Ask the Expert – February/March 2018

Ask the Expert – February/March 2018

Poisonous Plants

I inherited eight hens when we bought our house. We also inherited a beautiful garden with a variety of plants. The hens have free range of the yard and when the wisteria bloomed they would peck at the flowers and eat the petals. The other day I was reading up on wisteria and the article said it’s toxic to hens. All of my hens are perfectly fine though!
We are in the process of building a new coop with a larger run and a garden along the outside edge of it. Since they enjoyed the wisteria so much I decided to plant one with the added bonus of giving them shade once it’s established. Should I remove it?
Do you have any recommendations for some hen-friendly vines, preferably a perennial?

— Courtney Burgam


Hi Courtney,

Poisonous plants can be a tough subject for chicken owners. Of course, everyone wants to keep their chickens safe and healthy. But if you survey chicken owners, you’ll likely find many of them have plants that are listed as poisonous to chickens right where their existing flock roams. If you look up lists of poisonous plants for chickens, wisteria is on some and not others. This leaves a lot of room for ambiguity and uncertainty.

The problem with poisonous plants usually comes in with chickens that are not well fed and not allowed to roam freely. If they are fed leaves and fruits from poisonous plants, they know no better and they will likely eat them. Chickens that are allowed to roam freely learn quickly not to eat poisonous plants. They are much more backyard savvy.

It’s a personal decision to remove the wisteria or not. If you decide to remove it and plant something else, this list should give you some ideas — climbing roses, morning glory, grapevines, nasturtium, squash, passionflower, honeysuckle, and hops. There are both annuals and perennials here in case you’d like to do a little experimenting.


Aspergillosis Prevention

Can you give me some information about aspergillosis in chickens? I lost a bunch of hens and roosters (between three to five years old) due to this disease. We took samples and sent to the lab and the results came as aspergillosis. We tried to treat one of the hens with fluconazole, but she died anyway. They have difficulties in breathing and their faces turn to purple. What should I do to eliminate that fungus from my backyard? Is there an effective treatment?
I have to say that we have Muscovy ducks as well and because of that the soil is always wet.

— Renata Carvalho, Brazil


Hi Renata,

Prevention of aspergillosis tends to be the best method. That can be difficult in some situations, as you have noted.  Once the birds are infected, there aren’t really any effective treatments. There have been some attempts, using expensive mammalian treatments, especially with endangered bird species, but successes were fairly rare.

Some people have used copper sulfate in the water to slow the spread of disease to other poultry, but it is likely not effective for birds that already have aspergillosis.

Moldy litter or feed are commonly found to be responsible for infections. If the feed is moldy, it should be replaced.  Wood shavings (or other types of litter) need to be kept dry and protected before they are used for bedding since they can mold and then spread infection. There have been studies showing that good ventilation can at least slow the multiplication of the fungi.  So, try to get clean and dry bedding, and then try to keep it dry, even during storage prior to use.

Especially since you mentioned having ducks, it can be difficult to keep the environment dry. You might try putting their water source over a grate, and/or over a graveled or sand area. This should allow for better drainage, and keep the litter dryer. Adding ventilation, if possible, can also help keep things dry. Consistently moving the water and feed sources to different areas can also be helpful.

If the birds are in a fairly small and enclosed area, sand or gravel might be an alternative for bedding over the entire area.

Hopefully, these will help prevent aspergillosis in the future!


Penguin Posture Chicken

I read your answer to “Eggs without Yolks” in the October/November 2017 issue of Backyard Poultry in which you said that yolks can drop into the abdomen, pile up, and produce the penguin posture. I had a pullet that had that posture from a fairly young age — from about eight weeks until I processed her at about four months. Obviously, it wasn’t due to internal laying. I didn’t find anything which clearly explained the posture when I butchered her. Any thoughts?

— Kathy Wolf,  New York


Hi Kathy,

It’s hard to tell what it might have been. Certainly, some breeds tend to stand a bit more like this (Sumatras, for example), but you’d be aware if you had a different breed.

There are some things that can cause damage to the backbone, which could change the posture. Some bacterial infections are known to do this.

There is a condition, often referred to as “roach back” that seems to be a congenital condition. However, those chickens stand normally. But when handling them, there is a noticeable deviation of the backbone.

Some birds can have ascites, or “water belly.” This is a condition where the chickens have fluid buildup in their abdomen. It could affect posture, and the fluid might drain out during processing.  This is often caused by a respiratory or circulatory problem, which causes an increase in blood pressure. The fluid is leaked from capillaries because of this high pressure.

These may not fit your pullet, but they are a few possibilities. Hopefully, it won’t happen again!


White Yolk Equals Albino Chick?

I have had chickens for years, but I have never seen this. I cracked open an egg I was sure was a double yolker and found one yellow yolk and one white yolk. My question is, if this had been a fertilized egg, and had hatched, and lived, would I have one albino chick?

— Connie Salsbury, Idaho


Hi Connie,

Thanks for the interesting picture!

This would probably not have produced an albino chick if it would have hatched. Pigments in the yolk come from the hen’s system, so there is probably no connection to the chick. Coloration in the chick is produced by the chick as it develops. Albinism is caused by a defect in the genes that cause pigment formation.

It is very rare for chicks to hatch from double-yolked eggs. If two embryos start to develop, they usually die about half-way through incubation. If they do develop to the point of hatching, it is difficult for them to hatch. Generally, only one has its head at the correct end of the shell, where it can pip into the air cell. There also isn’t adequate room for them to rotate in the egg, so it is difficult for them to complete the hatching process.

There may be videos on the internet of two chicks hatching, but they have required assisted hatching and quite a bit of special care. While it probably can happen, it is very, very rare.

What isn’t easily explained is the (lack of) coloration of the yolk. Generally, the pigmentation in the yolk is related to the diet the hen is eating. Feeds with lots of carotenoid pigments (corn, greens, marigolds, etc.) produce deep yellow to orange yolks while feeds with fewer pigments (wheat, sorghum, etc.) produce paler yolks. Since this egg had one of each, this doesn’t make a good explanation.

The hen may have had something else interfering with normal pigment deposition. It could be a disease, parasites, etc. Some weed seeds can change the color of the yolk. Or, it may have just been some anomaly with this one yolk, and never happen again.

As another possibility, a colleague wondered if there was a membrane around the white yolk? He thought it might be a partially formed egg (small and without a shell), rather than a yolk. There’s also a chance that it could have been a cyst on the ovary, rather than being a true yolk.

If you see more of these, it would be wise to suspect a health problem. If not, it’s just one of those strange things you see when you have chickens!


Sick Chickens

I have been reading Backyard Poultry and I found the article “Don’t Take Sick Chickens to Shows” interesting. I have some chickens with the symptoms of coughing, weeping eyes, and drippy nostrils. Some even have a rattle in their throat. Can you give me some information on what kind of medicine I can give them, and where to buy it? Your help is gratefully appreciated.

Thank you for your time.

— Kenny Roberts, Missouri


Hi Kenny,

First, it’s difficult to know what might be causing this, since there are several different diseases that can cause these symptoms.  If it’s caused by a virus (Newcastle disease, bronchitis, low-path avian influenza, etc.), there’s not a lot you can do, other than to try to keep the chickens healthy and hope they can fight off the disease. If it’s caused by bacteria (coryza, mycoplasma, fowl cholera, etc.) then an antibiotic might be helpful. 

Because of heightened concerns about antibiotic-resistant bacteria, new rules have been passed concerning the sale of antibiotics for animal use.  Now, nearly all antibiotics can only be purchased with a veterinary prescription.  So, while it was difficult to suggest something in the past, it’s nearly impossible now.  If you can find a veterinarian that works with poultry, they may be able to help you diagnose the cause of the problem and then suggest a treatment.  You could also contact your state veterinary diagnostic lab.  

Other than working with a veterinarian, you can try some of the many over-the-counter and/or home remedies.  Things like apple cider vinegar in the water may be helpful preventatives. Vinegar can lower the pH of the water, and may also encourage the chickens to drink more water. A product called VetRX may be helpful for respiratory symptoms. Keeping the chickens warm, dry, and well-fed and watered are important. 

Unfortunately, for many flock-owners, disease prevention, through strong biosecurity, is still the best bet.  


Chicken Troubles

I have a very bad thing going on with some of my chickens, they get sores on their heads and sometimes in their mouth. Then they can’t eat or drink and they die.

I used to buy an antibiotic from the feed house, when I put in their water it would turn yellow or pink. I can’t buy it anymore because the vets stopped it. We have two in our town and they don’t carry any kind of products for chickens. What are we to do? Please help, maybe send me a catalog that has medicine for chickens?

We also had a problem with mites. They were so bad my pant legs would be black with them. I got rid of them with WD-40 and tweezers. That was a trip because I have about 98 chickens.

I would love anything you might be able to help me with. I am 85 years old and I love my chickens.

— Thelma Courtney, Florida


Hi Thelma,

It’s so good to hear you are enjoying your chicken flock!

The first problem you mention sounds like it could be fowl pox. This is a viral disease and is often spread by mosquitoes, though it can also spread directly from one chicken to another. Since it is caused by a virus, there isn’t really a direct treatment for it. In many cases, especially if it doesn’t get inside the mouth, the chickens will get over it. If it gets in the mouth, it can make eating and drinking difficult, so the chicken dies from malnutrition. Some people give an aspirin solution to infected chickens, which decreases this pain so they can eat and drink. (An old publication suggested dissolving five aspirin tablets in a gallon of water.)

There are vaccines available for fowl pox for chickens. You might want to consider using this on your chickens. It is a little bit different vaccination procedure, as it is given by “wing-stick.” This uses a two-pronged “fork” which is dipped into the vaccine and then poked through the wing web skin of the chicken.

For mites, there are a few things you can do. Permethrin is a treatment that is approved for use on chickens. It comes in a powder or a liquid. The powder can be dusted on the chickens, and also added to a dust bath. The liquid can be sprayed directly on the birds and also on roosts, nests, etc. There are several other products you might try as well. Once you have the mites under control, providing dust baths can be helpful. Wood ash, diatomaceous earth, and sulfur are all things that have been suggested as additives for a dust bath. These will probably help as preventatives, though they may not work when treating birds that already have a lot of mites.

If at all possible, keeping wild birds away from the chicken coop is a good prevention method for mites. You should especially strive to prevent wild birds from nesting in the coop area (sparrows, swallows, etc.) as they often will have mites.

Hopefully, you can get both of these under control, and continue to enjoy your chickens!


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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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