Within chicken flocks, there is usually social hierarchy to establish a social order. This, sadly, is achieved through pecking.
The pecking, mostly of feathers, is considered a natural behaviour but this can lead to damaging of feathers and injury to the bird’s skin.
The severity is dependent on management and environmental conditions, which may turn gentle pecking to an extreme and aggressive form identified as cannibalism.
Cannibalism is clearly and easily recognised through pecking, tearing and consuming of skin, tissues or organs of the victim. Part of a bird’s natural behaviour include spending a considerable portion of the day searching for food and scratching, however, when the environment is not suitable for the expression of normal foraging behaviour, pecking can sometimes be redirected towards flock mates, which can lead to cannibalism.
The undesirable behaviour should be picked early and put in check because it is learned and spreads quickly in a flock as chickens have a tendency to imitate each other.
It usually starts by pecking feathers, comb, toes or vent of the victim and once an open wound or blood is visible on the pecked bird, the vicious habit spreads rapidly making it difficult and costly to eliminate.
If cannibalism, which is prevalent among flocks of all ages, breed, and sex, is not closely monitored, high losses are encountered due to poor feathering, torn and damaged flesh, and reduced egg production and in most cases, mortality.
The most common and cost-effective preventive measure of cannibalism is de-beaking. It involves trimming the beak to give it a square tip which makes it difficult for them to harm each other.
The practice is mostly carried out when the birds are four to six weeks of age. However, this is a highly specialised procedure that requires skill to avoid injuring the birds’ beaks. There are hatcheries that sell de-beaked day-old chicks but this is mostly upon requests.
There is also need to provide enclosed outside runs to allow birds to use up their energy. This will keep them busy and allow them to peck greens, ground and insects instead of other birds.
Smallholder Indigenous Chicken Improvement Programme ([email protected]),
Animal Science Department, Egerton University
Causes and measures
- Overcrowding, especially in flocks kept under confinement, encourages competition among birds for space, feed and water. Allow adequate floor spacing of 20 chicks/m2, six growers/m2 and four adults/m2 to enable free movement. Allow 20 chicks/feeder and 50 chicks/drinker. For growers, encourage 15 birds per feeder and drinker and 10 adults/feeder and drinker to enable free access to feeds and water at all times. In addition, proper layout or positioning of feeders, drinkers, nest boxes, perches and lighting in the house should be considered.
- Excess heat predisposes the birds to heat stress causing them to be agitated and uncomfortable and this may trigger cannibalistic behaviour. During the early stages of life (brooding), birds require supplemental heat as they are not able to generate enough heat for warmth but the temperatures have to be adjusted as the chicks grow older. Brooding should be done at 320C for the first week of the birds’ life and, thereafter, gradually decrease by 20C per week until when birds are eight weeks old and the temperature is 240C (room temperature). This temperature should be maintained throughout the birds’ production life. During the hot season, ensure there is adequate ventilation and provide fresh and cool water.
- Poor lighting exposes your flock to extremely bright light or long periods of light causing birds to become hostile towards one another. Light management is important in poultry production, especially birds kept for egg production or the breeding flock as it controls sexual maturity and promotes egg production, as well as encourages feed and water consumption.
- Lighting involves 24-hour provision of light to chicks during the first month of life, thereafter, the light will be gradually reduced by four hours every week until when the birds are two months of age and the light period is eight hours. The day-length should then remain eight hours until 20 weeks after which it is increased to 16 hours to stimulate production but should not go beyond this to avoid stress. Given that we experience 12 hours of natural light, the extension of day length is achieved by providing supplemental light at both the beginning and end of natural day light to be certain that the intended day length is realised. The supplemental light should be of low intensity. Chicks will require 40 watt bulbs and the adults, 25 watt bulbs, and in both cases, the bulbs should be placed above feeding and water areas.
- Unbalanced diets with high energy and low fibre content cause the birds to be extra active and aggressive. Deficiency in methionine, sodium (salt) and phosphorus, commonly experienced in birds fed unbalanced formulated rations, increase the craving for blood and feathers. Provide balanced diets for each class of birds with appropriate levels of methionine and minerals. However, this will largely depend on the quality of feed rations. Also provide fresh greens for high fibre to keep the birds’ crops full and make them content.
- Nesting boxes that are brightly lit or have inadequate space to accommodate a sufficient number of birds at any given time are likely to encourage cannibalism. During egg laying, the cloaca protrudes to allow passage of the egg. The visibility of the cloaca can attract other birds to peck it, especially in brightly lit nest boxes. Provide dark nest boxes with proper bedding material to prevent pecking of the exposed cloaca. One may consider individual or communal boxes that measure 60cm by 35cm by 35cm to accommodate 20 birds at any given time.
- Vulnerable birds in the flock are prone to pecking. This category include those crippled, injured, slow feathering or dead. Isolate the birds from the rest of the flock, especially the slow feathering ones as they are most vulnerable.
- Abrupt changes in the environment often leads to aggressive behaviour and to an extent, distortion of the social order, which may result in pecking and cannibalism. Gradual introduction of birds to new environment, management or feeds will help them to adapt without stress. If you plan to move young birds to a new location, it is best to move some of their feeders and drinkers with them in to help with the transition.
External parasites such as fleas and mites can stimulate birds to peck and injure the skin, resulting in cannibalism. Regularly treat birds for external parasites.