I got my first birds in 2005: 13 chicks, which I whittled down to eight pullets. Those were the days before the huge online presence of Facebook farm and chicken groups. I didn’t know much about chickens, just that I wanted them. Friends helped convert an existing building on the property and handed me a book on keeping chickens when they left. I honestly don’t remember reading it. I had those birds for two years and in that time I had zero health issues; two were killed by hawks. They were so easy it was laughable. They lulled me into thinking all chickens might be equally low maintenance.
I re-homed those birds, took a four year hiatus and got more four pullets in 2011. In the intervening years I hatched chicks, bought birds from local breeders, took in rescues and even found abandoned birds at the side of the road. I didn’t have the space and know-how to adhere to a sufficient quarantine period.
I also did what many chicken keepers do: I visited friends that had chickens with no regard for what I might be tracking on my shoes or clothes into their flock. I borrowed crates or equipment without thinking of what hidden pathogens might be stowed away and carried in to my flock. In short, I threw biosecurity protocols out the window.
For several years I’ve been a member of various online chicken forums and have spent a fair amount of time scrolling through posts. Since starting this blog I’ve increased my online time and often spend more time on that than my paid job.
I see some of the same themes over and over and thought I might throw some suggestions out there that might steer folks towards how to keep a successful flock. I know hindsight is 20-20 and if I had to do it all over again I’d offer the following advice:
Be Prepared: For lots of folks, now more than ever, chickens are an impulse buy and even if they’re not many are woefully unprepared. Who wouldn’t fall for those fuzz balls? But they grow up quickly and you need to be prepared well in advance of getting them. Read lots, have your brooder ready for your chicks and your coop and run constructed by the time they move into it just a few short weeks later.
Online Information: If you’ve spent any time in Facebook chicken groups your head is probably swirling from the plethora of conflicting and confusing advice. I recognize that most folks are just trying to be helpful, but in their efforts to assist they are often perpetuating erroneous information. Find a reliable, trustworthy source of information that is based on science and experience and stick with them.
Build Big Or Go Home: Online groups often recommend the minimum space requirements for chickens, but rarely do folks point out they are foraging animals and are constantly on the move. The more space they have the happier and healthier they are. If you have to pen them (I do) make your run as big as possible (mine is 30’x40’). Overcrowding is stressful and contributes to pecking, bullying, decreased egg production and triggers underlying health issues.
All In, All Out: I’m quite concerned at the widespread practice of folks starting with a small number of birds and then constantly adding more, a couple at a time. Chicks are especially vulnerable and it’s not uncommon to see online threads of people dealing with unexpected losses. I know it’s not easy to always predict how many birds you might want, but try to get them all at the same time and from the same source.
There’s an old farmers’ adage that says all health problems are bought and sold — meaning that you acquire health issues with the back and forth trading of new stock.
Quarantine: Every chicken keeper should plan their set up with the thought that, at some point, you will need an isolation area for sick or new birds. The best case scenario is that it’s located 30’ from your flock. That’s not always possible, but design something that is physically separated from your coop and other birds. Respiratory infections are spread through aerosolized particles when infected birds cough or sneeze. If you don’t have a separate coop place a predator proof dog crate in a shed, garage or barn.
Once home, segregate new birds – most folks say for 21- 30 days (Poultry DVM suggests 10 days) – to observe for any signs of illness and to acclimate the newcomers to their surroundings.
Pecking Order: New chicken keepers are often surprised at the constancy and sometimes, the aggression and violence, of the pecking order. Understanding how it works can save you heart break; ignore it at your peril and at the expense of your flock. Every time you move birds into, or out of, your flock the hierarchy gets readjusted. As you can imagine it’s stressful and is often a cause for bullying, pecking and the triggering of health issues.
Biosecurity: is a combination of all the things we can do – big and small – on a routine basis to prevent the introduction of, or limit the spread of, infectious bacteria and viruses into, or out of, our flocks. It’s accomplished in three ways: ensuring our birds are healthy and have strong immune systems; restricting pathogens’ access to our birds; and if our birds do get sick making sure we don’t spread those illnesses to other flocks. Examples would include: minimizing contact with wild birds and rodents; cleaning and disinfection of your coop and equipment and limiting exposure to visitors.
Chain Of Infection: Pathogens (bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, protozoa) live on contaminated surfaces/equipment; water; soil; other animals/insects and spread though aerosols (saliva/mucous); dander; poop or feathers by direct or indirect contact. Understanding how that chain can be broken will increase the overall health of your flock.
Stress/FLAWS: We can all relate to times in our lives when we’ve been under stress and how that may have affected our mental or physical health. And just like with us, when it comes to chickens, stress is often the catalyst for illness. FLAWS is an acronym that allows us to understand and minimize stressors that can create health issues for our birds: Feed, Flock Dynamics, Light, Litter, Air, Water, Sanitation, Security & Space.
Chicken Math: I post a lot of memes about Chicken Math on my Facebook page because they resonate with us and make us laugh. We all love chickens, but there can be a negative consequence at the heart of that phenomenon. We dismiss the notion of chicken addiction because it’s ostensibly not harmful like drugs or alcohol. Who could begrudge someone for wanting to be surrounded by something positive like chickens?
My observation is that birds do suffer: from their owners’ lack of time, money or know-how. It is easy when you’ve got a large flock to not notice something amiss until it’s too late. I strongly advise folks to be happy with the birds they have. Getting more will not make you happier and may have negative consequences for the ones you love.
First Aid Kit: I never had a first aid kit with my first flock and thankfully never needed one. I’ve now got two plastic totes full of an array of supplies and have dealt with: a pecking injury, split beak, prolapses, egg binding, coccidiosis, worms, mites, lice, bumblefoot, sprains, curled toes and a slipped tendon. The more bird you have and the longer you keep them the more you’ll experience. Start assembling your kit now.
Common Health Issues/Anatomy: Spend a bit of time learning about basic chicken anatomy (i.e. digestive, reproductive, respiratory systems) and common health issues. By recognizing what is normal or not you can avert some major health issues. It also gives you an idea what to look for when buying birds.
Monthly Health Check: Take the time to do a monthly physical exam of all your birds and know what to look for. By looking at their feet you can discover signs of bumblefoot or scaly leg mites; lifting them up will give you a sense of their weight and if you peek under their wings or around their vent you may find mites or lice. A few minutes can save a lot of stress, and maybe a life.
Necropsy: If you have an unexplained or sudden loss consider investing in a necropsy. I’ve had several unexpected losses over the years and am still wondering what happened. I had my first bird necropsied a couple of years ago and felt that the small cost was worth knowing her cause of death (gout) and any underlying issues that might affect the rest of my flock (thankfully, none).
Euthanasia: No one likes to think of dealing with injury, disease and end-of-life choices. Sadly, if you keep chickens long enough that day with come. Understand the difference between allowing something to suffer without hope and witnessing suffering as part of the road to recovery. Chickens are remarkably resilient, but when it’s their time have a plan to euthanize them. I have been able to do so with chicks, but frankly, I’m scared of screwing it up with older birds. I have folks that are experienced and willing to help when the time comes.
I’m hoping that by sharing some of my experiences and observations I can save you some heartbreak and help to keep your flocks healthy and happy.
These are just short squibs to get you started. I encourage you to explore the archive of the many articles I have posted on chicken husbandry and health issues. I welcome feedback and questions, so feel free to leave comments or contact me if you need some advice.
Photo Credits: UI Here, US Department of Agriculture, Poultry DVM & Purina Mills.