On any given day, a chicken owner with multiple birds could encounter pecking sores. Chicken pecking sores are not unusual, nor are they particularly worrisome. For the most part, pecking sores are easily treatable with a poultry antimicrobial agent and some mild separation. However, there are instances where chicken pecking sores are simply the beginning of a more significant issue within the coop. Below you will find an explanation of pecking and how to treat the sores that result from this natural behavior of chickens. By the end of this article, you’ll have all the information you need to keep your chickens healthy and sore free!
The Pecking Order
In every henhouse, there is a natural social order called “the pecking order.” As the name would suggest, this social hierarchy is established through the physical act of pecking. For the most part, this type of pecking is non-violent and is instead used to determine rank.
For new chicken owners, there is a fear that the normal amount of pecking needed to establish the pecking order might go too far; and in some instances, it certainly can. However, the majority of pecking exhibited among the flock is simply a genetic predisposition of chickens for creating and establishing order.
As a pecking order is established, the lead hen will peck at the hen directly beneath her. The rest of the hens will fall into place like dominoes until there is a set order. The hen at the bottom of the pecking order should be monitored closely as she is the one who will receive the most pecks.
Hens don’t just peck the hen directly below them in the order, but rather all of the hens below them. As a result, those hens which are closer to the bottom of this social construct are at a higher risk of injury due to pecking sores.
Feather plucking is one of the more common forms of aggressive pecking and is usually an indication that things have gotten out of hand in the henhouse. Unlike regular pecking, feather picking is when one or more hens will gang up on a lesser hen and pluck her feathers with their beaks.
This type of pecking is excruciating and is often the result of a deeper issue within the chicken coop. Typically chickens who have fallen victim to feather plucking need to be isolated for some time and then reintroduced to the flock.
Extreme Pecking and Cannibalism
Much like feather plucking, extreme pecking comes as the result of a deeper issue within the chicken coop and is an indication that your chickens have become overly aggressive. Extreme pecking will be visible in deep cuts and lesions on the victimized chicken. In some cases, extreme pecking is a response to a separate injury a hen has suffered, like when hens peck at a prolapsed vent.
Often, extreme hen pecking leads to cannibalism, which is why it is so essential to stop any aggression before it gets out of hand. The decision to resort to cannibalism can set in quickly in a henhouse, so it is vital to be ready to step in and prevent this disastrous outcome. Again, any chicken that appears to be the victim of aggressive behavior should be removed and isolated from the coop and reintroduced at a later time.
How to prevent aggression
There are some breeds of chicken that are naturally more aggressive than others. Before you buy a breed of chicken for your coop, do your research and understand the natural habits of that particular bird. If you mix two bird breeds that naturally don’t get along, you may be asking for trouble.
Your hens need space, and it is well documented that free-range chickens have staggeringly fewer problems with pecking and aggression than those in a small coop. The recommended minimum amount of free space is 3 square feet per chicken to keep them even-keeled, but the more room, the better.
Establishing multiple feeding and water stations is a must, especially if you have more than two or three chickens. The inclusion of different feed areas will help prevent food guarding and is a helpful tool for keeping aggression levels down. Similarly, having things your chickens can peck at besides each other like pumpkins or watermelons will keep them from pecking at each other.
Treatment for pecking sores
At some point, your chickens will develop pecking sores, but they are easily treatable. The best way to treat pecking sores is with an antimicrobial agent. Whether the sores are small cuts or large puncture wounds, a poultry antimicrobial solution will work best to keep bacteria at bay to prevent infection.
If you notice a pecking sore has become infected, it is best to call an avian vet for advice on how to proceed. Diligence and daily inspection of your chickens and their behavior is the best method for keeping pecking sores from becoming a problem. Should you encounter pecking sores, remember to treat the wound and administer the correct care to your injured hen.
Dr. Melinda J. Mayfield-Davis, DVM, WCHP-AH, brings over 20 years of experience in veterinary medicine. She is the Technical Services Veterinarian with Innovacyn, Inc., parent company of Vetericyn Animal Wellness. She received her DVM from Oklahoma State University and now resides in Southeast Kansas with her husband, two children, four dogs, and six horses. Prior to working with Innovacyn, Dr. Mayfield owned and operated the Animal Care Center in Columbus, KS.