Ask the Expert December 2021/January 2022
Reading Time: 14 minutes
Inconsistent Egg Laying
Hi. I have five hens that are five months old. They’ve been laying from one week to almost one month. I had been getting five eggs a day, but that dropped to four eggs for a couple of days, and today three. I’m trying to figure out why. Typically, they’ve all laid eggs by 2:00 pm in the coop. I let them free roam in the backyard after work once I’ve seen they’ve all laid. It’s been a bit hot here the last week, so I don’t know if the lack of eggs is heat stress. They have layer crumbles in their coop to eat, plus worms or seeds for treats once a day and then whatever they forage when they free roam. I keep the coop pretty clean and haven’t noticed any parasites or bugs. Any guesses on what the issue might be, or is the inconsistent laying normal with young hens? Thanks!
Considering how many factors can influence egg production, it surprises me that some hens can still lay “like clockwork.” Inconsistent egg-laying happens as pullets come into production, and sizes can vary and contain double yolks — or sometimes no yolk at all. Heat, wildfire smoke, and seasons advancing from summer into autumn also influence laying in otherwise perfectly healthy chickens. If your hens act and look healthy, and have no decrease in appetite or water consumption, then I would chalk this all up to the heat, the seasons, and their young age.
Thanks, Marissa. We’re in a hot spell here for sure, and we’ve had bad wildfire smoke for at least three weeks now. I didn’t realize that smoke could affect chickens that much! Aside from slowing down on egg production, they seem happy and healthy.
Thanks for the info!
Rooster “Kicked” Out of Coop
We adopted two bachelor roosters a few months ago. They got along knowing that Reggie was in charge and Randolph was submissive, until one night. We did not realize that Reggie had not yet returned to the coop, and we closed it, locking him out. The next morning, we realized what we had done and searched for Reggie. He appeared as I was feeding Randolph. Randolph charged him and chased him out of the yard. Since three days ago, Randolph will not let Reggie in the yard, near his food and water, or the coop. We have been feeding Reggie at the end of the driveway. Will they ever reunite? Should we get a second coop for Reggie? Is there anything we should or should not do to help this situation?
This is, unfortunately, very normal rooster behavior. One rooster becomes the guardian and breeder for a specific group of hens, and if there aren’t enough hens to go around, the dominant rooster will banish the submissive boy completely. Sometimes, roosters can become best friends, but it depends on the breed and the rooster himself, and a dominant male will want to keep proving his dominance. Giving Reggie his own coop would increase his unhappiness, unless you also provide a few hens since chickens are social animals and need companionship. Since Randolph has proven to be dominant, he will continue to chase Reggie away unless the main flock has enough hens to go around. So, to keep Reggie happy and avoid a life as a lone maverick left to the wild, it would be best to get him some lady-friends: either in his own coop or adding to the larger flock.
I hope this helps!
Peritonitis and Marek’s
Hi. I have had four or five birds over the years that have died from what I believe to be peritonitis. On necropsy, there are multiple small and large firm yolks, no shells, in the uterus. The last bird that died had a yolk about four inches in diameter.
These birds have not been vaccinated for Marek’s. I have a three-year-old paralyzed bird who became paralyzed at eight weeks, which I suspect is from Marek’s infection. She does not live with the flock. She was one of my original six birds and her sister, who is fine, lives with my other birds. They are all different ages.
So, is this peritonitis, and if so, can it be from Marek’s?
Thanks so much for your input and a superb magazine.
From your descriptions, it’s hard to tell if either Marek’s or peritonitis were the problems. Both diseases do have particular symptoms, though they don’t always present that way.
It’s normal to do a necropsy or process a hen and see those yolks of varying sizes. After release from the ovary, they kind of “sit there” inside the body cavity until they move into the oviduct, where the shell gland then puts the shell on them. It’s when one gets infected and moves outside the oviduct that peritonitis happens. The Merck Veterinary Manual describes internal peritonitis as “characterized by fibrin or albumin-like material with a cooked appearance among the abdominal viscera.” Not to be graphic, but the photo supplied with the article shows just that: organs that look like they have scrambled eggs around them. Birds with peritonitis stop laying eggs or lay inferior eggs with thin shells. They often collect fluid in their abdomens, making it difficult for them to breathe, and they might even walk like a penguin. The yolk itself would be inflamed, which may be something you can see in a necropsy with some practice.
The large yolk that you mentioned could directly relate to peritonitis; overfeeding hens can cause these oversized yolks, increasing the chances of peritonitis.
And speaking of overfeeding hens: if you haven’t seen any of the above peritonitis signs, I would consider some more common and less visible reasons for death in laying hens. Fatty liver hemorrhagic syndrome is one of the most common causes of death in backyard hens, and sometimes it’s not due to overfeeding but just the surge of estrogen in the springtime, which makes the hens pack on weight.
With Marek’s, they can show signs as early as six weeks, but they rarely live to be three years old once paralyzed. The tumors get so bad that they affect inner organs, eyes, or even the brain. One classic Marek’s sign is when the legs splay out, one to the front and one to the back. Unfortunately, the most definitive way to diagnose Marek’s is through a necropsy, which reveals tumors on the organs or nerves.
Other reasons for paralysis can include injury that damages nerves, nutrient deficiency, kidney issues, and mycotoxicosis.
I don’t know if this clears up any mysteries for you, but I hope it helps. Please let us know if you have any further questions about your chickens’ health.
I have a question. I have 10 hens that were raised together, and every time I try to add a rooster or two, they attack them and kill them. I’ve tried everything, including putting the new roosters in a kennel in the pen with them and anything I can think of. What can I do to make sure I have roosters with the hens? I would greatly appreciate your advice.
It sounds like you have some rather dominant hens in your flock. First, I will ask: why do you need a rooster? If it’s for protection, there are some ways to fortify a coop or yard against predators. If it’s for eggs, you don’t need a rooster for those, though some people do claim that hens lay better if a male is around. I haven’t found that to be true. But if you need him for breeding, here are some suggestions:
You could get a more dominant rooster that would stand up to the hens: a larger boy from a tougher breed. This comes with a catch, though, as a rooster that will be dominant with the hens will also be dominant with you, and you might find yourself guarding against attacks.
Though this will take longer, I feel it will be more successful: let the hens raise the rooster. When hens raise their own chicks, those chicks often grow up to share the same position within the flock as their mother. I’ve watched babies of submissive hens remain at the bottom of the flock hierarchy, though they are a different breed than the mother. And I’ve seen chicks younger than two weeks boss around full-grown hens because their mom was also the boss. If you have a broody hen, you could take eggs or chicks of the breed of rooster that you want to have eventually. Then, as they grow, select which one you want to keep and rehome the others. They will be part of the flock from the start because their mother is.
I hope this helps! Good luck.
I appreciate all your advice. We got him due to wanting to breed and have more chicks. Right now, I’m trying a pen with him and the two most dominant hens together. So far, so good! But they are not with the rest of the flock either. I’m kind of stumped from here. Thank you again!
That’s great that it’s going so well with the two most dominant hens! A good first step. Next, after they have fully accepted them, you will need to reintegrate those three back into the flock. Since the hens are the most dominant and have accepted him, it should go fairly smoothly with just a few normal scuffles.
Good luck, and let us know how it goes!
Rooster That Can’t Hold His Head Straight
I have a 1½-year-old Silkie rooster who is having some trouble holding his head upright. I’ve noticed it for about four weeks, worsening in the last week or so. I’m wondering about wry neck or a middle ear infection. He can straighten up fairly well to crow, but then his head tips to the side. He shakes his head a lot and walks in a circle toward the side his head is leaning. He’s able to eat and drink. I’ve watched him do that. He can walk straight for a little bit, then shakes his head, walks in a circle, flaps his wings, crows, and does it all over again. This last week I put him in a hospital crate two days inside the chicken run with food that had some dried oregano in it and Nutri-Drench in his water. He ate fairly well. I let him out for bedtime to go in with the girls. Today I gave him some straight Nutri-Drench from a syringe. He got probably about one cc. Yesterday and this morning, he acted like he couldn’t figure out how to get out of the coop. I set him in the door to go out, and he turned to come back in. He wouldn’t walk down our ramp right; he ended up falling off the side. He acts like he can’t see right. I know he can see some because he runs and hides when I go in the run.
Before this started, he spent about six weeks in the outside run in a man cave. He was picking on one hen so terribly that she became physically ill with white foam around her eyes. He would chase her mercilessly around the run, not let her eat or drink, not let her come outside. So, I made him a little house out of a tote with a roost and a 6’x14”x21” run. Our coop is raised up off the ground two feet, so his man cave was under the coop. Two and a half feet of the run was under the coop, and the rest was out so he could have sun if he wanted or shade if he wanted. The last two weeks in there, he lived in a wood box house I made him instead of the plastic tote. He ate and drank very well inside his man cave. He would eat a whole tuna can and sometimes more in a day. We were going on vacation the first of August, so I let him out to see if he would behave himself, so our chicken sitter didn’t have to worry about extra care of him in the man cave. He did pretty well, leaving the hen alone.
The head tilt symptoms started a week or so after I let him out of his man cave. I have a little step in our coop to get up on the roost since he doesn’t fly well. Tonight, he didn’t even make it up on the roost. He’s sleeping on the little step, which is only five inches off the floor. The roost is only five inches up from that. He seems to be changing pretty fast here. I don’t know what else to do for him. Despite his neck/head not staying straight up for him very well, he still will take off after our one hen every so often and pick at her. We don’t understand that either.
I’m feeding Pen Pals Egg Maker Chicken feed. It’s stored in a dry feed box. I don’t keep enough of it here for it to get moldy, and moisture never reaches it. It’s 2/3 Pen Pals Egg Maker crumbles and 1/3 Pen Pals Egg Maker corn blend made by the elevator. With extra grit and oyster shell added. Their water is in a clean bucket with nipples. I’m wondering what else I could do to help him. He did well in his man cave, but we knew he couldn’t stay in there for winter and cold weather due to keeping warm. I had his roost to the back of his tote and wood house, but he would sleep in the doorway. He would slide his roost to the entrance in the tote. The roost was two 2x4s stacked on top of each other. I’d appreciate hearing from you. Thanks.
When birds suddenly can’t keep their balance or have problems holding their necks straight, the causes are most often:
- Nutrient deficiency
- Marek’s disease
I have listed these in order of the most common and easiest to treat. Nutrient deficiency is the most common cause, and the good news is it’s straightforward to fix. You’re doing the right thing by offering Nutri-Drench. Continue doing that and, if it is nutrient deficiency, you will see improvement within a week. You can also add nutritional yeast (brewer’s yeast, which is NOT the same thing as bread/baking yeast) to his feed.
Mycotoxins are from molds and fungus, and he could be affected by either breathing the mold or ingesting it. Are you in a wet area? Do you have bedding or corners of the coop that might become moldy? Is there any chance that his feed had some mold in it? There is no cure for mycotoxicosis, so the best thing here is to get rid of ALL feed and bedding that might have mold growing in it. Then keep up that Nutri-Drench and palliative care. Birds either overcome it by eventually eliminating the toxins from their system — or they succumb.
With Marek’s, the news isn’t so great. Once the bird has it, they have it for life. Clinical Marek’s will kill the chicken pretty fast, and chronic Marek’s may show few symptoms, but the birds will be carriers for life. Many hatcheries vaccinate their chicks for Marek’s, so if you know your rooster was one of these, then rest easy and consider the other two causes. Also, Marek’s shows some other distinct signs, such as grey eyes with the ocular Marek’s that causes blindness, lesions on the skin, and internal tumors that cause paralysis. Legs splaying out front and back is a classic Marek’s sign.
Good luck, and I hope you see improvement soon.
There is no mold within the food. I do not keep a big supply, so they eat it within six to eight weeks. My storage area is cool and dry. The food stored in the run is in a five-gallon bucket and used in one week. However, when he was in his man cave, he could have gotten some mold spores there and maybe a touch of pneumonia. I did notice some wheezing for a few days, but it seemed to resolve. He refused to go back into the back of his bedroom to sleep. He slept inside his little house but right in front of the door. He had a south wind draft a couple of times. Most of our weather comes from the northwest, so drafts were minimal out there. We had some rains during his man cave time, but things dried out quickly, and his bedroom area was always dry with dry shavings.
The run was damp for 24 to 36 hours a couple of times. I kept shavings cleaned out every two to three weeks to keep his area and the others clean. He ate very well during the time he was in his man cave. I don’t think he eats as much while he’s out with the girls. I hope this is the nutritional issue as well, but time will tell. Today I was able to give him almost a full 2.5ml of the Nutri-Drench. He’s a silly bird. I gave him the tiniest drop at a time as I could out of the syringe into his mouth. Then I petted him. He would lay his little head in my hand and close his eyes while I petted his head. A few times, I wondered if he were going to die on me when his eyes were closed, then he’d make the little throaty sound he makes and open his eyes and look at me. His eyes are clear and black, with no gray patches; however, I do wonder about his sight because the last three days, I’ve had to get him out of the coop in the morning to go outside. He always goes outside as a rule. He’s getting himself up the ramp to bed when the girls go but not out in the morning with the girls. I’ll keep watching that. We call him Hei Hei because he’s very much like Moana’s Hei Hei in the movie. We’ve had quite the experience with him the last year. He’s already an odd little dude without the health issues.
Thanks for your time!
A thought I just had for the food —the last Pen Pals bags I got from the elevator was near their out date and discounted for pricing. I got two. It still smelled good, and when I opened the bags, nothing smelled musty. I have autoimmune issues, so I’m sensitive to odors and smells and can easily pick up on musty, stale smells. I clean my coop every two to three weeks because I don’t want it stinky. Are there issues with outdated food if it’s near or on the outdate?
It doesn’t sound like moldy food is the issue, then. If it’s stored correctly, I have had chicken food last quite a while past the expiration date. As long as it doesn’t develop mold or mildew or turn rancid, it essentially just loses nutritional value. Of course, where and how you store it are important and the overall humidity of your location. Mold is very easy to detect once you know the smell and how to distinguish the dust.
Good luck with the vitamins. I’m rooting for Hei Hei!
Thank you, Marissa!
There are so many brands of chicken feed. What is the best one that you would recommend? Tractor Supply has nearly 10 different brands. The Pen Pals I purchase from a nearby elevator. I liked it because it has alfalfa mixed in with the crumble. I would like one with limited soy and gluten.
Great question! While there are certainly some poor feeds out there, I wouldn’t say there is a “best feed.” Rather, a “best for your needs” product. When I was younger with less income, my process was usually to see what the local feed stores had, try it out, and if the chickens didn’t thrive, I would ask if they could order something better. But also, I don’t have sensitivity to any of the ingredients. A good friend has celiac disease, and she can’t even handle wheat with her hands without breaking out in hives.
To find a soy-free feed, search “organic” feeds since most soy on the market today is GMO. Since we don’t (yet) have GMO wheat on the market, that rule doesn’t apply, so you would need to search “wheat-free” feeds specifically. Remember that those might still have gluten in the form of barley or rye, which can set off some sensitivities in humans, though not as much. Your Tractor Supply may have at least one organic feed in stock, and if not, you can ask them to order it.
When searching for those specialty feeds, people experience a little bit of sticker shock. Soy, wheat, and GMO corn are ridiculously cheap compared to pretty much all other feed ingredients. And soy has excellent protein. Replacing those with something offering adequate nutrition pushes up costs. If a feed lists “grain products” instead of specific grains, I always assume those products include the wheat, GMO soy, and GMO corn that keep their prices down.
New Country Organics has some feeds that address these issues. When I compared prices, I found that NCO has the lowest prices compared to comparable feeds from other companies. Here is a great one without soy or wheat, but with alfalfa and kelp meal to boost nutrition: https://www.newcountryorganics.com/layer-feed-wheat-free-soy-free-40-pounds.html.
I hope this helps!
My Australorp hen has gone broody at least six times this year. Is this normal, and is there anything I can do to stop such frequent broodiness?
Some breeds are broodier than others, and some breed lines from specific breeders or hatcheries can be broodier than the same breed from other sources! This can be a blessing or a curse, depending on if you want the hen to raise chicks for you or just provide eggs. I had an Australorp that went broody so often that I decided to let her hatch eggs, but when I gave her a designated broody crate, it broke the broodiness, and I had no hens to hatch the fertile eggs I had gathered from friends. Sometimes you can’t win, I guess.
Since she does this so often, I recommend a designated “broody jail:” a sheltered and safe place that doesn’t have any appropriate nesting areas. A dog kennel with perches but no nesting boxes or straw bedding would work. Once she’s in jail for a day or two, that may break her habit.
Other people break the habit by closing off her favorite nesting box, frequently taking her off the nest, or putting frozen water bottles in the nest, so it’s not comfortable. That may not work if you already have other nesting boxes that she can choose instead. Success depends on her determination.
Overall, suppose none of these tactics work. In that case, I recommend finding a friend who wants a broody hen to raise multiple batches of meat chicks or to incubate specific fertile eggs, as a dedicated and frequent broody is valuable for all of these situations. Perhaps trade her for a hen that they hoped would care for babies but hasn’t been broody enough for them.
I hope you find the solution that works best for you and your flock.
Can Chickens Have Heart Attacks
Can a chicken have a heart attack? This morning I let my chicken out of the coop. Everyone appeared healthy and happy to get going. About two hours later, I checked on them and found one of my Buff Orpington hens dead. It looked like she just squatted down and died with her eyes open. Rigor mortis had already set in. Up to that point, she appeared very healthy.
Chickens can indeed have heart attacks, and it’s a common cause of sudden death in heavier birds. They can also have unseen issues. Then death comes on so suddenly that it looks like a heart attack; kidney failure, tumors/cancers, parasites, and fatty liver hemorrhagic syndrome are some. Two easier-to-recognize causes are being egg-bound and eating something toxic. Because chickens are prey animals, they try to “look okay” until they can no longer do that to reduce the chances of predators attacking what looks like an easy target.
I’m sorry for the loss of your hen.
Originally published in the December 2021/January 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.