Last week I was out with my chickens taking photos and just hanging out. The next couple of days I was busy or it was raining. The following day, as I was feeding them I noticed Pixie stumble as she came out of the coop. It could have been a one-off, but that was a sign for concern. I watched her mill around the flock looking a little lost. She drank some water but didn’t eat. I bent down to pick her up. My birds are friendly, but not used to being handled so it wasn’t a good sign that she did not resist. She looked fine (clear eyes, shiny feathers), but she was underweight. As a veteran chicken keeper how had I missed that? I knew she hadn’t laid for a while, but she was always there when I went out to the pen and always on the roost bars at night.
When I went out for bedtime lock up I found Pixie roosting on the ground outside the coop. She was lying beside the waterer, her neck feathers wet. I picked her up without a struggle and put her in a dog crate in the infirmary. She wasn’t interested in food or water and I wasn’t hopeful for her recovery. I wasn’t wrong – when I went to check her the next morning she was dead and still warm.
I felt like I failed her. If I had been more vigilant I might have noticed her weight loss, I could have tracked if she was eating or pooping normally. Some losses are sudden and unexpected and maybe there was nothing you could do. Other birds decline slowly and we’re at a loss for how to help them. (I sent her for a necropsy and the pathologist assured me there was nothing I could have done.)
Pixie’s death has motivated me to remind myself and other chicken keepers on the importance of not just observing your birds, but also doing a monthly health check. If you’ve got a lot of birds it might be a bit of a chore but it’s worth it to maintain the health of your flock. If you’re a list maker like me, you could have a photocopied chart with each bird’s name and a simple checklist. Having print records is helpful when tracking issues over time.
The easiest method to handle my birds is at night when they are roosting. I wear a head lamp and lift them off the roost bars one by one. If you’ve got birds that don’t mind being picked up you can do a few at a time, but make sure you don’t miss any.
So what are you looking for?
- Firm, bright red (if laying).
- Floppy or paler combs can be an issue.
- Blue tinted combs are a sign of oxygen deprivation/heart issues.
- Black spots could be pecking injuries or Fowl Pox.
- Black tips in winter are a sign of frostbite.
- No discharge, fully open, and bright.
- Cloudy, foamy or watery eyes are signs of respiratory infections.
- Change to grayish colour or irregularly shaped pupils are symptoms of Marek’s Disease.
- Look for cataracts or signs of impaired vision in older birds.
- Top and bottom should be aligned with no chips or splits.
- Lesions in the mouth are a sign of Canker or Fowl Pox.
- Smell indicates sour crop.
- Coughing or sneezing are signs of respiratory infections.
- Liquid coming from beak could indicate a crop issue.
- Nostrils should be clean; if plugged can be sinusitis.
- Should be full at night and empty in the morning before they have had access to food or water.
- If it is empty at night or full in the morning those are signs for concern.
- Hard crop can be impacted.
- Should be firm and not swing (pendulous crop)
- A healthy bird’s keel should feel somewhat padded. Pixie’s was more prominent, which was an indication of weight loss.
- If your can’t feel the keel it may be a sign that your bird is obese.
- Check for signs of mites and lice (small, moving bugs).
- Clusters of eggs on feather shafts are evidence of lice.
- Is the vent normal or prolapsed?
- Any signs of pecking injuries?
Legs, Feet & Spurs
- Examine the scales on the legs and feet, which should be smooth and flat. If not consider scaly leg mites.
- Look for swelling at the joints (Mycoplasma Synoviae), swollen legs (gout) or inflammation of, or lesions on, the foot pads (bumblefoot).
- Are spurs in need of trimming or damaged? I have three hens with spurs, so don’t overlook your hens that have them.
- Broken toenails, injured feet.
- Varies quite a bit from firm, dark brown with a white cap to occasionally sloppy or containing cecal lining.
- Predominantly white poop is excessive urates, which you might expect if the weather was hot and they are drinking a lot of water.
- Yellow and green poop are usually not normal (unless they have eaten something that has coloured their poop).
- Except when molting, feathers should be shiny and full.
- Bald spots or dull feathers could be a sign of problem (feather pecking, mites, rooster mating damage to hens).
- Look under wing feathers and around the vent for signs of mites or lice.
- Roosting on the floor or nest box (and not broody)
- Not eating or drinking
- Uneven gait (wobbly)
- Not laying, poor quality eggs
- Panting, yawning
- Standing upright, ‘penguin’ stance
- Drooping wings
I know with busy schedules it may not be easy to do a full health check of your whole flock every month, but if you get into the habit of being aware of what is normal for each of your birds it will become easier to spot when something isn’t. Chickens are prey animals and, like Pixie, they often have a great way of hiding serious illness until it’s too late.
If you do lose a bird I encourage you to invest in a necropsy to find out cause of death and anything else that might be affecting your flock.