Backyard chickens are fabulous. We love ours. Mainly because it’s like watching comically small feathered dinosaurs peck around our yard and chase after us in the hopes of a few scraps of leftover food. The fact that they sometimes supply us with breakfast is also a bonus. (I say sometimes because every so often they take notions of hiding their eggs in caches at the edges of our lawn, leading to surprising finds of piles up to 30 eggs under a prickly bush).
Since acquiring my chickens three years ago, my colleagues have dubbed me the “chicken vet”. Any avian species for that matter, is saved for my shift. At first I was reluctant to own this loose title. But after I began applying my own personal chicken experiences to my patients, my confidence in treating this species was bolstered as I realized that most of avian medicine is common sense and husbandry basics.
Here’s what I’ve learned with the help of my hens:
Housing: before bringing home your new feathered family member, ensure you have a secure coup and run to keep them safe from predators (raccoons, pine martin’s, foxes, dogs, etc.) And know how to keep it relatively clean and free from mites! (You can get special sprays and cleaners that are safe for the birds at your local farm/pet product supplier. We’ve also found that cleaning their water and food dispensers with apple cider vinegar disinfects and is non-toxic to the hens.)
Food: Invest in a good quality food specifically made for layer hens. Even then, you may need to supplement with calcium and grit if they don’t have access to other food sources (such as a grassy yard or field). Also chickens need access to fresh water at ALL times.
Parasite protection/dust baths: Every couple of months it’s important to treat your birds with a parasite preventative. We use something Ivermectin based (a bird-safe anti-parasitic drug that has multiple formulations eg. Oral, topical, etc.) This product covers intestinal parasites as well as most ectoparasites, like mites. Chickens and most avian species like to take dust baths, where they roll in dry dirt/dust as a natural means of suffocating skin mites or parasites. (The first time Husband saw this he thought the hen was having a seizure and ran to let me know one of the chickens was dying dramatically in our back yard!)
Molting: Twice a year my birds undergo a rather shocking transformation where suddenly all their feathers fall out and they’re covered with pin feathers. This can look like they’re in the throws of some horrible disease or are being battered by eachother, however, it’s just a particularly dramatic molt. Some birds have gradual molts where you may not even notice their new plumage coming in, but my birds look like they’ve just escaped a fight with a lawnmower. (Be aware that if birds are housed too closely together, or if new birds are introduced to a flock you may see hen pecking, where one or more birds are abusing others causing poor feather quality and injuries.)
Escapes: Our girls sometimes end up in the neighbor’s yard, literally flying the coup for fresh grazing grounds. To prevent flying over the wall, I trim one of their wings of their primary feathers. Unless you know what you’re doing, though, I’d just take them to your vet for this procedure after each molt (roughly twice a year).
Poop: Chickens poop. A lot. Even the two we have right now create a yard spackled full of poopy landmines that end up all over our kitchen floor. Be prepared! However, chicken poop is excellent fertilizer and will make the grass in your yard the most luscious and thick in your neighborhood. (Chicken poop is also a great health indicator- the first sign of diarrhea or watery green stool is the moment you need to consult your vet).
Get a sick chicken to the vet ASAP: Chickens, like most avian species, hide illness well. At least until they can’t anymore. Any display of weakness is like waving around a red flag announcing an easy meal for a predator. So once you begin to notice something amiss, they are really ill and should be taken to the vet ASAP! Some tell-tale signs of sickness include droopy wings, lameness, lethargy, abnormally colored or scaly legs, innapetance, seperation or abuse from other birds, a pale or very dark purple comb, half closed eyes, dull or dirty plumage (especially around the back passage), diarrhea or straining to lay/deficate, or an abrupt cessation in egg output (however, remember that many chickens may stop laying during winter months or periods of high stress).
Do you have chickens or any chicken ownership tips? Please share them with us!