Most anyone who has kept chickens knows that the terms pecking order and hen pecked have roots in real life. The dominant hens in the flock pull the feathers out of all the others. Every hen plucks the rooster’s beautiful hackle and saddle feathers because they flutter and catch the eye.
Feather picking is not a sign of missing nutrients or over-crowding. It is the way dominant hens control the other birds in the flock. If the most aggressive pickers are removed, others just step into their places. Chickens are not nice animals, they are vicious, hierarchical creatures who have evolved a very tough society over millions of years.
Some believe it is the roosters who pick the hens bare, but it is mostly the other hens–in my experience. Rooster feather damage is seen on the elbows of the wings and at the top of the head. You can tell which hens are the feather pickers because they tend to have the most feathers. In the photo above, the dominant hen is the silver at front left. She is mostly feathered and is also wearing a chicken bit. Some of the other hens participate in feather pulling, but she is the worst culprit.
Chicken bits are loops of metal that attach into the nostril holes and go in the mouth, like a horse bit. This is supposed to prevent the hen from grabbing feathers by keeping the jaws separated. it doesn’t work for very long. The hen quickly learns how to position her beak to catch feathers using the bit. Also, the metal is very soft and the beak soon wears through until the mouth can close again.
A hen doesn’t need all her feathers to survive, but they are nice for preventing sunburn, keeping warm and keeping cool. Naked hens are also unsightly. There are breeds of featherless chickens. These are food birds and having no feathers makes cleaning their carcasses much easier. I think these birds are pretty pitiful and ugly. I prefer my hens with feathers. So, what to do about those bossy hens and feather picking?
Once the problem starts, a chicken keeper must act quickly or feathers will disappear in no time. Within a week, a hen can be going bald. There are dozens of remedies for feather picking. I’ve tried many of them. Bits don’t work. I won’t try blinders, which impede the vision right in front of the chicken wearing them. My free range birds need to see as well as possible in the event of predator attack. The various concoctions recommended for smearing on the victim chickens don’t work well. The chickens end up cleaning off a lot of whatever is put on them. The bully hens also either develop a liking for the taste, or they just ignore the coating, because the picking continues.
I’ve found what seems to be working best for my flock: chicken coats. These provide a barrier that protects the feathers. Many variations on this idea are available. People knit, sew or crochet little jackets, vests or sweaters. Chicken attire is cute and probably works ok, but cloth can be hot and gets dirty fast. A wet, soiled scrap of fabric is unhygienic. I don’t want to have to continually catch the birds to change their clothes.
A product called Chicken Armor is available and I ordered a bunch to try. The little coats are made of vinyl so they are lightweight and strong. The material can be hosed off, if necessary. It does not absorb water so the chicken stays dry. The coat fits loosely over the back to allow good air circulation. You slip the chicken’s wings through the arm holes and set her free.
Before I ordered the Chicken Armor, I made a coat out of a thick, waxed paper and duct tape. It was somewhat heavier than the vinyl version turned out to be, but it did stay on and worked well. The hen who wore it started growing new feathers right away.
So far the coats have done a good job. A few hens manage to get them off. After putting them back on once or twice, the coats stay on. The hens actually seem to like their clothes, it must feel nice to get the blazing sun off the back. And to not have feathers ripped from them. The coats have a roughened upper surface so the rooster can get a grip for mating.
I will need to put some coats on the roosters as well. All the hens enjoy pulling the boys’ feathers. My roosters are so kind they will allow their feathers to be yanked out. Here is a link to the Chicken Armor site to learn more: http://www.chickenarmor.com/
I have not received any consideration for endorsing this product. I’m sure the company has no idea I even mentioned them. When I find a superior product, I like to share.