visit our YouTube channel for more where that came from!

There are three main expressions of aggression in chickens: aggression towards flock members, aggression towards humans, and aggressive mating.

Aggressive Towards Flock Members This is not to be confused with chickens working out their pecking order, which is normal behavior. Some fighting is bound to happen, especially when introducing new flock members. If there is an injury, separate the wounded bird before further damage is done, and preferably before blood is drawn. Excessive fighting is more likely to happen if the coop is crowded. New chickens are seen as invaders of space that must be made unwelcome. Therefore it is important to introduce new birds slowly and safely. Build a temporary pen within or just outside of your normal coop to let them visit with each other safely for a few days. Once they're used to each other, introduce the new flock members all at the same time after dark. That way, they will wake up together and not be taken by surprise. If you can be there to supervise in the morning, all the better.

Aggressive Towards Humans Usually the culprit here is a rooster. Some roosters love to make a sport out of chasing people around and attacking children. It's best to stop this problem before it starts. Don't fight back or tease them. Kicking at them only makes it worse. Don't run away, either. The best thing to do is stand your ground and grab the rooster when he comes near, and then carry him under your arm for a while. This establishes your role as the head of the flock, and in time he will be less likely to challenge your authority.

Aggressive Mating When your hens start getting beat up, it's usually a sign that you have too many roosters and too few hens. But that is not always the case; some roosters are just plain mean. They'll single out one hen and torture her while almost ignoring the others. If this is the case, the kindest thing you can do is cull the problem rooster, or at least separate him permanently from the rest of your flock.

If you have hens whose backs are torn up from a rooster, consider making some tiny coats for them to wear while they heal. You can make them easily out of felt and glue. No sewing required!

Feather Plucking
There are two types of feather plucking in birds: self-inflicted and inflicted upon others.

Chickens generally fall into the latter category. Self-inflicted feather plucking is often seen on the breast feathers and usually caused by isolation and boredom. This form is usually seen in caged birds. Isolation is rarely a problem in chickens, though, since most chicken keepers usually have multiples. More often, chickens are crowded, and this can cause them to pick at each other’s feathers whether by aggressive measures, curiosity, or boredom.

Other probable causes are things like allergies, skin parasites, and a lack of forage volume and diversity, which makes for a boring environment.

The quickest fix to this problem is to change their environment. Make your coop interesting again. Build it bigger if possible. Free range your flock during the day if you can. If not, give them some boredom-busting goodies! Our personal favorite is our very own Hentastic Hanging Feeder with herbal treats. Or you can stuff it with veggies and anything that will fit. You can also make a cabbage tether ball along the same lines. Give the girls new bedding and throw grain in for them to scratch through. Anything to take their minds off picking at each other.

Feather plucking must be stopped in the early stages, otherwise it turns into a much bigger problem:

This is the severe form of aggression and feather plucking, and usually starts with the feathers around the vent, but can occur anywhere on the body. Chickens are most vulnerable to being pecked by their flockmates around molting time when they lose feathers and their skin is most exposed.

Correction and prevention of cannibalism is done much in the same fashion as aggression and feather plucking, as outlines above. The difference is that with cannibalism, blood has been drawn, and it is a more serious issue. Not only can these wounded chickens contract infections, they are often killed by their flockmates if left unattended. Even young chicks in the brooder can kill each other this way.

If only one hen is being picked on, pull her from the coop and keep her separated while she heals. A dog crate makes a great recovery room for injured chickens.

If multiple hens are being picked on, identify the aggressors and separate them from the coop. This will remove them from the pecking order and the flock will rebalance itself. After a couple weeks away, re-introduce the aggressive hens one at a time. If you introduce them as a group, they'll come in like the bullies they are and the problem will start all over again. Introducing them one at a time will ensure that the other hens keep them in their place.

Anti-pecking rings can help some hens. They come in metal or plastic, with or without blinders. It's a humane way of preventing them from harming one another without debeaking them. They can still eat and drink, but can’t peck and grab.

As far as treating the wounded hens, keep some blood stop powder on hand as well as an antiseptic drying agent like Dr. Naylor's Blue Kote. Some have reported success with pine tar and bitter spray, and others have made items of clothing for the chickens to wear that cover and protect the injured area.

Egg Eating
Egg eating hens are perhaps one of the more frustrating problems chicken keepers face. It's not a threat to the flock's health, but if you are keeping hens for the specific purpose of selling or consuming their eggs, this is a problem.

There are many potential causes, and the biggest one is boredom in the coop. Bored chickens look for things to do, and eventually they are bound to peck at and break an egg. Not enough calcium is also a cause, for two reasons. The first is that they look to their own eggs to get the calcium they need. The second is that weak shells crack easily and teach the hens that there's good stuff inside.

Collect your eggs early! Don't let them sit too long. The longer they sit, the longer they will be a temptation. Leaving eggs in the coop for long periods of time increases the likelihood of snakes and other pests showing up, and encourages your hens to go broody. If left too long, eggs will get dirty and potentially break. Collect them sooner to keep track of freshness.

Egg eating can also be caused by lack of food and water or an unbalanced diet. Too many chickens and not enough nest boxes means more traffic and more chances for eggs to break.

Now that we know the causes, we can work on some solutions.

Make sure your hens have plenty of calcium available in the form of either oyster shell or crushed eggshells. This satisfies their nutritional need while simultaneously thickening shells and preventing cracks and breaks. It’s worth noting that offering dried, crushed eggshells does not encourage egg eating when offered in crumbles. Because it does not resemble an egg in shape, the chickens will not make the connection.

If you have too many chickens, expand your coop and run space, or narrow down the flock. Add a dust bath, preferably under a roof so it stays dry. Add diatomaceous earth to your dust bath to help cut down on mites and other parasites. Give them a boredom-busing treat like our Hentastic Hanging Treats Feeder, or a "tether ball" made from a head of cabbage. You can also darken the nesting area so the eggs are harder for them to see and thus peck at.

Some have had success with "baiting" eggs: blowing out the contents, and re-filling with mustard. Chickens hate mustard. Getting a beakfull of it a few times in a row is usually enough to make them reconsider after a while.

The most successful way around the egg eating problem is a new nest box designed in such a way that the egg, once laid, will roll down a ramp through a drop-through, inaccessible to the egg eating hens. This can be a complete redesign to your coop, or you can purchase plastic inserts to add to your current nest boxes.

If the above tips don't work, you'll have to identify the offender. Keep an eye out. Set up a camera if necessary. Look for dried yolk on your hens' beaks.

Often, this behavior cannot be corrected once it has become a habit. Unfortunate as it may be, you'll likely be forced to cull any birds who do this. If the offender is a favorite of your flock, consider building a smaller enclosure just for her.

Ultimately, the impact of this behavioral issue depends on your individual needs and how many eggs you can afford to lose.

All chicken keepers will complain about a hen going broody at least once in their chicken keeping career. Broody hens are a problem because they will take a break from laying and sit on eggs instead. You'll know your hen is broody when she is on the nest all day long, only getting up a couple times a day to eat, drink, and poop. Broody hens sit on their nests in a trance-like state and will usually defend their nests by growling and pecking at intruders.

You can prevent hens going broody first by picking high production laying breeds like Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshire Red, any color of Leghorns, and Sex Links. Hatcheries often have their own hybrid layer like the Production Red. These breeds have been selected over the years for egg production values and they have all but lost their mothering traits. Be sure to collect eggs as soon as they have been laid so the hens will not be tempted to hatch them.

Maybe, on the other hand, you have the opposite problem: none of your hens will go broody. In this case, select breeds that are known to be great mothers. Silkies and Cochins are at the top of this list, but don't expect them to be great layers! Orpingtons are the best of both worlds: great layers and great mothers. To encourage them to go broody, make sure they have a safe, private, dark nesting box. Leave eggs in the nest box, or at least leave some "dummy" eggs so they will be tempted to set and incubate them.

Once a hen has gone broody, there are a few things you can do to snap them out of it.

Move Her Off the Nest You'll probably have to do this multiple times a day for several days. In theory, taking her off the nest and forcing her to move around will help reset her head and give her a few more chances to get food and water than she would otherwise give herself.

Make Her Roost Put her on the roost at night when it gets dark and the other chickens have settled in for the night. If it's too dark to see, it won't be worth it to her to get down from the roost to go find her nest.

Block Off Nest Access If it's possible to block off one hen's access to the nest without blocking the others, give it a shot. Another option is to remove the nest altogether. If there's no place to nest, ideally the desire to set will leave her.

Separate Her Put her in a new pen or coop if you can. In theory it will disorient her enough to confuse her out of broodiness. Make sure this coop has lots of natural light available while staying shaded from direct sunlight.

Make the Nest Uncomfortable Some homesteaders swear by putting whole or packed frozen vegetables in the hen's preferred nesting spot. Hopefully this will be uncomfortable enough for her to decide that setting just isn't worth it. We don’t recommend ice cubes because when they melt they can cause water damage and mold growth.

Lastly, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em! Give her a clutch of hatching eggs. Watching a mother hen do what she does best is an incredible experience and a great thing for kids to experience and learn from.

If you don't have room for more chicks, and your hen simply refuses to get off the nest after a few days of trying to break her, we suggest waiting it out. Soon she will come to realize the futility of sitting on a nest with no eggs. If after 21 days she is still broody, try some of the above methods again.

Excessive Crowing
Cows moo, pigs oink, and roosters crow. It's what they do!

Annoying, yes, it certainly can be. But it's hard to call something a true behavior problem when they're just doing what they do naturally. There's really no stopping them, but you can take steps to cut down on the frequency.

Roosters crow for a number of reasons, one is to establish their dominance over their territory. If you can cut down to just one rooster, there should be less reason to crow.

Crowing is also a defense mechanism: an alert to potential predators or threats. If you remove them from the coop every night and place them in a quiet, dark area inside your house or garage, it may help delay the urge to crow in the early morning.

Caponizing (castrating) roosters is also said to help, but this needs to be done at a young age before the testosterone has a chance to kick in.

Another solution that works for some roosters is the Rooster Collar. It functions in a similar fashion to a horse's cribbing collar. When the rooster gulps in air to crow, he simply can't get that big deep breath in to emit the very loud crow.

Stopped Laying
Commonly complained about by novice chicken keepers, a decrease in laying frequency is a normal part of chicken life. The main cause is a seasonal decrease in daylight. Chickens need about 15 hours of daylight to stay at peak egg production.

When supplementing daylight, all it takes to trick your chickens into laying year-round is enough light to read a newspaper. Be aware, though, that putting a lightbulb in your coop can introduce a fire hazard. Be careful when doing this and take measures to prevent any potential fires.

Another reason for low egg production is molting, which usually begins when the daylight hours get shorter and lasts about six weeks. This is a period of losing and re-growing feathers, which is nutritionally taxing on the body. Chickens needs much more protein (mealworms, anyone?) during this time to regrow their feathers and stay healthy. The body is so focused on growing new feathers before the cold weather comes that egg production becomes less of a priority.

Age is also a factor. Chickens won't stop laying altogether due to age, but their production drops off after about three years old.

Diet is important! Laying hens need a layer ration. These are commercially produced and proven to increase egg production. You can't just feed corn and expect them to lay like crazy. Hens need protein and calcium to live up to their production potential. A free range diet is best, when possible. Keep oyster shell or crushed egg shells constantly available for them to eat when they need.

If none of the above are problems for you, but your hens are still not laying, you may be dealing with illness.

Afraid or Flighty
Do your chickens run away when you approach them? Having trouble getting them to eat out of your hand? Don't fault them too much - they are prey animals, after all. This behavior is not abnormal. But if you wanted tame pet chickens, fret not! There is hope. Check out our blog post on how to raise tame chickens.

Roosting in the Wrong Place
Are your chickens roosting where you don't want them to? Maybe they have found a place that feels safer to them than their designated sleeping area.

Look at their preferred roosting spot, and look at where you'd prefer they sleep. What are the differences? What is making them feel safer in their chosen spot? Is your coop too short? Are the roosts too low? Are the nest boxes built higher than the roosts?

If possible, redesign your coop so they feel safer. If that's not possible, you can retrain them. Simply move them right after dusk to their new spot, and after a few days, they'll start roosting where they are supposed to.

The Common Theme
Most of the time, with any given serious poultry behavior problem, the causes come down to stress, overcrowding, and competition over resources. Maybe there is not enough food or water. Maybe there are too many chickens in too small an area. Maybe they are stressed because they are tormented by rats and predators at night. When you can identify the cause of the behavior issue you are experiencing in your flock, you can begin to solve the problem.

Have you struggled with any of the above behavior issues in your flock? How did you solve it? We'd love to hear from you!




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