Overview Feather pecking

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  1. Description: What is feather pecking?
    1. Description
    2. Gentle feather pecking
    3. Severe feather pecking
    4. Cannibalistic pecking
    5. Vent pecking
    6. Aggressive pecking
    7. Further reading
  2. Signs of injurious pecking
    1. Feather pecking behaviour
    2. Feather damage
    3. Damaged feathers caused by the system
    4. Moult or damage?
    5. Feather scoring
      1. During rearing
      2. During the laying period
    6. Training material
  3. Mechanism
    1. Redirected foraging behaviour
    2. How does it develop
    3. Stress/triggers
  4. Risk factors
    1. A good start
      1. Rearing
        1. Litter
        2. Early access to litter
        3. Maintaining litter quality
        4. Light
        5. System
        6. Environmental enrichment during rearing
      2. Placement
        1. Matching rearing and lay
        2. Early access to range
    2. Housing
      1. Housing system
        1. Indoor system
        2. Covered veranda
        3. Free range
        4. Functional zones
      2. Furnishment
        1. Litter
        2. Perches
        3. Nests
      3. Light
        1. Source
        2. Intensity
        3. Colour
        4. Dimming of light
    3. Management
      1. Group effects
        1. Group size
        2. Stocking density
      2. Range
    4. Feed
      1. Feed composition
        1. Protein
        2. Fibre
      2. Managing the feed on the farm
        1. Diet change
        2. Feed form
        3. Number of feedings/day
        4. Feed rationing
      3. (Feed) additives
        1. Roughage
        2. Grain in litter
        3. (Lime) stones
      4. Pecking objects
        1. Pecking blocks
        2. Other pecking objects
    5. Health
      1. Healthy birds
        1. Gut health
        2. Vaccinations
      2. Disease pressure
        1. Litter condition
        2. Climate
        3. Poultry density
        4. Contact with other animals
      3. Parasites
        1. Red mites
        2. Worms
        3. Other parasites
      4. Human-animal relationship
      5. Fearfulness
    6. Climate
      1. Light
      2. Daylight
    7. Bird-related factors
      1. Genetics
  5. Treatment
    1. Prevention
    2. Measures
    3. Treating affected birds
  6. Importance
    1. Mortality
    2. Beak trimming
    3. Economics
  7. Further reading




1. What is injurious and feather pecking?

This post includes the following sections:
Gentle feather pecking
Severe feather pecking
Cannibalistic pecking
Vent pecking
Aggressive pecking
Further reading


Injurious pecking behaviour is considered an inappropriate pecking activity directed toward conspecifics and involves repeated pecking at the feathers or skin of a victimized bird. Feather pecking is not an aggressive behaviour, it is more related to foraging behaviour. 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.

Different components of injurious and feather pecking (FP) behaviour
Different components of injurious and feather pecking (FP) behaviour


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

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.


Vent pecking

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.


Aggressive pecking

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.


Further reading





FeatherWel - improving feather cover AssureWel - improving feather cover
FeatherWel management guide [pdf, 5.49mb] AssureWel advice guide [pdf, 661kb]


Treatment of feather pecking (in Dutch) Prevention of feather pecking (in Dutch)
Noodmaatregelen tegen pikkerij [Treatment of FP]. Van Niekerk et al. 2013 (Report, 32 pp). Van kuiken tot kip [Prevention of FP]. Van Niekerk et al.2011 (Report, 32 pp).


Feather pecking key (in Danish)
Fjerpilningsnøgle [Feather pecking key]. Johansen, N.F. 2013 (Report, 48 pp).