Chickens are natural cannibals. No, they do not eat humans. But they can and will in certain conditions literally peck each other to death. Symptoms of cannibalism include feather pulling, toe pecking, and head picking. If you ever decide to raise your own chickens, this is something you'll want to keep in mind and work into your chicken management plan.
The real key to stopping cannibalism in a flock of chickens is to prevent it in the first place. Once this starts, it's nearly impossible to stop the offender other than by stewing. And it is well documented that once cannibalism starts in a flock it will spread rapidly.
Research has shown that certain conditions can lead to cannibalism. These include:
- too much light
- not enough food and water
- high temperatures
- mixing chickens of different colors
Many of these are easy to address. Don't keep more birds than you have space for. Make sure to feed and water them daily, paying special attention to fresh water
. Don't make dramatic changes in the quality of their feed or in their feeding schedule. Keep their shelter at a comfortable temperature as best you can.
Why chickens seem more likely to attack birds of another color is not understood by poultry scientists, but it has been observed often. Off-colored chicks in particular seem to be special targets of attack. If you have off-colored birds in your flock, it is best to separate them out by color -- especially the chicks.
If you do have an outbreak of cannibalism, there are a few things to try other than just removing the offenders. Keep the chickens busier. Feed them outside, or feed them less grain in bigger pans with deeper litter to scratch in. Lower the lights.
Beak trimming is also a possibility, although whether or not this practice is humane is up for debate. The chickens' beaks are actually clipped off, removing the sharpest part at the end. Usually this is done while they are still chicks. Note: This is not a practice I condone. I do not do this with my own chickens, nor would I encourage others to do so.
I have never had a problem in my own flock with cannibalism, but it is something I do watch out for. With the right combination of space, food, water, light, and heat, it shouldn't plague your flock either.