Mr Njenga is an ardent reader of this column and has been keeping poultry for the last four years.
One of the challenges he has constantly faced is cannibalism — a bad habit (vice) mostly manifested as vent picking, picking of unfeathered skin on the head, toes, comb or wattle.
I paid a visit to his farm in Kandara, Murang’a County to see if I could address this issue.
As per my observation - Njenga’s chicken would attack pen-mates and most of the times this would end up in grave injuries or even death if isolation is not done as soon as possible.
At his farm, I was able to identify some leading factors — overcrowding, excessive lighting and insufficient feeder space.
One other factor that could have led to cannibalism at this particular farm was poor construction of the laying boxes.
Advice to him was reduce the number of chicken per shed, increase number of feeders and drinkers and get well-structured laying boxes.
Like Mr Njenga, most farmers are also faced with this issue which in some cases has led to high mortality and losses.
CAUSES OF CANNIBALISM
No single cause has been attributed to this vice but some factors — both environmental and dietary have been associated with its occurrence.
Environmental factors commonly associated with the vice include high population density, poor ventilation, low humidity, excess light in the poultry coop and lack of adequate number of feeders/ drinkers.
Naturally, chicken and birds in general have a pecking behaviour- normally seen when looking for food or exploring the environment.
In crowded conditions, chicken have limited options to peck and may end up pecking one another and making it a hobby.
Most vices usually end up becoming behavioural habits and may be difficult to control once they start.
Peer influence is also observed in birds once some birds observe this they too end up picking up the habit and a serious routine of pecking may develop.
Overcrowding should be avoided by ensuring the recommended spacing for the different breeds of chicken is adhered to. For instance, broilers- 1sq. ft/ bird, layers- 2 sq. ft/ bird, kienyeji 1.5-2 sq. ft/ bird.
Excess light inside the poultry house has also been a predisposing factor to this bad habit.
In intensive poultry operations, light intensity should be reduced. Use of red bulbs or bulbs with a red hue have shown to be effective in control of the behaviour.
Inadequacy of both feeding space as well as number of feeders usually causes scrambling and hens will fight by pecking one another.
It is therefore advisable to ensure you ideally space out the feeders and drinkers as well as providing enough feeding/drinking equipment depending on the flock size.
Dietary factors including nutritional imbalances also play a role in this bad trait. Protein and sodium deficiency has been linked to some cases of cannibalism.
Such cases are mostly observed in cases of home feed-formulation where salt and protein content are not sufficient.
The correct feed formula should be used and followed to the latter to ensure correct vitamin, minerals and salt ratios are provided.
Mixing of feed ingredients should be done using a drum-mixer to ensure the feed is homogeneously (uniformly) mixed.
It is always advisable to take a sample of home-made feeds to the lab for nutrient analysis.
Palatability of feed is also a factor that may lead to cannibalism.
Palatability refers to taste, form and digestibility of feeds thus abrupt change in this may lead to seeking of alternative sources of food.
With that reality, gradual introduction of any new feed should be performed.
Gradual introduction means mixing both the old and new feed for at least one week.
A ratio of 50-50 per cent is appropriate. Injured birds are also at a risk of being pecked by others.
The red colour of blood attracts other birds and cannibalism ensues. Any dead bird should be promptly removed and injured birds should be isolated from other birds until healing takes place.
Laying boxes should be placed in a dark area of the poultry shed.
Egg laying is a private affair to the chicken and therefore laying boxes should provide exactly that. Proper box construction and dimensions (1ft x 1ft x 1ft) should be implemented.
Other than death from pecking trauma, transmission of infectious diseases may take place if this bad habit is not prevented.
The commonest method of preventing cannibalism is through de-beaking — cutting of the upper beak normally done at about four to six weeks and may be repeated just before start of laying in layers.
Some hatcheries de-beak day-old chicks. This procedure does not entirely eliminate the behaviour but it significantly reduces degree of injury or trauma caused. It is important to ensure that all the factors that may lead to this habit are eliminated, since the best method of control is to prevent it from starting.
Remember that once it has started, it becomes difficult to control.
- The writer is a veterinarian surgeon and runs Nature Kuku, a farm in Naivasha that produces kuku kienyeji breed and trains small holder farmers.