In my experience, cannibalism in chickens is often associated with intensive farming practices, such as battery and broiler ‘farms’. This is a misconception. (A dangerous one!) Cannibalism can, and does, happen in all types of chicken keeping environments (including garden flocks). It is sometimes caused by poor flock management, and it is sometimes accidental and, therefore, unavoidable. In short, cannibalism can be part of keeping chickens (even though all should be done to avoid it.) So, it is important that all chicken keepers (of all types) have a good first-aid kit and a solid plan in place for cases of cannibalism.
What is Cannibalism in Chickens?
As the name suggests, cannibalism in flocks of chickens happens when a chicken pecks at, and eats, the feathers or flesh of another chicken. Cannibalistic pecking quickly leads to serious injury and death, so it’s important to act fast if you suspect cannibalism in your flock.
Vent pecking is, as the name suggests, when a chicken pecks at and eats the vent of another chicken. (Commercial broiler chickens, and some commercial laying hens, are more prone to this behaviour than others.)
General Pecking is my own term to describe what happens when a chicken pecks at, and eats, another chicken when they see blood or the colour red. (White or lighter coloured chickens are more likely to be the victims of cannibalism because blood, and the flush of red, stands out more clearly against white plumage and skin.)
Why Does Cannibalism in Chickens Happen?
Lots of things can cause cannibalism in chickens. Much of the time, it is caused by poor flock management, but it can also be the consequence of accidental injury. (I once had a Leghorn that was seriously pecked, within a matter of 30 minutes, because she had accidentally broken a feather shaft.)
As with feather pecking and feather eating, it’s important to identify what is causing the cannibalistic behaviour. (It could be something as simple as a broken, and bleeding, feather shaft to a case of serious neglect.)
Common causes of cannibalism in garden flocks include:
- Accidents – An accidentally injury which bleeds will cause other chickens to peck at the wound, causing further injury and even death
- Boredom – when a flock owner fails to provide stimulation for chickens
- Lack of resources – when a flock owner fails to provide proper food, grit and water
- Mismatched Flock – when a flock owner keeps the wrong chickens together
- Overcrowding – when a flock owner has more chickens than they have room for
- Underlying Health Conditions – An underlying health condition might be driving a chicken to attack and eat other chickens
Please note, the above list is not exhaustive.
How to Stop Cannibalism in Chickens?
Cannibalistic behaviours must be stopped and stopped fast.
This will be much harder to do if your chickens have developed a taste for it. (This is because cannibals will have learned to look at other chickens as a food source, and this is valuable.)
However, cannibalism in chickens can be stopped by permanently removing the cannibal (or cannibals) from the rest of your flock. But permanent separation is a drastic measure. It isn’t always the best option and it’s rarely an easy solution. (Cannibalistic chickens will need separate housing and they shouldn’t be kept on their own, unless it is absolutely necessary.)
The other option is to try and stop the cannibalistic behaviour, and ultimately keep everybody together. (Although, temporary separation is likely to be necessary.) To do this, you need to identify and fix what is causing cannibalism in your flock. (There could be more than one cause.) You must also watch your chickens very closely during this time, and not allow them to become injured or be killed.
If you can’t identify the cause of cannibalism, or if you have failed to stop it, you should quickly book a consultation with your local Certified Poultry Vet (CPV). (It could be that something else is wrong with your cannibal hen or wider flock.)
I also urge you to contact your CPV before trying bumpa bits or spectacles. (These are not easy to fit, and they can cause your chickens both pain and health problems if they are not used properly.)