Ask the Expert — October/November 2016

You Ask Expert Poultry Questions, We Give Expert Poultry Answers

Ask the Expert — October/November 2016

One Unlucky Hen?

I am an 87-year-old woman, and I was raised on the farm and still live on the farm. In all these years, I have never known a rooster to take a spite out on just one hen. But for the past two years, our rooster has bullied a white hen. He just won’t let her come up when I give them treats. He pecks her head badly. She has stopped coming to my house in the evenings and stays by herself around the chicken house, or in the pasture with the cows. We got rid of the rooster, and a friend gave us a new one, and he is doing the same thing with the same hen. Do you have any clues about this?

— Ruth Hill


Hi Ruth,

It sounds like your hen is getting the worst of it. Unfortunately, your roosters are being, well, roosters. We hear from readers quite often who have unruly males in their coops, and most often they are singling out a single hen. And once the hen adopts the role of subordinate, it’s hard to keep others from picking on her.

We would suggest you could try a couple things to help. For one, you could start giving treats to them around the hen, wherever she is. Most likely, they will follow. And if they can connect the idea that she is the reason they are getting treats, the picking might top. Also, you could try carrying a large stick, literally, and making sure the rooster gets a light rap every time he tries to pick on the hen. A few times and he will understand that you are in control, not him.

Otherwise, we hope you can still care for your lonely hen. Or maybe she just likes hanging out with the cows!

Thanks for writing, and best of luck with your flock.


My Black Copper Hen is White?

I have a Black Copper Marans chick that hatched from a pure Black Copper Marans egg, but she is white. This does not surprise me because the lady that has these chickens says it is rare, but it does happen. I wanted to read more about this and see what you have to say.

— Nikki

Black Copper Hen


Hi Nikki,

Isn’t genetics fun?

We would guess the line isn’t completely “pure,” though that’s not terribly unusual in poultry. One could argue that no line is completely pure if you go back far enough in the pedigrees.

Most likely, your rooster and at least one of your hens are carrying a recessive color trait. It could be recessive white, or it could be one of the many alleles (different forms) of the “e” gene. This e gene has several different forms, and each produces a slightly different color pattern. For example, E usually produces black chickens. There is also e(+) or wild-type, e(r) or brown-red, e (WH) or wheaten and others. (These can also be modified by other genes, which is where the fun really comes in!)

When your chick starts to grow feathers, it will give a better hint as to the genetic makeup. If the feathers grow in white, it’s probably recessive white.

If they grow in salmon-colored, or even darker, the chick is probably a wheaten variety, and will be a lighter version of the brown copper birds (loosely speaking).

My guess is that, sometime in the past, some other genetics were mixed in. It may have been a mistake, or it may have been done purposefully, in an effort to enhance some trait. It may have been to get darker shell color, for example, or possibly to lighten up a dark line of birds.We wouldn’t worry too much about it — it adds to the fun of breeding and hatching your own birds. Enjoy!


What Will Get My Ducks Back in the Coop?

Hello! I have two sets of questions. The first: I have 21 Rouen ducks who were originally housed in a 10x10x3-foot-high coop surrounded by a 30-foot by 30-foot fence. I collected eggs every morning in the coop. I then moved the coop and fencing near a pond, and after a week allowed the ducks to go to the pond. Now they will not return to the coop in the evening. Eggs are now laid everywhere, sometimes even in the water.

Is there a way to retrain them to return to the coop in the evening? They do return to the coop in the morning when I put feed out in the coop, but then leave again.

I plan to add Toulouse geese to the flock.

My second set of questions: In Gail Damerow’s Chicken Health Handbook, rye seed poisoning is mentioned on pages 140, 153, and 155. Does this rye seed mean rye grass or rye (the grain)? Does she mean the seeds bought from a store in order to, for instance, plant rye grass for a cover crop? Or is it the seeds from the mature plant itself? Also, do ducks and geese get rye seed poisoning?

Thank you for your time.

— Duke Weilbacker


Hi Duke,

Okay, to your first question about your ducks. It’s definitely not safe for your ducks to be out on the pond at night. So, you’re right to try to get them back in the coop. Here is our suggestion: Feed them at the coop in the evenings and not the mornings. Make sure to add some special treats, too. Once they’re in the coop to eat, then shut the doors so they’re safe. That should also take care of your egg problem since they’ll lay in the coop in the early morning, and once they learn the habits of where they are getting their food, they should make it a habit to return to the coop.

On your second question, we reached out to Gail to ask her, and here was her response: “What was commonly called rye seed poisoning when the first edition of The Chicken Health Handbook came out in 1994 is now known to be caused by ergot, a fungal disease of cereal grains and wild grasses, including rye grain and ryegrass. Ergot favors plants growing in cool, wet weather and is more likely to infect chickens foraging in contaminated fields rather than from commercially harvested seeds (due to improved harvesting methods). However, because ergot is bitter, a chicken is unlikely to eat enough to become seriously ill. Ergotism is described on page 251 of the completely revised 2015 edition of The Chicken Health Handbook.”

Best of luck with your flock.


Chest-Bumping Hens?

Hi! We are first-time chicken owners. We bought 18 hens who are now nine weeks old, and we are wondering why they chest bump each other? Is this normal

— Donna Lemon


Hi Donna,

This is normal. Pullets and cockerels will start to puff out their chest and start to position themselves in the pecking order, and while males tend to be more aggressive in this behavior, females do it as well.

In fact, it’s a pretty similar process to what our human teenagers go through during puberty, when their hormones start directing them differently, and to start noticing the opposite sex.

This behavior will likely go on for a while until the flock is set and the structure is in place. You may want to keep an eye on them to make sure the chest-bump-ing does not turn more violent, or to make sure one hen isn’t bearing the brunt of the punishment.

Best of luck with your flock, and we’re so happy you’re getting into raising chickens!


Floating Eggs?

I love your magazine. I have a friend who says his chickens lay two eggs a day, every day. I do not think that can happen, can it? Also my very fresh eggs never float in water. I have read that they will float if they are fresh. Mine are fresh but do not float. What is the real story?

Thank you.

— Connie Salsbury


Hi Connie,

We had to giggle, as you’ve asked us two questions that we get all the time. In fact, we already published a letter on page 15 about floating eggs, but we’re not afraid to answer it again!

But to answer your first question, we would be highly skeptical that your friend has a chicken laying two eggs every day. In fact, we would be skeptical that your friend has a chicken laying one egg every day. A good chicken output for the year would be 200 eggs, and an amazing output would be close to 300, but what your friend is suggesting is that his hen is laying close to 700.

While technically we guess it could be possible, we’re not sure a hen would live very long if it was spending that much energy every day laying eggs. A consistent stream of nutrients and hormones are needed to create each egg, and those nutrients and hormones can be affected by a multitude of factors ranging from sunlight to temperature to illness. Simply put, it’s hard enough to keep a hen laying all year, we can’t imagine getting double the production.

Yet, if your friend owns pictures and proof to back up their claim, please pass their information onto us. We’d love to learn their secret.

Secondly, we’ll answer your floating eggs question. Unfortunately, if you read that fresh eggs will float, you read incorrect information. Fresh eggs should sink like a rock, as there has not been time for an air pocket to form between the egg liner and the shell. As an egg ages, the egg whites shrink, and a pocket of air starts to take its place. This air allows the egg to eventually float, and that air pocket also allows you to peel a hard-boiled egg a little easier.

So, we hope this helps you with your questions, and keep the urban myths coming!


Sexing Chicks?

I love your magazine and have been a long-time reader. I am in need of instructions for chicken sexing. I’m not sure exactly how to tell them apart, short of letting them grow up. I don’t like ending up with three or four roosters every time I get chickens. Help!

— Michael Tomaino


Hi Michael,

Sexing of chicks at hatch is something best left to the professionals. They train and apprentice for more than two years to learn their trade, and good chick sexing experts are in high demand at hatcheries. If tried by a novice, sexing a chick can harm them.

Even with all the practice, hatcheries are only 90% effective. So, each time you add to your flock by buying day-old chicks, you run the risk of roosters. Also, if you use a broody or incubate hatching eggs, the rate is much higher; well over a 50% chance of roosters.

The best way to sex chickens is to watch for clues as they grow. Usually a rooster will be bigger than the rest with a larger and redder comb and wattle. They will also start to get decorative hackle and saddle feathers around three to four months of age.

We hope this is helpful!


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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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