What is feather pecking?
Injurious pecking is a term that covers a group of maladaptive behaviours which can occur in laying hen flocks. It results in feather damage and loss which is painful and can lead to cannibalism and the victim’s death. It also has economic consequences as birds with poor plumage cover have less thermal insulation, and in cooler environments, they lose more body heat. Bald chickens need up to 40% more feed to maintain body temperature. The stress caused by injurious pecking can increase the susceptibility of the flock to disease and could directly spread a disease throughout the flock through pecks on damaged skin. Feather pecking occurs to varying degrees in the majority of free range flocks and remains a major economic and welfare concern. Injurious pecking is an umbrella term which covers four behaviours; gentle and severe feather pecking, vent pecking and cannibalistic pecking.
Gentle feather pecking
Gentle feather pecking (GFP) consists of gentle pecks to the tips of the feathers. This type of feather pecking (FP) usually does not result in much damage and is often ignored by the recipient. It can indicate a welfare problem in the bird performing the behaviour, and precede more serious pecking.
Severe feather pecking
Severe feather pecking (SFP) causes the most damage to the recipient. It consists of forceful pecks and pulling of feathers that are frequently eaten and results in feather loss especially on the back, vent and tail area. Victims of severe feather pecking often initially move away, squawk or confront the pecker in response to receiving severe feather pecks as these are painful. If severe feather pecking continues, however, victims have also been observed to surrender to being pecked and remain still.
Cannibalistic pecking occurs when severe feather pecking has led to feather loss and bald patches. Pecking can then continue on the skin, leading to wounds and may eventually lead to the victim’s death due to excessive blood loss, tissue damage and infections.
A separate form of cannibalistic pecking is vent pecking, where the bird pecks at the vent of the victim and may pull out the inner organs. This type of cannibalistic pecking can also develop in well-feathered birds and is sometimes seen around the onset of egg laying.
Although aggressive pecking often does cause damage, it is generally directed towards the head and neck of another bird. We don’t include this as part of injurious pecking (or cover it in this guide) because the reasons (or motivations) for birds showing aggression towards each other are not the same as those underlying injurious pecking.