The chickens’ feathers are bad at keeping themselves functional. So chickens have to use their beaks to clean and straighten the feathers. They do this to keep the feathers waterproof and oily.
Chickens need to groom quite often. They can spend a good amount of time grooming every day. Since chickens are social animals, it makes sense to wonder: “do chickens groom each other?”
Do chickens groom each other?
While chickens can groom on their own, they prefer to do it on each other in a flock, where a bunch of chickens just gather around and groom each other.
What exactly is grooming?
In chickens, grooming is referred to as preening.
In addition to aiding in leaping high with wings, chickens’ feathers are crucial for waterproofing and insulation.
The structure of a feather includes a shaft with several long and thin barbs attached to it. Holding those barbs together are smaller barbules. The feathers need to stay together to perform their functions.
So when the barbs have pulled apart, they lose the ability to insulate and waterproof. To bring the feathers back to their normal positions, a chicken will run its beaks through its feathers to realign the barbs.
The feathers also need to be oiled to make them harder to break, which also helps with waterproofing and insulating. But, a chicken only has a single oil gland located near the tail’s base. This area is also called the preen gland.
Chickens’ beaks are used to pinch the preen gland to get a waxy oil, and then apply on the feathers as they run their feathers through the beaks.
Further reading: Do chickens eat each other?
How important are feathers for chickens?
Feathers are very important for chickens; they help chickens regulate body temperatures since they can’t sweat to cool themselves, waterproof their skins, protect their bodies and their sensitive areas.
There are 5 types of feathers with different roles:
This is the most familiar feather type with a central shaft that is stiff, cylindrical, and sharp-pointed.
The long and thin parallel barbs stick out from the shaft and are held together with barbules to form the feather’s vane. These feathers stay together and form a smooth, strong, and continuous surface.
When the feathers are pulled apart, they can no longer waterproof or insulate the chicken’s body. So it will use its beaks to run through the feathers to make the barbules hook back to the barbs.
Alternatively, you can help with the process by smoothing the barbs out using your fingers.
Plumule feathers form a soft and downy undercoat under the contour feather layers. Unlike contour feathers, the barbs of plumule feathers are not hooked together.
These feathers trap and hold air still as they are fluffed up, which helps increase the feather insulation when it is cold outside. And when it is hot outside, these feathers release the hot air in the feathers by erecting them.
The filoplume feathers are similar to hair and very small. They can be difficult to remove and are found on the chickens’ wings and their undersides
The fluffy downs are what coat a chick when it hatches. The fluffy down coat quite resembles plumules, and they are replaced with juvenile feathers at their first molt. Juvenile feather is similar to adult contour feather but is softer.
Bristles are usually found around a chicken’s eyes and beaks. They act like human eyelashes; they protect the sensitive areas in the eyes. They also help with the chickens’ sensory abilities.
Grooming for oily feathers
Grooming is more than just straightening the feathers. When watching chickens grooming, you will notice that they seemingly peck something at the base of their tails, then stroke and rub their beaks through the feathers.
The part at the base of a chicken’s tail that it often pecks at is called the preen gland or uropygial gland. It is a small pimple located after the last vertebrae on the back.
The green gland produces a waxes-rich and fatty-acid-rich oily secretion. A chicken will use its beak to take the oil and spread it on its feathers. It will repeat this process during the preening process.
As mentioned, the oil makes the feathers harder to break. It cleans and keeps the feather moist, improves waterproofing and insulation, and helps control external parasites like lice.
Over time, the old oils will oxidize and lose their effectiveness. The chickens will take a dust bath to remove the old oils, then rub new oils on their feathers to start preening again.
Chickens need to groom their feathers and take dust baths regularly. The dust bathing process starts with dirt being tossed onto the fluffed feathers, then the chickens will enclose it by flattening their feathers to remove the dirt and maintain the feather and down structure.
Also, hens tend to spend more time grooming than roosters. They are also better at the grooming process.
The chickens still need nutrients for their feathers
While preening helps maintain the feathers, it is important that the chickens get their required nutrients at a sufficient amount. The feathers’ quality will turn out poor even if the chickens groom the feather regularly.
There are some cases that poor feather quality isn’t necessarily bad for your chickens: good laying hens will use their nutrients for eggs rather than their feathers, hens showing brittle feathers on purpose for their favorite roosters, and during the molting process.
So, do chickens groom each other? Although a chicken can groom its feathers on its own, chickens will prefer gathering together to preen each other’s feathers.
Grooming is when a chicken uses its beak and runs through the feathers to straighten them. It will also collect the oils from its preen gland and rub those oils on the feathers, it then takes a dust bath to remove the old oxidized oils.
Image credits – Photo by Magda Wojtyra on flickr.com