Reading Feathers; What Plumage Can Tell Us

What Basic Observation Can Tell You About Your Birds

Feathers are an important part of a chicken’s life, and as such, we should take care in observing their condition. Feathers can tell us so much about a bird and yet so many chicken keepers couldn’t tell you much about them, so let’s dive into the topic.

Sex Identification

We all know a mature rooster when we see them. They usually stick out like a sore thumb when surrounded by females because of their different colorations and physical features, but have you ever looked closely at a rooster’s feathers? Males have distinct hackle, saddle and sickle feathers (found in the neck, back and tail respectively) which are physically and obviously shaped differently. Unlike hens, roosters have elongated and significantly sharper feathers in these locations, which is a handy bit of information when trying to identify juvenile males in a young flock. Around July, my Facebook page lights up with photos of pre-pubescent roosters with the all-too-familiar question of “Is it a rooster?”. When you find yourself asking the same question, check hackle and saddle feather shapes on these birds, and if they have significantly sharper plumage than the others, then your answer is… yes.

Male feathering on the top, female on the bottom.

Male feathering on the top, female on the bottom.

Exceptions

As with most things in life, this sharp plumage rule is not absolute, but rather conditional. Breeds such as the Sebright (developed and named after Sir John Sebright in 19th century England) have an unusual quality; they are exclusively hen feathered. A rooster of a hen feathered breed such as the Sebright, will not display masculine feathering like described above, but instead will have the same blunt, rounded feathers of his female counterparts. Also, females of any breed that have higher than usual testosterone levels may also develop sharper plumage in these areas, but seldom develop the long, sharp, sweeping sickle feathers in the tail.

For more information on sexing chickens via plumage observation, see my article on sexing birds.

Sex Linked Traits

Regardless of the industry, employees are an expensive asset, and the chicken hatchery business is no different. Proficient chick sexers are in short supply, and command a very healthy wage, so in the industry’s continued attempts to cut costs, increase accuracy, and hasten product delivery, breeders have produced an innovative hybrid of bird; Sex Links. Sex Link birds are named for their sex identifying, or “sex-linked” traits. Some Sex Link varieties inherit subtle differences such as wing feather length to differentiate sexes, and some feature more obvious dots or speckles which make them easily identified as male or female. Only a handful of commercial hybrids feature these identifying features, and don’t confuse these hybrids as actual breeds, since breeding two of the same will not produce an identical bird.

Damage

Damaged feathers can also tell us a lot about what is going on when we’re not watching. Not all plumage damage is a bad thing, but understanding what it means can help us plan for what’s coming, or correct problems before they become bigger problems.

These birds look rather ragged, a combination of fighting, overzelous roosters and the beginnings of a moult

These birds look rather ragged, a combination of fighting, overzealous roosters and the beginnings of a molt

Bare, Or Damaged Back Feathers

The most common observations I get questions about are bare backs and missing feathers on the head of hens. This is a normal and common situation, caused by the natural mating behavior that gives you fertile eggs, but when you observe a whole flock showing extreme signs of over breeding, you need to remove a few roosters. If left unchecked, your hens run the risk of experiencing damaged skin in the back, which can introduce infections and illness. It’s common to see one or two hens that show a greater degree of breeder damage within a small flock, and one can simply deduce that those particular hens are your rooster’s favorite hens, and as such likely stay close to him.

This sort of plumage damage is not exclusive to flocks with roosters. Dominant hens may mount other hens in a show of dominance, usually in lieu of a male presence. Feather damage should be slight in this situation. What can I say, chickens can be complicated.

In this group of pullets, I've had to use training aides to stop aggressive picking

In this group of pullets, I’ve had to use training aides to stop aggressive picking

Damaged Plumage At Tail Base

Unlike damaged or completely bare backs, you may see damage at or near the base of the tail, right around the Uropygial gland. If this is accommodated by skin damage, this is likely caused by aggressive pecking and needs to be addressed immediately. This sort of mutilation is typically caused by other birds attacking the victim, and likely signifies that you have a crowding problem. Common among young birds during their initial feather growth, this can quickly lead to cannibalization and as such I recommend using an anti-pick training aid immediately, my favorite being Rooster Booster’s Pick-No-More product. I’ve been using this product and others like it for decades, and I have yet to find a better or faster way to remedy cannibalism. The basic theory being that you spread this disgusting substance on the affected area, release the bird and let the others attempt to peck that bird again. The aggressive birds will quickly learn just how disgusting the product tastes and will learn to leave that, and hopefully other birds, alone. Be aware that it stains any and all clothing and skin, so use it deliberately and carefully.

In addition to using an anti-pick training aide, consider adding distractions such as bird toys, mirrors and edible distractions like hanging lettuce or cabbage heads. If you can and if it’s necessary, increase floor space per bird, reduce the number of birds in that area, or add additional perch space to give birds room to evade aggressive pen mates.

Damaged Or Missing Chest/ Sternum Feathers

This could be good news for you or bad news, depending on your intentions. Hens self-mutilate themselves by plucking their chests bare in preparation for setting on eggs. Making themselves bare in this area allow them to contact eggs directly with their skin, making it easier to transfer body heat to their eggs for incubation. If you don’t want your hens to brood (set on eggs), you’ll have to persistently kick them out of nests and make sure she doesn’t find some out of the way cubby to hide in, otherwise you may have an unintended batch of chicks randomly appear in your coop. This self-mutilation behavior is usually associated with a drastic change in your hen’s temperament. She will likely defend her chosen nest viciously, be unwilling to vacate, and will emit new and odd sounds like a gravely, low-pitched and persistent cluck, and an angry growl or scream when another hen comes too close for her liking. Unlike the human race, male chickens typically know better than to get involved in situations like this.

Egg Clusters; evidence of lice

Egg Clusters; evidence of lice

Missing Feathers Around The Vent Area

Many times you will see hens that have a bare backside. This is common, but the cause could be an infestation of plumage or biting parasites. Hens can be bothered enough by the parasites that congregate near the vent that they will pick themselves bare while trying to rid themselves of the troubling pestilence. For more information on mites and lice, read my article; Hidden Health Problems: Mites And Lice.

Bare Feather Shafts

Another possible sign of parasites is bare feather shafts. If your birds have an inordinate amount of feathers missing fluff and vane, you may have feather lice eating your birds feathers bare. Look for white rice-looking critters running among your bird’s feathers and treat accordingly. If there are no parasites present, your birds may be coming in contact with something such as a fence or cage that is fraying and destroying their plumage. Observe your bird’s habits, especially when flying to roosts or using doorways to find the mechanical cause of the issue.

Entire Missing Feather Tracts

If your entire flock has suddenly decided to shed feathers en mass, then they have begun the molting process, which they generally do feather tract by feather tract. Your flock will look disheveled for a month or so, your egg production will likely cease altogether, and your coop will be full of feathers. A synchronized molt will be sudden and obvious to even the most junior chicken keeper, and it’s usually brought about by an error, stressful incident or natural timing. I touch on this briefly in my article Why Hens Stop Laying.

Dirty, Stained Feathers

Dirty plumage happens, but if you have a bird that shows constantly stained or dirty feathers near the vent, it likely is suffering from diarrhea. If you have a bird or birds experiencing diarrhea, treat immediately with electrolytes in their water to help them rebound from dehydration, then reassess your flock to find the cause off the diarrhea. If you have no moralities but diarrhea persists, try de-worming your birds with Piperazine, and change the bedding in their coop since Piperazine only immobilizes worms and allows them to be shed through the bird’s feces. Once the birds shed the worms, they can still re-ingest them so changing the bedding after treatment will help eliminate the potential of reinfection. If you do experience mortality in your flock, take or ship the deceased members to your local veterinary diagnostic laboratory for necropsy. If you don’t know where that is for your locality, contact your local extension agency. Necropsy will help you determine what is going on in your flock and what disease you need to treat for.

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