2. Signs of injurious pecking

This post includes the following sections:
Feather pecking behaviour
Feather damage
Damaged feathers caused by the housing system
Moult or damage?
Feather scoring
Training material
Further reading
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Feather pecking behaviour

The sooner injurious pecking is detected, the sooner interventions can be put in place, lowering the risk of serious damage occurring. Inspect the birds regularly and look closely at their behaviour in order to detect the early signs of pecking.

It is good practice to quietly sit or stand and observe an area of the house for five or ten minutes. This will allow the birds to settle and resume their activities and will increase your chance of spotting any indications that might suggest a problem with injurious pecking, like pecking behaviour, feather damage and vocalisations.

Gentle feather pecking behaviour comprises the gentle manipulation and sometimes licking of feathers of conspecifics. As this doesn’t cause any damage the pecked bird doesn’t usually react. Gentle pecking often develops into severe pecking and interventions could be put in place where it is seen. Severe feather pecking causes feather damage and comprises both fierce pecks and the pulling of feathers. Although pecked birds will not always respond, it can react with a vocalisation (squark) and may move away to avoid further pecking. Often dustbathing hens will not react to being feather pecked.

In addition to vigilant observation of the flock it is good practice to listen to the flock for any characteristic ‘squawks’ from a bird that has been feather pecked.

Feather damage in adult layers

Regular inspection of plumage can help to identify injurious pecking in an early stage. Look for feather damage particularly along the back and at the base of the tail; this is often where severe feather pecking starts. Pick up a few birds and check under the outermost feathers for any signs of baldness, particularly at the base of the tail. Remember that not all parts of the body are equally feathered. On the breast some parts may appear to have lost feathers, whereas these spots are naturally less well covered. Examine the tail, in particular the downy feathers on the sides are often missing causing the tail to lose its fullness. More detailed information on how to inspect the feather cover can be found under feather scoring.

Damaged feathers caused by the housing system

Not all feather damage is caused by feather pecking. Feeders can have a detrimental effect on the feather cover of the breast and neck. Wire partitioning in housing systems can cause deterioration of feathers on wings and tails. Artificial grass mats in nesting boxes may cause damage to feathers on the breast, the belly and around the cloaca.

Areas of feather damage due different causes
Areas of feather damage due different causes
Feather loss in neck due to feeder
Feather loss in neck due to feeder

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Moult or damage?

In the rearing period feathers may look damaged during moulting. Moulting occurs at specific ages during bird development, and is different from feather damage due to pecking. Look for the typical signs of pecking damage. A rough feather cover may trigger feather pecking, but both (i.e. a rough plumage and feather pecking) may also exist independent of each other. A mixture of the two (i.e. rough feather cover and feather pecking) is also possible. Rough feather cover due to moulting can also occur during lay. A typical example is the neck moult, which can be accompanied by differing degrees of feather pecking.

Neck moult
Neck moult without feather pecking
Neck moult with feather pecking
Neck moult with feather pecking

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Feather scoring

Regular monitoring of the flock’s feather cover is necessary to identify injurious pecking early on and implement strategies to prevent the problem from becoming more serious.
Recording feather scores over multiple cycles will make it possible to monitor flock performance and help assess the effectiveness of implemented management strategies. There are several methods of feather scoring. Most scoring methods have been developed for the laying period. Two methods are described here. In order to compare flocks it is essential that the same method is used in each flock. Feather damage in the rearing period is very subtle and requires experience and precise application of scoring methods to determine any abnormalities.

Moult in rearing hen
Moult in rearing hen
Moult in rearing hen
Moult in rearing hen

Feather scoring at rearing

During the rearing period it is unusual to see any major feather damage. Furthermore, it is not always easy to distinguish between feather damage caused by pecking or that of moulting. In addition, feather damage may also be caused by the housing or feeding system. In order to score feather damage during rearing it is essential to take a close look at the feathers. The initial signs of feather pecking are often observed on the wing feathers and the base of the tail.
Small cracks in the feathers, often accompanied by typical lines on the remaining feathers, are often the first indicators of feather pecking damage during rearing.
A scoring method for rearing hens has been developed in The Netherlands.
It is considered that a sample of 50 birds will provide a good indication of the state of the flock. Because feather damage during rearing is difficult to detect, birds need to be picked up. Ease of capture is often dependant on age and fearfulness of the birds. Select birds from different regions within the house, from both litter and wire floors. Capturing birds using a wire fence has proved successful for birds housed on a litter floor. Ensure that the birds are selected at random within the sampling location, e.g. sample every 5th bird and avoid being drawn towards specific birds with good / bad feather cover.
Do not forget the importance of behavioural observation at rear (see ‘Feather Pecking Behaviour’ section, above) which may enable earlier detection of injurious pecking than feather scoring alone.

Feather scoring during the laying period

The method described here has been developed by the University of Bristol, the Soil Association and the RSPCA, and is in use in the UK for annual inspections to provide feedback and benchmarking for producers, promoting continuous improvement where necessary. Organic and free range laying hen producers are beginning to adopt this as a routine management tool. For more information see AssureWel.

Why feather score

Regularly monitoring your flock allows you to identify injurious pecking early on and allows you to implement strategies before it becomes more serious. Frequent inspections, observing the birds behaviour and feather scoring will all help assess how the flock is performing. Additionally varied routine inspections expose the birds to non-threatening changes, reducing fear and stress.

Formal recording of feather scoring will enable you to monitor flocks over multiple cycles and objectively assess the success of implemented management strategies. There are different methods of feather scoring. The method below was developed by the University of Bristol, Soil Association and RSPCA and is used at annual scheme inspections to provide feedback and benchmarking for producers, to promote continuous improvement where necessary. Organic and free range laying hen producers are adopting this as a routine management tool. For more information see www.assurewel.org/layinghens

How do you feather score?

Assess and score 50 birds across the house and range. Visually assess and score the head/neck area and back/vent area of the bird separately.

Score 0: No/minimal feather loss

Back of score 0 hen

No bare skin visible, no or light wear, only single feathers missing

Score 0 hen

Score 1: Slight feather loss

Side view of Score 1 hen

Moderate wear, damaged feathers or 2 or more adjacent feathers missing up to bare skin visible < 5cm (2 inches) maximum dimension

top view of score 1 hen

Score 2: Moderate/severe feather loss

top view of score 2 bird

Bare skin visible more than or equal to 5cm (2 inches) maximum dimension

top view of score 2 bird

How many birds do you assess?

We recommend you score at least 50 birds every week or fortnight. However assessing a larger number of birds will increase the reliability of the sample and be more representative of the whole flock.

Which birds do you assess?

It is important to randomise the birds you score to prevent any bias. Birds should be sampled to provide a reasonable representation of the proportion of birds in different locations at the time of the assessment, e.g. birds from the litter area, slatted area, raised perches, tiers and range. Ensure the birds chosen are a random sample in that location, e.g. sample every 5th bird, and avoid being drawn to certain birds. The scoring can be done without picking the birds up, but you need to be close enough to clearly see the feathers.

Is training available?

Support and training for producer groups, field staff, vets and companies is available through the AssureWel project. To find out more visit www.assurewel.org/layinghens or contact animalwelfareadvisor@assurewel.org for details.

An alternative , more precise method has been developed by Tauson et al. (2005). This method can be used to score different parts of the body. For more information see www.laywel.eu (see heading Photographic scoring system).

A more general scoring method has been developed in The Netherlands.

Training material

Support and training for producer groups, field staff, veterinarians and companies is available through the AssureWel project. To find out more visit the AssureWel website or contact animalwelfareadvisor @ assurewel . org for details.
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Further reading

SPECIFIC

English

Scientific

Nederlands

GENERAL

English

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

Nederlands

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).

Dansk

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

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