Ask the Expert December 2020/January 2021
Reading Time: 19 minutes
Chickens Losing Feathers
I bought chicks in the spring: an Australorp, Ameraucana, and a Barred Rock. I just finished building a Carolina coop which they moved into November 19th. Although it was a bit stressful at first, they seemed to adjust well. I feed them freely NatureWise Hearty Hen (18% protein, soy-free), a couple of handfuls of five-grain scratch with boon worms, and a couple of handfuls of dried black soldier fly larvae. I have a dust bath with diatomaceous earth, dirt, and sand.
Back in September, I noticed the Barred Rock was kind of bald aft of the wings (I thought it maybe from the rooster that we culled). Now I notice those bald spots are about the size of a fist in both sides (she is highest in pecking order). I find a lot of feathers on the floor of the hen house (from all three chickens). Would they be molting while the weather is so cold? I have checked for bugs and don’t find any.
Though December seems a little late to be molting, it can still happen, especially in warmer areas of the country. I’ve had chickens start molting in December and I freaked out about how cold they would be, come January, but they were just fine. If you see the pinfeathers starting to grow back, then it’s a molt and you just need to keep them healthy, as you already are.
Some pests can cause feather loss but may not be visible. Mites are almost undetectable until they start causing problems, and winter is a time when they tend to get worse. Dusting for mites with an approved poultry dust won’t hurt anyone, as long as you and they don’t breathe in the dust.
Certain worms can also cause feather loss, and a dust bath won’t prevent internal parasites. You would need a dewormer that you add to their water, which means treating your entire flock.
But the fact that you are seeing all the feathers on the floor lets me think that it’s just a molt and nothing to worry about. Here is a great story about helping your chickens through molt. It also has a really good picture that shows healthy pinfeathers growing back on the tops of the wings.
Thin Egg Shells
One of my hens (Ameraucauna) is laying thin-shelled eggs. She’s about three years old and appears healthy. Normally she lays eggs with pretty thick shells. Over the last couple of weeks, they’ve gotten thin. I feed my hens Purina Layer and also have oyster shell available to them. Is there anything else I can do?
Since you are experiencing winter, mild as it is, I’m going to guess that her thin shells are a result of shorter daylight hours combined with the fact that she’s no longer a spring chicken. Also, since you don’t list a decline in feather quality or any problems with the rest of your flock, it sounds like you’re not dealing with parasites or illness at all. Two things you can do are 1) add a little cod liver oil over her food as a treat (or feed her cold-water fish like salmon and tuna), as the vitamin D3 helps her metabolize more calcium 2) add some other supplements that help reduce stress, such as apple cider vinegar in the water or brewer’s yeast sprinkled onto the food.
I already put apple cider vinegar in their water but I’ll try some of the other things you suggest. Thank you very much for the information.
Hen Changing to a Rooster?
I just read article about hens that crow. I have a Rhode Island Red about four years old who has stopped laying eggs almost a year ago and she crows like a rooster. Her comb and waddles do seem larger. She also has become aggressive at times to the other hens especially when I put out food and snacks. Is it possible she has changed to a rooster?
It sounds like she has undergone the spontaneous sex reversal that the story discusses. But is she a rooster? I guess that depends on your definition of rooster. True roosters have two testes upon hatch, located inside their body and close to the spine. According to the story, “When a hen’s left ovary fails and sufficient testosterone levels are reached in her body, the hen’s dormant right-side gonad becomes activated. When the dormant, right-side gonad is switched on, it develops into a male sex organ, called an ovotestis. Scientists have found that an ovotestis will produce sperm. A sexually reversed hen with a ‘turn-on’ ovotestis, will actually try to mate with the other hens in the flock. There is conflicting information as to whether a hen that has undergone a spontaneous sex reversal and developed an ovotestis can sire offspring. At least one account of a sex-reversed hen fathering chicks exists on the web.” So not even scientists have yet agreed on whether this makes her a true “rooster” since she still doesn’t have the exact gonads that a natural rooster has, even if she may be able to perform all the duties of a rooster.
It’s a fascinating topic, for sure!
Editorial note: The story about spontaneous sex reversal can be found here:
Chickens Not Laying
I have six hens: mix of Barred Rock, Rhode Island Red, and Cream Legbar.
They haven’t started to lay at six months old. They live in a pen 20’x20’ and 6′ high. Fenced on three sides, covered over all the top. I have followed all recommendations concerning food. It’s 95 degrees F during day. Not sure about sunlight. They’re in shade all day. Any ideas? Thank you in advance.
In reality, six months is about when heritage chickens start laying, though hybrids like Golden Comet may lay as early as four months. It could be that they’re just on the verge of producing but the hot weather is enough of a stressor to hold them back a bit. It sounds like you have your bases covered as far as nutrition and a happy environment, so at this point, I would sit back and wait until it gets cooler, and hopefully you will have an egg soon. When new pullets start, it’s often an Easter Egg hunt for the first month or so until they discover the nesting boxes, so don’t forget to check in any crevices or especially protected areas. Sometimes, they just drop a random egg on the ground.
I went to collect eggs this afternoon and saw something in one of the nest boxes that wasn’t an egg. I picked it up, thinking it was a chunk of wood in the shavings. I immediately realized, it was NOT wood and I dropped it. I grabbed an exam glove, picked it up, and took it outside to have a closer look. At first, I thought it looked like a finger! Nope. I rolled it around and searched the recesses of my brain. Could it be a dreaded lash egg? And if it is, how on earth do I determine which of my nine hens laid it? Help! It’s kind of tan-colored, rubbery, and approximately 2” long by ½” wide, and it’s in two segments.
Any thoughts would be appreciated. Thanks.
Even without seeing it, I can almost certainly say it’s a lash egg. There isn’t much else that would deposit a similar object into a nest. Now your challenge is to see which hen laid it, because she has an infection that could use some tending to. This may involve extreme vigilance for the next few days to match up new eggs with hens that were in the nesting boxes, to see who isn’t laying good eggs.
Good luck, and I hope you find the right hen!
Starting a New Business
I want to start a new business. My aim is to sell eggs to the community and shop. I really need someone to assist where to start, how, and what I must have to start. Please advise me. Thanking you in advance.
We have some great resources that discuss marketing, packaging, and handling of the eggs for a successful business. I recommend these two great stories. This one talks about choosing the best eggs and where to sell them
And this one focuses on packaging and marketing. marketing.
Good luck with your business!
Liquid Expelling from Chicken’s Mouth
I have an Ameraucana hen that’s about four years old. Lately, I noticed that when she dips her head to eat, sometimes a cloudy liquid pours from her mouth. She’s eating but I think she’s slowly losing weight. Her poops are small and usually loose.
Any help you could give me would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.
M. Booth, California
It sounds like sour crop, which is a yeast/fungal infection within the crop. Once it gets bad enough, it can affect health to the point of death. Though some people advocate helping the hen empty her crop, it’s not recommended by experts because doing it the wrong way can injure the chicken. The Merck Veterinary Manual recommends adding antifungal medication Nystatin to the feed.
My beautiful Big Rooster has injured his foot. There are no calluses or broken skin. He was fine when I let them out this morning, but later today his foot is very swollen and he is limping badly. I have no idea how to find a vet. Is there a way to look for one? I live in the Washington Tacoma area. How do I go about finding one? He is so sore. I hope to find someone to help him.
I’m sorry to hear he is in so much pain. Since you said there are no calluses or broken skin, I suspect he has an acute (temporary) injury but it’s still causing him a lot of trouble. The veterinary site vetswift.com is a great place to search for veterinarians that treat specific animals.
I hope your rooster heals soon!
I have laying hens that are from one year to two and a half years old. I have broken eggs, two or three every day. I feed them free-choice laying pellets and mix in oyster shells. The shells on the eggs are soft and easily broken. Is there something else I need to give them?
Bill Littrell, Kentucky
Though offering oyster shell is the most highly recommended remedy for soft shells, here are some other reasons that shells may be soft:
- The hens are older. (This certainly doesn’t apply to your hens.)
- Their diet contains too much phosphorus. Cereal grains are known for high levels of phosphorus, so if you feed a lot of scratch grains, consider trading those for fresh, leafy greens or a very leafy bale of alfalfa hay. A good layer feed should already be balanced in regard to phosphorus levels.
- High temperatures — When it gets hotter than 90 degrees F (32C), they spend more energy trying to keep themselves cool and shell integrity can weaken.
- Vitamin D3 deficiency — Vitamin D3 deficiency is most common in winter months as the hens are in the sunshine less, but can present at other times. Good sources of D3 include cold-water fish like salmon and tuna, cod liver oil, and egg yolks.
- Stressed-out hens — If something is constantly disturbing your hens, or they are just very excitable, that can affect normal egg production and the shells can come out less-than-admirable.
- Infectious bronchitis — In the last six months, have any of your chickens exhibited runny noses or raspy breath? IB can affect the shell gland of even asymptomatic chickens.
As far as what you can give them, I recommend offering the oyster shell in a separate dish to the hens can choose to eat it only if they need it. You can also mash up their own yolks to feed back to them, or give them canned tuna. You can also pour cod liver oil on their food (not too much, or it will upset digestion). Since winter is coming, if you choose not to put a light in the coop, their bodies will take a normal, seasonal break and that may be just what they need for nutrition to reset so they can make strong eggshells again in the spring.
I love your magazine. I have also written to you before, and have been very happy at your quick response to my letter.
I have a flock of 40 chickens. They have access to plenty of space to roam and water and feed, but lately, I have been having some problems. My Buff Orpington, Sam, has been acting lethargic off and on for a few months now, but it lasted a little longer this past time. Do you know of anything she could have?
Also, my Frizzle Bantam Cochin, Sandy, is being picked on pretty bad … half her bottom is turning blue! I am separating her as soon as I have a coop open. Do you know what could be causing the change in skin color? Once I separate her is there anything that would increase feather growth and relax her? I would be very grateful for any help.
Rylee Shockey, Oregon
Though it’s tough to diagnose without a list of more symptoms, the thing that most catches my attention is how you say Sandy’s skin is turning blue. Backyard Poultry contributor Jeremy Chartier says this about cyanosis:
“Cyanosis is a bluish or purple coloring of the skin. The face, comb, and wattles are vascular (they have a lot of little veins), so the condition of these surfaces gives us an excellent gauge of how a chicken is circulating (moving blood) or saturating (absorbing oxygen). If a chicken is not saturating well, these surfaces turn blue.
This sign is not exclusive to respiratory infections in chickens, because a cardiac deficiency can cause the same symptom. Just like facial swelling, you need to consider the combination of symptoms before making any conclusions. A bird displaying this sort of sign is experiencing hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the tissues of the body). Hypoxia in chickens can be expected to cause altered behavior and lethargy.”
This sounds scary, and it’s certainly not something to ignore. If the same thing is causing both Sandy’s blue skin and Sam’s lethargy, then I would take a look at environmental issues that might be limiting their oxygen intake. How is the air around you? Is it smoky from wildfires? Is your coop overly dusty or does it have too much ammonia that needs to be mitigated? Are the chickens showing any other symptoms of respiratory distress, such as panting, holding their beaks open more often than you think they should, or swollen faces?
If you notice any other symptoms, please let us know, and perhaps we can get to the bottom of this. And in the meantime, do your best to augment their environment and be sure they have good ventilation and that Sandy has some places in the coop where she can run and hide from the other hens so she can get a break!
What is the difference between a rooster-fertilized egg and one not fertilized?
To determine if an egg is fertilized, you would either have to crack it open to see if there is a blastodisc (white dot on the yolk of an unfertilized egg) or a blastoderm (the white dot looks more like a donut), or you would need to incubate it for five days then candle it to see if veins have grown along the inside of the shell. Other than that, there is really no difference in shape, size, color, taste, or nutrition. (I add that last one because some people believe that fertilized eggs are more nutritious than unfertilized, but this is false.) Some vegetarians prefer to buy eggs from flocks with no roosters, because there’s absolutely no chance that the eggs could have produced life.
I hope this helps!
I recently got some chicks from my local feed store (one Ameraucana, one Java, and two Leghorns). I bought some Purina medicated feed for them and I noticed the following on the package: Type C medicated feed. For the prevention of coccidiosis where immunity to coccidiosis is not desired.
Do you have any idea what that means?
M. Booth, Galt, California
Great question! To understand that, let’s first talk about coccidia: there are many types of this protozoa, and most are species-specific, meaning the type that infects chickens won’t infect goats. But within those that infect chickens, there are also several different types. One type could reside on your property, but your chickens develop an immunity to it through exposure, so you don’t realize it’s there. However, if a friend with chickens visits and carries another type in on their shoes, your chickens could get sick since they don’t have an immunity to that one.
So why not let chicks develop an immunity? That would be a great idea, except tiny chicks are so sensitive to coccidiosis that they often die before they’re immune. Their little bodies just can’t take it. After the chicks are a week or two old, and their digestive systems are stronger, you can make the choice whether or not to transition to non-medicated chick starter so they can develop that immunity that the rest of your flock enjoys. During this transition, though, watch the chicks closely for any sign that coccidia are causing deadly problems that could kill the chick before immunity is achieved.
I hope this helps!
Egg Laying Behavior
I am a new chicken keeper and I have eight hens who are just reaching laying age. My first one to lay an egg (at 20 weeks old) was an Australorp named Alpharetta. She laid one egg on September 4th, then another on September 5th. Then the next day she became very listless and unhappy-looking, with a pale comb. She was pumping her tail and going in and out of the nest box for long periods.
We thought she might be egg bound, so we took her inside, fed her some water with calcium in it, gave her a warm bath to sit in for a while, and put her in a warm, private storage box for the night. I did put my finger in her vent and did not feel an egg right there, but I did feel a hard, egg-shaped thing under her feathers at the low, rear part of her belly.
The next day, she was looking much better. The hard thing was gone (but there was no egg to be found), she had pooped a bunch of times, her comb was regaining color, and she was perkier. We put her back into the coop with her sisters and she has been fine ever since (today is September 14th).
So here is where I need help to figure out if something is wrong. She laid nothing for a week after that. Then yesterday (September 13th) she laid two shell-less eggs. Today, another shell-less egg. Is she sick? Should we be worried? We have had plenty of calcium available to all the birds this whole time (oyster shell and ground-up eggshells). I can’t figure out if she is okay. Alpharetta is my favorite chicken so any help you can give is SO appreciated.
I believe you were right that she was probably egg-bound but that she finally laid the egg. It might not have been a huge egg but since she’s a first-timer, it still might have been bigger than her vent was ready to handle just yet. But where is the egg? Perhaps it broke and the chickens ate it, which is very normal. The shell-less eggs and the periods of off-and-on laying are also normal for a new layer, as well.
When a hen first comes into production, her oviduct isn’t the productive conveyor system that it will become. It starts slow, has hiccups, sometimes fails to put a shell on the egg, sometimes produces double yolkers. If the hen is otherwise acting fine, I wouldn’t worry, especially if she is this young. Other chicken owners will tell you to add calcium, but in new layers, their calcium levels aren’t yet depleted so that’s not the issue.
If Alpharetta continues to lay shell-less eggs after a good month, I suggest consulting with a veterinarian to be sure it’s not something like infectious bronchitis or egg-drop syndrome, both of which don’t have cures but most hens eventually do recover from both.
It sounds like you¹re doing everything right. Just consider that she’s new at this, and so is her oviduct.
Here is a great story on those weird eggs that we may see in our hens’ nesting boxes:
Apple Cider Formula
What is the ratio for apple cider vinegar in chicken water? I don’t want to overdo it and scare them away from water fountains.
Thanks for the help. You and your magazine have been a godsend to my wife and me over the last two years.
Longtime chicken owners usually advocate one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar (the real kind, not the flavored clear kind that’s actually made from corn) to one gallon of water. ACV is only for glass and plastic waterers, though, since the acid can degrade metal.
This is where I jump in, for the sake of keeping Backyard Poultry factual, with the disclaimer that scientific studies have not yet shown any benefits of adding ACV to water. They have fully debunked the myth that ACV prevents parasites such as worms and coccidia, and they warn that leaning on ACV and ignoring proven measures can be negative to your flock’s health. But most of the veterinarians I have spoken to, regarding using ACV in conjunction with those proven measures, uphold, “Can’t hurt. Go ahead and try it.”
I hope this helps!
Hi, I have a broody hen and have never had hatched chicks before. Do they still need chick feed and do they need to be separated from the rest of the flock? Any other tips you have would be appreciated. Thank you.
Once the chicks hatch, they will need chick feed because any laying feed has too much calcium for the kidneys of non-layers. The mother hen can enjoy chick feed at that time, too, since she won’t be laying eggs. If the hen and chicks aren’t free-ranging where the chicks can eat tiny stones, they will also need chick grit. I prefer to isolate my hens while they brood, since other hens may try to enter the nest and bully the mom out, which can result in broken eggs. It’s also nice to give the hen a fully protected area so she can just concentrate on hatching eggs instead of defending herself. Dog kennels work great, and if they’re large enough you can enclose her for the entire time, opening it just long enough to clean out droppings and to refill food and water. Once all eggs have had a chance to hatch, you could put the mom back with the other hens, but I like to give her a few days to a few weeks to bond with the chicks first.
Coop Design Help
I am finally … finally finishing my “monument to management” chicken coop. I am an old hand at construction, so it is quite the palace. But I am new (or renewed from childhood) to chickens. There does not seem to be a clear answer in terms of where the feeders and waterers go, inside the coop or out in the enclosed attached run. This is my “as-built” layout. There is a 3’x5’ picture window on one side so the chicken coop has a well-lit natural environment. It is fully insulated and has HVAC. The walls on the interior are showing unfinished but they now have a “board and batten” finish with pine shiplap on the ceilings. The entire structure sits on cyclone fencing embedded in the ground with a 3’ perimeter. So even if something tunnels in, it can’t go up.
Your wisdom would be greatly appreciated! Any suggestions for things I have missed also appreciated.
That coop looks like it’s going to be amazing, and we would love to see pictures when it’s done.
The answer to where the feeders/waterers go often depends on the owners themselves. Many owners place the feeders in the run because they draw mice and owners don’t want mice inside the coop, and water in the run because it might spill and create humidity in the winter, increasing the chances of frostbite. But for those people that make automatic nipple-style waterers, they may depend on the heat inside the run to keep the system from freezing. Heated water bases can keep a fount from freezing in the winter, but these can also be a fire hazard so should be kept away from bedding (so the run would be better for that, too). If the run isn’t covered, weather might ruin chicken feed and increase waste, so inside the coop might be better. Those waste-reducing feeder tubes made from PVC pipe could cut down on weather damage and spillage, so those might go either inside or outside. So, I guess the answer would be to look at your area (weather patterns, potential for pests like mice and squirrels to get the feed) and your plans for the coop (with all that insulation, you probably want to reduce humidity as much as possible, and you wouldn’t want water leakage to damage your hard work).
I hope this helps!
Chicken with Split Beak
My neighbor has a hen that is about seven to eight months old and just noticed her beak is split in half. Is there anything she can do to help her? She is not sure when or how this happened, and currently trying to find out if she is eating or drinking yet?
The good news is that, since the beak has to last her entire life, it grows out just like our fingernails do. So, if you can keep it from splitting further, and snagging on anything, she can eventually grow all that damage out.
First, if that crack is up super high, you need to keep it from cracking further. It sounds like it’s up in the quick (the living portion of the beak). First, have someone restrain the chicken since she is NOT going to agree that she needs to have this done. Wrapping her in a towel and holding her wings against her body works great. Then clean the beak very well with soap and water, dry it thoroughly, then mend it. Though I’ve used superglue to mend chicken wounds together, I recommend a surgical glue for a beak because it’s less toxic. (If you can’t find surgical glue, then super glue will work in a pinch, but not preferable when it comes to something that will be on the chicken’s mouth.) Put a dot of glue at the top of the crack and hold the beak firmly until the glue is set. This may take a while, and be careful not to glue yourself to the bird.
After you have stopped the beak from splitting further, trim away any excess beak. The chicken does this naturally by scraping it against rocks because, like I said, it constantly grows the way fingernails do. So, use fingernail clippers and trim as you would with fingernails: gently clip away parts that are translucent on the very tips, but don’t clip up into the pinker areas. After that, use a fingernail file to smooth away any jagged edges which might catch on something and re-open that crack.
This story contains great information regarding where to trim and how much you can trim (only the last 1/5) before hitting that quick.
Keep an eye on that crack, replacing the glue if it seems to peel/wear away, and trimming away the excess as the beak grows out.
If she is having trouble eating, isolate her with a gentle friend, so she has far less competition for food, and keep a nice crumble available so she won’t have problems eating it.
Regarding preventing this from happening again: Some chickens’ beaks are more problematic than others, so your neighbor may need to keep an eye on the beak for the rest of the hen’s life. The same diet that helps chickens during molt can help beak growth since both feathers and beaks are made of the protein keratin. Give her higher, good-quality protein, but not too much, as too much can cause gout. A grower feed or a game bird feed has more protein, plus supplying oyster shell free-choice can take care of any calcium that the feed is missing.
I hope this helps! Good luck!
Hello, I am trying to find a healthy chicken feed for my girls. I have been using Home Grown Layer Crumbles a no soy no corn which is supposed to be a non-GMO product. I noticed on the ingredient label that it has processed grain by-products in it, is this a healthy choice or do I need to go organic? What do you recommend?
Bob Sharrocks, Virginia
Great question! “By-products” in foods are often a manufacturer’s way of cutting costs for both themselves and the consumers by avoiding waste. In human foods, that often means unmentionable leftovers from the beef and pork industry, stuffed into hot dog skins for swift consumption by an unwitting eater. But with poultry food, it’s not as nefarious. These grain by-products can mean spent grains from breweries, which still have a lot of nutrients including cancer-fighting phenolic compounds. Here is a study on the nutritional value of spent grains. Other grain by-products can increase health for chickens, such as leftover bran and hull from milling wholegrain wheat into white flour, removing the most nutritious parts of the whole grain for humans’ detriment but your birds’ benefit. No matter by-products the manufacturer adds, they are required to list the nutrition on the bag’s label, so in the end, that label can help you decide.
When it comes to whether you should go organic, these grain by-products can still be organic while being by-products, such as if they were leftover from making organic beer or organic white flour. The organic argument here is a whole different topic, since that would discuss the use of pesticides and GMOs rather than when the grains were first milled, and for what purpose.
One benefit of using these by-products is that it does keep the cost low for you, especially when the grain farmers experience setbacks such as drought or the derecho winds. A short supply of grain can serve two purposes, rather than going straight into your chickens’ feed and boosting the price you pay at the store.
I hope this helps!
Thank you, Marissa. Your response is a big help and the article you sent about brewers spent grain (BSG) was very enlightening. I can now make an informed decision on what feed to buy.
Bananas for Chickens
My chickens have available to them all the bananas (without the skins) they can eat. Is this ok?
Overall, there is nothing wrong with giving bananas to chickens, and they provide some nice carbohydrates and nutrients to your flock. The only caution I would add is to be sure the chickens also eat an adequate amount of their regular feed, since a good poultry feed is balanced to include everything the chicken needs and if they eat too much of a different food then they are deviating from this nutrition. But considering bananas’ texture, I find that chickens only eat so much of them anyway, so you shouldn’t need to worry.
Thank you so much for your reply. It is just what I was hoping to hear.
Originally published in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.