This isn’t a post about what to keep in your chicken first aid box or how to treat bumble foot, gape worm or mean roosters.
But it is about one powerful tool, the one thing that has the most potential to help you in a chicken-crisis or poultry-emergency.
It is something I was reminded of just last week when we lost one of our hens; one of my favorite hens, the sweetest little Buff Orpington. She would come up to me in the yard and peck my leg, asking to be picked up. I’d scoop her up, pet her on the head and tell her that she was the prettiest hen, and that she was golden like the sun- before I put her gently back on the ground.
I will spare you any real details, but I am pretty sure we lost her due to a blockage or impaction somewhere past the crop. I was able to examine the chicken and figure this out pretty quickly in the days before she passed.
Which brings me to the point I’d like to make.
The golden nugget of chicken-information, if you will.
Learn what “chicken normal” looks like (so you can quickly spot when something is not normal).
I mean, really learn.
This will greatly help you to arrive at a much more accurate diagnosis when something goes wrong. And if you’re not well versed in poultry disease, it will help you to be able to describe the problem your chicken is having, to someone who can help. Plus, when you’re paying attention to your flock to this degree, you will spot potential problems much earlier- which is so important.
Learning to correctly diagnose is more than half the battle for both humans and chickens (ahem, did you know I am a Chiropractor by day?). And what did we spend the first entire year of Chiropractic school doing? Learning what “normal” is.
This is one of the single, most impactful things you can do as a chicken keeper!
The last thing you want, when faced with a chicken emergency, is to be frantically running around your yard lifting up the tail feathers of all your chickens.
What does “Chicken Normal” look like, and how do I learn it?
My advice is to start now, and practice a little every day!
Inspect and feel as many different chickens as you can.
Don’t overwhelm yourself, just spend a couple minutes at it everyday.
And if your chickens aren’t friendly towards you, this is also a good opportunity to change that! Teach them (with lots of treats- try meal worms!) and show them that you’re actually a pretty cool person.
By the way, there are no right answers here. I am just giving you a guide.
The point is to learn about your specific flock.
Chicken Feet and Legs
Look at the bottom of the feet, note the texture.
How about the legs- how scaly are they?
How thick are the legs? Is there a difference in size between breeds or sexes?
Note the color- did you know a rooster’s legs can turn more red when his hormones are a ragin’.
The vent: make sure you can easily locate it.
Is it free of poop and debris?
Is it pink and puckering (sorry for that one!).
Make an imaginary triangle connecting the hens two feet and vent. In the middle of this triangle is an important area because it is one of the places you will need to feel if a hen is suspected to be egg-bound. “The fluffy undercarriage,” as I like to call it. Feel how firm it is.
The wings: how do the hens carry them (are they droopy or held in tight to the body)?
If she’ll let you without too much fuss, note the feather shafts underneath the wings.
Feel the crop (gently) at different times of the day- is there a difference between morning and night?
Is it hard as a rock or squishy?
Can you move it from side to side?
Do they mind you touching it?
Can you see it sticking out as she just stands there?
Head: what color are the comb and wattles and is there a big difference between chickens?
Are the nostrils clear?
What about the corners of the eyes?
Yes, chickens are weird little creatures- but they do have personalities and specific habits that you can learn. Like this, the meeting of the minds on our back deck. I swear I didn’t place them in this position!
A recent example: the day after I removed our sweet sick Buff Orpington hen from the flock (and into the house for sick care), one of the other chickens started acting funny. For several days in a row I would find her still wandering outside while all of the other chickens had already put themselves in the coop a half hour ago: not at all normal. She had a spastic, frantic-ness to her: not normal. She even followed me (without question) over to where the dog was tied up, when all of the other chickens were staying VERY clear of him: not smart.
I picked her up and looked her over; nothing obviously wrong. I concluded that she was looking for her friend (who had now passed away) and seemed to be desperately trying to locate her. It broke my heart a little. If I didn’t know what her normal was, I might not have even noticed this different behavior. If I didn’t know what a normal, healthy chicken looked and felt like, I might be left wondering if she was sick- I might have even treated her unnecessarily for something else, causing more stress to her.
Coming to the conclusion that she was mourning, I have been able to give her a lot of extra love, attention, and treats, which I hope will help her cope just a little better. It also tells me that I need to keep an extra close eye on her because she isn’t thinking as clearly.
So- what do your chickens do every day? Do they have a routine?
Is anyone a big meanie?
Who is at the top and who is at the bottom of the pecking order?
Are there any chicken-cliques?
Do they usually run to greet you, or run away from you?
Do they talk to each other- can you tell what they are saying (I can sometimes!)?
Learn all of these things and you’ll be prepared to handle any chicken problem that comes your way. It’s really just part of being a good, responsible chicken-care taker. We’re their first line of defense when something goes wrong- and they’re counting on us!
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