Pecking is the natural means by which poultry investigate their surroundings and establish a stable social order, however this behaviour can escalate to the stage where birds will literally peck each other to death (cannibalism)


If you notice the problem soon after it begins, cannibalism can be held in check. However, if the problem is allowed to get out of hand it can be very costly. Cannibalism will lower the bird’s value due to torn and damaged flesh, poor feathering and can result in high death losses. Once this habit gets out of hand it is difficult to eliminate. Since there are numerous reasons for outbreaks of cannibalism, it is important that cannibalism control be a part of your management program.

Space. When birds become over crowded in their house they become uncomfortable and start pecking at each other. Ample space should be ensured inorder to keep this vice away

What causes cannibalism?
Cannibalism often starts as feather pulling or picking while the birds are only a few weeks old, or as investigative pecking at any age. These behaviours can escalate to aggressive pecking, particularly if injury occurs. Scientific study has shown that any stressor (or combination of stressors) can trigger this behaviour and can lead to serious aggressive pecking and cannibalism.

These stressors include crowding, bright light intensity, high room temperature, poor ventilation, high humidity, low salt, trace nutrient deficiency, insufficient feeding or drinking space, nervous and excitable birds (hereditary), external parasites, access to sick or injured birds, stress from moving, boredom and idleness, housing birds of different appearance together and birds prolapsing during egg-laying.

High temperatures

When the birds become uncomfortably hot they can become extremely cannibalistic. Be sure to adjust the brooding temperature as the young fowl get older. Brood young fowl at 95°F. for the first week and then decrease the temperature 5°F. per week, until you reach 70°F. or the outside temperature. The temperature should be measured at the height of the birds back directly under the heat source. Do not heat the entire brooding facility to the recommended temperature. Not decreasing the brooding temperature is a common mistake that leads to problems like cannibalism.

Too much light; Extremely bright light or excessively long periods of light will cause birds to become hostile toward one another. Avoid using white light bulbs larger than 40 watts to brood fowl. If larger bulbs are required for heat, use red or infra-red bulbs. When raising birds 12 weeks of age or older, use 15 or 25 watt bulbs above feeding and watering areas. Never light fowl more than 16 hours per day.

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Mixing different ages and sizes of fowl or fowl with different traits promote pecking by disrupting the flock’s normal pecking order. Never house different species of fowl together in the same pen. Don’t keep feathered leg fowl, crested fowl or bearded fowl with fowl without these traits. Curiosity can also start pecking. Toe pecking in the first few weeks is often started due to curiosity of the different colors or traits.
As cannibalism can become a learned behaviour it can be difficult to treat once it has started in a flock. Therefore prevention should be the main aim and as such, good husbandry practices should aim to minimise the stressors listed above as potential causes for cannibalism. Some strains of birds have been shown to have a higher tendency towards developing aggressive pecking behaviour and therefore strains that are more placid should be preferred.

The broad range of factors that can trigger cannibalism can make it very difficult for management to control all of these factors for the entire life of the flock. Bright light is a known factor that leads to cannibalism but control of lighting levels in some poultry housing systems can be very difficult, if not impossible (such as in free range systems). Where outbreaks of cannibalism have occurred in a flock, or where there is a reasonable concern that management strategies can not be guaranteed to prevent an outbreak, then beak trimming of the birds may be used as a control measure. Trimming of the sharp tip of the upper, and sometimes also lower, beak reduces the damage that is caused by aggressive pecking. Further information on the practice of beak trimming can be found in the section on Beak Trimming.

The spread of the behaviour may be able to be controlled if the injured and aggressive birds can be rapidly identified and removed from the flock. Provision of escape areas may also help in floor-housed flocks. Other control methods that have been tested include the use of spectacles to prevent forward vision, bits that prevent complete closure of the beak and coloured contact lenses to prevent the identification of blood on another bird.

There is evidence that cannibalism may be alleviated through the use of high fibre diets. It is believed that high fibre diets enhance gut development and gizzard function, which in turn help reduce aggressive behaviour in hens.


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