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Cannibalism in Poultry (Cause & Prevention)

By Miller Hatcheries

Chickens, turkeys, pheasants and quail will literally pick each other to death at times. This problem can be very expensive for the producer and can make life for the flock very uncomfortable. Once cannibalism starts, it readily becomes a habit that must be stopped.

For our purposes, cannibalism includes feather pulling, toe pecking and head, wing, and tail picking. Prevention is much easier for man and bird than is treatment.


It is usually impossible to pinpoint any one reason for the start of this behavioral problem in birds. There are many management conditions that are known to be involved with or related to an outbreak. Some of these are:

  • Overcrowding
  • Insufficient feeder, waterer or nesting space.
  • Flock nervousness or overexcitement (may be breed related).
  • Dietary absences or deficiencies.
  • Incorrect lighting (usually too much light).
  • Lame birds left in the flock.
  • Stresses due to moving birds or making other necessary management changes.
  • Prolapse of another egg laying female.
  • Females laying on the floor rather than in a nest or cage.
  • Timid birds in the flock that are not getting enough feed or water.
  • Keeping different ages or colors together. Any off-colored chicks in a flock do not have a ghost of chance. It is more humane to remove them. A separate flock may be necessary for age or color differences.
  • Extremely high environmental temperatures.
  • Abrasions or tears that may be the result of an accident or mating.
  • Diseases, especially if the nervous system is affected.
  • Pure meanness of the part of the birds.

A combination of these factors is usually involved in any outbreak. Some cannot be corrected even though you know they are involved. Birds usually do need to be moved from the brooder house to growing facilities, and in some cases, moved a third time into laying quarters. If a nervous breed is purchased, you have to live with the problem, at least until the birds are marketed. Temperature control is expensive and sometimes impossible. A nutritional deficiency or a disease is sometimes very difficult to detect and, at best, considerable time is required to make these kinds of determinations. In the meantime, the birds may have devoured each other.

To make matters worse, if an outbreak occurs and one or more corrections are made, the outbreak may continue. Once the habit is started, it is often too late for effective management changed with the affected flock. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about cannibalism is that management may be near perfect and outbreaks still occur. This makes prevention through "bird care" alone virtually impossible.

Stopping an Outbreak

This habit must be stopped quickly. A variety of methods are talked about and have been tried to accomplish this objective. Some of them are:

  • "Goggles" or "bits" affixed to the bird's beak.
  • Applying "anti-pick" compounds (commercial "anti-pick", pine tar or axle grease) to wounded areas.
  • Removal of birds doing the picking.
  • Continue dim light to minimize activity.
  • Keeping the birds busier:
    • locate semi-solid milk or whey blocks around the house for birds to eat;
    • hanging green leafy vegetables in the pen for the birds to pick;
    • spread grass clippings in the pen daily;
    • turn the birds outside;
    • feed small grains in deep litter.
  • Feed changes, picking depressants. Eliminate areas where bright sunlight strikes the floor. Beak trimming.

All of these techniques, singly and in combination, have been shown to be effective on some flocks. However, the only one that is consistently effective in stopping an outbreak is beak trimming. The others work sometimes, and sometimes they don't. You never know beforehand whether they will work on your flock.

"Goggles" and "bits" are probably second to beak trimming in effectiveness. These devices are not readily available and do not always fit young birds. When cost, labor, inconvenience and bird comfort are considered, trimming is usually a better approach.

It is a good idea to apply "anti-pick" compounds to injured birds even though the flock has been trimmed to stop the outbreak.


Even though outbreaks sometimes occur in the best-managed flock, it is well documented that the better the management, the less often problems arise. Therefore, the first step in a cannibalism control program is to give the birds the best care possible. Correct management conditions that may contribute to an outbreak before one occurs.

Raising birds in continuous dim light does discourage picking. However, they must be reared in a windowless mechanically ventilated house to be able to control all light and still keep the birds comfortable. Even with total light control some outbreaks of cannibalism have been reported. Dim lights are sometimes used in combination with beak trimming to prevent cannibalism.

A combination of good management, correct lighting and beak trimming will prevent the problem. Beak trimming can be used to control the malady even when management is not good. However, trimming alone does not correct poor management and can serve to temporarily "cover-up" management problems that may result in poor performance from the flock, so good management is essential.