Chickens can be a wonderful addition to any homestead, but like any other kind of livestock, they need a watchful eye and careful attention to keep them in great shape. As you enjoy your flock and the benefits they bring your farm—or even just your backyard—you should implement certain practices to keep them healthy right from the start.
As long-time chicken-keeper Glenn Drowns writes in Storey’s Guide to Raising Poultry (which I highly recommend to any poultry owner), you need to think about caring for your flock in two ways:
- Be proactive in maintaining their health.
- Be reactive in any treatment of sick or injured birds.
By being on top of things from the start such as proper nutrition and a clean habitat, you can eliminate many future ailments.
1. Plan Ahead
Before you even get your first chick, consider several different things that are important to the longevity and overall wellness of your flock. When picking your birds, ask yourself:
- What purpose do you have behind getting chickens?
- Do you want them for eggs or meat?
- What region do you live in?
- Will your birds need to be cold or heat hardy?
- How many can you reasonably have based on the amount of space you have to offer them?
- Will they be able to free-range?
- If you live in town, are there any rules or regulations you need to observe?
After you’ve made your decision on what breed of birds to pursue, find a reputable breeder or hatchery from which to purchase. The health and wellbeing of their chicken flocks can go a long way to tell you about what your birds will look like in the future.
Some people buy eggs or chicks off of the internet, while others pick them out at a local feed-supply store. Wherever you get your chicks or eggs, be cautious, do your research and keep your eyes open for any signs of problems or sickness.
2. Keep a Tidy Coop
From the first day you bring your chicks home, have a place ready for them to live. The coop should be well ventilated and kept fairly clean. With birds comes dust and manure, but to avoid health issues such as respiratory diseases and foot injuries, work on keeping your coop a tidy and pleasant place to live.
Ventilation is an especially important aspect to keep an eye on due to the ammonia that chicken manure produces and its effect on health. Too much ammonia in the air—especially during hot weather—and poor air flow to remove it can result in the loss of your birds.
Keeping a clean coop floor is also helpful to avoid disease. How often you clean the coop or pen depends on the number of birds and amount of space you have.
While a thorough cleaning should be done once or twice a year, regular maintenance will help keep your hens happy and healthy. Think of it this way: If you were one of your hens, would you be happy living in the coop?
The Sniff Test
One of the easiest ways to tell if your coop needs a cleaning is to give it a sniff. If you lean down to about your bird’s height, does it smell pleasant? If not, it’s probably time to get your gloves on and go to work!
There are a variety of ways people maintain their coops. Some lay down tarps to catch all of the manure and then simply roll the tarp up, dispose of the litter and clean/disinfect it. Other poultry-keepers use dropping boards underneath the roosts.
Whatever method you prefer, a cleaner will need to be used to disinfect the surfaces as you go.
You can use vinegar to disinfect as opposed to harsher chemicals. Once you do some research and find out what methods and cleaners will work best for your needs, set up a schedule for how often you want to clean out the coop.
As you clean, check in on the state of your waterers. Birds tend to get manure in them, so in order to help prevent diseases such as coccidiosis, clean them regularly.
While you work in the chicken coop or run, look for things that could possibly affect your birds’s foot health, such as nails, splinters or pieces of broken glass. These could lead to foot injuries in the future if not disposed of.
3. Food & Nutrition
The feed you provide your birds with plays a huge role in chicken health and wellness. Different kinds and ages of poultry will have different needs, so before you even purchase your first chick, look into nutrition requirements. Keep in mind that they’ll change as the bird matures.
Likewise, fryers will have different needs from layers, etc.
In addition to their regular dietary needs, learn what treats or scraps from the kitchen you can safely give to your birds and which foods to avoid. A cabbage that has been tied up to the top of the pen and dangles down for them to peck is a safe food option that will also provide hours of enjoyment.
4. Have a Watchful Eye
A good flock tender should keep an eye out for signs of something being off with any members of the flock. As time goes on, you’ll begin to notice how different birds have their own personalities. Some will be a little more adventurous and curious, while others may prefer to stand a bit away from the rest.
Understanding these quirks and being able to notice when something is out of place can be helpful when trying to determine if one of your feathered friends is suffering from chicken health concerns.
Some things to be on the lookout for can be pretty obvious such as: broken wings or legs, bleeding wounds, broken beaks, bare backs and so on.
While all of these problems will be somewhat easy to recognize, other ailments will require a little more diligence to catch. These might be symptoms of a more serious issue, such as lethargic attitudes, sores on the body, eye or nasal discharge, coughing, troubled breathing or lack of appetite.
Be aware and know what your birds look like at their best so that you can recognize if chicken health starts to go downhill.
5. Learn to ID the Problem
Once you’ve established that there is an issue in the flock, you need to take action. The first step should be to remove the bird from the rest of the flock. This avoids infecting the rest of the poultry, and once chickens see blood or that another is wounded, they can attack and peck an injured bird to death.
Thus, for the safety of the entire flock, move a sick or injured bird to a different location.
You might find that a large dog crate is handy to keep on hand for chickens that need to be isolated. Simply keep fresh water and food—if applicable to the situation—available and set the crate in a quiet, dark place.
If you need to help calm the bird, quietly place a sheet or towel over the crate. At this point, you might have an idea of what is wrong with your chicken, but here are a few basic health concerns to be aware of:
Cuts or Other Injuries
At some point, you’ll have a chicken with a physical injury. For example, a hen with a bloodied, bare back and broken feathers. If you have roosters in your flock, they tend to be the first to get blamed for causing this as excessive mounting during breeding season can lead to their spurs causing the backs of the hen to become bare or raw.
Trimming the spurs of the rooster or putting a “saddle” on the hens’ backs can help alleviate this problem.
Pecking wounds might also come up from time to time. While some breeds just tend to be more aggressive, the pecking could also be part of establishing a pecking order. Either way, keep an eye on the victim of the pecking.
Once chickens get a taste for blood, they can become cannibalistic and end up killing a wounded flock-mate.
Another problem you might come across will be foot injuries. Some of them can be prevented with a routine checking of the coop for sharp objects or splinters.
If your birds are free-range, they’ll have more opportunity to run into things they shouldn’t, so work to keep your homestead tidy and free of broken glass and odd, sharp things just lying around.
Finding that first egg in the nest is one of the most exciting events of the poultry-keeper’s life. A lot goes into that single egg, as each hen spends around 25 hours producing it. As you gather eggs, you might come across a few odd ones.
A “soft shell” egg usually appears to have a very thin shell casing, but in fact, it has no shell at all. It’s simply the membrane that is holding the yolk and white of the egg inside.
This problem might have occurred because the hen underwent a fair amount of stress or fear and laid the egg prematurely, or she could simply be lacking in calcium or vitamin D. To help avoid this issue in the future, up those nutrients in the poultry feed or water.
The occasional soft egg is nothing to worry about, unless it becomes a regular issue.
Another egg-laying related issue is when a hen becomes egg-bound. This would mean that an egg has become stuck inside of her. This is a serious health issue that needs to be dealt with quickly as the chicken could go into shock.
You’ll be able to identify it as the problem when she strains to push the egg out but it doesn’t budge. At this point, a water-based lubricant and some warm saline solution can be used to gently work the egg out.
Before you run into this problem, read up about the best ways to respond to an egg-bound hen so that you’ll be prepared if the time comes!
Pesky little creatures such as poultry lice, mites, ticks or worms can lead to big problems if not attended to properly and in a timely manner. One way to help combat the issues of parasites on the body is to add diatomaceous earth to the nests or wherever your birds take their dust baths.
DE is made up of tiny, fossilized organisms that are ground into a fine powder. When used in a chicken’s dust bath, it causes the insects on the body to dry out and die. Before using it, be sure you get food-grade DE and learn how to properly apply it safely so you and your poultry won’t inhale the fine powder.
A multitude of other things could cause your poultry to fall ill, but when it comes to diseases, it’s a good idea to learn a bit about them before you encounter any. Understand the difference between viral and bacterial diseases, and learn the basic steps to take when you think a chicken might be suffering from ill health.
As mentioned earlier, start by removing a sick or injured bird from the rest of the flock if you’re questioning how healthy it is. A few common diseases in chickens include coccidiosis (a parasitic disease), Marek’s (a highly contagious viral disease) and coryza (a respiratory disease).
As you care for you chickens, you’ll learn and grow from your many different experiences. While you work to keep your flock healthy and happy, expect the unexpected.
Things will happen that you’ll have to decide how to respond to. That’s just part of the process. We all make mistakes, learn from our experiences and have to keep on trying!
So pull on your boots, and go gather some eggs. You’ve got to tend to your flock!
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Chickens magazine.