Feather pecking and associated welfare issues in layers

Feather pecking behaviour and associated welfare issues in laying hens. By Dixona, Laura Marie, 2008. Avian Biology Research, 1: 73-87(15).


Feather pecking, the pecking at or removal of feathers from one bird by another, is a problem in the poultry industry. Elimination of damaging feather pecking from flocks is made especially difficult by the numerous factors that appear to influence its prevalence. This review outlines the various contributors to feather pecking organised around Tinbergen’s four questions on causation, ontogeny, phylogeny and function. There is growing evidence that feather pecking (especially severe feather pecking) is related to foraging motivation and gut function. However, other factors, such as improper early experiences, strain and individual differences and perseveration of the behaviour help explain its continued occurrence, even if the birds are kept in enriched environments. To date, methods of dealing with feather pecking are inadequate and involve welfare concerns of their own and alternate solutions, such as provision of forages, are not usually successful in abolishing feather pecking behaviour. The problems of excessive pelage/plummage removal or redirected oral/foraging related behaviour are not unique to poultry and seem to occur in other species in which foraging and forage intake is important. Between species comparisons of related behaviour patterns may improve our understanding of feather pecking and help to design effective solutions. In order to solve the problem of feather pecking, the factors discussed in this review need to be accounted for or we risk applying ‘band-aid’ solutions, which may appear outwardly to be solving the problem. However, the underlying cause(s) may still be present and the animal’s welfare may still be compromised.