Ask the Expert April/May 2021
Reading Time: 9 minutes
I have a sex-link hen that is regrowing feathers after a molt. Her tail feathers are growing back in a manner I’ve never seen before. Attached is a picture of her tail. Is this normal?
Thanks for any help. Your magazine is always full of useful information, and I learn something new every issue.
M. Booth, California
Yes, that looks normal. That keratin sheath protects the feathers as they grow out and then will flake off and look like dandruff. It seems her feathers are growing quickly (not a bad thing!), so you see more of the sheath before it flakes off.
Chicken Breeds for Texas
I am looking to get started with some chickens. Can you recommend a breed for eastern Texas?
If you ask any chicken owner which breed you should raise, you will probably get a hundred answers! (My all-time favorite breed are Delawares!) So, ask yourself some questions to narrow down choices. Do you want gentle chickens that are good with children? Orpingtons, Australorps, and Brahmas are sweet and cuddly. For massive quantities of eggs and a breed that isn’t flighty, you can’t beat sex-links! Italian breeds like Leghorns can out-lay sex-links but aren’t social with humans, so you may need a closed coop/run. Want colored eggs? Choose Easter Eggers, Ameraucanas, or Legbars, or some of the newer Olive Eggers, Prairie Bluebell Eggers, or Starlight Green Eggers. Marans lay the darkest chocolate eggs, and pastry chefs prize their extra-creamy yolks. To conserve a heritage breed, look at the Livestock Conservancy priority list, then use their search tool to find breeders in your area: livestockconservancy.org/. You can also search through our online Breed Profiles for fine-tuned descriptions of each breed.
Living in East Texas, you’re close to some outstanding hatcheries and individual breeders.
Good luck with your decision and your future flock!
Hens Not Laying
I have some Cream Legbar pullets that are seven months old and haven’t started laying. (December 2021.)
Don’t worry. Your chickens are right on schedule. Cream Legbars are autosexing purebreds, not hybrids, so they start laying a little later … up to 36 weeks (nine months). Though 28-30 weeks is closer to average, which means your pullets should start laying within the next few weeks. However, with it being the shortest day of the year, that’s also a factor. When daylight wanes to less than 14 hours a day, lay frequency drops. You can mitigate this by installing a light in the coop, on a timer, and turn it off at 9 pm. But there’s nothing problematic going on, so you can relax and wait for that first egg.
I love the magazine! I need help. Two of my chickens have developed white earlobes. Attached is a picture of one of them. Is this normal? If not, what is it, and what should I do?
That’s very normal. It’s one way to determine what color eggs your chicken will lay. White earlobes = white eggs. Leghorns, Minorcas, Spanish, and other Mediterranean breeds are known for their white earlobes and white eggs.
Your Leghorn looks great!
I recently discovered extremely long toenails on my Whiting True Blue. You can see one on her back foot is curved, it’s so long. She’s about three years old, free-ranges with 30 other chickens, and is in good health.
Any ideas on what causes rapid nail growth? Can I trim them?
Thank you for your help!
Barbara Goble, Washington
Rapid nail growth is usually a sign of good health since nails are made of the same keratin (protein) as feathers. Chickens can’t grow good feathers and healthy nails without a good diet. Often, they trim their nails naturally by scratching in the dirt, but if you have a soft floor to your run, she may be unable to keep hers short. Eventually, especially with that curved-back toe, the nails are so long they can’t wear down normally. No worries! Here is a great story about trimming the nails, including finding the quick and what to do if you accidentally trim too far up.
I am curious why my four hens always lay their eggs in the sack of hay hanging in the coop corner instead of their clean nesting houses.
Great question! Our contributor Tamsin Cooper, who studies chicken welfare and behavior, says this about nest choice. (The full story is included in this issue of Backyard Poultry.)
“Let’s look at what the hens’ choices of nest have in common. They tend to be secluded, often enclosed overhead and behind, but with visibility ahead. This enables the hen to hide from potential predators but still be able to spot them approaching. It also avoids disturbance from other flock members. Think of the thick bushes and boxes that hens often choose. Nests are often raised, giving a vantage point. This will help the hen spot the approach of a predator or other disturbance. Think of the nests that you find in hay or straw bales.
“Hens prefer to lay communally. So, when one hen finds a good nest, the others will form a line and await their turn. A waiting hen may even try to muscle in and lay beside the current occupier. In this way, the hens quickly build up a clutch of eggs. In the wild, this is advantageous, as there are quickly enough eggs to set. If it takes a long time to build up a clutch, predators get more time to find and pilfer the nest. As the flock members are normally related in the wild, a broody hen is happy to sit on her relatives’ eggs as well as her own. When she starts to brood, other hens will often lay beside her, and she will take their eggs in.”
I hope Tamsin’s explanation helps. When we want to dismiss behavior as chickens being frustrating or irrational or just trying to confuse us, I love when science intervenes and explains chicken behavior. Your choice would be to decide if the sack of hay is good enough … or if you need to close it off and remove it, so they can use the nesting boxes.
Thanks! All interesting to know. They do all that you say they do … wait their turn or sometimes join another. Their nests are enclosed on three sides but low to the ground. The sack of hay is high where they can hide or have a surround-view! They are outside all day and are ready for bed when I take them a treat at 5:30 pm. Henry and Henrietta, parents of Charlie, Sofia, Penny, and Charlotte! I found Henrietta sitting on 20 eggs last April under the ferns. (I kept wondering why she went in there and then never saw her come out.) We took 10 eggs and left her with 10. Seven hatched.
My only regret is that I haven’t kept a diary as it seems that I learn something new each day. Now I watch each evening to see who they choose to roost with. How could I have been so lucky to have them for my friends while in isolation during COVID!
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Vaccinations and Medicated Chick Starter
Doug: We are getting ready to receive some day-old chicks. Because of the availability of specific breeds I want, I have ordered from two different hatcheries. One vaccinates for both coccidiosis and Marek’s. The other for only Marek’s. I planned to have all of them in the same brooder. So, should I use medicated feed? Will the meds have a negative effect on the coccidiosis vaccine? If I keep them separate, I would probably feed the one group med feed and the one with both vaccines non-med feed. If I do, how long before I can put them together, and then which feed?
Marissa: Hi Doug, great question! Let’s address vaccines first. The vaccination protects against the most common Eimeria coccidia strains. There are more strains than that, but these are the ones you’re most likely to come in contact with. Also, as we know from human vaccinations, they’re mostly effective but not 100% guaranteed. But they DO provide long-lasting protection beyond the chick stage.
Feeding medicated feed will, indeed, nullify the vaccine.
Medicated feed is most important during the first six weeks of life when coccidia can kill a chick fast. After that, you can switch to a non-medicated grower or keep them on medicated until point of lay, and a lot depends on the environment. Do you keep bedding clean? Are they pooing in their food? Is there any chance wild birds can poo in their area? Will they be around older chickens that have grown immune to those strains but can still carry them and pass them to the younger birds?
It will not hurt your vaccinated chicks to feed them medicated feed, but they will no longer be vaccinated if you do. So you would raise them as you would your other chicks, following the same safety rules. If you don’t have enough space or time to manage two brooders, this isn’t a horrible option.
Doug: If I choose to feed them all med feed, how long before switching to non-med feed? One surely doesn’t feed meds their whole life?
Marissa: No. Since your chickens can eventually gain immunity to the coccidia in your area, this is the ultimate goal so they can stay healthy naturally.
I would switch to a non-medicated laying feed around 16-18 weeks, but keep an eye on their poos. If they suddenly get meaty-looking poos or have blood in their stools, they will need a stronger intervention like Corid. Remember that a chicken-owning friend can carry over a different strain from their flock on the bottoms of their shoes.
Doug: Okay. Perfect. Is it recommended to use vinegar with the med feed? I would presume no vinegar on the vaccinated if keeping separate.
Marissa: Despite what people want to believe and the home remedies they cherish, apple cider vinegar has been proven NOT effective at preventing coccidia. Dr. Brigid McCrea with Auburn State University confirmed that with me.
It does provide some probiotics, but you can also provide those probiotics in other ways. Either way, it won’t be beneficial or detrimental to your efforts regarding coccidia.
Doug: Good. I didn’t want to use it anyway. Do most starter feeds have probiotics in them? If not, what would be good products to use for enhancing gut health?
Marissa: Rooster Booster and Nutri-Drench for Poultry are amazing for adding water-soluble vitamins for overall health. A little yogurt helps (feeding Greek yogurt means less lactose that can cause digestive upsets). Some people ferment their chicken food to boost probiotics. And you can buy probiotic powder made for chickens.
Most starter feeds do NOT have probiotics in them, so you would supplement those on the side as a treat.
Doug: Sounds good. I don’t want to keep you, but one more? What is the average amount of feed I can expect chicks to eat, per head, for the first month? These are layer and layer/meat breeds.
Marissa: No worries about keeping me. That’s why I’m here. And that’s a very subjective question. If you only have five egg-breed chicks and feed them in a way that doesn’t waste food, a 25lb bag of starter could easily last you six to eight weeks. For five meat chicks, probably ¼ of that time.
Also, it’s better to over-buy because if they soil the feed at all, it needs to be thrown out.
I used to buy for “Chick Days,” where you get five free chicks per 25lb bag of food purchased. I only bought egg and dual-purpose breeds … and that food lasted me until I could introduce them to the rest of the flock.
Doug: You have been a huge help. Thank you. I may very well have more questions. It’s good to know I have a place I can ask them. Have a great day.
Feeding Chicken to Chickens
Kathryn: I have questions about feeding chickens CHICKEN. I used to feed my Nevada chickens chicken and turkey, and they loved it. But my son says, “Mom, you’re turning them into cannibals!”
Marissa: Hi, Kathryn. Most people opposed to chickens eating chicken are either pushing their human morals onto the birds or are concerned about prions: the same infectious agent that caused mad cow disease when British farmers fed sick cattle’s meat to healthy cows to increase protein. This resulted in the deaths of a whole lot of cattle and 170 people. Regarding morals: I think some people who have never owned chickens are shocked when they learn about a chicken’s moral compass. (Spoiler alert: they don’t have one.) Chickens don’t care if they’re eating chicken; it’s the humans that care if the chickens are eating chicken. As long as you cook the chicken first, you’re not promoting cannibalism because then chickens don’t associate the meat with live birds living in their coop. And regarding that infectious agent: scientists are still learning about the prion, but SO FAR, prions have not become a problem with poultry. So even though the USDA is careful and commercial hens are often fed a vegetarian diet to quell some of those fears, the chances of passing a prion disease by feeding chicken to chickens are so small they are almost nonexistent. (And scientists are also learning that prions don’t always work that way. But that’s a whole different argument.) I would say that, if your family is fine with the human morals of feeding chicken to chickens, you are safe as long as it’s cooked correctly.
Kathryn: Fascinating! “No moral compass!” It has never bothered me, but it freaks out my son. Thanks so much.
Originally published in the April/May 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.