Annus horribilis? No, it’s not a rare chicken disease. If you’re not up on your Latin, or have forgotten Queen Elizabeth’s address in 1992, annus horribilis, means horrible year. Ok, maybe my whole year hasn’t been awful, although it sometimes felt that way. The Queen summed her 2019 as ‘quite bumpy’. I can relate; there were definitely times I’ve felt like throwing in the towel and giving up chickens.
Like most chicken keepers I want healthy birds without feeling overwhelmed by caring for them. This year, my flock has been plagued by a number of health issues and some days, I’ve been left feeling at my limit with what I was able to manage.
The first two years I had chickens I bought eight young birds all from the same breeder: never added any new ones, never had chicks and never had any health issues. Fast forward a few years, when my flock grew to include a rooster, some newcomers, many broody hens and each year, their chicks. And guess what? The more birds you have and the longer you keep them, chances are you will start to experience the laundry list of chicken illnesses. This year has been a doozy and I hope, one that never gets repeated.
The new year rolled in with my decision to euthanize one of my favourite hens, Mango. She became egg-bound several months before and although she’d made a good recovery her vent was permanently distended and never functioned normally again. She stopped laying but went on to raise some chicks, including a frizzle, just like her. I was concerned about complications (like salpingitis or flystrike) and my friend, Thomas, euthanized her. I still miss her.
In May, one of my most personable young pullets, Corazon, who had just started laying, repeatedly developed a prolapsed vent. After several unsuccessful attempts to fix it without success, I asked Thomas to euthanize her. The necropsy revealed she had developed salpingitis.
The following month, Pixie, a cute Mille Fleur D’Uccle x Easter Egger was looking to go broody. Unbeknownst to me, she had been stockpiling a stash of eggs in the back of the storage shed. On the first night she started sitting on them Pixie became an easy target, and a meal, for a raccoon. I’ve been incredibly lucky that this was my first raccoon fatality.
I am blessed, or cursed – depending on your perspective – with many broody hens. If I had fewer, or they were more considerate by staggering their hatches, life would be easier. Most years, things are pretty easy – the occasional assisted hatch or chicks that die at hatch – but nothing out of the ordinary. Not so for this year: I have experienced the gamut of pretty much everything that could go wrong.
My goal each year is to sell some straight-run (unsexed) chicks when the hen has finished with them, typically around six weeks. I also like to keep some grow-outs to see how they turn out and what colour egg they might lay before deciding which ones I’ll re-home.
I had 13 hatches and had to deal with issues, illness, unexpected death or euthanasia in six of them!
I assisted two chicks to hatch – one survived, one didn’t – and successfully hatched another abandoned, but still viable, egg by moving it from one hen to another.
Broody hen, Spot sat on eggs, only to abandon them after nine days. In an effort to save them, I moved Aurora on to them and she, too, gave up after three days. In desperation I borrowed Nefertiti, a broody hen, from Thomas and Elizabeth, who was happy to call them her own. A few days later, Aurora, was back to being broody again, so I split the eggs between them; each of them ended up with a successful hatch, but not without some stress on my part.
There were two pecking deaths:
Two hens were sharing the same pen space. I came home one day to find a 4-week old cockerel dead from a pecking injury and assumed that Aurora, the more dominant hen, had killed Shona’s son. Last year, she and Mango voluntarily bunked in one crate and raised their chicks together. There’s no predicting how some birds get along and what might go sideways when you’re not around.
Nefertiti had an abnormal looking chick that she dispatched shortly after it hatched. I always wonder how hens can differentiate between chicks that are healthy and the ones with issues.
I donate hatching eggs to elementary schools and typically get the chicks back when they are one or two weeks old. Most times, their hatches are problem free. This year, both schools had numerous issues which is not uncommon with fluctuating temperatures and humidity in incubators: two assisted hatches, slipped tendon, curled toes and five dead chicks before they were even returned to me.
Once home, that bunch developed coccidiosis – another first for me. I lost one chick before I realized what was going on and managed to treat them with amprolium and save the rest.
One of them, a 7-week old cockerel died in a freak accident: he suffocated under a ceramic food bowl that had flipped over, trapping him underneath. A pullet from that hatch developed an unfixable slipped tendon and had to be euthanized.
I’ve got one rooster and don’t need another. I spend considerable time trying to find his sons forever homes. I’ve been fortunate that most of them have gone on to flocks of their own. Thomas and Elizabeth are prepared to butcher any that haven’t been so lucky. In 2018, they took young birds and grew them out for several months.
Unable to accommodate any more birds last year, they could only take cockerels when they were about five months old. So that meant I had to hold on to the boys for far longer than I usually do. Feeding and caring for them, only to give them away for free: either to a home or to be eaten. The other downside of keeping birds for months is space got tight and then like dominos, I started to experience one health issue after another.
In August, I noticed a young hen looking a bit off and the following morning I found her dead on the coop floor. I sent her off to the provincial Animal Health Centre for a necropsy. Cause of death: gout. Whoever heard of gout in chickens? Not me. Then I started researching it and of course, had to write something about it as well. Leave it to me to turn a sad situation into an opportunity for learning something new.
The necropsy tests were negative for Mycoplasma Gallisepticum (MG) and Infectious Bronchitis, so I was confident that she didn’t carry transmittable pathogens.
Just when I thought I’d got everything in hand, I had to deal with several cases of bumblefoot, mites and roundworms. When it rains it pours.
Having illness or parasites in your flock is problematic: I knew I needed to downsize my numbers in order to get on top of managing their health issues, but I couldn’t re-home potential sick birds. It was a catch-22 situation: the longer I kept too many birds, the more health issues I ended up dealing with.
My intention had been to reduce my flock to get back to pre-chick numbers of about 25. I had found someone who wanted 15 of my birds: pullets and hens. Two days before delivery, my Naked Neck x pullet missed bedtime lock up. She must have been roosting in the open storage shed and I didn’t see her when I made my rounds. Unfortunately she became my second raccoon fatality not just for this year, but ever.
Everyone has now been treated for whatever ailed them: coccidiosis, worms, mites, bumblefoot and things are on an even keel.
My flock is now down to 27, with only one cockerel to be re-homed. Everyone seems happy and healthy, my workload has decreased significantly and I’m hoping that is the way things will continue throughout 2020. Wish me luck.
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