Dealing with poorly chickens

Warning to those who may be easily distressed: this post deals with death and dispatch.

Hen keeping is a fun and rewarding hobby but, as with most things that are worth doing, it has it’s challenges. On a day to day basis there is the poop and the general untidiness that is inevitable if a flock of hens are allowed to free range in a back garden. There is also, from time to time, the issue of what to do with a poorly chicken.

I have bought a total of twenty-two pullets over the five and a half years that I have been keeping hens. I have also been given one hen of indeterminate age. My two coops currently house ten girlies so, from the maths, you can work out that I have had to deal with a fair few fatalities. Some of these birds have died of natural causes, others we have dispatched to end their suffering.

I spend time with my flock every day, observing their behaviour to ensure that all is well. When a chicken is ill the signs can be fairly obvious: their stance is hunched and their manner lethargic; they will not run with the flock with their normal enthusiasm; poop may be runny or blood streaked; feathers may not be as clean and glossy as normal.

Internal injuries can be caused by egg laying. This may manifest itself with blood on the egg or the vent; it can also cause a painful looking gait. In the worst case the chicken may prolapse which is very hard to put right. Treatment is painful for the suffering hen and the risk of repeat high.

Any sign of blood on a hen will draw the rest of the flock to attack. A minor cut from a nasty peck can be disguised with gentian violet antiseptic spray, but a major injury such as a prolapse can turn a friendly flock of happy hens cannibalistic. In the worst cases that I have had to deal with I considered it kinder to dispatch the suffering bird rather than treat and then risk a possible repeat followed by likely attack if I were not on hand to remove the afflicted fowl.

Our hens are more than just egg producers but probably less than many family pets in our family ‘pecking order’. I am not a particularly sentimental sort of person but cannot bear to see any living creature suffer; deliberate cruelty, particularly to trusting animals,  makes me intensely angry. However, I am fairly stoic when it comes to allowing nature to take it’s course. With my flock of chickens I will assess each situation as it arises and decide on what I think is best for the individual hen.

Unless I am convinced that the chicken is in such pain that she is suffering badly and is unlikely to recover, I will try to treat illnesses. Simple remedies such as adding poultry spice, cod liver oil and apple cider vinegar to the food and water will often be enough to aid natural recovery. Minor injuries may require that a hen be temporarily removed from the flock for her own safety but, in many cases, recovery is possible.

Sometimes I get it wrong and will come down in the morning to find that the poorly looking hen has not survived the night. It is a very unpleasant task climbing into the coop to retrieve and dispose of what had recently been a funny and feisty little character. I always wonder if it would have been kinder to dispatch. However, when a hen recovers from an illness, I am so grateful that I gave her a chance.

Hens require a warm, dry house in which to roost, plenty of open space in which to scratch and a plentiful supply of food and clean water. They thrive on routine. I would not take a hen to a vet as I feel it is kinder if I can work out for myself how to deal with each bird. The stress of travel and treatment can negate any benefit from medicine; many ailments can sort themselves out in time with minimal intervention.

After a particularly harsh winter I had three hens in my flock looking poorly and not laying. They were amongst my older girls and had each had previous issues with sniffles and deteriorating condition that I seemed to have successfully treated. During one week in the spring I lost all three of them; it was a distressing time. It seems likely that the flock picked up some bug and the weaker birds succumbed. I treated the remaining girls and put off buying the Easter pullets that I add each year until I was happy that all existing girls were well. Happily I now have a healthy flock, all of whom lay.

Commercial hen keepers recognise that a flock of hens of varying ages will be more susceptible to illness and cull all birds at a certain age, replacing the flock entirely. As a back garden hen keeper I allow my hens to run free until I feel it is not in the individual bird’s best interests to keep going. As I have said, they are more than just egg producers for my family.

The key to keeping hens in this way is the ability to dispatch a bird quickly and humanely; it is not a pleasant thing to have to do. For those keepers who regard their hens as much loved pets it would be too distressing an option so will not suit everyone. Others will not feel confident enough to do the deed themselves.

So long as my birds have been treated kindly and given a happy life then I see a quick death at the hands of a keeper who has regularly handled them as the kindest way to end suffering. I still see it as a last resort though. I much prefer to allow my birds to reach the end of their natural laying life and then enjoy a retirement spent eating, pooping and demanding respect from the younger members of the flock. Even when they are not providing us with eggs, they are still a joy to have in the garden.

Chickens

Allowing our new chickens to free range

After ten days of living with us, our four new chickens are well settled into their new home. The little coop and run in which they have been staying are within sight of the our other hens so they can all get used to each other’s presence. I have been spending time with them each day so that they also get used to me. Although they are still wary, they will now take tasty treats from my hand.

One of the main reasons for keeping new birds segregated from an established flock for a period of time is to ensure that they do not bring any diseases with them that could be detrimental to the health of all the hens. Thankfully, my new chooks continue to look and act exactly as I would wish. Typically for young birds that are not yet in lay, they are flighty and active. They are also inquisitive and respond well to gentle attention.

Before I can let them free range in the main garden though, I need to be sure that they will return to their enclosed run when I need to round them up. As with my other birds, I am training them to respond to the promise of a tasty treat.

I keep a plastic pot filled with mixed corn that I shake to attract my hens attention when they are running free. Hens regard mixed corn as I would regard chocolate! They will follow me to ensure that they get their share of what they have learnt I will scatter for their delectation. Sometimes they will jump at the pot to try to get to it first; all of them will get under my feet as I try to proceed towards the run. I find their excitement and anticipation adorable.

When I have all of the birds around me by the run I will throw a few handfuls of corn inside and shut the gate when they have all rushed in to  scratch for their share. This procedure has proven effective in rounding up my flock quickly at any time of the day when I need them to be safely enclosed.

With my new girls I have been shaking the corn pot to get their attention each day and then scattering a handful of corn in their run. They now get very excited when they see me. They associate me with the prospect of a favourite food, which is exactly what I need to happen.

We have just enjoyed a lovely, sunny weekend here in Wiltshire so I decided that late yesterday afternoon would be a good time to allow the new girls to enjoy their first free range. The old girls had to be put away first to ensure that there were no arguments. The two flocks will not be allowed out together until I am happy that I can control any disputes, probably in another couple of weeks. Until then they will have to free range at separate times of the day.

Having secured the old girls in their run, I opened the gate of the new girls run and stood back to watch. Three of them emerged slowly and warily before spotting what looked to be a tasty bush and starting to snack on the leaves. The fourth chook was watching from the run, wandering up and down in an agitated way, but unable to work out how to join her friends. Eventually we opened the egg hatch in the coop and she hopped out of that.

Freedom gained, all the girls explored their new territory while our old girls watched in disbelief that these previously caged interlopers had been granted the freedom of their garden while they remained shut in. We fed the new girls some leaves and even managed to pick a couple of them up for a cuddle. They need to get used to being handled as this will enable me to regularly check that they are maintaining a healthy weight and are free of parasites. At this stage though, it is best to proceed cautiously. I do not wish them to develop fear of human contact from being forced to comply with something that they still find frightening.

I gave the new girls about an hour of freedom during which time they spread their wings, jumping and flapping as chickens do. They pecked and scratched and said hello to the established flock through their bars. When I shook the corn pot they came running but couldn’t all work out where I had thrown their treat. A little shepherding was required before they were safely enclosed. They will soon learn; it was a very successful first free range.

I will go through the same procedure every few days until all the chooks will reliably return to their run. They will then be granted their freedom for an hour or so each day, depending on the time I have to supervise. Yesterdays taster session allowed them only to explore our small chicken garden. They cannot be allowed the pleasure of the main garden until they have shown that they know how to behave.

I love to see my hens scratch and peck freely but have learnt from experience that it is best to take small steps; to proceed gradually. Stressful situations are not good for chickens and not good for me. If I need to go out then I like to leave my hens safe in their fully enclosed runs. Flighty chickens can jump high fences and I do not want any of my girls to find their way into our neighbouring woodland where predators are more likely to find them. If they are to be granted the freedom of our garden then they need to reliably and quickly return to base when I require them to do so.

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