Poultry Feed and Health Guide

Poultry Feed and Health Guide

Poultry Feed And Health:
Everything You Need to Know About Poultry Feed And Health

Table Of Contents:

An Overview of What to Feed Chickens
Is Feeding Chickens Scraps From the Kitchen Safe?
Diet Questions/Answers
Egg Production Questions/Answers
Feather Loss Questions/Answers
General Health Questions/Answers




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Pen Pals Chicken Feed



Chicken Raiser

Once you’ve ventured forth into the exciting world of raising backyard chickens, you’ll want to make sure your chickens are healthy and happy. This means providing your flock with access to clean air, the right feed, a good water supply, plenty of space, predator protection and an overall enjoy a comfortable living environment.

This is no small task, and if you find yourself constantly tinkering with different aspects, then you are most likely doing the right thing. Every environment will present different challenges — from the oppressive heat in the south to the long, extended winters of the north. Talking with other chicken owners in your area is a good idea to see what they go through and how they have adapted.

Since its inception, Backyard Poultry magazine has published reader-submitted questions on all things poultry. Expert answers are provided by Ron Kean, Extension Poultry Specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Backyard Poultry’s own chicken expert Pam Freeman.

What follows is selected questions from past issues related to feed, diet, and common health issues. We hope that these will give you guidance as to care for your own flock.

The Editors of Backyard Poultry



An Overview of What to Feed Chickens

By Pam Freeman

When you first get a flock of backyard chickens, it’s natural to wonder just what to feed chickens. You grab a bag of starter feed, but what happens next? It’s important to understand that commercial chicken feeds now are nothing like commercial feeds from the past. Many of the old feeds contained things you just don’t want to explore. But today’s feeds contain clearly stated ingredients that support a well-balanced diet and should make up the bulk of your backyard chicken’s feeding routine.

Chicken Feed

Chick Starter Feed

Let’s begin with starter feed. You went home with a bag of it, but what’s really in it? Starter feed is a higher protein feed that’s designed to support the growth needs of a chick. Most starter feeds are around 18 percent protein. It’s recommended that chicks stay on starter for 16 to 18 weeks.

The big choice with starter feeds is whether you feed one that’s medicated or not. This is a hotly debated subject in the chicken world and it centers around what is widely regarded as the number one killer of baby chicks, coccidiosis. This is a highly contagious parasitic disease that kills quickly and moves through a flock at high speed. It’s important to understand the difference between the feeds and make a choice that’s comfortable for you. Plain starter feeds contain no medicines, just feed. If your chicks have been vaccinated for coccidiosis, then this is the feed for you. Medicated starter feeds usually contain Amprolium which is a coccidiostat that reduces the growth of coccidia oocysts. This lets unvaccinated chicks get past a vulnerable time and keeps the coccidia oocysts from overwhelming them as they grow into adults and develop their immunities. Some folks are strongly against giving any type of medicine to their chicks. They prefer a natural approach and say that if you keep the brooder clean, there’s no need to worry. Others say no need to use preventative measures, but treat for the problem if it arises.

Layer Feed

After 16 to 18 weeks, your chicks move into their egg laying cycles. They need a little less protein and more calcium to support healthy egg development. If you’re wondering what can chickens eat at this stage, this is when you switch from starter to layer feed. There are many choices in this area; you can find feeds with marigold extract for a stronger yellow egg yolk. You can find feeds with extra calcium additives for strong egg shells. No matter what brand you choose, there are two main feed forms – pellets and crumbles. Pellets are said to reduce waste around the feeder as food gets dropped. Crumbles are said to be more messy. In the opinion of my flock, they prefer crumbles. In fact, they are insistent about their preference! The only time I can feed them pellets is when I give them a feather fixer feed that comes only in pellet form. They’ll eat those pellets, but no others. There is a third, less popular, form of feed called mash. This usually comes directly from your local feed mills and is a more powdery crumble. If you can find a good local mill, it’s a great place to get ultra-fresh chicken feed. I have one nearby and my chickens can’t get enough of their feed!

It’s important not to stress about what form of feed to use. They all fit comfortably under the heading of what to feed chickens for a balanced diet. Let your flock guide your choice. If you’re just starting out, grab a couple bags and see what your flock prefers. There’s no right or wrong answer. And frankly, food messes can be handled in many different ways so I wouldn’t worry too much about that. If you’re wondering how much should I feed my chickens, it’s best to leave feeders out throughout the day letting the chickens eat as they need.

Treats and Supplements

Laying hens use the calcium from their bodies to form eggs. It’s important they get enough in their diet so they don’t have to deplete themselves. If you’re using an ultra-specialized calcium fortified feed, then you may not have to worry about supplementing calcium. If not, then it’s good to offer calcium free choice. You can buy oyster shells, but my chickens just don’t like them. I’ve had chickens for years and none of them will eat oyster shells. So, I feed my chickens their own shells. I save the shells after I’ve used the eggs. I rinse them and then microwave them for a few seconds to make them crunchy. Then I crumble them up and offer them in a separate bowl or mix them with their layer feed.

Treats from the kitchen are a great way to recycle your leftovers. They are fun for your chickens and for you, just make sure they don’t become the bulk of your chicken’s diet. A good rule of thumb is treats should be no more than 10% of a chicken’s total diet. Other products such as dried mealworms and insects make a great protein boost and boredom buster. Extra protein is especially important during molt to help your chickens stay healthy and grow new feathers and in winter when your chickens may not get out as much and pickings are slim in the yard.

Today’s commercial feed and treat choices take much of the guesswork out of what to feed chickens to help backyard flocks be more healthy and productive.



Is Feeding Chickens Scraps from the Kitchen Safe?

Chickens Eating Pumpkins

By Pam Freeman

Feeding chickens scraps from the kitchen is a great way to give them healthy treats and make sure your leftovers don’t go to waste. Next time you clean out your refrigerator, scrape the dinner plates or bring home leftovers from dinner out, why not set some aside for your flock. They’ll love you for it!

Lots of folks wonder about what to feed chickens for treats. A general rule of thumb is if it’s good for you, it’s good for them, remembering to leave out anything that’s fried, sugary, salty, alcoholic or moldy.

First, let’s talk about chicken treats in general. Just like humans, chickens enjoy variety and their diets can gain depth through nutritious treats. Treats can also serve as a boredom buster during times of confinement and as an attention-grabbing device when you’d like your flock to focus on something else; like when you’re introducing new members. Keep in mind 90 to 10 as a good percentage for commercial feed vs. treats in a healthy chicken diet.

What Can Chickens Eat?

Fruits and vegetables are a healthy addition to a chicken’s diet. You may wonder can chickens eat cucumbers? The short answer is yes. Also, can chickens eat pumpkins? Yes. Pumpkins and their seeds are packed full of nutrients and can have de-worming properties. So when fall comes around, be sure to grab a few extras for your flock. And, by all means, save the pumpkin guts when you’re carving jack-o-lanterns.

Common Kitchen Staples For Chickens

When feeding chickens scraps, dairy products are a common kitchen staple that raises questions. Dairy products can be fed to a backyard flock. However, dairy products in large amounts can cause diarrhea. So make sure to feed cheese, cottage cheese, milk and yogurt in moderation. If you live near a dairy farm, whey can be fed to chickens. Whey is the liquid that’s expelled during the cheesemaking process. It’s full of protein and nutrients. But again, it should be kept to a minimum.

Vegetables The word diet on flat surface. white background


Question DIET

Calcium in the Diet

Q. I grind up my eggshells and mix with my coffee grounds and put this in my flowerbeds. I see the chickens eating the shells. My question is, are the eggshells as good for them as oyster shells are? Sometimes I find that my chickens have broken and eaten their own eggs, and shell. What is the reason they do this?

A. Feeding the eggshells back to the chickens certainly won’t hurt them. There is some evidence that the particle size of the calcium carbonate can affect shell quality. Larger particles (rather than ground calcium) have been shown to produce stronger eggshells. If the eggshells are their only source of calcium, you may not want to crush them very finely, but I still don’t think you’ll notice a problem.

You’ll want to avoid having them break and eat their own eggs, however. This can be a bad habit, and a difficult one to stop once it starts. Often, it starts with weak eggshells, or nests without adequate cushioning material, and then one or a few chickens develop a “taste” for eggs. They will break eggs and more will discover them. Wood shavings, straw, or even outdoor carpeting can be used to line the nests. Frequent egg gathering is also a good idea. This is definitely a situation where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!


Feeding Corn to Layers

Q. A recent article talks about feeding pullets and management and nutrition. It says to feed them 16- 18% protein laying ration w/calcium. But not to feed them corn. Why not? I have raised chickens for over 25 years and every one grew up on rolled corn, and egg quality crumbles. And all the table scraps they could eat. I have never had a problem or a slow down in egg laying. Am I missing something? What’s wrong with corn?

A. I believe the intent of that statement was that a “complete” commercial ration is formulated to be the only diet (i.e., the “complete” diet) and not as a supplement with corn or milo. If, as an example, you decide to mix the diet 50/50 with corn, you are diluting out many of the nutrients in the mixed ration. For example, corn is usually only about 8-9% protein. So if the commercial feed is 16%, and you are mixing it 50/50 with corn, your chickens are only getting about 12% protein. Likewise, they may not get optimum levels of other vitamins, minerals, etc.

In reality, you may never notice a problem. As you mentioned, many chickens get table scraps, bugs and worms that they can find, so they may be supplementing their diet with these other feeds. Also, with a few hens, you might not realize their full potential, but they’ll still lay pretty well. If you are feeding a million hens, you will definitely notice the difference. Getting 89% production instead of 90% amounts to 10,000 fewer eggs per day. That’s 833 dozen eggs, and that can be the difference between a profit, and going out of business. If you only have 100 hens, the same difference in production amounts to one less egg a day, so you probably won’t notice it.

Another note on corn: I hear people say from time to time that there is no feed value to corn. This is certainly false. It should not be the sole diet, however. I liken it to humans eating bread. Bread is certainly good for you, and has nutrition, but you wouldn’t want to live on it. Chickens need a well-balanced diet, just as much as humans do!


Feeding Flax Seed

Q. I read it is ok to feed chickens flax seed, is it the same kind for people from a health or grocery store? Thank you. — Maryland reader

A. Flax seed can be given to the chickens. At fairly high levels (higher than 10% of the diet), it can give the eggs a fishy taste and smell. Some producers feed flax seed to increase the levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the eggs.


Feeding Fruit to Laying Hens

Q. We recently read in a hatchery catalog a recommendation not to offer fruit to laying hens as they may stop laying. We were surprised as we often offer our little flock a little fruit and hadn’t had any problems. Poking around on the Internet, we did find a couple other references to not offering fruit to laying hens. Do you know if this is fact or fiction? — Mark & Cari

A. I don’t know of any reason fruit should be a problem for chickens. In general, feeding large amounts of scraps might dilute the nutrients in a complete ration, but that’s about the only concern I can think of.

The seeds of some fruits can potentially be a problem, but even this is not usually a concern when you’re just feeding scraps.

If they eat a lot of some fruits, you might notice looser droppings.


Feeding Uncooked Grains

Q. We have a small flock of nine-month-old hens. We feed them organic laying feed and they also free-range in our yard, but we have discovered that they love uncooked brown rice, so we’ve been treating them with that every two days or so. They devour a small bowl of it in minutes. They’ll follow us anywhere with a bowl of that. Is there a problem with uncooked rice?

A. Uncooked rice shouldn’t be a problem at all for them. Like corn, there is a small chance that excess energy in the diet can lead to increased pecking, but giving it as a treat will be fine.

The old stories about uncooked rice harming birds is an urban legend. It is ground up in the gizzard, just like any other whole grain.


Medicated Feed Debate

Q. I read that we should not feed medicated rations to chicks that were vaccinated because it will neutralize the vaccine. I have been asking feed stores, etc. about this, and no one knows anything about it, nor have I even been able to get a reason that they make “medicated feed.”

A. The medication (usually amprolium) in medicated feed is a coccidiostat. The idea in using it is to stop most of the organisms that cause coccidiosis. [These organisms are technically one or more protozoal species of Eimeria.] Normally, under good management practices (dry conditions mostly), birds will get a few of these organisms in their system. Their immune system will build up resistance to them over time and everything is good. When they get too many organisms at one time, the immune system is overwhelmed and they can get sick. Symptoms are diarrhea, sometimes bloody, huddling, etc., and death in some cases.

The dosage of medication in the feed is designed to stop most, but not all, of the organisms so the bird’s immune system can keep up. It gives the bird owner a little extra buffer, especially if conditions are wet, which is the condition in which Eimeria thrive. I wouldn’t say it’s a substitute for good management, rather I look at it as an added protection.

Now, about the vaccination. In the last 10 years or so, coccidiosis vaccines have been introduced. These typically have low doses of live coccidia, and are fed to the chicks shortly after hatching. They are usually weakened strains so they don’t cause disease, but they will stimulate the immune response. Since these are live, you don’t want to then feed a coccidiostat which would likely kill them.

That is the only vaccination that should be affected by medicated feed. Marek’s vaccination, for example, will be just fine, with or without medicated feed.


Dog Food

Q. I raise chickens and nine of them live near my house, the rest of the flock live in my barn. The chickens at my house like to eat dog food. Is dog food all right for them? Should I keep feeding it to them?

A. Dog food shouldn’t hurt the chickens. It contains more protein than they need, but if they are also eating greens, grains, etc., it will probably be diluted out. I wouldn’t suggest feeding chickens only dog food, of course.


Coyote Creek



Question Mark Red Egg Production

Chicken Eggs

Defined Number of Ova

Q. A friend told me that a pullet is born with a certain number of ova, which, when she is of laying age, will determine how many eggs that hen will lay in a lifetime. Is this true?

A. Yes and no. It is true that a pullet is born with a certain number of egg cells. Some studies have shown that an 18-week old hen (ready to lay) has less than 1,000 ova (egg cells) available in her ovary. As far as we know, there is no mechanism for her to produce anymore.

Of course, the number of eggs she will actually lay can be much less than this, depending on health, nutrition, lighting factors, etc. It cannot be more than that number, however.


Decrease in Egg Production Has Many Causes

Q. What would cause a decrease in egg production? Please list all possibilities. What are the ideal conditions for chickens to lay eggs, including light, warmth, etc?

A. I’m not sure I can list all the possibilities, but here are some common ones. Diseases, of course, can cause drops in egg production. This is a common sign of many diseases.

From a management side, I like to look at FLAWS, that is Feed, Lights, Air, Water, and Space. If you mind all of your FLAWS (and don’t have flaws!), things will usually be in good shape.

Poor nutrition can certainly be a problem. Feeding a good diet that is nutritionally balanced for layers, with adequate calcium, will go a long way toward high egg production. Excess feed, causing obesity, is not good either. Overly fat hens will have more problems with double-yolked eggs, lower overall production, and other health problems, as well.

Decreasing day length will decrease production, too. Chickens are long-day breeders, so they lay when day lengths are increasing. One common mistake people make when using supplemental lighting is to just put the light on early in the morning. Since the sun goes down a little earlier each day (after June 21), the hen still recognizes a decreasing photoperiod. Lights should really be added in the morning and evening hours if you’re going to add them. For optimal egg production, you should have as many hours of light as the longest day in your area. This is not always possible or feasible, but it is probably optimal.

Extreme cold temperatures can cause hens to stop laying. Optimally, temperatures between 50 and 75° F are best for hens’ comfort. Likewise, extreme heat is not good. When hens are panting a lot, it can cause very poor shell quality. Air quality is a concern, too, but it usually isn’t enough to interfere with egg production. A lack of ventilation, especially in the winter, can increase ammonia and moisture levels. These can increase the chances of respiratory diseases, which would then decrease egg production.

Water is also very important. Feed withdrawal will cease egg production after about a week or two, but 1-2 days of water withdrawal will cause a large decrease. The hens will often molt before coming back into production.

Space is not usually a problem, except that it can cause extra stress on the birds. Excessive stress can certainly decrease production. As an example, I’ve seen hens that are used to a fairly large pen stop laying completely when they are put in a small cage. This is a reason I suggest setting up breeding pens several weeks before you plan to start saving fertile eggs for incubation. Often, adding new birds to a flock will give a temporary drop in production as the hens are working out a new pecking order.

Age of the hens is also important. Typically, a hen will lay the best in the first two years of her life, then production will taper off after that. Also, egg production for a flock will slowly taper off as the time in lay gets longer. Some hens will go out of production to molt, or just not lay as often, so the flock production will go down.

Breed can also have a large effect. Some breeds may only lay a couple dozen eggs, then decide to go broody, or just stop laying. Others that have been selected for high egg production will continue laying for a much longer time.


Why Do Hens Stop Laying?

Q. We have recently acquired some hens and a rooster for laying purposes, I would like to know more about the laying cycle for hens, if there is one.

Our hens were laying fairly well but for some reason we have not gotten any eggs recently. We were getting about two to five a day but they have not layed any eggs for almost a week. We have eight hens—five Rhode Island Reds, one Dominique, and two that I have no idea what breed they are. The rooster and three of the hens were given to us.

We have built the chickens an 8’ X 6’ house with three nesting boxes and three roosts. They get fresh water often and fresh food. Their treat is cheerios and sometimes bread. I vaguely remember hearing that there is a 21 day cycle for laying but I cannot verify that. Could someone there please help us out? Is there such a cycle and when would it start? We have a fairly large pen and it is out in the country. We have given them all the luxuries we can think of but are not getting any eggs. By the way, they are getting fed laying pellets from our local farm store. We would appreciate any suggestions or information you can give us. Thanks very much.

A. A number of things could be happening. If the hens have been laying for quite a while, they could be molting. It’s not real common in the spring, however, and it would be a little odd for them all to molt together. You can usually check if they are molting by looking at the 10 primary feathers on their wings. (These are the longest feathers on the outermost section of the wing.) If these are somewhat old and ragged looking, they are not molting. If you see two or four or more that are nice and new looking, and probably shorter than the rest, they are molting. In that case, they should come back into production in about a month or two. In some cases, a move to a new house can be enough stress to cause a molt. If they happened to be out of water for a day or so, this can also cause them to molt. Otherwise, chickens will naturally molt once every year or so.

If the hens are free-ranging (or have a pen with some cover), I’d suspect that they are laying somewhere else. It is very common for hens to find a secluded spot to hide their nest. Look in dark corners, behind things, in tall weeds, etc. If you notice a hen doesn’t come home some night, I’d definitely suspect this. She’s likely started incubating her eggs.

Another possibility is that a chicken (or something else) is eating the eggs.

I’m not aware of any laying cycle. While the yolk cells are present from the time she hatches as a chick, most of the nutrients in the yolk are deposited the last 6-11 days before it will be released. From the time the yolk is released from the ovary, it takes about 24-26 hours before she lays an egg. Twenty-one days is the incubation period for chicken eggs, so this may be what you have heard about.


Why Did Egg Laying Slow Down?

Q. Last winter I had a light in the chicken coop and my chickens laid eggs all winter. However, this year it is not working. We had a three-day spell of really cold weather and I also had a fox problem, but it was caught. Is there anything I can do to get them to lay again? I did put a stronger light in and their water does not freeze. Thanks. — Gale, Arizona

A. I don’t know what breeds of hens you have, but especially in those breeds that have not been bred for high egg production, I’d expect a drop off in egg production in the second winter. Often, when they are young pullets, they tend to lay very well in spite of the season, but by the second year, it’s more likely that they might stop laying for a while.

Is the light on 24 hours a day, or on a timer? If it is on 24 hours a day, this may be too much. Ideally, about 14 hours of light each day would be good. The brightness isn’t usually very important.

You also want to make sure that the problem really is a lack of egg production, and not that something is happening to the eggs after they have been laid. Lots of things, including the hens themselves sometimes, like to eat eggs.


Question icon set FEATHER LOSS

Chicken Feathers

Pecking from Other Birds/Natural Molt/Randy Roosters/Excess Energy

Q. I have a flock of about 45 Black Australorp laying hens. They are 15 months old. I did have five roosters with them, now I have two. They do not free range. They are fed commercial laying pellet scratch, and a variety of scraps.

Almost all of the hens have lost their feathers on their backs near their tail. They are also now losing their feathers around their necks and some all the way from the base of the tail to the base of the neck. Also one of the roosters is now losing the feathers at the base of his tail. I initially thought that it was caused by having too many roosters.

I have also closely inspected for mites. The flock is clean. Can you please help me out in this area? They seem to be laying fine. They lay between 24 and 30 eggs per day. They have been laying steady since they started in October. Any suggestions will be greatly appreciated.

A. We’ve had several questions about feather loss recently. In some cases, overly aggressive (or overly populous!) roosters are to blame. In a few cases, mites are sometimes to blame. Some, however, can’t be explained by these things.

Often, the other hens are pecking on the feathers. This is sometimes caused by an excess in energy in the diet. When lots of high energy “treats” such as cracked corn, or bread, etc. are given, this can cause some pecking. I have also seen where the hens would “groom” the male to the point where his feathers were very tattered. Chickens will often peck the lowest birds in the pecking order, too. These will often end up missing a lot of feathers, or worse. Feeding high fiber feeds, such as hay, oats, or even root vegetables (turnips, etc.) have been used to dilute the energy of the diet. Some of these also probably give the chickens something else to peck at. Some even suggest hanging vegetables from the ceiling (within reach of the chickens) so they have to work to peck at them.

In some cases, it is probably just normal wear and tear on the feathers. High-producing hens put a lot of nutrients into laying eggs, and that often comes at the expense of feathers. The best producing hens often look very tough, while the “prettiest” hens aren’t laying many eggs.

Finally, and I suspect that may be what is happening in the second case, some hens go through a sort of slow, long-term molt. They often lose feathers around their neck and tail, yet continue to lay eggs. It’s probably not an unhealthy situation, but it’s unsightly. There may be a combination of molt and then feather-picking of the new feathers as they grow in.

Some people report improvement when feeding protein supplements such as cat food. This might help in some cases. In others, it will probably just take some time until the hen completes her molt.

Feather Loss
The topic of feather
loss on birds has brought
about more questions
than any other topic,
and has a variety of
causes. Missing
feathers on the back
and neck almost always
point to the rooster
treading during mating.

Chicken Feather Loss

Q. We have seven layers and one rooster. They live together in a covered pen 40’ x 50’ and a night-safe coop of 10’ x 20’ but there still seems to be a pecking order problem that gets pretty serious. What is this pecking order all about?

A. Missing feathers can often point to the rooster. During mating, the rooster will grab hold of the feathers behind the comb, and tread on the back of the female. Sometimes clipping the toenails of the rooster can help. Most likely, these are the “favorite” hens and he is mating them more often. It may also be that the hens themselves, or other hens, pick at the new feathers as they grow in, thus perpetuating the problem. Getting more hens might help, but I wouldn’t guarantee it. Fitting the hens with cloth “saddles” is a possibility. These used to be used for turkey hens, and they are still available through some mail-order poultry supply houses.


Q. I currently have 10 Rhode Island Reds—one rooster and nine hens. I have them in a fenced lot approximately 8’ x 16’ with three laying boxes. Three of the hens are missing the feathers on their back and wing section. I noticed that the rooster and the other hens are pecking at these three hens. This is so bad that you can even see under the skin. Can you think of a reason for this? Someone told me that they needed protein. Any suggestions?

A. You can try extra protein. In some cases, it will help. Unfortunately, in many cases, this is the natural “pecking order” of chickens. Contrary to what many of us would like to think, chickens are not really “nice” to each other. They will quite often harass the lowest member of the pecking order until it dies. If they are especially aggressive, they may move on to the next in line. Usually, this doesn’t occur as long as all the birds are healthy.

You can try trimming the chickens’ beaks so they are not so sharp. Taking the tip off won’t interfere with their ability to eat, but it can help with the feather pulling and pecking. You can also try coating the pecked areas with some commercial anti-pick lotions. There are a few different brands available.



Question icon set GENERAL HEALTH

Potential Disease Transmission to Humans from Poultry

Q. We live in a town that allows chickens and we would like to get some but are worried about potential diseases that our children may contract from handling the birds. What about the other concerns my neighbors will have about noise, odor, etc? Are any of these legitimate concerns?

A. While there are several diseases that can possibly be transmitted between chickens and humans, most of them are rare and are not usually a problem. As with any animal, some simple precautions (such as washing your hands after handling them and keeping clean facilities) can be taken to avoid most of these.

Following is a list of potential diseases and some comments about each of them:

• Salmonellosis — This is often what people think of when they think of chickens. There are about 2,500 different species of Salmonella and a few of them can be carried by chickens and can make people sick. The type that usually makes the news (Salmonella enteritidis or SE) can be contracted by consuming undercooked eggs or from contamination from raw chicken meat. It can rarely be contracted from contact with fecal material, but a good hand washing with soap after handling any chicken will take care of this. I’d also point out that salmonellosis can be contracted from pet turtles, iguanas, pygmy hedgehogs, etc. as well.

• Psittacosis — This is a bacterial disease that can be contracted from poultry, although it is very rare. It’s more commonly carried by cage birds (parrots, etc.) than by poultry. It can be treated with antibiotics.

• Tuberculosis – While rare, there have been records of people contracting tuberculosis from birds. Typically, those who are immunocompromised are most at risk. Tuberculosis is not a common disease in poultry.

• Histoplasmosis — This is a fungal disease that is actually caused by a soil fungus. It’s not carried by birds, but can grow in old poultry or pigeon manure. It’s commonly connected with pigeon droppings in church belfries, barns, etc. where these droppings accumulate. As long as a poultry house is cleaned regularly, this should not be an issue at all.

• Parasites — Because chickens are not closely related to humans (Class Aves vs. Class Mammalia), parasites are generally adapted to one or the other. Mites, lice, etc. from birds will not live on humans for more than a few hours. Likewise, internal parasites are typically adapted to the poultry gut and won’t be a problem for humans. One protozoa, Giardia, can occasionally affect birds and humans. This is more commonly seen in cage birds (parakeets, canaries, etc.). Most hobby flock owners routinely monitor and treat their birds for parasites anyway, in an effort to improve the livelihood of the birds.

• Influenza — This has been in the news quite a bit recently, and there has been evidence in some other countries that humans can become infected from chickens. The subtypes that affect humans have not occurred in poultry in the United States for many, many years. The USDA conducts an aggressive program to depopulate flocks that may have other subtypes in an effort to prevent this from happening in the future.

There are a few other viruses that have been transmitted to people in lab conditions, but which are not really concerns in a hobby flock situation.

Some other non-disease issues that are often brought up can also be easily controlled:

• Flies — The best way to prevent flies is to keep the litter dry. The eggs and larvae (maggots) need moisture to develop, so if the litter is dry, they will not be an issue. Also, most small flock owners clean out regularly, so manure buildup is not an issue. With a flock size of a few chickens, excess moisture should not be a problem.

• Odor — Similar to the issue of flies, odor is seldom a problem if the litter is kept dry. Odor is usually associated with ammonia production, and this will be prevented by keeping the litter dry. Again, with a flock size of a few chickens, I’d be surprised if there is a moisture problem.

• Noise — Roosters crowing can be an annoyance, especially in the early morning! Hens are typically considerably quieter and shouldn’t be an issue. Certainly, they should be no more disruptive than a barking dog.

After listing all of these things, I know it sounds horrible, but the risks are really quite minimal. With any animal, there are possible issues, but a list of possible threats from a dog or cat would be at least as long, and probably longer.


Air Sacs

Q. This year several of my chicks got a big bubble of air on their sides and sometimes on their back. What is the cause of it? I put Arnica gel on it and it disappeared within four days.

A. Big bubbles of air under the skin are usually a result of a torn air sac. Birds have a slightly different respiratory system than mammals have. Air goes into their lungs, then out the other side into several air sacs that are in the body cavity, and even in the long bones. The air is warmed here, then goes back through the lungs again and is exhaled. It is a very efficient system for them. If one of these air sacs gets torn, air escapes with every breath, and is trapped under the skin. They usually heal after a few days, but it makes the chicken look terrible until it goes away!

In small chicks, it can be a sign of rough handling, especially pulling on the wings. In the days when caponizing was common, these were not uncommon as a result of the caponizing process, and were called “wind puffs.”



Q. We have a Silver Penciled Wyonadotte who started limping. Her feet are swollen, especially the right one and on the bottom it looks like callus that has sort of split open, kind of like a hole in her foot. We have been applying petroleum jelly and bag balm, but are in doubt as to what we really should be doing.

A. It sounds like she has bumblefoot. This is a bacterial infection (often from Staph. aureus). It usually causes a solid core (often called “cheese-like material”). The biggest problem is that this core needs to be removed for the foot to heal up. You’ll probably need to cut it open (on the bottom of the foot) enough to get this core out. Once that is done, you’ll need to clean it up. You can use some hydrogen peroxide for this. Once this is done, it’s best to try and keep her in a fairly clean environment for a few days. If you can put her in an area with some clean shavings, this will work well. Chickens usually heal very well, so it should get better quickly. Some people try to wrap the foot, but it doesn’t usually work very well. Don’t continue to use the hydrogen peroxide, since it can damage the new tissue as it’s healing.

Bumblefoot often occurs after some other trauma. Large birds jumping down from a high perch might cause some damage, or they may get a small cut or splinter of wood in the foot. Staphylococcus bacteria are nearly everywhere, but don’t usually cause a problem until they can gain entry through a cut or injury like this.


Crooked Toes

Q. Can you tell me what this is? The affected birds have trouble walking and their toes curl under. Neither the bird nor I can straighten them. With enough time and care they work their way out of it but never seem to be as thrifty as the rest of the flock. I think we’ve had three birds with this condition out of the thousands that we’ve raised. We now get rid of any chicken that shows this.

Crooked Toes

A. There are a few things that can cause crooked toes. Deficiency of the B-vitamin riboflavin is one. This is not very common today, since most people feed a complete diet that is fortified with vitamins and minerals. Genetics can also be a cause. This is why we usually don’t suggest keeping a crooked-toed bird for breeding. This is not a real common occurrence either. The most common cause of crooked toes that I have seen is poor incubator conditions. Incubator temperatures that are too high or too low can cause this. Delayed hatching for any reason can also cause crooked toes. Since you only see this in an occasional chick, perhaps there may have been a warm spot (or a cool spot) in the incubator where that egg was sitting. If the chick was weak, even during hatching, it may have other problems, which could add to the general unthrifty nature.

Crooked toes can often be corrected, if you have some patience. Treatment usually involves taping the toes to a small piece of cardboard so they are held in a straight position. A few days of this (on a small chick) will often straighten the toes. If the condition is not too bad, it may occasionally correct itself as the bird gets older, too.


Curled Toes

Q. I have a Dominique chick. A few days after I got her I noticed her toes were curled. I had never raised chickens before and thought they would grow out okay. She is now 10 weeks old and the toes are still curled. It does not seem to bother her; she runs with the other four chicks I got at the same time and her balance is fine. She has no problems perching on the roost and scratching around the yard. I would like to know what causes this and if there is something I should be doing different for her.

Curled Chicken Toes

A. There’s probably not much you can do with these toes at this point, but I don’t think they’ll interfere with her ability to thrive. She probably won’t win any shows, but she should be fine otherwise.

You possibly could have straightened the toes when she was very young. Some people have had good luck taping the toes to a stiff paper base that functions as a splint. In young chicks, this will often work to straighten the toes in just a few days or so.

As far as a cause for this, it could have been one of a few things. Riboflavin deficiency can cause curled toes. Improper incubation conditions can also be a factor. If the chick is slow to get out of the eggshell, the toes will sometimes be curled. This can also be a genetic condition. Finally, it may have been due to some physical damage. The toe might have gotten caught on something, or broken in an accident.

Whatever the cause, I doubt it will be a problem. I’d monitor her, but I think she’ll function very normally.


Egg-bound Hens

Q. I am looking for more information on egg-bound hens. I recently lost a good laying hen to what I am surmising was a retained egg. More information on this would be helpful. Melissa, via e-mail

A. This seems to be a common question. Laying an egg is quite an enormous task for a hen. The shell on an average large egg weighs about 6 grams, and is about 94% calcium carbonate. It takes about 20 hours for the hen to make this shell, and in that time she has to get all that calcium from her diet or her bones and transport it through the blood to the shell gland.

Eggshell formation is not the only use for calcium, however. It is also important in muscle contraction. If the hen is deficient of calcium, she can use up too much of the calcium in forming the eggshell. It becomes difficult, then, to actually expel the egg. This is the most common cause for an egg-bound hen. Obesity is likely an added factor in many cases.

So, what do you do in this case? If you notice the hen straining, spending lots of time on the nest, and generally acting different, it could be egg binding. You can sometimes feel the egg in the vent area. The first thing to try is to add a lubricant. It seems odd, but just adding a little vegetable oil in the vent area and lightly massaging it in may be enough to help. Another thing that can be done is to warm the area slightly. Warming up the muscles may relax them slightly and allow normal contractions so she can lay the egg.

Some people suggest using steam for this. It can work, but probably as many hens have been burned by steam as have been helped. Warm water can be used. The hen won’t like it, and you’ll probably get soaked, but it’s considerably safer than steam! This should help most of the time, but if none of these things work, there’s not a lot else you can try. If the egg breaks inside the hen, it’s very likely she’ll get an infection, since it’s very difficult to get her cleaned effectively. Eggshell fragments can also be sharp and can cause some damage to the oviduct. A veterinarian may need to intervene at this point if you want to save the hen.


External Parasites on Poultry — Irritating Scaly Leg Mites

Q. I have bantys and chuckers that run free on our farm yard and when they get older they get a growth on their legs that looks like tree bark and must hurt them to walk because they show it. What is it and how do we cure it? Thank you for your help.

Scaly Leg Mites on Chickens
Scaly leg mites burrow under the scales on
the legs and feet of chickens. Fortunately,
leg mites are relatively easy to treat: simply
apply petroleum jelly over the legs and feet
of the affected bird, repeat as needed to
suffocate mites. Over time, the scales will
return to normal.

A. This is probably scaly leg mites (Knemidocoptes mutans). The tiny little mites burrow under the scales of the legs and feet. The waste they produce (and probably some scab material from the bird) cause the scales to push up and give the tree bark appearance you mentioned. Fortunately, this is pretty easy to treat, assuming you can catch the birds. Just apply some petroleum jelly on the affected areas and rub it in well. This will suffocate the mites. You may need to retreat after 10 days or so. This should get rid of them. It will take a while for the scales to go back down, but they should eventually return to normal.


Eye Disorder

Q. My hens have an eye disorder that I have been fighting all winter. I put antibiotics in their water and this seemed to stop it, but now another hen has it. I’ve been cleaning often with epsom salt.

A. This is likely a symptom of chronic respiratory disease. It is a bacterial disease caused by Mycoplasma gallisepticum or MG. This is a pretty common disease and can be quite a headache. As you experienced, it often goes away when you treat with antibiotics, but it also often comes back when you stop treatment. Chickens may live with it until they are stressed by something else (cold wet conditions, mixing with other chickens, etc.) and then you see a problem.

It is pretty difficult to get rid of without depopulating the flock and getting new birds from a known MGnegative source. Most commercial hatcheries use certified negative breeding stock. There is a blood test available to test for MG. Your state veterinary diagnostic lab should be able to conduct the test. If it’s not MG, other possibilities could be excessive dust or ammonia, both of which can cause eye irritation.


Eye Infections May Be Infectious Coryza

Q. I am having a second outbreak of an eye infection in my free-range flock. The chickens start out with a clear discharge from the nose and end up with one or both eyes swollen and impacted with very large amounts of matter, similar to cooked egg yolks, with a very offensive odor. Several of these chickens have become very lethargic and died. I appreciate your help.

A. It sounds like your chickens may have infectious coryza. The odor and heavy discharge from the eyes and nares are very common with this disease. Your location is also a clue, since it seems to be more prevalent in the southern U.S.

This disease is caused by bacteria called Haemophilus paragallinarum. It can usually be treated with antibiotics, though some birds may not fully recover and will end up being carriers. The bacteria don’t live very well outside the chicken, and can be killed by heat, drying, or disinfection. It is generally more of a problem with flocks of mixed age, where it can spread from older chickens to those that are younger. Ideally, we would use an all-in, all-out system where we could completely clean out between flocks, and could probably get rid of this. If that’s not possible, it may be more difficult. There are some vaccines available that can be used, though they may not be practical for a small flock.


Increased Drinking Can Cause Loose Stools

Q. We have 10 chickens. They recently started having watery stools. I took a sample to the vet and had it tested. He said it showed no cocci, and only a small amount of worm eggs. I have wormed them but they are still very loose. We have had some extremely warm days here in the southeast. Not all of the chickens have loose stools, just about six out of 10, and three are still laying fine. Some of the birds are also losing a few feathers, and I am not sure if this is normal. This is our first batch of chickens so we are still learning a lot.

A. I imagine it is just that they are drinking more water due to the hot weather. Is it possible that they might have gotten into something salty? I’m not sure what you are feeding them, but it is possible that there is excess salt in the feed. This seems to happen occasionally. That can cause watery droppings. If you’re not seeing any other problems, I think it’s probably okay. It’s not unusual for growing chickens to lose some feathers either. Young growing chickens go through several molts before they reach adult plumage.


Marek’s Disease Vaccine Discussion

Q. I have a question for you. I have a horrible suspicion that Marek’s disease has invaded my flock. Some of my birds are vaccinated and others are not. Three questions regarding this:

1. Can I vaccinate my older birds at this point?

2. Where can I buy vaccine to vaccinate new hatchlings at my farm?

3. What can I do now to erradicate the disease?

A. It is generally thought that Marek’s disease is spread throughout the United States, and probably most of the world. So, most chickens are probably exposed to it to some degree. There is a great deal of variation in susceptibility among different breeds and strains of chickens, and even among individual chickens within those breeds and strains. In a lot of cases, you might have one or two chickens in a flock show symptoms of Marek’s disease, and the rest will be just fine. I have known of some strains, however, where nearly all individuals would die from it. If you have a situation like that, then certainly you will need to vaccinate.

1. You can vaccinate older chickens, and it certainly won’t hurt them. Whether or not it will help is somewhat open to question. Marek’s usually only affects chickens younger than about six months of age, and certainly under one year, so I wouldn’t bother vaccinating anything older than that.

2. The vaccine is available from a few mail-order poultry supply houses. It usually comes in 1,000-dose bottles (or larger), which is, of course, more than most of us need. If possible, make sure you get the freeze-dried vaccine and the diluent that comes with it.

3. To my knowledge, there is no way to eradicate this disease. It is spread in the feather dander, so it gets in the dust, and it’s nearly impossible to get rid of all the dust in a building. You can vaccinate, and there is probably some immunity passed on from hens that have been exposed to it.


Frozen Comb

Q. One of my roosters didn’t go into the coop on a very cold night – it was 22° F below in the morning. I don’t know why, but I suspect the dominant rooster had something to do with it. He slept under the cover of an old pickup topper filled with straw, but because his head was not tucked under a wing, he has severe frostbite on the tips of his comb and wattles. They were very swollen and warm. I moved him to a warm area (isolated in a crate) and put Neosporin on the already thawed areas. He has been in the “chicken clinic” for three days. He seems to be in less pain, is eating, drinking, and even crowed today. The affected areas are turning black, and one area has developed a little pus. What more can I do? I really like this rooster and would hate to lose him.

Rooster Frozen Comb
Marcie’s rooster received frostbite on both the comb and wattles. The dead tissue will probably slough off.

A. You’re doing about all you can do for him at this point. If he’s eating, drinking and crowing, it sounds like he’ll probably be okay. He will likely lose the tissue from the points and parts of the wattles, as this is dead tissue and will slough off. Watch that the others don’t peck at these areas, and try to keep him warm and dry. He’ll probably be okay. He won’t be much good for showing, since his comb will lack the points, but he should be okay otherwise.

One other note, he will likely be infertile for a while. This usually goes along with frozen combs.


Frozen Feet

Q. I have a small flock of Turkens. I went out to my coop the other day and found one had frozen feet. I brought it into the house and its feet thawed out then it got big blood blisters on its feet. After a few days in the house I took it back out. The blisters popped and then the feet ripped open a little bit. I went out the next day and found one of its feet was frozen again so I brought it into the garage and put petroleum jelly on its feet. My great-grandmother has Barred Rocks and said to put its feet in cold water. What should I do? Thank you very much.

A. This is a tough situation. It will be very important to keep him in a clean and comfortable environment until the damaged areas have a chance to heal. The frozen tissue is dead, so it will eventually slough off. The extent of the damage will determine how much of the feet and legs will be lost. Since it sounds like he now has open sores, I’d suggest some over-the-counter antiseptic salve or ointment for those areas. That may help to prevent infection. You may need to look at human medications from your pharmacy for this.

You’ll definitely want to prevent further damage, so make sure he’s in a warmer, dry environment. I’d look for reasons why his feet froze; did he get stuck in snow? Did his feet get wet? Did he refuse to go in a shelter? All of these things have been known to happen, but you’d like to prevent them as much as possible, of course.

I think you’ll want to monitor his “quality of life,” too. If he loses a large portion of his feet, it may be very difficult for him to get around, to the point where he is suffering. If it comes to that, you may have to consider humanely euthanizing him.


Hens With Dirty Bottoms

Q. I’ve only had my chickens for about six years, but have tried to read every book and ask everyone I know about this matter. Every few months, one of my birds gets what I call a dirty bottom. We end up having to cut the feathers around the vent. I can’t figure out what causes this. We try to pay attention and most of the time the dropping are normal or slightly runny but nothing out of the ordinary. This doesn’t seem to bother them, and not all of them get it, and when the feathers grow back they’re fine. What could this be? We dust them frequently for mites, worm them, and keep the scales on their legs healthy. We feed them high quality feed and grit and they have a large grassy area to peck around in. It just seems like their feathers on their bottom are extra fluffy and get in the way. — Larissa via the Internet

A. There are a couple of possibilities. Some cereal grains, especially barley and some varieties of wheat and rye, contain complex carbohydrates that are not easily digested by chickens. These include things called pentosans and beta-glucans. A side effect of feeding these is that they can cause sticky excreta. So it may be that they are getting some grains such as these. I’m not sure how likely that is, however, if they are only eating a commercial feed. Most companies will avoid these grains because they are aware of the problem. I’m not sure why only one or two hens would have this either.

It could be a fungal infection, commonly called vent gleet. This causes a wet, often whitish appearance on the feathers around the vent. It may be accompanied by an unpleasant odor. This can usually be treated with an iodine solution. It can be transmitted between birds during mating, so it would be best to isolate those that have it.

It may also be that this is a secondary symptom of an infection in the intestinal tract. Several bacterial and protozoal diseases can cause diarrhea, and this can stick to the feathers. Once it begins to mat there, it could get worse.

Finally, might the affected birds be sitting in a nest box that contains droppings? Getting under the roost area? These are a few things I would check.


Are Floppy Combs a Problem?

Q. I have two buff laced Wyandotte hens (six months old) and one black bantam Cochin (two years old). My concern is that their combs are floppy. Is this a lack of some mineral or vitamin? They are healthy in every other way; they lay eggs on a regular schedule, are very active in the yard and the Cochin raised her chicks this year. Could it be too many chickens in the coop? Is this normal? Rebecca, Kentucky

A. Floppy combs are not typically a problem unless you are showing the birds. In that case, it is a disqualification. It’s not normal in most breeds, especially on a Wyandotte. Wyandottes, especially hens, typically have a pretty tight rose comb. It is normal for hens of the Mediterranean class Leghorns, Minorcas, etc.) to have a floppy comb. I don’t know that having too many chickens in the coop will cause this, unless these hens are low on the pecking order and are being harassed by the other chickens. I think sometimes stress can cause this, though I don’t know of any research to back that up. If the chickens are laying eggs and seem active and healthy, I wouldn’t worry about it. If you are hatching chicks to show, you probably don’t want to use these as breeders.


Pecking Problems

Q. My husband and I are on our second batch of chickens, and we have a dilemma. We are having a major problem with pecking.

Our first batch of chickens was three different breeds so we thought that might have been the problem, so this time we only bought Rhode Island Reds and it is still happening. We have 25 layers, the chicken house is 8 x 12 with nine nesting boxes and a five rung roost and one single one. We think they should be pretty happy chickens. The coop is insulated so it’s not freezing, they can get out on either side to go outdoors and we used 10×10 dog kennels to keep them in.

We feed them layer mash, oats and scratch grain morning and night. We keep things pretty clean—as clean as you can with chickens. Can parasites cause them to do this? We have been putting Blu-Kote on them. Is there anything else we can use, since sometimes that doesn’t even work. Please help and give us some idea of what we may be doing wrong.

A. I’m a big believer that excess energy in the feed is a common cause for pecking. I’d definitely cut back on the scratch grains. Another thing that’s good, if you can get it, is alfalfa hay. You can leave a bale intact, or just put out a few sections from the bale. These give them something to peck at, and provide some fiber in their diet, which reduces the energy level.

External parasites can cause the chickens to peck and scratch at themselves (since they likely itch), but I don’t think it will cause them to peck at each other. If you handle the chickens, you’d probably notice these external parasites. Look at the skin, especially around the vent area and under the wings, and also look at your arms after you’ve handled the chickens. You’ll often see little reddish mites crawling, or, in the case of lice, you’ll see them on the birds.

You might also check that there is salt in the layer mash. Some studies have shown that a salt deficiency can cause cannibalism. Don’t over do this, however, because excess salt isn’t good either. They only need about 0.5% salt in their diet, so if the mash contains salt, they are probably okay.

Blu-Kote should help stop the pecking. There used to be some other anti-pecking lotions available, but they can be pretty difficult to find. You might also try to clip the beaks, so they aren’t so sharp. It won’t stop them completely, but it might help. You can use a dog nail clippers. They have a quick, like a nail, so if you don’t go back too far, it shouldn’t bleed.


Swollen/Red Wattles on Rooster

Q. Yesterday, my daughter and I noticed our Cochin rooster shaking his head. Thinking he was shaking off water from his face I thought nothing of it, but today he was doing the same thing and we hadn’t gotten to his water just yet. We picked him up and his wattles are swollen and red. None of the other birds’ wattles look like this. I have spent the better half of the night searching the Internet and found nothing that describes or offers a solution to this problem.

Do you have any ideas what this could be or caused from? We thank you for your time and consideration in this matter.

A. I think it’s likely one of two things. One, he may have some respiratory problem. When chickens have something in their throat (trachea or esophagus), they will often shake their heads in an effort to clear it. This could also cause the swelling of the wattles. I’d monitor the rest of the chickens to see that they don’t show similar symptoms.

Somewhat more likely, I think, is that he has frostbitten the wattles. He may have gotten them wet while drinking, then they froze. If this is the case, the tissue will probably turn white, then black, then most of it will fall off. He will probably get over it, but he won’t look as nice. At this point, there’s probably not a lot you can do for him. Keep him warm and well fed, and try to prevent further damage. You might be able to apply some petroleum jelly to his comb and wattles, but don’t rub the affected area very much. This can cause further damage to the tissue. I imagine it is painful, and that’s why he’s been shaking his head.

On a related matter, he will likely be infertile for a couple of weeks, if it is frostbite. Unless you’re hatching chicks now, it shouldn’t be a big problem. He should be back in good shape by spring, assuming he gets over the damage.


Randy Rooster

Q. I presume this question has been discussed before, but I’d like to have you address the issue of roosters running with the hens. I have about 50 hens and some years I have 2-4 roosters with them. How should one deal with the issue of the feathers being worn off the backs of the hens? Am I allowing too many roosters in the flock? I like having roosters around and I like the option of hatching chicks in the spring but I don’t like seeing the hens ravaged endlessly. Are the roosters less aggressive with the hens during the winter months? Should I separate the roosters until closer to the hatching season? Could I clip the leg spurs on the roosters if there is too much feather damage? Any suggestions on best practices when running roosters with the hens would be appreciated.


A. A ratio of 1 rooster to 12 hens is recommended, so your numbers aren’t too high. The roosters do seem most randy during spring, but can still cause feather loss at all times. Hen aprons help, but 50 hens is a lot to cover.

Trimming the spurs will help. Gail Damerow tells how in her book, Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens. It can also help to clip their claws. These can get a little long, especially in the winter if they aren’t scratching in the ground as much. You can use a dog nail clippers, or a large human nail clippers for this.

You could separate the roosters, and only turn them out with the hens occasionally—a couple of days a week, or just a few hours each day. They don’t need to be with the hens constantly to keep the eggs fertile. This does require twice the feeders, waterers, etc. and more care.

You might also watch that the other hens aren’t pecking at the feathers. It sounds like roosters, but I’ve had people write with similar feathering issues, and they didn’t have a rooster at all!


Twisted Neck in Chicken Has Multiple Causes

Q. My chick’s neck stays bent backwards and it walks backwards now. When it eats and drinks it holds its neck normally. Other than that it’s a healthy chick. Can you tell me why? I have attached a photo.

Twisted Neck In Chickens

A. There are several things that can cause twisted necks in chickens:

• Thiamin (Vitamin B1) deficiency is one. It can occur in chicks or adults, and can usually be corrected pretty easily. A human vitamin (containing B vitamins) will usually treat them. If this works, then you’ll want to get a different feed so it doesn’t recur. Some mycotoxins can also destroy thiamin in a feed, so that can cause the same symptoms.

• Newcastle disease, caused by a virus, can sometimes cause twisted neck. Since this is a virus, there’s not really a treatment. There are vaccines available if this continues to be a problem. There are several different types of Newcastle disease, ranging from some that cause very few problems up to exotic Newcastle, which is a very serious disease. The exotic form is not currently present in the U.S., and will be a major problem if it does show up here.

• There is a gene, called stargazer or congenital loco, that causes the bird to twist its head back (and gaze at the stars). It was first reported in 1929, and occurs occasionally in many different breeds. It’s thought to be an autosomal recessive gene, but not much more is known about it. It usually shows up immediately at hatch, so most chicks with this would be destroyed at the hatchery.

• Finally, twisted neck can be caused by an injury. The bird may fly into the pen and cause damage, or it might have some other nerve damage. These will sometimes go away, or they may be permanent.

I’d try the B-vitamin and see if it helps. If it doesn’t, there’s probably not a lot you can do. If the bird is still able to eat and drink, and you want to wait and see, it might get better with time. Chances are, the chick’s quality of life will slowly deteriorate.


Caring for Chicks — Medicated Feed for Chicks

Q. My friend says I should feed medicated feed to my new baby chicks. I’m concerned about giving medications. Do I have to feed medicated feed?

A. The term “medicated” probably needs some explanation. Nearly all “medicated” chicken feeds contain a coccidiostat. Coccidiosis is a disease chickens get that causes paleness, lethargy, ruffled feathers, decreased appetite, and diarrhea, which is sometimes bloody. It is caused by various species of protozoa called Eimeria. The medication is usually specific for coccidiosis and won’t help treat or prevent other diseases. If chicks are exposed to low levels of these disease-causing protozoa, most will develop immunity to coccidiosis as they get older. If they are hit with too large a number at once, they can die from it. The idea of a coccidiostat in the feed is to limit the numbers of protozoa so they slowly develop immunity. Another aspect of Eimeria is that its oocysts (sort of like spores or fertilized eggs) can remain in the ground or litter for a long time. In warm, moist conditions, they become infective and can be passed to other chickens. It should also be noted that chickens can have some coccidiosis and not show outward signs. They will have slower growth or poorer feed conversion, but you might not notice these things if you don’t have other flocks for comparison.

So, if you can keep the chicks’ litter dry and fairly clean, this will help a great deal toward preventing an outbreak. Some people would rather limit the chance of a problem, and choose to use medicated feed. Most birds will become immune to coccidiosis after a couple of months, and then medicated feed is no longer required. If you haven’t had a problem in the past, and you are able to keep the litter dry, you can probably get by without the coccidiostat. Medicated feed makes management a little easier, since it helps limit the risk of your chickens getting sick.

I should also point out that there are treatments available for coccidiosis, if you take the chance and then find out they have it. These are usually applied in the birds’ water.


Caring for Chicks — Proper Temperature for Chicks

Q. We are presently raising Buffs and Silverlaces. They are about six weeks old. We turned them out in a pen within the bigger chicken yard on March 26. We received them on February 13. The chicken yard is about 1/2 acre so there is plenty of room. We have the little ones in a smaller fence and we shut them up at night in an enclosed big cage where they have plenty of room. The cage is covered on top and all sides. Should we have a light for warmth in there? We are south so it is getting fairly warm (mid-70s during the day and mid-50s at night). They are fully feathered. Louisiana reader

A. The first answer I usually give when asked about proper temperature for chicks is that they will tell you when they aren’t happy. If they are too cold, they will cheep loudly, and huddle together for heat. When they are too hot, they will lay flat on the ground a lot, and may pant or try to escape a heat source (if there is a heat lamp, etc.) so “listen” to the chicks and they’ll often answer your question. That being said, a good rule of thumb is to start the chicks at about 90-95° F, then decrease the temperature about 5° per week. So, by six weeks of age, your chicks should be able to handle temperatures of about 60° F. Since they are fully feathered out, this is also usually a good sign that they are ready. Of course, they need to be acclimated to these temperatures gradually. If you have had them at 90° since they were hatched, putting them directly out at 60° would be pretty harsh. It’s also good that the cage is covered, since drafts can be pretty hard on young chicks, too.