Ask the Expert — April/May 2019

Tough Winter

We’ve had a tough winter here in Central New Hampshire. Lots of snow and ice. The door to my chicken run becomes frozen often and I end up chipping the ice in order to let my girls out. I was wondering if “pet safe” ice melt crystals are safe for chickens. And if not, do you have any other suggestions?

Please let me know your thoughts on this.

— Bob Patenaude, Moultonborough, New Hampshire


Hi Bob,

It’s been a crazy winter, hasn’t it? In regards to your question about ice melt crystals: I would not recommend use of any of them around chickens. Those crystals are tempting to peck and eat. A chicken’s kidneys are smaller than those of most other pets, and even simple rock salt can cause problems.

My favorite farm “hack” is to purchase a good, waterproof seedling heat mat. These don’t get too hot, since most seeds germinate best at 70-80F degrees, and they are built for frequent water leakage. I’ve used these to keep pipes from freezing and placed them beneath rabbit nesting boxes and baby goat beds. Try plugging one in to warm it enough to straighten it, then lay it beneath the run door at night, when it is closed. Not only will this give you a barrier beneath the door and the ice but it will stay warm enough to prevent freezing.

Please let me know how it goes!

Thank you,

— Marissa Ames. Editor, Backyard Poultry


Old Egg Layers

Do chickens get too old to lay eggs? If so, how old?

— William Bragg


Hi William,

It probably can happen, but I don’t think there is any research on this that would define a specific age. As with humans, there is likely a wide variety of ages where this might occur. Typically, egg production continues to decrease with each increasing year of age, but many older hens, if they’re still healthy, will lay a few eggs each spring.

Hens are hatched with a limited number of egg cells — cells that will develop into yolks — in their ovary.  While hens could theoretically “run out” of yolk cells, this likely doesn’t happen. There have been estimates of approximately 12,000 of these cells in the newly hatched female chick, which is far more than the number of eggs a hen will produce.

Economically, most hens probably won’t produce enough eggs after their second year of production to cover feed costs. Because of this, there aren’t a lot of flocks that are kept longer than that, so there hasn’t been research following older hens and their production.

On a somewhat related note, it is not terribly unusual for an older hen to “turn into” a male, or at least develop male feathering and characteristics. Generally, this is because the left ovary has lost function, causing the right ovary tissue to develop. It often develops into what’s termed an ovotestis, and produces male hormones, so the male characteristics develop. This is usually due to cancer, or some other damage, in the left ovary.

It’ll be interesting to hear from readers about their experiences — I’ll bet we’ll get some reports of eggs from hens that are quite old!

— Ron Kean


Peafowl Health Question

Ten percent of our young peafowl come down with a respiratory disease, where they are opening their mouths and acting like they can’t breathe adequately and often have a swelling below their eye behind their beak. They make gurgling coughing sounds or what I might call honking coughs or sneezes.

I have attempted treating them with an injection of penicillin. To no avail. What might you suggest? What is it?

— Richard Joens, Iowa


Hi Richard,

There are a number of things that can cause respiratory disease in poultry. That makes it difficult to know what to do, because some can be treated and some can’t.

Since you mentioned the swollen areas, which are likely swollen sinuses, that may narrow it down a bit.  Often, swollen sinuses are a sign of chronic respiratory disease, caused by Mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG). This is a bacterial disease, but it is usually resistant to penicillins. If you could get a tetracycline product, that might be more helpful.

MG can be passed through the eggs from hens to their chicks, so this could explain the young chicks getting it. Because of this, it can be difficult to eliminate.

Chronic fowl cholera can also cause swollen sinuses. It can also be difficult to eliminate in a flock. There are also some viral diseases that can cause respiratory disease, and they would not respond to antibiotics.

For a firm diagnosis, it would be best to contact an avian veterinarian or submit samples to your state veterinary diagnostic lab. There is a blood test that can determine if they have MG, so you wouldn’t have to sacrifice any birds for that.

You have a good extension poultry veterinarian in Iowa, too. Her name is Dr. Sato. If you contact your local extension office, they can probably put you in contact with her.

Good luck with them!

— Ron Kean


Marek’s Vaccine

In How to Administer the Marek’s Vaccine to Poultry Chicks, the author states that the vaccine would have to be refrigerated. I contacted a supplier of the vaccine, and they essentially said the same thing: it needs to be shipped and kept with liquid nitrogen. Is there any other Marek’s vaccines that don’t need to be refrigerated or could be activated in some other way?

— Misty (Kruse Hatchery)


Hi Misty,

The type of vaccine that is discussed in the article is supposed to be refrigerated, but not kept in liquid nitrogen. You can purchase this type (lyophilized, essentially freeze-dried) from some of the mail-order hatcheries and/or mail-order poultry supply places. It is a dry powder that is reconstituted with diluent, which comes along in a separate bottle. I think they will still ship it with cold-packs, but not with liquid nitrogen.

Commercial hatcheries usually use a different form of vaccine that is kept at -80 degrees, in liquid nitrogen, and then thawed out when it’s going to be used. This requires more handling and different techniques, so I wouldn’t suggest it for most smaller flocks.

— Ron Kean


Hens and Roosters

How many hens should you have for every one rooster?

— Katherine Lusz, Wisconsin


Hi Katherine,

While it can depend somewhat on a few things, about one rooster for eight-10 hens is usually good. With small flocks, if you want to ensure good fertility, it’s usually best to have at least two roosters, in case one isn’t effective. If you aren’t concerned about fertility of the eggs, then it isn’t a big issue. Having multiple roosters can be tricky, if they don’t get along, of course!

Things such as age, size, walking ability, aggressiveness, etc. can all affect this ratio.

Also, having too many roosters can be a problem. They can fight, as I mentioned. They can sometimes interfere with each other during the mating process. They also can cause quite a bit of feather damage (and possibly wounds) to the hens, if they are mounting them too often.

I might add that a hen only needs to mate about once a week to have good fertility. So, if the rooster is causing damage to the hens, you could limit his time with them and still keep good fertility in the flock.

— Ron Kean


Strange Egg?

I am new on having laying hens, and I found something very strange today, I was hoping you could help me … I found a finger-like piece of meat at the hens coop, on top of a nest. I didn’t take a picture of it and I first I thought it was a piece of banana, but then I cut it and was actually meat.

Odd Egg

Odd Egg

Odd Egg

The hens didn’t go out today and were fed only with their balanced food. I checked the “bottoms” from the fence and didn’t see any blood, but I am scared of what it could be … do you have ideas? The chickens are doing fine; they are 22 weeks old.

— Lucia Gonzalez Anglada


Hi Lucia,

First, I’ll assume this came from the hens. I’ve seen some similar things, though this is pretty extreme!

I suspect it is one of two things. Either the hen was depositing egg yolks, and possibly albumen and membranes, internally. This can happen if the yolks don’t get into the oviduct, or if something is wrong with the oviduct so the developing egg doesn’t pass correctly. These “egg parts” can be reabsorbed by the hen, but if it happens too often, they will accumulate, and can form a compressed mass that can look something like this. Then, at some point, this mass can get picked up by the oviduct, and passed like an egg.

Another possibility is that this actually is a mass of tissue from the hen. If she gets an infection, or a bit of a tumor, or something similar, this could form in the abdomen. Then, similarly, it could get picked up by the oviduct and passed like an egg.

Either way, it probably isn’t a major concern, unless you start to see more of these. We have gotten quite a few pictures of things like this over the years. It certainly isn’t normal, but it does happen from time to time.

Good luck with your flock!

— Ron


Wow! Thank you very much for taking the time to help me! I certainly am new at this, so having your help means a lot to me! The good thing is it hasn’t happened again.
 Thank you very much for your time and knowledge and I love your Facebook page!

— Lucia


Hens and Eggs

Do you have anyone that’s had this dilemma? I have three hens sitting on the same batch of eggs. There are three Silkie hens: a black one, a buff one, and a white one. Does anyone know what will happen when the eggs hatch?

Hens in Nest

— Onnie Jo


Hi Onnie Jo,

In my experience, this isn’t an ideal situation. Often, the jostling among the hens can cause an increase in broken eggs prior to hatching. Maybe Silkies will be light (in weight) and docile enough that this won’t be a big problem.

When they hatch, I’ve seen different things happen. In a best-case scenario, they may all take care of the chicks together. They may fight among themselves, and one will drive the others off, then keep the chicks. It is possible that they may separate and each take some chicks.

Another concern when the hens are together like this is that some hens may continue to add eggs to the nest. If all three are broody, and there aren’t any other hens around, this won’t be a problem. If hens add eggs in at a later date, they will hatch at a later date, as each egg will take 21 days of incubation. This becomes a big mess, as chicks are hatching and need to leave the nest, while other eggs still need more incubation.

If possible, it is best to separate a broody hen and her eggs to avoid these concerns.

— Ron


Chickens and Tomatoes

McKinley and I started with ducks for Easter. Five ducks and 25 chickens later … we found the more we learn the less we know. My concern: I saw a video of a lady making her own food, plus fruit and vegetables. So I gave tomatoes to them. They loved the plant and the fruit. Last week I read it is bad for them. Please help us out. McKinley loves feeding all our feathered friends. She is 18 months old and tries to crow like our Rooster Brooster. Thank You.

— Debby & McKinley S., Missouri


Hi Debby and McKinley,

There are lots of lists of foods that may or may not be bad for chickens! Some are probably valid, but I think some are pretty extreme.

That being said, the tomato fruits should not be harmful at all. The green plant parts can contain some substances called glycoalkaloids. These can be toxic to animals (including humans) though their absorption from the gut is limited. To be safe, it’s probably best not to give the chickens green tomato plants. If they do happen to ingest small amounts of it, it likely won’t cause a problem.

I’m a little surprised that your chickens ate the plants, as they tend to have a bitter taste, and chickens generally seem to avoid bitter tastes.

On a side note, I would suggest that you use human foods as occasional treats for the chickens, but keep a commercially balanced ration for their base diet. It can be difficult to provide all the necessary nutrients when home-mixing a diet.

Enjoy your flock!

— Ron


Strange Egg

I found this strange looking “egg” in a nest with other eggs. It was about two inches long and had a hard shell on it. I never cracked it to see the inside. I am just wondering if you have any ideas as to how it got its strange shape?

Strange Egg

I have a flock of around 35 hens and a rooster. We really enjoy your magazine and especially the Poultry Talk section and just the wonderful pictures. I would also like to ask if you know of any “tricks” to get the hens back to laying quicker after a molting period. Thank you.

— Brad and Carolyn Sell, Nebraska


Hi Brad and Carolyn,

Regarding that “weird” egg, you may find your answer in our February/March 2019 issue of Backyard Poultry, in which Jeremy Chartier talks about “Why Hens Lay Weird Eggs.” As Jeremy says, “Most times you see an abnormality in your eggs, you can likely attribute it to the hen’s environment. High heat, humidity, crowded coops, loud sounds, and other stressors can cause many of these weird eggs.” If this is the only odd egg you have found, and you haven’t noticed any signs of illness in your flock such as runny beaks and wheezing breath, it’s most likely because one of your hens had a stressful day.

As far as getting those molting birds lying again? You will see many “tricks” on the internet, but they don’t all work and some don’t even make sense. Two important things to consider are health and nutrition. That, along with age of the hen and season (shorter vs. long days) can also determine whether your hens will go right back to laying or will need to wait until spring. If they are young, it’s not midwinter, and they are not sick, consider how new feathers and eggs are both high in protein, so your hens could use a bit more of that in their diets. You can supplement protein needs with healthy foods such as black oil sunflower seeds, flaxseed, boiled and chopped eggs, and even unsalted and unseasoned meat scraps. Be sure water and free-choice calcium such as oyster shell are available at all times.

Good luck!

— Marissa Ames


Sick Hen

I have had my little bird to the vet. Daisy is an 18-month-old Plymouth Barred Rock. She has recently dropped weight dramatically, gave them all Marriages with flubenvet pellets but Daisy hasn’t picked up. Her feathers have shafts still on them but she hasn’t had a visible molt, she is now shuffling in the submissive stance instead of walking. Vet advice is vitamin B-plus multivitamins which we are doing, she is eating scrambled eggs with vitamin B, selenium, and nutidrops and is fed on her own. I’ve drastically reduced her corn intake as linked to FLD, I think there could be more to this, I’ve never seen this before and need advice as the vet isn’t a poultry specialist. We have had free-range hens for 30 years but never seen this before.

— Lesleigh Mckitten


Hi Lesleigh,

First, I’ll say it’s difficult to know what might be happening with your hen.  The vitamins certainly won’t hurt, and cutting back on corn is probably helpful.  There is nothing wrong with corn, but it needs to be part of a balanced diet.  Corn itself tends to be pretty low in protein and high in energy, so it needs to be offset with other nutrients.

My guess is that she has some internal problem.  Determining exactly what the problem is can be difficult, however.  You mentioned fatty liver disease, and I think that is a possibility.  She could also have an issue with her oviduct or ovaries.  This can cause internal laying, where the yolks fall to the bottom of the abdomen, instead of passing through the oviduct.  Eventually, this gets infected – this is egg yolk peritonitis.  That could cause her to shuffle, though often the abdomen will fill up with a mix of fluids and yolk material, so dropping weight doesn’t fit that perfectly.

It sounds like you’re doing what you can for her.  As long as she’s eating and drinking, and doesn’t seem to be suffering, you can wait and see if she gets better.

Sorry I don’t have a more specific answer – it’s just difficult to determine what is wrong via e-mail.

Good luck with her!

— Ron Kean


Egg Color

What are my ladies lacking in their diet? My Marans and my Easter Eggers are laying very pale-colored eggs. The Marans eggs are just a shade orange-ier than my brown Australorp eggs. My Easter Egger started laying beautiful teal colored eggs, and now they are a very pale green. So pale that I had to hold it up to a white egg to make sure it was even green.

Egg Color

Egg Color

Egg Color

Egg Colors

My girls get layer feed with 18 percent protein, extra oatmeal, and mealworms as snacks. I also give them things like pumpkins, melons, and vegetable table scraps. I slide through oyster shells for them occasionally, and even flax. Why are my eggs so pale?

— Lynn Noll


Hi Lynn,

There are a few things that can affect eggshell color. Certainly, genetics plays a big part. Depending on the source of your Marans, they may not have the genetic ability to lay extremely dark eggs. From what I have seen, there is a lot of variety in the different strains, so that could be a factor.

If they started out laying very dark eggs, and now they have gotten lighter, then it’s less likely that it’s a genetic issue. You mentioned this with the Easter Eggers, so there is likely something else involved.

A variety of stresses can be factors. I think parasites (either internal [such as worms], or external [such as mites or lice]) are a likely possibility. These have been shown to cause pale eggshell color.  You could have a veterinarian check a fecal sample for worms. You can look for mites and lice yourself, by handling the chickens. Red mites spend a lot of time off the chicken, so you may need to check them at night while they are roosting. There are approved treatments for worms and for mites available, if this is the problem.

Heat stress can also affect shell quality, and thin shells will likely lack color. I don’t know where you live, but this isn’t likely at this time of year, in most of the U.S.

There is a coccidiostat called Nicarbazin that will cause loss of color in eggshells. I doubt this is the issue with your flock, but I should mention it.

There are some viral diseases that can cause poor eggshell quality. Generally, you’d see other problems, such as misshapen or wrinkled eggs, thin shells, and possibly respiratory problems, too.

There are claims that pigments in the feed can affect eggshell color. I haven’t seen research evidence of this, but you could try offering some leafy alfalfa hay. They’ll likely enjoy pecking through it, even if it doesn’t change the shell color.

Those are the things I would suspect. Hopefully, one of them will fit your situation, and help solve the problem!

— Ron


If you have health-related poultry questions, use the chat feature, email, or send them to us at Backyard Poultry, Attn: Ask the Expert, P.O. Box 566, Medford, WI 54451. All submissions will be considered for print publication. Please include your name and hometown with your questions, which should be as detailed as possible. Pictures help us answer questions, so please include those too!

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