Note: I have worked hard to post positive articles. This is one of those rare occasions when I feel the need to rant. I love my chickens and want the best for all birds. When I see them suffer needlessly I feel impotent. Where I can make a difference is to keep reaching out to those who want to learn and together we can improve the lives of the beings that we are committed to stewarding.
Although the content of this post is somber, the images are not. We all know what they can look like, so I’ve opted to include some uplifting images instead.
Several comments have popped up on Facebook chicken groups lately, in which the posters lament the growing number of threads and photos of sick, dying or dead chickens. I understand that forums are a means of finding help when chicken keepers are dealing with health issues, but I am feeling the heaviness of all that morbidity as well. Some folks considering getting chickens wonder if they are in for one heartbreak after another. Others ask for posts of live, healthy chickens to lighten the mood.
In 11 years of having chickens my time has been punctuated by the occasional predator attack or health issue – some serious, some not. Last year was a particularly bad year, but that was an anomaly. For the most part things have run fairly smoothly, but the longer you have chickens the more you are likely to experience.
I have never bought feed store chicks. My first birds were purchased from a local breeder as 6 week old pullets, off heat and ready to go into the coop. Since then I have bought older pullets or hens or hatched my own chicks. I’ve walked through feed stores when they have a small bin of chicks, but I have never experienced full-on chick sales, with many birds in multiple brooders.
From reading months of posts it is apparent these babies have come from large-scale hatcheries where they are produced as cheap commodities. Chicks with incubator-related hatching issues such as crossbeak, slipped tendon, spraddle egg, curled toes, wry neck, blindness or small size are packed in boxes and shipped, sometimes for days before arriving at their final destination. They are exposed to heat, cold, stress and overcrowding. Some arrive weak or dead. They are sold, as is, often without explanation for their care or how to remedy their health issues.
Employees can be knowledgeable and caring, or totally ignorant of chicken husbandry. Some of those struggling chicks end up in garbage cans still alive, to die. Others are sold at a discount to unprepared folks or Good Samaritans looking to nurse them back to health. Both groups post online looking for support, and both are sad when their little ones don’t make it. Many stores allow you to bring the corpse back for exchange as though those lives were totally expendable and easily replaced with a new chick. After all, they are only a couple of dollars, less if you hit sale day.
The Covid 19 pandemic is fueling a buying frenzy of epic proportions: both of toilet paper and feed store chicks. Long time, experienced chicken keepers complain there are none left for them. Panic and impulse buying often means folks have not done their research and are totally unprepared for their new charges. This week alone I saw several sad posts including one woman who wondered why her chicks were dying one after another (it turns out she bought grit instead of chick starter); another posted a video of a limp, dying chick and asked for advice (her boyfriend bought it as a present – a single chick and they had no brooder or heat source); a third allowed her toddler to play with a chick who suffered neurological damage and had to be euthanized.
If those chicks make it to adulthood unscathed there are numerous health issues along the way. All of us were new chicken keepers at some point, some more prepared than others. The idea that chickens are a no maintenance pet is a totally fallacy. They are susceptible to parasites, respiratory infections, reproductive issues, cancers, accidents and injuries.
Most of us have grown up with dogs or cats and have a good idea what to expect. We’ve got easy access to a trained veterinarian that can help in a time of crisis. Not so with chickens. We often hum along not recognizing signs of illness. They can’t tell us what their symptoms are and frustratingly, often hide them from us until they are really sick and too late to help. We stumble through online groups looking for a diagnosis and treatment options. Forums are full of well-intentioned folks who, in their attempts to help, can steer folks in the wrong direction.
The question of what to do with surplus roosters is a perennial one, but I fear with the rush on buying chicks people will get unsexed birds with no thought on what to do with unwanted cockerels six months down the road. I’m often dismayed at the way some folks characterize their roosters as useless and don’t treat them well. Common advice for dealing with aggression in roosters is to show more aggression: hitting, kicking or hanging them upside down as though that will ‘teach them who’s boss’. The bullying and brutality that those birds are subjected to makes me cringe.
And then there is the fate of predators. I am both a chicken keeper and a naturalist. I live on a small island surrounded by forest. I recognize that predators exist; some of us have more than others and have to deal with them. I get that. What I can’t relate to is the gleeful attitude towards dispatching native species that are just doing their thing. I’ve scrolled by many a post with folks showing off their trophies – dead opossums, snakes, mink, raccoons – without feeling even a hint of remorse. It’s an eye for an eye attitude.
People love the idea of free-ranging birds enjoying their days in the sun, scratching in the grass. I loved that when I free-ranged my birds too. For various reasons, I made the decision several years ago to pen my flock. They have a roomy coop and a large 30’x40’ pen with fruit trees and overhead netting. I can’t protect them from all predators, but for the most part they have been safe. If you do have a free-ranging flock understand what predators are in your area and do what you reasonably can to protect your birds.
One of the other themes I see, over and over, on Facebook groups is the killing of chickens by dogs; sometimes the neighbours’, sometimes their own. Chickens are prey animals: they squawk, run and don’t fly so make for an easy target. Some folks seem to think it’s fun to allow their dog to chase their birds; other folks chalk up losses to the price of having chickens. And others are totally surprised when their family pet kills their birds. If you have a dog, train it and never allow it to have access to your flock unless it has proven to be totally reliable – which may be never.
I have to say that I concur with those posters who are dismayed at the tragedies involving chickens. Scrolling through multiple posts of graphic injuries and illness makes one hope for a palette cleanser involving cute chick videos. When my mind wanders I find I am doing mental calculations extrapolating the number of dead chickens, in any given season, across the country.
For the most part I don’t think any of this is the result of ill intent. Most folks want the best for their birds. Some talk of the grief at their loss; some say a little prayer and bury them. Chicken illness and subsequent death is often the result of folks not doing their homework, getting chicks before understanding basic husbandry and not having enough time or money to really care for them.
It’s when folks clearly have no interest in committing to chickens as living beings that frustrates me. I’m finding that more and more I have to scroll by more posts after having done a faceplant or two. The suffering I experience in online Facebook groups is hard to bear witness to.
So what was the response to those soft-hearted folks who asked for some positive posts? I’m sad to say there was some real push back. They were told in no uncertain terms that if they didn’t like what they saw to go elsewhere; that injury, illness and death are part and parcel of having chickens. I agree that we all suffer losses, but very few people in online groups seem to voice their concern for the sheer scale of it all. The tragic part is many of those illnesses or deaths were preventable.
One of the purposes of my blogs is to build capacity among chicken keepers: as we increase knowledge levels we will also increase the level of care for our chickens. If we chase people away who are open and eager to learn where will they get their information?
So what can we all do as a collective to ensure the increased survival rate and better health outcomes for small flock chickens?
- Be prepared: read lots before you get chickens; decide if they are right for you at this moment.
- Do not buy birds on impulse. Everyone loves chicks, but are you knowledgeable and committed to their care for the rest of their lives?
- If you are getting chicks buy healthy stock from a reputable breeder, hopefully close to home where they are not mass produced and treated as a cheap commodity.
- If you don’t want a rooster then buy sexed chicks, understanding that even then it’s not always a guarantee that you will only end up with hens.
- Have your brooder and coop totally ready before getting birds.
- Find a good source of reliable, accurate information. Forums are great, but filled with lots of untrained folks with differing opinions that might send you in circles.
- Understand basic animal husbandry, how pathogens are transmitted, the pecking order, quarantine, FLAWS – and adhere to them.
- Learn about basic chicken anatomy and common illnesses so you recognize something when it is amiss.
- Feed your birds a balanced feed and clean them often. Building their immune systems with good husbandry will allow them to be resistant to pathogens.
- Do regular monthly health checks on your birds: look for mites, lice, bumblefoot, injuries, missing feathers, respiratory symptoms, eye and comb health, overall weight. If you stay on top of things you can treat before it gets serious.
- When a bird is ill try to reach a diagnosis based on their symptoms and come up with a treatment plan. Do not throw every possible remedy at them ‘just in case’ it might work. Sick birds are vulnerable and need to be given the proper care.
- We laugh about Chicken Math and Chicken Addiction, but the consequence of getting too many birds or even integrating new birds and is often stress, which is a catalyst for decreased egg production, bullying, pecking, cannibalism and triggering underlying illness. We may want more birds, but is it healthy for them? Do you really have the time to properly care for them all. I have come to the conclusion that it is important to set a realistic limit – based on the needs of my birds –and stick to it.
- Assemble a well-stocked first aid kit now.
- Find a veterinarian who is experienced in avian health issues.
- Join an online group that has members with veterinary training and experience with chickens.
- If your bird is ill and the prognosis is not promising have a plan to humanely euthanize it: a veterinarian, yourself or a friend. Do not allow your birds to suffer because you can’t make that decision or can’t do it yourself.
Now my rant is over I’m not sure I’m feeling any better yet. I know my sphere of influence is small, but my goal is to continually reach as many chicken keepers as I can and work together to keep our birds healthy and happy. I am heartened when folks ask me for help: I appreciate their concern and I feel validated that I’m making a difference, one bird at a time.
Related Reading: Adding To Your Flock; Biosecurity; How Many Chickens Are Enough?; Keeping Chickens: Understanding FLAWS; Quarantine; Understanding The Chain Of Infection; Understanding The Pecking Order; Want Chickens? Here Are Some Questions To Consider
Image Credits: Mary Britton Clouse; Chicken Rescue; Chickens Rule The World; Grumpy Chickens; PETA, Poultry DVM.