Ask the Expert — December 2014/January 2015
You Ask Poultry Questions, We Give Expert Poultry Answers
Is My Duck Going Mad?
I have a very interesting inquiry regarding the behavior of my crazy ducks. Currently, I have a pair of Muscovy ducks and my hen is nesting. My drake has become incredible “needy” in the absence of his lady, and is driving me mad. I live on a bit of land where the dogs rule, so during the warm months my back door is always open.
When Groucho starting nesting, Daffy decided that I was the most important person in the world. Not only does he follow me around the yard like a lost puppy, but he listens for my car to pull in the driveway so he can meet me at the door, invades my house (and refuses to leave!) any chance he gets, pushes past me when he sneaks into my living room, peeps into my spare room, and just today climbed up a very tall piece of outdoor furniture to peep into my back door windows.
I am curious about this behavior because my White Crested acted in a similar way when his ladies nested last spring.
My searches have turned up very little as to why a drake would act this way. Is it loneliness? Or perhaps a protective behavior? Please respond to this with any information or anything I can do to end the madness!
— Annie Carey
Interesting! I don’t know that there is any research on this type of thing. I raised Muscovy ducks when I was young, and they did seem to like looking in windows of the house, etc. (I don’t recall them ever trying to actually come in, however!) We had a bit larger flock, too, so they always had other ducks around.
In my experience, when ducks are paired off like this, the drake often sits fairly close by the female and her nest. If there are other males around (of the same species), they would often form a group.
There is quite a bit of work on imprinting in birds, and I suppose this could be related. So, maybe the drakes are imprinted on you and are trying to form that group?
I guess one solution might be to get more ducks, so they have some other companions.
Are Rose Petals Healthy?
I have recently discovered that my hens love to eat rose petals. I assume they are OK to eat. I don’t mind giving them all the spent ones, but I wonder if it would give an off flavor to the eggs. Thank you!
— Marla Bentien, California
Hi, Marla. Thanks for your question about your chickens eating rose petals. You are right; it’s okay for the chickens to eat rose petals. In fact, many humans do too! In my experience, chickens are really good at knowing what’s okay to eat and what’s not. Toxic plants usually don’t taste good and aren’t tempting.
With that said, I would be careful about rose petals in general because many people spray their roses for pests. I honestly don’t know if the eggs will taste like roses and couldn’t find any research about that. I do know, however, that eggs do take on a more robust flavor as chickens free range and eat a variety of greens and bugs.
Good luck with your roses and your chickens.
Is Angelica Safe?
Is the herb angelica safe for chickens to eat?
— Martha Lynn, South Carolina
Hi, Martha. Thanks for your question about whether angelica is safe for chickens to eat. To answer this question, I turned to Gail Damerow’s book, Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens. The following is an excerpt concerning poisonous plants:
“Some weeds found in a pasture can be toxic, but should not be a problem if your flock has plenty of other good stuff to eat. Most toxic plants don’t taste good and therefore are not tempting to eat, except to a starving bird. … Since birds peck here and there to get a variety in their diet, if they do get a bite or two of a toxic leaf or seed, it’s unlikely to create a problem. Even if a bird does get a potentially toxic dose, the effect depends on the bird’s age and state of health. And whether or not a specific plant is toxic at any given time often varies with its state of maturity, growing conditions (such as drought), and other environmental factors.” I hope this is helpful!
Broody Or Not?
I have been a big fan of your magazine for quite some time now. My free-range pet Silkie known as Mama Holly had been brooding for about the past month. She is a bit older, as she lives with her son, Mr. Indigo.
However, she is not setting on any eggs. She acts just like a brooding chicken, and whenever we get close to her, she pecks at us to go away. We know for sure that there aren’t any eggs underneath her, so what is going on?
— Katie Chludzinski
It’s interesting because sometimes chickens go broody without any eggs in the nest. I have a six-year-old partridge cochin and she does the same thing. It’s funny because to fill her nest, she will steal eggs from the other nest boxes and put them under her.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong necessarily with a chicken going broody. It is hard on their bodies; especially in the heat. I normally take my Cochin out of the next box each day and put her in the yard. She’s free to roam back up to the nest box and normally does. But at least I know she’s getting something to eat and drink plus a little exercise.
When hens are broody, their pituitary gland releases prolactin, which is a hormone that causes them to stop laying. So if the loss of egg production is important, you can try to break her broodiness. There are some techniques, such as not letting eggs accumulate in the nest, repeatedly removing her from the nest, covering the nest box so the broody can’t get to it and moving the broody to a different house. But these techniques don’t always work, so sometimes it’s just better to let nature take its course.
What’s Wrong with Joanne?
I have a young Polish hen named Joanne. She was rescued from an abusive situation and was in bad condition when we got her. She was malnourished, her beak was overgrown, and she needed worming. When she first arrived she was drinking from mud puddles and rooting in the ground for something to eat. Even in thunderstorms she remained out in the open. We had to teach her to seek shelter and go to the food and water buckets. She learned quickly.
My husband and I put her in isolation, gave her good quality food, Manna Pro 16, wormed her, ground down her beak and hoped this was the answer to getting her back to health. She seemed to improve over the months that followed.
Each month we worm the flock with Verm-X and all are thriving except Joanne. She has energy. She does not show signs of fatigue or of not feeling well, because when no other hen is around she does not puff up, drop her head and let her wings droop as an ill hen would do. She has no respiratory problems but her droppings are yellow instead of white and her beak continues to grow. I have done some research and have found these are signs of liver damage but have found no answer.
I do want to take this opportunity to thank your magazine for introducing us to Verm-X since we believe it has extended Joanne’s life. It is an amazing product.
We have had Joanne nine months now and have become quite attached to the little cutie. Is there a special diet or something else we can do to save Joanne? We would be grateful for anything you can tell us to help her.
We don’t want to lose her.
— Pamela Adams, Florida
Hi, Mrs. Adams. It looks like your Polish hen is doing pretty well! I’m not sure we can immediately say that she has liver damage, though it is a possibility. Since you’re feeding the colored vegetables (peas, carrots, etc.) daily, I think it is possible that they are coloring the droppings.
If her liver is damaged, there’s probably not a lot you can do. Feeding her a healthy balanced ration and plenty of clean water will be good. Limiting her feed a bit might be helpful, but that is difficult to do. With commercial strains, we know pretty well how much a chicken should eat each day, but I don’t know of any research like that with a breed like a Polish.
Excess fat (from too many calories in the feed) can often cause liver problems. Other than that, worming regularly, as you mentioned, can prevent damage to the liver that worms might cause. Likewise, I think it may be best to just trim her beak when it’s necessary. You could offer her something rough (a board with sandpaper, for example), but I don’t know that she’ll use it.
I’m sorry I don’t have any specific answers. I think just good general husbandry is probably the best thing for her.
Safe To Eat?
I have a chicken that lays these eggs. I don’t know for sure what it is or why. My guess is a double white as there is a normal white part around the encased yolk. Is it safe to eat or should I trash them? I don’t know which of my 40-plus chickens lays this egg.
— Sue, Colorado
This really was a perplexing question and I had to send it out to a few chicken experts to get an answer. In the end, our own expert blogger, Alexandra Douglas, was able to diagnose your issue and shed some light on egg quality:
“The eggs produced by this hen do not need to be tossed. Most likely one hen is laying it and it is a genetic incident. When commercial egg producers raise layers, they selectively breed for: 1) a hen that is producing at a steady rate (a.k.a. every day); 2) eggs that are of good size (different commercial farmers will select by egg weight); and 3) by its egg protein quality.
This egg is the perfect example of what a producer would be looking for,and it is edible, but not to the consumer’s eye. Most of us look for perfect eggs when we would go to the grocery store (speaking from a commercial standpoint).
A Bloody Vent
We have a Golden Laced Wyandotte that just finished raising some chicks (she’s still in with them), which are about nine weeks old. She’s been laying eggs for four days (three eggs) and the one from today had some blood on the shell, so I looked at her vent and there’s a sore (it’s not actively bleeding) right at the beginning of the vent. She seems to be fine, clucking to her chicks and drinking and eating normally. What should we do? Thank you so much. I really enjoy reading your articles and learn a lot.
— Bonnie Lewis
Hi, Bonnie. I suspect she stretched her vent laying a larger egg and that caused her sore. I turned to our expert bloggers for advice and they have a few remedies you can try. Alexandra Douglas suggests putting a little Preparation H on the spot. And Lisa Steele suggests using Green Goo from www.sierrasageherbs.com or another type of natural antibiotic. Just keep an eye on the sore and make sure no one’s pecking it and that it’s fully healed before she’s integrated back into the flock.
A Random Egg
Every once in a while I find an egg in the run or on the coop floor. I have ISA Brown chickens and they lay brown eggs. If I don’t get the eggs early in the morning and let them lay there until noon, the egg that is not in the nest will not have a sheen to it. And it also feels not as smooth as the others. Why does this happen to the egg? I have wood shavings in the coop floor. And the run is dirt and dried chicken poop.
— John DeBoer, Illinois
Hi, John. Thanks for your question about an occasional egg in the run or on the coop floor.
I don’t think this is anything to worry about. Floor eggs do happen once in a while, although most often with young layers. These eggs are not safe to eat since they often get dirty or cracked. They can also be quite tempting to other flock members and can encourage a bit of egg eating — not something you want to get started.
If floor eggs happen often, there are a few reasons you may want to check. One, you could have too few nest boxes. The rule of thumb is one nest for every four layers. Your nests also may be getting too much light, which makes the hens want to find darker places to lay. You may want to try putting a fake egg in each nest to encourage them to lay in the boxes; I suggest using plastic Easter eggs.
Runny Egg Issues
Hi! My husband and I have a mixed flock of about 70 chickens of Dark/Light Brahmas and range from one to three years old. Some of our hens have been laying eggs that are runny from the first day they are laid. The egg appears to be what we would have considered “old” but it is fresh from the chicken house. The yolk and white are mixed together and there is no definitive shape. What could be causing this? Thanks for your help.
— Mike and Jenny Illies, Minnesota
There are some possible things that might cause this. Probably the most common cause is aging of the egg, especially in warm temperatures. As an egg ages, water moves from the albumen (whites) to the yolk and the yolk membrane becomes weaker. This happens much more quickly in warm temperatures, and much more slowly in cool temperatures (when refrigerated). It’s said that in a day of hot temperatures, an egg ages the equivalent of a week or more if it was refrigerated. If an egg gets buried in the nesting material for a couple of days, this could definitely be a cause.
If a hen is broody and is sitting on the egg, it would also speed this along. Frequent gathering, especially in hot weather, should help with this. Some things that the hens might eat can affect the membrane, too.
There is an coccidiostat, nicarbazin, that can be used in growing chickens. If fed to layers, it can interfere with egg formation, including weak yolk membranes. Gossypol, a substance often found in cottonseeds (or cottonseed meal) can also cause this, though it often causes thickening of the yolk itself.
I suspect there may be some other weed seeds that might have a similar effect. Deworming with piperazine can cause this, too. I suspect that a heavy worm load might also cause this, but I don’t have any research data to back that up. I did see one report that calcium deficiency can cause this. Apparently, the lack of calcium interferes with membrane formation. The age of the hen can have an effect, too, as older hens may have weaker yolks.
I will say that I’ve had this question in the past, and none of these things seemed to fit the situation. So there may be something else. If it is one hen that is laying these eggs, she may have some internal issue or metabolic problem that affects yolk membrane development.
Brooding Chickens Without Eggs
We have raised a lot of chickens over the years, but we now have a problem with chickens that will not quit setting. Usually, if they have no eggs to sit on, in about one month, they quit sitting and go back to laying eggs. We collect eggs at least twice a day. We now have seven hens, some game and some Rhode Island Reds that have been sitting over two months. We pull them out of the nest boxes more than once a day, have even closed all of the chickens out of the barn for several hours. (Our hens and roosters are free range during the day, plus well fed, and they put themselves up at dusk.)
What can we do to make them leave the nest boxes and let the others lay their eggs? I was once told to dunk the hen(s) in a bucket of cold water, but that seems a little cruel, so have not tried that. Most of the hens are approximately three years old.
Any suggestions would be very much appreciated.
— Marsha Kelly, Georgia
Hi, Marsha. I turned to our expert bloggers Alexandra Douglas and Lisa Steele to get some advice on how they handle their broody hens. I’ve included it below and I think you’ll find it interesting.
Alexandra wrote: “What I have been doing is isolating the broodies in what I call a ‘pair cage.’ I do not have a nest box in there normally. It is a cage with a small run (I should emphasize I do not free range my birds in open fields but I have their pens set up in a way they still called ‘free range’ — the pens can also be referred to as bottomless brooders in the poultry world). Because one broody hen behavior can stimulate everyone to become broody, I will put them in the cage setting and let them get over the behavior. I also make sure I collect eggs twice a day and no rock or golf ball is in their pen while they are reconditioning. I also cover the pen so other birds do not see them because broodiness is contagious and ruins production.”
Lisa wrote: ”Put the hen in a wire cage, like a dog crate, in the run up on bricks with shade, feed and water, but no nesting material. A few days of that should break her. At night you can put her on the roost, after dark, so she won’t make her way back to the nesting boxes. Breaking hens is really important, especially in the summer, because they risk dehydration, overheating (being broody elevates their body temp) and mite or lice infestation since underneath their body is a warm, moist, dark environment that parasites like. They also lose their place in the pecking order from being away from the flock. The faster you break them, the faster they get back to laying. I find that if I catch one right off and block the nesting boxes once everyone else is done laying, I can break the broody in just a few days. I take her off the nest, collect the eggs, and put her at the far end of the run with some yummy treats to show her that’s more fun than sitting on an empty nest all day in the dark.”
Combining Flocks And Feed
I have a flock of hens just over three years old. I have a new flock of hens that are just over three months old. They are in separate coops, next to one another, and they share a pen that is divided by chicken wire so they can all see each other. My question is, since they are on different feed, can I combine the two groups yet? Should I be concerned about the younger hens venturing into the other coop and eating the food I’m feeding to the older hens (16% protein layer feed vs. 18% grower ration that they’re getting now)?
I look forward to each issue of your magazine! Thanks for your help.
— Linda Anderson-Biella, Colorado
Hi, Linda. It can be confusing to figure out what to do with chickens of all different ages! After doing a little research, I found that chicks need the most amount of protein since their bodies are growing and changing constantly. Layer feed contains less protein and includes calcium. Chicks younger than 18 weeks cannot be given layer feed because the calcium can cause major problems including damage to their kidneys and kidney stones. It can also decrease the amount of eggs they will lay in their lifetime. So I think you’ve got two options. One, you can combine the flocks when the “newbies” are almost as big as the older hens. In that case, switch the whole flock to the chick starter feed. That way no one is harmed and everyone is well fed. Or, you can keep the flocks separate until the 18-week mark and then combine them.
I hope this is helpful! Good luck with your flock.
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