Ask the Expert — February/March 2014

Ask the Expert — February/March 2014

Peroxide or Not?

We have some chicks that are about four to five months old, I think. They got pecked on the neck and head. We have them inside in a blanket and we put peroxide on the wounds. Is there anything else we should do?

— Julia Donoso, New York


 It sounds like you’re taking good care of the chicks.  The peroxide is probably good at first, but it can slow tissue regrowth and healing, so I wouldn’t continue to use it. Chickens’ high body temperature (usually around 106 degrees F) helps keep infections down, so they should be okay.

Reintroducing them to the flock can be a challenge. Sometimes putting them across a fence so they can interact with each other, but can’t attack, can be helpful.  A cage or pen within the other pen will work for this, too.

Rearranging the pen (feeders, waterers, etc.) can sometimes help. Giving them hiding places at first also may help.

Good luck with them!


Layers Not Producing

We have 45 layers: Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Rock, and some of the Black and White Rock. We are getting two to five eggs a day. What is wrong? Is this normal? I write down on the calendar every day the amount of eggs, last year was not like this. What could be wrong?

— Mary and Fran Lightenfield, New York


My first thought is that the hens are on natural light, and this is normal winter production. In nature, when most birds sense the days getting shorter, their bodies stop producing the hormones necessary for egg production. They will often molt, their oviducts regress, and they go into a “resting” phase until the day length starts to increase again.

Some breeds that have been selected for high egg production will continue to lay during the short days, but many dual-purpose breeds such as those you listed will produce very few eggs.

This can be a bit deceiving since many first-year pullets will lay pretty well the first winter, in spite of short day lengths. In the second year of production, lights are much more important.

If you want good winter egg production, you’ll probably need to provide artificial light. Most people keep their lights on a time clock, so the lights will stay on for about 14 to 15 hours each day.

If you’re providing light for them, then I’m not sure. Then I would suggest you look at their overall health to see if something is wrong. Temperature can also have an effect on production, so when it gets extremely cold, they won’t lay many eggs, even with long days. Nutrition would be another thing to check.

I think short days are the most likely, however.


They Stopped Laying

We have the remnants of a half-dozen birds we started about two years ago. They were purchased as a group from our local farmer’s co-op. There were three Amercaunas and three Buff Orpingtons. We’re down to the three Amercaunas and one Orpie due to a dog incident and illness.

However, back in mid to late August, all the birds stopped laying. It was gradual at first. The Orpie hasn’t given an egg since late spring. The Amercaunas were laying on and off until we were getting only one egg every two or three days.

They still seem quite healthy and are eating well. Very well, in fact, as my wife gives them fresh greens most every day, along with yogurt from time to time, and bean sprouts as treats. She has been using a fairly high protein pellet and crumble feed as well. Grit and shells are in the coop at all times.

There are no signs that any of the birds are egg-bound. There has been a fox around the coop and run from time to time, but they were still laying eggs even when the fox was pestering them. (We haven’t seen it lately).

Do birds typically suddenly stop like this?

— Scott Raszka, Connecticut


Probably the easiest answer I can think of is that they are out of production because of short days. Are they on natural light, without artificial lights? If so, it is fairly normal for them to go  out of production in late summer, and they likely won’t start again until spring. The first year, pullets will continue to lay pretty well, even in short days. The second year you may still get some production, but by the third year of production, I’m not surprised if they stop completely.  

If you’re using artificial lights (with 14 hours or light per day or more), then I’m not sure.  Also, egg production generally decreases about 20 percent or more with each successive year of production. So age is working against you in this situation, too.  

Other than those things, I guess I’d suggest you make sure that they aren’t laying, and then something is happening to the eggs. Might they be hiding them somewhere other than in the nests? Are they eating them? Is something else eating them?

Hopefully, one of those will fit your situation.


Tough Chicken Meat

When we butchered our chickens this fall, they seemed to be so tough. I have to cook them in a pressure cooker because you can’t eat them otherwise. We did not do anything different in feeding them than we have the last eight years. I can’t even cook them on the grill — it’s too tough. Do you know what would have caused this? We buy new ones each spring. We had white rocks this year. Is there something we can feed them to help this? We give them a lot of greens out of the garden, but we always have.  

— Dave Canfield


I have a couple of ideas. First, were they White Plymouth Rocks, or Cornish-Rock crosses (commercial broilers)? If they were purebred white rocks, they likely took quite a bit of time to fill out and be of a good size for slaughter. As chickens age, the meat will become tougher. That shouldn’t be different from what you are used to from prior years, however, unless you were used to Cornish-rocks in the past.

My other guess has to do with the processing methods. After the bird has been slaughtered, plucked, eviscerated, etc., it really needs to “rest” for at least 12 to 24 hours (refrigerated, but not frozen). This allows the muscles to go through rigor and then relax. If you cook the bird immediately, or freeze it immediately, the muscles will not go through this process, and you can end up with very tough meat.

If you have been allowing the meat to rest, then I’m not sure. That is usually the common issue I’ve seen in the past.


Swollen Eyes and Long Nails

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As you can see (in the photo above) our red hen has a swollen eye. My other hen, Lacey, may be starting to swell. Is there any type of treatment? I only have four hens and one rooster.  

Second question: There are long spurs on my rooster, they are almost 1-inch long. Can they be cut off?

You helped me in 2009 with a question about scaly leg mites. The Vaseline worked! Thank you!

— Nancy Roseen, Minnesota


Thanks for the picture. I would say that the chickens have a respiratory infection. Chickens have sinuses just under their eyes, and these often become swollen and filled when they have a respiratory infection. Bacterial infections (especially Mycoplasma gallisepticum and fowl cholera) often cause this. You can try to treat them with a broad-spectrum antibiotic. It will often help, though the symptoms sometimes come back when the antibiotic is no longer being given. Antibiotics that can be given to laying hens are limited, but if you are only using the eggs for personal consumption, you have a little more latitude. Unfortunately, these can be difficult to eradicate from a flock once they are present.

Rooster’s spurs can be cut off or twisted off. They are like a horn in that the inner core is live tissue. You can use a sharp saw to cut them off. Try not to go too close to the leg, or it will bleed quite a bit. You can hopefully see a difference in color where the live tissue starts. Some people have had good luck gripping the spur firmly with pliers and twisting it off.  It seems a bit harsh, but it will come off.  The biggest issue with this is that the remainder will harden in a few days and will still be sharp, just shorter.


Limping Chicks

I have two chicks. One is six months old (Jush), and the other is three months old (Jordy). They have the same father and perhaps the same mother. When Jush was about three months or so, she started limping like she had hurt her foot, and also was uncoordinated, staggering a little. Little by little the limp and stagger became more pronounced. 

After a couple weeks, she was dragging her leg behind her, and for a month or two, the leg was useless. She hopped around using her wings for balance. Slowly, she began to get the use of the leg again. I had examined her leg on several occasions and found no external injuries. The muscle on her thigh was thinner than the good leg. Now she walks with a slight limp and is otherwise fine. A few days ago, I noticed Jordy starting the same limp and stagger. What is going on? 

I have plenty of other chickens and chicks and no issues. Everyone gets their feed, scratch grain, and they also free range for a few hours a day. They also get rice or pasta from time to time. 

Thank you for your help. This one has me stumped.

— Stephanie Albino, Retired — U.S. Navy


The age of these chickens and the symptoms you mentioned immediately make me think of Marek’s disease. This is a viral disease that causes paralysis of the nerves, especially the nerves of the legs. Generally, however, chickens don’t recover from this. There seems to be a great variation in the susceptibility to this disease among different chickens, so I guess it makes some sense that some might be able to recover. There are also different strains of the virus, so it may be that this is not a very virulent strain.

Of course, it could be something else, and I can’t really diagnose this from an email message. For a firm diagnosis, you’d need to contact an avian veterinarian or your state veterinary diagnostic lab. There is a great deal of research that has shown different levels of susceptibility to Marek’s disease in different genetic strains of chickens, so I would not be surprised that you might see this in related chickens. I have known some flock owners (with specific breeds of chickens) that had very high mortality from Marek’s if they didn’t vaccinate. Other breeds of chickens don’t seem to have as much trouble. 

I know the next question will be, “What breeds?” I don’t think it’s so much specific breeds as it is specific strains within a breed. So, one person might have a line of Plymouth Rocks that are very susceptible, while another might have Plymouth Rocks that are not. 

If this is the cause of the problems, you can vaccinate day-old chicks. If you are buying chicks from a hatchery, I would suggest paying the extra cost to have them vaccinated.  If you are hatching your own, you can purchase vaccine and do it yourself. The vaccine usually comes in 1,000-dose packages, and it is only good for an hour or so after making it up, so you might want to group your hatches accordingly.  The vaccination is to be given subcutaneously, so it’s fairly simple to inject under the loose skin on the back of the neck.

Again, there could be something else causing this, but this would seem like the most likely thing.


Pheasant Troubles

I was given a pheasant around six weeks old and he had a bulge on the right side of his head. The lady’s daughter-in-law lanced the bulge and clear liquid came out, it kept running.

I tried to find a vet to look at him but no one knows anything about a pheasant. Finally I found one. He lanced another part of his head and strips of infection came out. He charged me with Amoxicillin and some cream to put in the hole where he lanced it. The pheasant seemed to perk up. But now he has another knot growing on his head. It doesn’t seem to be catching but I have him isolated. Should I take him back to the vet to get more Amoxicillin and cream and ask him to lance it again? Have you ever had to deal with anything like this?

— Sarah Cucina, Maryland


It sounds like the pheasant most likely has a respiratory infection. The bulge is most likely a swollen sinus. While a few things could cause this, a couple of likely culprits are either chronic respiratory disease (Mycoplasma gallisepticum) or fowl cholera (Pasteurella multocida). 

These are both bacterial diseases, so the antibiotic should help.  In both cases, however, it can be difficult to completely clear the infection, so it may come back when you stop giving the antibiotic.

You could try another round of treatment and see how it goes. Both of these diseases can spread to other birds, so it might be in the best interest of the rest of your flock to get rid of this one. 

Of course, I can’t say for sure that this is the issue without more testing. For a firm diagnosis, you’d need to have more testing done by the veterinarian or your state veterinary diagnostic lab. For chronic respiratory disease, a blood test can be done to confirm whether the bird has antibodies against it. This shouldn’t be too expensive, and it would let you know for sure. Fowl cholera may be a little more difficult to confirm. 


Do Leg Bands Hurt?

My Polish hen (Queen) has a very long spur that circled back up and grew into her leg. I feel really bad about this because I never noticed it before. I can’t pull it loose and don’t want to pull very hard, as I’m afraid of hurting her. Is there anything I can do at this late date for her? Does it hurt her? Can a vet help her?

— Kris Haywood, Michigan


Depending on a few things, you may be able to deal with this yourself. The spur can grow into the leg and cause problems, so it probably should be removed. Without seeing it, I’m going to assume a few things, but I think I can picture it.

If there is room to get a cutter in the loop of the spur, I would try to cut the spur off toward its base. Once that is loose, then I think it should pull out of the grown-in area. Get a good sharp pruning shears and try to cut it without crushing the spur. I’d probably try to cut about ½- to ¾-inch from the leg. Hopefully, this will be far enough out so it doesn’t bleed. If it does, some styptic powder will help stop any bleeding. It should stop fairly quickly. Another option, if you can’t get a cutter through the circle, would be to use a hacksaw and cut the spur. Again, I’d try to get out away from the leg, and cut through the spur.

Obviously, you’ll probably need a helper to hold the bird while doing this.

I would guess that she will be okay and this shouldn’t cause any long-term damage and she’ll be fine, but it probably should be removed.


Why Are My Hens Ill?

I love your magazine!

Last year I raised all my meat birds (Dark Cornish) on ground corn, barley sprouts and coagulated cow’s milk with great success.

This year I am doing the same thing but almost half of them have died. The only thing I am doing differently is that I’m not draining the whey off the coagulated milk before I mix it with the ground corn.

A lot of them seem to be having trouble walking, and a few have abnormally large beaks. Half of them seem like they have trouble staying awake, while others are perfectly normal.

— Martin Baker


While this diet is fairly unorthodox, I don’t think it should probably be bad enough to kill half the chickens (especially a slower growing breed like dark Cornish, as opposed to a Cornish-Rock cross).  

I think there might be some vitamin or mineral deficiency with this diet.  Since you mentioned sleepiness, I wonder about a vitamin A deficiency. The corn should provide some vitamin A, but corn kept in storage for a while can lose quite a bit of its vitamin A activity. You don’t mention whether or not the chickens have access to greens — if they do, then there is less chance of this deficiency. If they don’t, then I would think about adding a source of vitamin A. Green, leafy vegetables, good alfalfa hay, yellow corn (that hasn’t been stored for a long time) are all potential sources. You might check to make sure there aren’t any molds in the corn or in the sprouted barley. Fungal toxins could cause problems. Likewise, if the wet mash is allowed to sit too long, molds could be a problem.

I don’t think the whey should cause any problem.  I did see an interesting article where broilers didn’t do very well if the whey was offered as their water source. 

As long as you provide fresh drinking water for them, that shouldn’t be a problem. If at all possible, I would suggest you get a vitamin and mineral premix that you can mix with this ration. That should help fill in any missing nutrients.

Of course, there could be some non-nutritional cause, too. You could contact an avian veterinarian or your state veterinary diagnostic lab to look at some of the chickens. That would help rule out a disease issue, and they may be able to notice signs of a nutritional problem, as well.


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