For quite a few months now my chickens have been steadily pecking each other’s feathers out. First it was just one or two random pecks that resulted in the plucking out of a soft downy butt-feather, which was then paraded around in front of the other chickens as if to say, “LOOK! I waited until she wasn’t looking and then, with my Super Ninja-Chicken skills, I tore this out of her skin and now I’m going to eat it!” Then much chasing and stealing of said downy butt-feather would ensue until one of the girls had the good sense to eat it.
Initially, only one or two chickens were being plucked naked. But as winter settled in and things became cold and damp all around Remote, it seemed all of the girls got involved.
First it was the areas around their vents. Several began looking like baboons. Then the feathers across their backs were plucked and broken off. Then a few lost down to bare skin on their necks. Tails, once full and fluffy, became thin and wispy, like your grandaddy’s head.
Dismayed, I read everything I could find and decided they needed additional protein. So, for most of the winter I mixed chick feed into their layer feed, with additional dried meal worms, and protein-based treats several times a week.
For awhile, they seemed to stop. But then the plucking started again, with all of the chickens showing signs of being attacked.
Vaisala especially. She now looks more like a White Leghorn than a Golden Comet!
Then the torrential rains began. I considered filming the chicken version of Naked and Afraid, except it was too depressing to look at how chewed up the girls had become.
Needless to say, it has been a very long winter and we are all happy to see sunshine again. The only saving grace is that my girls never stopped laying. Even through the dark nights that turned into dark days and back to dark nights. Every day there were eggs to collect. They’ve even increased production as the last of the Eggers joined the rest of the girls and are now giving us beautiful green and blue eggs.
A couple of weeks ago, I promised the girls that there would be some major house-cleaning and rearranging of furniture as soon as we got a day full of sunshine and warm breezes.
That day came last Friday.
I waited until most of the morning layers had made their deposits, then I pulled the nesting boxes and ladder out and scooped the top two inches of sand off of the coop floor. I spread the sand on a tarp and hosed it off to try and decrease the build-up of ammonia. I was hoping to reuse it, but I’m pretty sure now that won’t be the case. Still, I can put it in the run to fill holes. Sand is its own filter so even if all the ammonia didn’t wash away, it will eventually.
I pulled out the pressure washer and gave the walls and roosts a thorough cleaning. While that dried, I pressure washed the nesting boxes and ladder. Then I raked the run and piled the leaves up in one corner. The girls enjoy scratching through the leaves, even if they’ve already been debugged once.
Satisfied that everything was clean, I stirred up my favorite disinfectant solution and gave everything a good spray.
Once it all dried, I raked the coop floor smooth and moved the blocks for the nesting boxes to a new location and settled the boxes into their new home. Coop Daddy was adding another roost and it would stretch over the space above the old nesting box location. The additional roost is an attempt to give the girls more space in hopes of curtailing the pecking as they settle in for the night.
Today Sheli was here to help with the last-ditch effort to stop the plucking. I ordered “peepers” online. Enough for everyone. I can’t say every bird is guilty. But I can’t say any one is not.
As anticipated, my chickens were not happy with the new nose jewelry. Once installed, I’m sure the peepers are most uncomfortable. Then there’s the limited visibility. All of them were stumbling around like Irishmen on St. Pat’s. Some were down-right pissed off. Add to that the fact that each bird’s wounds were being treated as well and who can blame them for being totally snarky.
After watching several untagged birds pecking nastily at the newly tagged ones, we opted to start holding them in the coop as we finished so they would have time to adjust without being attacked.
Eventually the number inside the coop was greater than the number of birds outside, so we let them go. Within minutes, two birds had successfully removed their peepers. Catching them a second time was almost impossible. But we did it.
And we were feeling pretty good about the entire process. The girls seemed to start adjusting to their obstructed view of the world. Several were drinking water. We tossed out several hands full of sunflower seeds and most everyone figured out how to find the seeds in spite of not being able to actually see the ones directly in front of their faces.
But then, we snagged Leia, who’d successfully scratched her peepers off, and realized she was bleeding. She’d torn the skin at the top of her nostril. I’m not sure if she tore it with her claw or with the peeper, but there was no way I was sticking that thing back in her poor nose! Sheli soothed her and I cleaned her up. As much as I hate how beat up they look, the last thing I wanted was to cause injury to any of them.
Birdie Pruitt was the last untagged bird. She was tucked safely in a nesting box and seemed to know as long as she stayed there she wasn’t going to be caught. Coop Daddy came down to install the additional roost and we needed to move some hooks, so I let Birdie off the hook while we did the other chores. Every so often, I’d peek in to see if she was still on the nest. And that’s when I realized that Loretta, parked in the nesting box next door, was bleeding as well.
Now I felt like a total heel.
And yet, the rest of the flock seemed so subdued. It was like they’d all taken downers. No chasing. No pecking. No fussing. I went in and out of the run several times and none of them rushed the door as usual, or followed me as I rounded the building. It was surreal, to say the least.
I have no idea how long this process will take. I have no idea if, now that she is the only one with an unobstructed access, Leia will take full advantage and I’ll end up having to separate her from the others.
I try to read as much as I can before I jump into any form of treatment or alteration in care. Everything I read pointed to great success using peepers. NOTHING I read even mentioned the possibility of the chickens being able to get them off. And certainly none of the articles or forum posts brought up the fact that they could rip up their nostrils.
And honestly, even if I had read of the possibilities, I probably would have done it anyway. I simply can’t abide having them ripping each other to shreds.
I’m trying to come up with some boredom busters. I’ve got plans for grazing bins. Possibly an automatic treat dispenser. And I’m looking for a xylophone and a mirror to hang up outside the coop. Anything to keep them occupied. And happy. And feathered.