Ask the Expert — October/November 2017

Ask the Expert — October/November 2017

Rooster Yawning

One of our two-year-old Leghorn hens occasionally just bursts into these fits of yawning. They just come at random times like when she is eating and just throws back her head and opens her mouth but no sound comes out. They are about 20 seconds apart for about 10 minutes. She has had them bef0re but not for a few weeks. We treat for worms two times a year with Ivermectin. Any advice would be appreciated, she is a pet so culling is not an option.

P.S. Do you know if I can keep guinea keets with the chickens in their 25 x 15-foot yard and can I get only one keet and raise it with ducklings?

My Rhode Island Red is doing it now too and it looks like it hurts a bit. Please help


— Calvin Boss, Illinois


Hi Calvin,

This behavior could be caused by a few different things.

Gapeworm is a parasite that lives in the trachea of birds. They tend to be more common in game birds (pheasants, etc.) than in chickens. They can cause “gaping” where the bird holds its beak open and gapes, trying to expel the worms. Your ivermectin treatments should treat this.

Infectious laryngotracheitis (ILT) is a fairly common viral disease of chickens. This also damages the trachea and can cause bleeding (and blood clots) in the trachea. Again, the birds often gape and cough in an effort to clear the blockage. In some cases, you may see clots of blood on the walls of the coop, where the birds have coughed them out. Since this is a virus, there’s not a lot you can do, other than to keep the chickens warm and well-fed, in hopes that they can fight off the virus. You may be able to vaccinate your flock to prevent future outbreaks.

It could just be dry feed getting “stuck” in their throats. Chickens do exhibit this behavior occasionally when they are eating. Your picture seems a bit extreme for this, however.

For a firm diagnosis, you’d need to contact an avian veterinarian or your state veterinary diagnostic lab.

Regarding the guinea keet, it’s not a good idea to raise it with ducklings. Guineas come from fairly dry areas, and the young keets can chill very easily if they get wet. They will almost certainly get wet if they are with ducklings! They also likely need a higher protein diet than the ducklings need.

You can raise them with chickens. Some people have had problems with roosters and male guineas not getting along. If you have a rooster, you might want to consider a backup plan, in case they don’t get along.

Good luck with your birds!


Eggs Without Yolks

Thank you for your quick response to my last letter about my weird Silkie hen. She has been laying eggs with hard shells since I put out the crumbled egg shells. She still does not lay an egg with a yolk in it (white only) and she never has. Have you ever come across this and if so why does it happen? Where are the yolks?

Thank You,

— Sue McKee


Hi Sue,

That’s great news that the eggshells are better!

It’s unusual for a hen to consistently lay eggs like this. Usually, it happens occasionally, and often when a hen is either just starting to lay, or going out of production. It may be that something has happened to her ovary, so she is not producing ova (yolks). As you likely know, the yolk forms on the ovary, and is released (termed ovulation). The rest of the egg is produced in the oviduct.

It is possible that she is producing yolks, and they are not getting into the oviduct. Hens that do this are called internal layers, and it’s not a good thing for the hens. These yolks fall to the bottom of the abdomen and begin to pile up. Usually, this yolk mass will become infected, and the hen will get a disease called egg yolk peritonitis. You will likely see the hen start to change her stance as the mass grows, and she’ll start to stand like a penguin or a bowling pin.

That doesn’t explain the continued production of eggs, however. We know that any solid mass will stimulate the oviduct to form an egg. There are old stories of surgically planting a small vial, containing a message, in the oviduct so that the hen lays an egg with the message inside! Sometimes, a bit of tissue will slough off near the top of the oviduct, and this can stimulate egg formation without a yolk. Since your hen is doing this consistently, there may be some tissue that is attached, but that is stimulating this? It’s a guess, but it could be the case.

If the hen doesn’t seem to be accumulating a mass in her abdomen, it’s probably not a cause for worry. If she is, then you might try to put her on short day lengths to make her go out of production. Otherwise, there is probably not much you can do for her. As long as she is eating and drinking, and seems healthy, you can just keep doing what you’re doing, and monitor her for other signs of problems.

For a firm diagnosis, you’d need to contact an avian veterinarian.

Good luck with her!


Vaccinating for Marek’s Disease

If we would vaccinate our mature chickens for Marek’s, would their chicks also be immunized to it? Also, can Marek’s affect ducks, chickens, and guineas?


— Beulah Lehman


Hi Beulah,

Those are good questions. With many diseases, we can vaccinate the breeders, and provide some protection against disease in the chicks – likely through maternal antibodies passed through the yolk. There has been research that has looked at this with Marek’s disease. Unfortunately, it seems that maternal antibodies only worked for a short time in the chicks, though they did help prevent some early health problems associated with the virus. They did not do much to prevent disease after about three weeks of age, however, and the typical nerve damage causing paralysis still occurred.

Also, it is thought that most chickens are likely exposed to Marek’s disease since it is so common, so they likely have antibodies unless they have been raised in SPF (specific pathogen free) conditions.

It’s important to note that the vaccination does not stop the spread of Marek’s disease virus, it only stops the symptoms associated with it. So, vaccinated chickens can still carry the virus and spread it, they just don’t show symptoms of the disease.

So, it won’t hurt to vaccinate the mature chickens, but it’s not an acceptable alternative to vaccinating the chicks.

Fortunately, to answer your second question, Marek’s seems to only be an issue in chickens. There have been a few rare occurrences in turkeys, but it’s generally only seen in chickens.

Enjoy your flock!


Fused Toes

I hatched out a baker’s dozen of Black Copper and Blue Copper Marans. Two of the chick’s two outer toes are fused together tightly on both feet. I looked it up on the internet and couldn’t find much information other than how to separate the toes surgically. There were a couple of comments about this being a genetic issue in Marans and other feather shanked breeds, and the birds should be culled and not bred. One blogger suggested that it is caused by an incompletely dominant gene but did not say how either incomplete or complete dominance is expressed. Are fused toes the result of one copy of the gene or two? But the information is anecdotal and I cannot find out any information that seems science-based. The moms (black) are three hens I purchased from a breeder two years ago as chicks. The birds are not great quality; they lay very dark eggs but are small and poor layers and their other Marans traits are mediocre (color, conformation, and shank feathering). The rooster (blue) is one I purchased recently from a local breeder and he looks like quite a nice bird, physically. I called the rooster seller and he said that in hundreds of hatchlings over the years he has had only two chicks with fused toes, two years ago, and he culled them. I have another batch from the same mating in the incubator now and a third batch waiting to start incubating in a few days that is from the same rooster but different hens (Easter Eggers), so by July I might have some idea if the gene is from the hens or the rooster (hopefully not both). Can you shed some light on the genetics of this deformity, and how the gene is expressed so I can start trying to breed it out of my flock? Thanks.

— Jane Sommers


Hi Jane,

There seem to be several different genes that can cause “syndactyly,” or fused digits. There has been a lot of research into this in humans, and chickens have been used for quite a bit of that research.

To give you an idea of the complication involved, there has to be a system where cells multiply to a point, then some cells must be programmed to die, so the tissue between the toes stops growing while the cells that form the toes continue to multiply. There is also evidence that cells produce chemicals to communicate with each other and have influence on this growth so the location of the cells, relative to others, is important.

Some of the genes that have been shown to be involved are considered to be dominant to “normal” formation, and some were recessive. In many cases, they tend to vary in the degree of expression from chick to chick.

The hatch from the same rooster and other hens might give you some helpful information. If you don’t get any offspring with fused toes, it “might” mean the rooster is not to blame. The word might is used because it’s difficult to know how many chicks you’d need to hatch to know for sure. If it’s a dominant gene, you should see something in some of the chicks.

If all the chicks are normal, it either means that the hens were the culprits (so to speak), or that it’s a recessive gene and both had it. If that is the case, it’s probably best to try to use some different hens, since the rooster is good otherwise, and hope that the new hens don’t carry this gene. If it’s recessive, it may continue to linger in the flock, hopefully, at a low level.

To make matters a bit worse, syndactyly has also been caused by some environmental contaminants (such as the antifungal captan, for example). So, there’s an outside chance that this would be a consideration.  It’s probably not, in your situation, but it could be a possibility.

Isn’t breeding chickens fun?!


Thank you so much for researching this. The second hatch from the same parents produced one of eight chicks with fused toes. A third batch from the same roo but different hens is due in about 10 days and I am anxiously waiting to see how they look.

— Jane Sommers


Starter Feed vs. Layer Feed for a Mixed Age Flock

Integrating younger hens with an established flock always presents challenges. My pullets were ready to join the main flock, but still too young for the diet of layer pellets the older hens eat. I put out two separate feeding stations in the hen house to accommodate this. One filled with layer pellets, the other filled with grower mash. My 13 laying hens considered the growing mash a big treat and gobbled down the growing mash, forgetting all about their layer pellets.

I didn’t want their egg production to go down and I knew the high protein level in the grower mash wasn’t the best for them. What to do?

After giving it several days thought, I came up with the idea to buy layer mash and put it in the trough usually designated for the grower mash. I then put the grower mash in the trough normally used for the layer pellets. The hens fell for it. They took to the trough with layer mash and have left the grower mash alone. I do mix some of the pellets in with the mash and it’s working out fine.

It’s nice to know I’m smarter than a chicken!

— Debby Waddell, New York


Hi Debby,

Thanks for your advice! You’re kind of playing that game “Are you Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” just with your chickens!

As you integrate more flocks in the future, it’s good to know that you can absolutely feed adult laying hens and your younger birds all starter feed at the same time. You’re right. The older hens will love it. Your younger hens will also benefit by staying healthy. If you feed younger hens laying feed, that can be harmful to their health. But starter feed for all doesn’t have negative consequences. You can put out some oyster shell or egg shells for your older hens to enjoy and that will take care of their calcium requirements until the new birds are able to start on laying feed too.

Hope this helps!


Runny Yolks

I am getting a lot of yolks that spread out in the skillet the same thickness as the whites. This makes it impossible to have an over-medium fried egg with a runny yolk. Plus a lot of the yolks break when I pour the egg in the skillet. The entire yolk cooks just as fast as the white. This has been going on for about the last month. I live in central Oklahoma and have six Rhode Island Reds that are about two-years-old. I feed Purina Omega 3 Plus, no scratch or table scraps. I have had the hens about one year, they were laying when we got them. It’s like the membrane that holds the yolk together is very weak or disappearing. Any help is appreciated.

Thank you!

— Jerry Tune


Hi Jerry,

There are some nutritional things that can affect yolk strength, including Nicarbazin (a coccidiostat for young chickens) and gossypol (which is often found in cotton seeds). Since you said the hens are only eating Purina feed, these shouldn’t be issues.

Aging of the egg can also make the yolk flatten and weaken the membrane. Warm temperatures increase the rate of this aging, so that might be a concern. Depending on how often you gather the eggs, and how you store them, this might be a cause. It is often said that one day at warm temperatures will age an egg as much as a week in the refrigerator. (This is not specific, but it is probably loosely accurate.)

So, if you can gather the eggs more frequently, and refrigerate them promptly, that might help.

If those things don’t seem to fit your situation, then it’s hard to tell what is the problem. There may be other things that would change the yolk structure, but they’re not common. Some weed seeds can cause changes in the yolk, but they cause the yolk to be rubbery, not flatter and weaker.


Sick Chick

My chick is about four months old. Lately, her stomach area has been swelled up. Every day it gets bigger. She eats and drinks normally and is very active. Her poops are very small and watery. Today she began throwing up into her beak. She also swivels her neck like she has a cramp. She does that over and over. Thank you for such a great magazine.

— Aislinn K.


Hi Aislinn,

It sounds like you are talking about the crop (in front, above the breast muscle). If so, the chick may have a pendulous crop. This could be caused by a blockage (which sounds possible since you said the chick is producing very little waste). If that is the case, you might be able to help her. You can try to hold her upside down by her legs, and somewhat gently massage the crop area. Hopefully, she will spit up a lot of the material in it. This might clear the blockage. Some people have tried putting a small amount of vegetable oil down the chicken’s throat before doing this, in an effort to lubricate the throat.

If that doesn’t work, then it’s hard to know what to suggest. A veterinarian could open the crop and clean it out, then stitch it back up. Blockage like this can occur from eating long blades of grass, hay, or straw. These can get balled up in the crop and block the opening to the rest of the digestive tract.

The other thing that can cause this is damage to the vagus nerve, which controls emptying of the crop. If that is the case, there’s not much you can do, other than to try to keep her comfortable and hope that it recovers. Unfortunately, the chances of her recovering are pretty low. This could be a sign of Marek’s disease. While Marek’s disease commonly affects the sciatic nerve, causing leg paralysis, it can also affect other nerves. Given the age of the chick, this would fit pretty well.

If you are speaking of the abdomen instead (lower and behind the breast muscle), then there could be some blockage of the intestines, though this would be less common. It could be that she has an infection or tumor internally, that is growing. If it is fluid-filled, it could be a sign of a respiratory problem or kidney damage. These can cause ascites or fluid buildup in the abdomen.

Without further tests, it’s hard to know what to suggest. You’d probably need to find an avian veterinarian to help with that.


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