The case of the cannibal chicken

Aug 1, 2013

We love to watch our three hens. They roam contentedly now in our Sacramento backyard, eating bugs and greens. We've named them, of course: Blondie, Queenie, and big Lizzy. They are a little flock, raised together since they were day-old hatchlings from the feed store. They're about three years old now, and still laying two or three eggs between them most days, before we let them out of their covered run in the afternoons. Our next-door neighbor has built a coop too, and there's another little flock on the other side of the fence. Our girls even have neighbors to cackle with.

About six months ago we started seeing a problem - pecked eggs! When we went to gather our one, two or three eggs every day from the nesting box inside their run, which was open to the sky then, more often than not one of the eggs would have a pecked hole in it. Sometimes some of the egg inside would be clearly gone, eaten by something or someone. An Internet search told us that, yes, chickens can peck at their own eggs, and that usually this could not be cured once it started.

We suspected Blondie, as she was the ornery one, the one who pecked at our calves when we cleaned the coop. We even started planning the stew-pot for Blondie, and talked seriously about which of us was farmer enough to do the necessary deed, cleanly and humanely of course. But before we sharpened the knife, we asked for advice.

The feed store told us that egg-pecking could be from calcium deficiency and that we should always provide a bowl of oyster shells in the coop. So we did. They also sold us some wooden eggs to slip into the laying nest when we took the eggs, to fool the birds. We tried that, with no luck. A poultry farmer friend suggested blowing out an egg and then filling it with garlic and black pepper and putting it in the nest. We tried that. For a few weeks everything was fine, but then we came home to more pecked eggs.

In May, we rode our bikes around Davis for the Tour de Cluck, an annual tour of backyard chicken coops, mostly to seek advice from other chicken keepers about how to deal with our cannibal chicken. At Davis Central Park, we met Richard Blatchford, a post-doc with the UC Department of Animal Sciences, who had a poster about various poultry behavior problems, including egg-pecking. We talked, and his advice was similar: oyster shells, decoy eggs, gathering eggs early in the day, and, again, the news that this bad habit might spread to others in the flock and was hard to stop once it started.

Before we cut our little flock down to two, we wanted to make sure that we had the right culprit in the stew-pot. So we build a separate little covered and enclosed chicken run, complete with its own nesting box, to isolate one hen at a time. None of the girls pecked their own eggs when isolated in the covered little run, not even Blondie. But there were still pecked eggs in the larger open run with no cover. So Blondie was saved, but our mystery was not solved. Who was the culprit?

Finally, another chicken-keeper friend suggested a different villain - those chatty bluejays so often perched on the chicken wire fence of the chicken run. We spent a weekend covering the chicken run and resolved to keep the hens inside and the bluejays locked out until we had gathered the eggs. It worked; no more pecked eggs! Our problem was solved and we are so glad that our Blondie is not a cannibal.

UC Cooperative Extension provides resources for raising backyard chickens on the Foothill Farming website.

Researchers from the UC Davis Center for Animal Welfare have conducted a survey of urban chicken keepers about their resource needs, and will soon have available more information about the health and welfare of backyard poultry.

By Penny Leff
Author - Agritourism Coordinator/Public Education Specialist