Why do Roosters Pluck Hens’ Feathers?

Last year, I lost a very dear chicken. Her name was Em, which was short for Embarrassing Chicken. Em had virtually no feathers by the time she died – they’d all been plucked out by an amorous rooster.

After watching him studiously pulling out feathers one day, I asked my husband, “Why do roosters pluck hens’ feathers?” When he failed to shed any light on the subject, I decided to do a bit of digging, and this is what I discovered:

Why do Roosters Pluck Hens’ Feathers?

While it’s normal for a rooster to peck at his hens, if he’s doing it so violently that he’s pulling out feathers, he’s probably suffering from a nutritional deficiency.

Feather plucking can also be a sign of stress or boredom. Some more aggressive roosters may accidentally pull out feathers while mating, leaving their favorite hens with bald necks and backs.  

6 Reasons a Rooster Plucks Feathers from His Hens

In a study of feather pecking in laying hens, researchers found it to be compulsive rather than aggressive and categorized it as either gentle or severe.

Gentle feather pecking involves the removal of loose feathers without causing pain, while severe feather pecking “comprises pulling, damaging, plucking and often also consuming feathers.”

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Both roosters and hens engage in feather pecking activities for the following reasons:

#1 Nutritional Deficiencies

Some roosters pluck and eat feathers to try and offset a nutritional deficiency. Roosters that don’t have enough protein, minerals, or amino acids in their diets may pull and eat feathers to offset those deficiencies.

#2 Stress

Stress can cause aggressive feather plucking among both chickens and roosters. If they don’t have enough space or their coop is too hot, they may take out their frustrations on the feathers of their flock mates.

#3 Aggressive Mating

Some roosters are more aggressive when mating, while others are downright clumsy. Either of these traits can cause them to accidentally pull out feathers during mating. In such instances, you’ll notice your hens losing feathers from their backs and necks. This is quite different from purposeful feather plucking, which tends to focus on the rump, tail, and belly feathers.

Some roosters will also peck at their hens before mating, pulling feathers from the head and neck in a strange kind of courtship ritual.

#4 Boredom

Boredom is a common cause of feather plucking in both roosters and hens. Flocks that are kept inside all the time without access to mental and environmental stimulation redirect their natural pecking behaviors onto each other.

#5 Lack of Foraging Material

Among a rooster’s natural behaviors is the desire to peck the ground while foraging for food. If he’s unable to do this, he may redirect his pecking activity to his hens. Studies show that a lack of foraging material increases feather pulling in both hens and roosters. 

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#6 Lack of Access to Dust Baths

Some researchers have identified a link between dust bathing and feather pulling, suggesting that feather plucking “often occurs in the absence of dustbathing.” In other words, a rooster who’s unable to perform natural behaviors like dust bathing and foraging is likely to vent his frustrations on the feathers of his hens!

How to Stop a Rooster From Plucking Feathers

Before attempting to combat your rooster’s feather-plucking behavior, spend some time observing him and his hens. If his feather plucking is aggressive and focused on the hens’ heads and necks, you may want to adjust his diet. If, on the other hand, it’s a compulsive behavior that involves pulling feathers from hens’ rumps, you may want to try increasing his access to foraging material and other environmental stimulants.

#1 Change his Diet

Roosters need slightly more protein than hens, so you could solve your feather-plucking problems simply by offering him a few high-protein treats. Mealworms and sprouted legumes can help boost a rooster’s protein intake and calm his feather-plucking tendencies.

Studies also show that “feeding high-NSP diets, low-energy diets, or roughage reduced feather pecking.”

#2 Tackle Overcrowding

Overcrowding is one of the most common causes of stress in backyard chickens. Not only will it encourage feather pecking in your rooster, but it will also negatively impact food conversion rates, energy levels, and egg production. Increase the amount of space in your coop to 4 square feet per bird and your run space to 10 square feet, and you should see an immediate drop in feather pulling.

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#3 Protect Your Hens

Dressing your chicken up in a hat and apron may seem the pinnacle of silliness, but it could help keep her feathers on! Tiny chicken hats help protect the feathers around the head and neck, while chicken aprons or saddles stop the rooster from pulling feathers out from their backs during mating.

#4 Provide Enrichment

Free-ranging roosters rarely engage in feather plucking because they’re too busy foraging for food. If you can’t let your rooster free range, keep him mentally stimulated with boredom-busting activities like food puzzles, hanging treats, sandboxes, and mirrors. The more time he spends engaged in other activities, the less he’ll be inclined to pull feathers!

#5 Provide Foraging Material

Chickens naturally peck and scratch at the ground while foraging but are less inclined to do this in a barren environment. Provide plenty of substrate in the form of straw, wood shavings, sand, or peat, and they’ll focus their pecking activities on that rather than each other.

Parting Thoughts

Although some pecking and pulling of feathers is a natural part of a rooster’s courtship, when he’s causing hens to go as bald as Em was, there’s an underlying problem.

Nutritional deficiencies can cause a rooster to pull out a hen’s feathers, as can stress and boredom.

Making sure your rooster has a balanced diet that meets all his nutritional requirements is the first step in preventing pulling. Keeping him occupied with natural behaviors such as scratching and foraging can also reduce the incidence of feather pulling and improve your rooster’s overall health. 

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