Ask the Expert — February/March 2017

You Ask Expert Poultry Questions, We Give Expert Poultry Answers

Shade for Chickens?

I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your magazine. My mother-in-law gets it, gives it to me, and I pass it on to another friend who has chickens. We all enjoy it.

Poultry Shade

Poultry Shade

I’m enclosing some pictures. My husband built me a new chicken house this summer and we got busy haying and didn’t get a shade put on the outside pen. I put up an old card table over the little door to the pen. They have really enjoyed it. They sit on it and I always tell them to “deal me in” when I go out there, or I ask, “Who’s winning?”

Anyway, I would like some ideas on a portable shade, one I could put up in the summer but take down in the winter. Any ideas?

— Susan Sanderson, Nebraska


Hi Susan,

It’s great that you’re thinking of ways to give your chickens shade in the summer. Helping them stay cool during the hot times of year is critical to their good health. Fortunately, there are lots of portable and removable shade options. Beach umbrellas can provide shade for humans and chickens alike. They are relatively inexpensive and easy to find. Also, the canopy tents people use for sporting events and camping create great shade areas for chickens. Many of the canopy tents also have anchors to hold them in place. There are so many options, but these two are perhaps the easiest and most convenient to find.

Best of luck!


How Old Are These Toms?

I live in the woods and we have two tom turkeys that come in two or three times a day for the scratch and water I put out for them. They respond to my voice, know the sound of the feed barrels, love to be talked to and let me within three feet of them.

Is there any way to estimate their age by the length of their “beards?” When they’re eating they drag on the ground. They’ve been coming in for two years now.

Spring is very interesting when the ladies come around.

— Doree Juliano, New Hampshire


Hi Doree,

Correctly judging the age of a wild turkey is not an exact science. There are a lot of references from hunters. You can tell if a turkey is immature (a jake) or not by looking at the tail feathers. A jake’s tail feathers will be irregular when they are standing up with the middle feathers being higher than the feathers on the sides. Their beards will stick out and not down and they’re only a few inches long. The beard on a mature bird is much longer and can drag the ground. Some hunters say a two-year-old tom’s beard will be about five to seven inches. A three-year-old tom’s beard will be about eight inches or more. It sounds like your turkeys are around three years old or more from your description.


Do Chickens Have Ribs?

I hope this finds you well. I have a question. It may seem like a dumb question to you, but it’s something I’ve never thought of, even though I’ve eaten a lot of chicken. So you can help with this.

In the dining hall, we are served a piece of meat called a “chicken riblet.” Do chickens have ribs, or is this just part of the breast?

— Rickey Wyatt, North Carolina


Hi Rickey,

Yes, chickens do have ribs. We just featured a series on the biology of the chicken. In that series, the skeletal system was discussed. The author, Thomas L. Fuller, described the rib cage best. His information is quoted below.

“There are seven pairs of ribs that originated from the thoracic vertebrae forming the rib cage. All but the first and second pairs attach to the sternum in a unique fashion. Again adaptation for flight mandates a strong rib cage called the uncinate process. This process involves hooked flaps that overlay and connect adjacent ribs by a ligament to avoid collapse of the thoracic cavity (ribcage) during flight.”

Good question!


A Bad (Good) Dog

I have a five-month-old mountain cur pup who has a bad habit of chasing my chickens. She has killed two of my four-month-old Silkie Bantam chicks. How can I teach her to leave them alone? She only does it when nobody is around.

Thanks for the great magazine.

— Junior Wengerd, Millersburg, Ohio


Hi Junior,

It’s best not to leave your new pup alone with your chickens until she is properly trained. There are many techniques that are discussed in the chicken world about how to train dogs to leave chickens alone. While some may work and others may not, it’s better to be safe than sorry. A dog trainer that will come to your house is probably the best course of action. Many chicken owners report excellent results when working with a professional.


New Chickens but No Eggs?

We now have six chickens in our Millennium Chicken, our chicken coop named by our dad. We used to have seven, but they all got picked off one-by-one by coyotes. All except two, our rooster who survived the coyote attack (his bottom feathers are still growing back) and an Easter Egg layer named Gigi who laid green eggs. We got new chickens a few months ago, and ever since she hasn’t laid an egg. The five other chickens, the newcomers, are old enough to lay, but they haven’t. Is anything wrong? And do the new chickens affect Gigi’s laying?

— Mia Patel, Texas


Hi Mia,

Stress can affect laying. It sounds like Gigi has experienced a lot of stress recently both from predation and newcomers being added. Unless you see signs that she is sick, it’s best to make sure she has plenty of food, fresh water and a clean coop. She’ll most likely start laying again when she’s comfortable.

As for the newcomers, they can lay as early as 16 weeks, but most birds take a little longer; especially if they are a heritage breed. It’s hard to wait, but try to be patient. They will lay when they’re ready.


Male-to-Hen Ratio?

I have Muscovy ducks and I want to know if I need a male for each hen?

— Winnifred Badgerow


Hi Winnifred,

No need for one male for each hen. That will lead to over-mating. A good minimum amount is one drake for every four to five females.

Some side notes on Muscovy gender traits: Many individuals believe that Muscovies are more of a goose than a duck. For instance, they do not quack. Many people like this trait since they are “quiet” ducks. The males make a “hissing” sound while the females make a sound known as a “pip.” This “pip” is a very exotic sounding call. It is somewhat similar to a flute quickly alternating between the notes F and G. Also, their eggs take longer to hatch than other duck eggs — 35 days. Unlike all other breeds of ducks, Muscovies did not originate from the wild Mallard.

Good luck with your flock!


What Causes Them to Die?

I am really sad. I have lost three hens this last year. I de-worm, feed medicated feed, and I clean the coop often. What happens is kind of like a head tic. They walk off balance. Please help and thank you.

— Johnny Hitchcock


Hi Johnny,

Without common symptoms, it’s hard to diagnose why your birds are dying. But the first thing we would check is if you have enough drinking water. Dehydration can cause this. An injury, or a bump to the head, could also be a consideration.

There are several diseases that could cause this. Fowl cholera, caused by the bacteria Pasteurella multocida, is fairly common in turkeys and less-so in chickens. There are several viral diseases that can cause this, too. Many, but not all, of them are accompanied by respiratory problems.

We aren’t sure where you are located, but here in Wisconsin, summers have us nearly overrun with mosquitoes. A viral disease called equine encephalomyelitis is transmitted by mosquitoes and causes circling or staggering in poultry. Symptoms get progressively worse and usually cause death. We are not saying that is what your hens have, but it is a possibility.

We would suggest contacting your local veterinarian to see if they can look into this case by performing a health check on your remaining birds. Or, you can send your bird to be examined post mortem and a diagnosis can be given that way. We would suggest contacting your local extension service and they can let you know where a necropsy can be performed.

We hope you’re able to diagnose and treat your problem quickly.


Do Small Eggs Equal Small Hens?

I have seven-month-old Wyandottes that have just started laying. I know it’s normal for the first eggs to be smaller than usual. My question is: If I hatch these smaller eggs, will the chicks from them grow up smaller than normal or will they eventually be full-size Wyandottes?

— Mark Hoy, Salcha, Alaska


Hi Mark,

They should eventually get to their expected full size. They may grow a bit more slowly. This has been studied in broilers, and chicks from small eggs take a few days longer to get to market size. Genetically, though, your chicks will have the same genetics as if they hatched from a larger egg, so they should grow just as large. Best of luck with your new flock.



Why does a hen and rooster occasionally eat an egg?

— Kathy Briggs


Hi Kathy,

Eggs are not only a great source of nutrition for humans, they’re also a great source of nutrition for your chickens. You can actually scramble up your eggs and feed them directly to your birds. On a cold fall/winter/early spring day, they’ll love the warmth and the extra protein. If your hen or rooster occasionally eats an egg, they are simply looking for a good snack. Just make sure your chickens have some free range and activity time every day so they don’t get bored and make egg eating a habit. Then you’ll have no eggs for yourself! Good luck!


An Unruly Duck

Why is my duck chasing and harassing my chickens all of a sudden?

— Jammie Mittlestead


Hi Jammie,

We would guess that you have a male duck and not enough female ducks. We would recommend at least three to four female ducks per drake. And separating them is a good idea if it gets to be too much. We have had other readers say their drakes have injured their hens trying to mate.

We hope this is helpful!


How Do I Get Them To Be Broody?

I live in Spain and my Embden goose is laying one egg every other day but she does not sit. Please give me advice.

— Walt Conde, Spain


Hi Walt,

It’s good to hear from one of our readers in Spain. Your question, though, is not as inviting as your beaches. It’s a tough one. Embden is a breed that is usually strong with going broody, but as we know, there are always exceptions to the rule.

Giving them a safe space to nest and sit would be a good place to start. We would suggest building a separate area for her to be broody, as from our experience, one of the main reasons geese will not sit is due to fear (or shyness). We have also heard success from breeders by decreasing protein levels in their diet, as well as making sure they have enough daylight. But that gets more complicated, and you can actually cause damage by changing daylight suddenly or experimentally, so we suggest starting by building her a safe nest that’s away from everyone/everything, and seeing if that doesn’t help.

Also, this could just be a timing issue. Sometimes, geese will not go broody until they have laid several eggs. Keeping a few of the eggs in the nest, and the rest of the eggs alive until then might be your chore, and you can add the eggs back carefully once she has decided to go broody.

Anyway, we hope this helps!


Why Aren’t They Laying?

My name is Gabe Clark. I have been raising chickens for the past couple of months. I have five chickens total. There are three hens and two roosters. I have one hen and one rooster in a separate pen with a nesting box inside. And the other roaster and hens are in a coop with a small run outside. It is plenty big enough for them.

They are now 18 weeks old, and I haven’t even seen the slightest sign of eggs. They are starting to lay down in the nesting boxes, but haven’t even tried to lay yet. I feed them layer crumble and change their water every three days. This is because they have a big container and it stays clean for a few days before I dump out the rest and refill it. I have hay in the coop for them to “bed” in. Why aren’t there any eggs yet? Am I doing something wrong? And by the way, my chickens have been looking scared recently and I can’t pet them because the rooster thinks he is the alpha and will fly and claw at my legs. He got me good the other day, so I stopped trying to go in. I’m just worried is all. Thanks for your time!

— Gabe Clark


Hi Gabe,

No need to worry. Your hens will lay eggs and their timeline is completely normal. Eighteen weeks is the minimum age for egg laying. In reality, it usually takes most hens a little longer to lay eggs.

Our bigger concern is that you don’t have a good ratio of hens to roosters. For each rooster you have in a flock, you should have 10 to 12 hens. For two roosters, your total number of hens should be 20 to 24. This helps to prevent over-mating and damage to your hens.

We hope this is helpful.


Ask our poultry experts about your flock’s health, feed, production, housing and more!

Please note that although our team has dozens of years of experience, we are not licensed veterinarians. For serious life and death matters, we advise you to consult with your local veterinarian.

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