PREDATORS, DISEASE, PARASITES, and STRESS
This is the third and final part of my series about the different threats to our backyard flock. In the two previous posts I talked about predators and listed some illnesses. In this final edition I conclude with more issues that can afflict the flock.
Egg binding is another common problem that can affect hens. Symptoms may include loss of appetite, disinterest in drinking, decreased activity, shaky wings, walking like a penguin, abdominal straining, uncharacteristic sitting, passing wet droppings or none at all, droopy, depressed, or pale comb and wattles, and presence of an egg in the oviduct upon an examination.
Being egg-bound simply means a hen has an egg stuck inside of her that she cannot pass or is having difficulty laying. There are different reasons this happens: Lack of calcium, which is what puts the shell on the egg and helps the hen’s muscles contract and push the egg out; obesity- a chicken that is obese can have a difficult time laying an egg, because her muscles are weaker and can’t contract as strongly as they should; infection- sometimes a chicken will have an infection in their reproductive tract. They may have no symptoms at all, but it can still cause all kinds of issues including muscle weakness; malformed eggs- eggs that are very big or misshaped can be problematic for the hen as well; stress- stressors such as a new coop or flock can cause problems for a hen; premature laying- sometimes a hen that starts laying eggs too soon might get egg-bound because they are too young.
Treating an Egg-Bound Hen
How do you treat an egg-bound hen? First, you have to make certain there’s an egg by inserting a gloved finger (coated w/Vaseline) into the suspected hen’s vent to a depth of 2 inches; if you can’t find an egg, there isn’t one, however if there is one, then fill a tub with warm water, and add 1/2 cup of Epsom salt to every 1/2 gallon of water, immersing the hen gently into the water till her abdomen and vent area are soaking. You must be careful, because you don’t want the egg to break; that would be another issue entirely. Keep the hen in the tub for 20 minutes at least before removing her and drying her off.
Keep her separated from the other birds to hopefully encourage laying the egg; you can also lubricate her vent with Vaseline to help the egg slip out. If after her first bath she hasn’t laid the egg in a couple of hours, repeat the bath. If still no success after 3 or 4 baths, you might need to contact your veterinarian. If you can feel the egg, you might be able to remove it in pieces, although it’s not generally recommended, because it can lead to injury and infection.
You can try to prevent egg binding by managing your flock’s diet, giving them the appropriate feed. A chicken feed with 16% protein should contain all that your flock needs, including calcium, however oyster shell should also be available. Controlling worms is another prevention method as is making sure you have enough nesting boxes. Try to reduce stress by eliminating or minimizing changes in coops or flock mates. You can decrease premature laying caused by added lights to the chicken coop by monitoring light exposure until pullets reach maturity around 20 weeks. There isn’t a whole lot to be done about large and misshapen eggs. Sometimes it’s just a one-time thing, though if it becomes habitual that the hen routinely lays large eggs, she needs to be monitored for vent prolapse, which will need to be treated quickly.
Mites, Lice, Worms, and Other Pests and How to Treat For Them
Mites, lice, ticks, and other worms not specifically mentioned are also bothersome to chickens although not necessarily deadly, and the treatments and preventions are different. Mites and lice can be treated and prevented pretty much the same way, although ticks need a different method. Our birds have had mites, and the natural method is diatomaceous earth, which is supposed to be a cure-all for everything for poultry, but we haven’t had great success with it. I think the first time our chickens were free of mites was when we applied Ivermectin last Spring. It is recommended to treat the birds topically for lice and mites, but for ticks the recommendation is to treat their coop and surrounding area. We have bees so it’s often difficult to find products that actually work that are also safe for the bees.
Either Ivermectin applied topically or Wormout gel added to their water are the best options if there is an infestation; after that start a monthly preventative of 1 TBSP ACV per 1 gallon of water daily for 1 week with garlic sprinkled in their food.
Risks of Extreme Temperatures
Extreme temperatures are something else that can hurt or kill members of our backyard flock, and this is, of course, dependent upon where you live and the breeds of chickens you have. I live in Oklahoma and on occasion we’ve experienced triple digit summers, but at the same time, this is the coldest Winter we’ve had in a long time since I’ve lived here (2010). I actually can’t remember how many times it’s snowed now this season, but at the time that I’m writing this post, it’s 16 degrees outside. Chickens that do well in summers that are hot don’t do so great where it gets cold. Their ventilation system is in their wattles and combs, so the larger the combs and wattles are, it’s great in the summer months, however it’s to their detriment if the conditions are brutally cold in the winter months.
We have different breeds in our flock, have always had different breeds, so we have some with large wattles and combs, and we have some with very small wattles and combs, which means we have to be diligent all year round to make sure everyone is doing OK in regards to the weather. Since we’ve moved here we’ve added more trees for shade in the summer months for the birds to keep cool beneath. I added a kiddie pool once, however they wouldn’t go near it. Last year I tried getting a misting system, but Lowe’s and Home Depot didn’t have what I needed, and I’m not sure if that’s because of Covid19 problems or not.
Many people want to add heaters to their coops in winter to protect their flock, although this isn’t a good idea. Your birds can’t acclimatize to the cold if their coop is heated and then go outside in the cold; it can actually make them sick or kill them. Having a heat source in the coop is also a fire risk. We’ve known of a few people whose chicken coops burned down this way.
Heat Exhaustion: Symptoms and How to Prevent it
The risks of extreme temperatures are heat exhaustion and death for the summer months and frostbite and death in the winter months; these are the worst possible things that can happen. Signs of heat stress in chickens to look out for are panting, increased water intake, lethargy and weakness, reduced egg production, reduced feed intake, diarrhea, and outstretched wings and legs. To prevent heat stress make sure there is plenty of fresh, clean water daily, a lot of shade, ventilation in the coop, and frozen treats. In the summer I regularly freeze bananas, and on particularly hot days I make my birds ‘ice cream’ by mixing the frozen bananas, that I slice, into plain Greek yogurt with frozen blueberries. They absolutely love it. Chickens who suffer from cold stress will appear cold with ruffled feathers, huddled, and not moving around a lot.
Depending on the conditions and the bird it can lead to frostbite. Birds with large combs and wattles are at more risk of getting frostbite, and it can range from mild to severe. Indications of frostbite are blackening edges of comb and/or wattles, reddening of toes, blackened areas of claws, swelling of comb, wattles, and/or toes. Preventing frostbite is the best option by winterizing the coop with insulation and keeping the bedding dry and keeping proper ventilation. It’s important to examine your birds for evidence of frostbite if it’s been particularly cold. Casanova, our first rooster, got frostbite in late 2017. He usually was very good at staying in the coop in inclement weather; he tried to persuade his flock to do so as well, although they didn’t respect him that much, and so they went outside in the snow anyway. Well, the first couple of days he remained inside like a smart roo, however the third day he left; I suppose he was lonely. When we went to lock them up, we saw that he was lethargic so we brought him to the garage and gave him water and put food in front of him, yet he wouldn’t eat. It wasn’t until the next day that we noticed he had frostbite on his leg. Unfortunately by the time we did anything it was too late, and infection is what most likely did him in.
I mention this because it’s been very cold, and we have two roosters now. Megatron is very suited to this weather, whereas Baby Nay isn’t as much. They don’t have a very good relationship, father and son. Baby Nay gets into trouble with his dad all the time, and he gets kicked out of the coop; when our below freezing weather started last week he was kicked out and was seen lying down in the snow. I was at work, but Paul rescued him, and put him in chicken jail for his safety after examining him for frostbite. And because of Megatron’s behavior, I didn’t let the birds out the following day. I fed them and watered them but left them inside. They have all been sequestered in the coop and run for a week or more now. Normally they don’t like that, however they have all been huddling together, including the ducks, because they need the body heat. We’ve regularly added extra straw to the bedding for insulation as well, and each time Paul has gone outside to feed and water them, he checks them over for frostbite.
How to Treat Frostbite
To treat frostbite, the bird needs to be brought inside, and if the feet are affected, the feet should be placed in warm, not hot, water for about 20-25 minutes, slowly, to bring the tissue back up to temperature. Do NOT apply direct heat, and only soak the bird’s feet in warm water if you’re not going to immediately put it back outside, as this will only cause further damage. Don’t rub on the affected areas and don’t remove any tissue, however keep the area clean with chlorhexadine 2% solution spray 2-3 times a day until healed. Give the bird water and electrolytes with water. Monitor for signs of infection: oozing, redness, swelling, etc. If you live somewhere with access to a poultry vet, call them, because this would require immediate attention depending on the location and size of frostbite, but they would be able to call in prescriptions and give you more guidance.
Causes of Chicken Stress
The illnesses and diseases I’ve gone over so far have been ones that we’ve witnessed personally, thought our birds had, or are common, though this list is certainly not exhaustive. Now I’m going to go over one final issue that can and probably will afflict your flock (if you have one). There’s no medicine to treat this problem or vaccine to prevent it from happening, though it can disrupt the lives of your birds just as easily as any body ravaging illness can.
Adding Too Many Birds at Once
In a previous post I mentioned how in 2017 our flock was experiencing a lot of changes all at once: 5 adolescent chickens plus 4 adult chickens added to the flock, and a rooster who crowed all night long for several weeks–it was a lot for the flock to take on all at once, and it started presenting in their egg laying, meaning they stopped laying eggs for a time, because they were stressed out.
Abuse or Mishandling
Another time that they stopped laying eggs was January 2019: It was just after their molt, (so they weren’t laying eggs already) and I noticed that the chickens stopped treating me like I was their god; I’m the one who gives them all good things in life and they usually flock to me, but they were actually afraid of me, and it made me very suspicious. Even my rooster was afraid of me. I soon found out that my youngest (she’s now 10) and her friends had been chasing the birds, and 2 of her friends threw some of them in the air, thus the odd behavior. This wasn’t an isolated incident. They had been chasing my birds for some time, and gradually the flock stopped coming out to meet me for treats, which was a big clue something was wrong. They were stressed, so they didn’t lay eggs for 6 or more months extra and didn’t trust me for almost a year!
Disease, parasites, malnutrition, predators, overcrowded conditions, abusive roosters or too many roosters, handling the chickens or being rough with them, especially when they’re molting, lack of clean water, poor ventilation in the coop, and extreme temperatures–any of these situations can stress the girls out and cause their egg production to drop, but some of these things can even cause disease.
Too Many or Unruly Roosters
Two and a half years ago my daughters brought home 4 Cuckoo Maran chicks. I wanted that breed for a couple of reasons: I heard that they laid well in the winter months, and their eggs are a rich chocolate brown, which I thought would complement the blues of my Ameraucanas. One of those chicks developed into a rooster, and he had quite the urges, but Megatron is definitely not like his predecessor; he does not like to share. At all. He would chase Springer off his girls a hundred times a day. Eventually Springer was looking ragged; his tail feathers were not coming in like they should. This went on for weeks, months, what started to feel like forever. Why didn’t Megatron just finish Springer off? Clearly he was wearing both of them out, not to mention the girls.
Springer’s behavior started to get worse with the hens, more violent, I suppose because he was desperate. No one wanted to be around him, not one of the hens. Everyone avoided him like the plague. One time he tried getting Soundwave, Megatron’s other hatchery-mate, as she was sneaking back under the fence, and he trapped her there-she was pinned under the fence until one of us went out to rescue her from her attacker.
Springer was then labeled a violent sex offender, and he had to go. He was starting to cause unnecessary stress to the flock, and though Megatron had drawn blood on him, he was unable to put him down, so we needed to do this humanely and quickly before any of the hens were killed or injured.
After Springer was gone there was complete peace in the backyard; it was like the whole flock could breathe a sigh of relief. If Megatron could speak words other than crow, he would’ve thanked us.
The causes of stress to a bird are not that different than stress to a person, although the effects can be divergent. Whenever you notice atypical behavior in your birds, it’s time to start doing some research, and although the literature might recommend culling the flock, it’s not always right or efficacious to put them down, because it can just be something as simple as fixing another issue with a different bird, newcomers, the coop situation, their diet, or children at home who’ve been bothering the flock.
Do you have any stories of chickens getting ill or suffering from something that looked like one of the illnesses I listed in this three part post, and yet it turned out to be something completely different? What about stress? Have you ever noticed your flock stressed before? I would love to hear your stories and your solutions.