After successfully raising the six Red Comet chicks to laying age and twenty eight Buckeye chicks through the first twelve weeks this year, we thought it was going to be smooth sailing. But no, things never go quite as planned…..
As the Buckeye’s were moving into week 13, they abruptly started picking the feathers off of each other’s back and eating them. Within two days, some of them were beginning to show bare backs where all the feathers had been picked away. Naturally, we were anxious about this behavior (a form of cannibalism) and wanted to get it stopped ASAP.
After posting on the Backyard Chickens forum (Buckeye Breed thread), I learned that there are typically three things that can lead to this type of behavior in chicks, and we were guilty of letting all three things become a factor:
- Protein Deficiency – Since the Buckeyes have game bird in their background, I’d been very careful to use 29% protein turkey or game bird starter (both contained both plant and animal protein) for the first twelve weeks. But in the last trip to the feed store, they’d run out of turkey or game bird starter, and had either 24% protein organic or 19% protein non-organic (read containing animal protein) grower. I opted for the higher protein organic since we’d always fed the Red Comets organically and I thought it was just the higher protein the Buckeyes needed.
- Overcrowding – In addition to abruptly changing the Buckeyes to an organic diet, their quarters were getting tighter and tighter as they got bigger (they’re being raised in a 10’ x 10’ barn stall). There was really no good reason not to let them free range as they were certainly old enough, but I was being overprotective because a hawk got one of the Red Comets.
- Boredom – We’d not been giving them much to keep them occupied in their stall – like scratch, corn cobs, branches to play on, etc.
Fortunately, I only bought one bag of the organic feed, and we started supplementing that with cat food (chickens generally love cat food and it usually contains relatively high levels of animal protein) as soon as we saw the behavior change. The next day it was back to the feed store for the 19% animal protein grower, the chickens started free ranging, and scratch/corn cobs/branches suddenly appeared in their stall.
Within two days of making changes to combat the feather picking, the behavior completely stopped. They’re back to healthy, happy birds; and the missing feathers are all growing back. Based on the experience, it appears that at 12 weeks, the 19% protein is high enough for the Buckeyes, but they need some animal protein in their feed. The whole ordeal just reinforced that with animals it’s always important to pay attention, it’s never a good idea to make sudden changes, and smooth sailing is a temporary condition.