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Cannibalism in poultry is the act of one individual of a poultry species consuming all or part of another individual of the same species as food. It commonly occurs in flocks of domestic hens reared for egg production, although it can also occur in domestic turkeys, pheasants and other poultry species. Cannibalism can occur as a consequence of feather pecking which has caused denuded areas and bleeding on a bird's skin.[1] Cannibalism can cause large mortality rates within the flock and large decreases in production due to the stress it causes. Vent pecking, sometimes called 'cloacal cannibalism', is considered to be a separate form of cannibalistic pecking as this occurs in well-feathered birds and only the cloaca is targeted.[2][3]


Motivational basisEdit

Poultry species which exhibit cannibalism are omnivores. For example, hens in the wild often scratch at the soil to search for seeds, insects and even larger animals such as lizards or young mice,[4] although they are mainly herbivorous in adulthood.[1] Feather pecking is often the initial cause of an injury which then attracts the cannibalistic pecking of other birds – perhaps as re-directed foraging or feeding behaviour. In the close confines of modern farming systems, the increased pecking attention is easily observed by multiple birds which join in the attack, and often the escape attempts of the cannibalised bird attract more pecking attention.


Chicks brooded with a hen had lower mortality levels due to feather pecking and cannibalism compared to non-brooded chicks. This may indicate the hen guides the chicks to peck at more rewarding substrates, such as food or litter.[5]


Cannibalism among layer hen flocks is highly variable; when it is not problematic, mortalities among production systems are generally similar.[6] Published data on the prevalence of cannibalism could be misleading due to the inclusion of vent-pecking by some researchers but not others. Mortalities, due mainly to cannibalism, can be up to 15% in egg-laying flocks housed in aviaries,[7] straw yards,[8] and free-range systems.[9] Because egg-laying strains of chickens can be kept in smaller group sizes in cage systems, cannibalism is reduced,[6] leading to a lowered trend in mortality as compared to non-cage systems. In a study which examined 'skin damage' (most of which would have been caused by pecking) on hens at the end of their productive lives, damage was lowest in hens from free range systems, followed by barns, then furnished cages, and highest in conventional or battery cages.[10]

Methods of controlEdit


Beak-trimming is the most common method of preventing or reducing injuries by cannibalism. In a three-year study of floor-housed laying hens, death by cannibalism was reported as 7% in beak-trimmed birds but was increased to 18% in non-trimmed birds.[11]

Group sizeEdit

Increased group sizes in larger cages or floor systems can elevate the risk of cannibalism and feather pecking, probably due to the spread of the behaviour through social learning.[12]

Light manipulationsEdit

Lights are sometimes provided in nest-boxes to attract hens to use the nests, but this practice has been correlated with an increased risk of cannibalism.[13]


Rearing chicks with access to perches by four weeks of age has been associated with increased use of perches, and reduced cannibalism, in adulthood.[14]

Selective breeding and geneticsEdit

A sibling-selection programme has genetically selected a low mortality line which shows decreased mortality from cannibalism compared to a control line.[15]


Cannibalism may be reduced by fitting hens with a range of eyewear. Rose-tinted glasses or contact lenses have been used. Opaque spectacles, or blinders, have also been used. For both spectacles and blinders, there are versions that are held in place by circlips into the nares of the bird, or others in which a pin pierces through the nasal septum: this latter method is illegal in the UK.[16] It is theorized that — as with placing red filters over windows, or keeping the birds in red light — the coloured lenses prevent the birds from recognising the blood or raw flesh of other hens, thereby diminishing cannibalistic behaviour.[17]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Savory, J., (2010). Nutrition, feeding and drinking behaviour, and welfare. In The Welfare of Domestic Fowl and Other Captive Birds, I.J.H. Duncan and P. Hawkins (Eds). Springer. pp. 165-188
  2. ^ Savory, C.J., (1995). Feather pecking and cannibalism. World's Poultry Science Journal, 51: 215–219
  3. ^ Rodenburg, T.B., Komen, H., Ellen, E.D., Uitdehaag, K.A., and van Arendonk, J.A.M., (2008). Selection method and early-life history affect behavioural development, feather pecking and cannibalism in laying hens: A review. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 110: 217-228
  4. ^ Gerard P.Worrell AKA "Farmer Jerry". "Frequently asked questions about chickens & eggs". Ferry Landing Farm & Apiary. Retrieved 14 November 2011.
  5. ^ Riber, A.B., Nielsen, B.L., Ritz, C. and Forkman, B., (2007). Diurnal activity and synchrony in layer hen chicks (Gallus gallus domesticus). Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 108: 276–287
  6. ^ a b Appleby, M.C. and Hughes, B.O., (1991). Welfare of laying hens in cages and alternative systems: Environmental, physical and behavioural aspects. World's Poultry Science Journal, 47:109-128
  7. ^ Hill, J.A. (1986). Egg production in alternative systems - a review of recent research in the UK. Research and Development in Agriculture, 3: 13-18
  8. ^ Gibson, S.W., Dun, P. and Hughes, B.O., (1988). The performance and behaviour of laying fowls in a covered strawyard system. Research and Development in Agriculture, 5: 153-163
  9. ^ Keeling, L.J., Hughes, B.O. and Dun, P., (1988). Performance of free range laying hens in a polythene house and their behaviour on range. Farm Building Progress, 94: 21-28
  10. ^ Sherwin, C.M., Richards, G.J. and Nicol, C.J., (2010). Comparison of the welfare of layer hens in 4 housing systems in the UK. British Poultry Science, 51: 488-499
  11. ^ Flock, D.K., Laughlin K.F. and Bentley, J., (2005). Minimizing losses in poultry breeding and production: how breeding companies contribute to poultry welfare. World's Poultry Science Journal, 61: 227–237
  12. ^ Lay Jr., D.C., Fulton, R.M., Hester, P.Y., Karcher, D.M., Kjaer, J.B., Mench, J.A., Mullens, B.A., Newberry, R.C., C.J., O'Sullivan, N.P. and Porter, R.E., (2011). Hen welfare in different housing systems. Poultry Science, 90: 278-294 doi:10.3382/ps.2010-00962
  13. ^ Zimmerman, P.H., Lindberg, A.C., Pope, S.J., Glen, E., Bolhuis, J.E. and Nicol, C.J., (2006). The effect of stocking density, flock size and modified management on laying hen behaviour and welfare in a non-cage system. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 101: 111–124
  14. ^ Gunnarsson, S., Keeling, L.J. and Svedberg, J., (1999). Effects of rearing factors on the prevalence of floor eggs, cloacal cannibalism and feather pecking in commercial flocks of loose housed laying hens. British Poultry Science, 40: 12–18
  15. ^ Nordquist, R.E., Heerkens, J.L.T., Rodenburg, T.B., Boks, S., Ellen, E.D. and van der Staay, F.J., (2011). Laying hens selected for low mortality: Behaviour in tests of fearfulness, anxiety and cognition. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 131: 110-122
  16. ^ Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (July 2002). "Mutilations" (PDF). Codes of Recommendations for the Welfare of Livestock: Laying Hens: 21.
  17. ^ Gold, Anita (July 18, 1986). "Blinders Make A Spectacle For Chicken-hearted Collectors". Chicago Tribune.