Care Emergencies/Illness

The Lows Of Keeping Chickens

I’m going into my thirteenth year of keeping chickens so of course there will be ebbs and flows, and a bunch of plateaus in between. I’ve written about some of those highs and lows before. I originally wrote this piece a couple of months ago when I was dealing with a number of lows: the loss of my four-year old rooster, Simon, and one of my hens, Ginger.

I like to think of myself as a ‘glass half full’ kind of person and I think that most folks who know me would concur. I also want to make my Facebook page and this blog a positive learning experience for folks. The sad reality is that if you keep animals – whatever the species – you’ll be faced with health issues and sometimes life and death decisions that can weigh on you. My hope is to provide as much fact-based information so that other chicken keepers might avoid some of those pitfalls.

I’m not sure where the notion that chickens are low maintenance pets – a step above goldfish – came from. Just toss some food down, keep their quarters clean and Bob’s your uncle, you’ll be supplied with copious amounts of eggs by your feathered companions.

Anyone who has had chickens for a while – and even some novices – will tell you that’s far from the truth. I sometimes want to warn all those newbies on Facebook chicken groups to prepare their backs for the workload and steel their hearts against the inevitable illness and death. Personally I find it difficult scrolling through some of those groups with their endless pleas for help replete with graphic photos – some of them blocked for sensitive viewers, like me (I always unblock them just to take a peek, sometimes to my regret).

The first hurdle is dealing with all the issues with chicks that we struggle to resolve: pasty butt, curled toes, slipped tendon, coccidiosis and what is euphemistically referred to as ‘failure to thrive’ – that undefined condition in which the little fluff balls just up and die despite our valiant efforts.

If they make it to adulthood the hens are at risk of a host of reproductive tract issues – none of them with happy outcomes. Roosters can fight amongst themselves and inadvertently inflict damage to the hens during mating.

There’s always a threat of upsets within the pecking order that can lead to nasty incidents of bullying, pecking and sometimes death. Clearly some folks are under the misapprehension that chickens are docile and pretty yard art when they can mine some of the baser instincts in the animal kingdom. Survival of the fittest should be the chicken flock mantra/motto.

And then, of course, is the ever-present danger of living with predators. I’m lucky that mine are limited to a handful of mammals and birds of prey and don’t have to contend with gators, humungous snakes, meerkats or bears. If I did, I might never have got chickens. The worst one of all, is the one that lives in our midst, a wolf in disguise – dogs: our own, the neighbours or those running loose. If I had a dollar for every story I read about murder and mayhem committed by canines I’d be rich.

I not sure about you folks, but there is a certain time commitment with chickens – even just being around in case something happens. I laugh at the folks who ask what do we do with our chickens when we go on vacation. Holidays?! What are they? With dogs, cats, a garden and chickens my idea of a break is to stay home, happy not to have to commute 2 ½ hours a day to get to work and back. Maybe I’m a hovering parent, but I couldn’t relax thinking it would be just my luck that calamity would strike when I wasn’t there.

The thing about pets is they are a full-time commitment. I live in a temperate rainforest. There are days when I don’t feel like taking my dog for a walk. She doesn’t care about my excuses when she’s rarin’ to go. I usually don my waterproof gear and head out grudgingly. One day, when it was absolutely pelting rain I told her it was going to be a nice day by the wood stove. She complied, but I can only use that excuse so often.

And the same is true for chickens. In the summer when it’s warm and light I spend lots of time with my birds. I take my camera and a coffee out to the pen, pull up a chair and get lost in watching them just do their thing. The winter though is a different matter. It’s dark and cold and wet. I run out there, do the minimal amount of care and cleaning and head back in the warmth of my house.

The other issue is, I work. I leave home before they are out of bed and get back when they’ve tucked themselves in for the night. I work four days a week, less since Covid, but that still means I don’t see them much for half the week.

That’s when things happen that you don’t even notice. I had a friendly 7-month old White Crested Black Polish pullet that loved being picked up and carried around. One Thursday, the end of my workweek, I looked for her and she was nowhere to be found. I realized the last time I had seen her was the previous Sunday. Audrey had disappeared with barely a trace: I found a couple of her feathers in the fence mesh where she’d been taken by a predator. She hadn’t even laid her first egg.

When you have a flock of 20 or 30 it’s easy to miss a straggler or someone who is hiding an illness. I advise that you should do a monthly health check to monitor your birds as individuals. Let’s face it, that’s not always possible – we work, we’re busy or tired and things slide.

There’s a terrible responsibility of having some other being’s existence under your control. Their well-being and future is down to you. That’s a heavy burden when things go wrong. And that, of course, leads into the subject of end-of-life care and making the difficult decision to prevent our birds’ suffering in the face of pain, without the realistic chance of a recovery. I’m equal parts coward and optimist when it comes to euthanasia, but I’ve increasingly come to the conclusion that it’s imperative to be both courageous and compassionate to allow our birds’ a good death through humane euthanasia.

Not all of us will experience the gamut of things that can go wrong with chickens, but I guarantee that the longer you have them and the more birds you’ve got, problems with arrive and mostly in waves. My advice is to be prepared and ride it out because following the lows there will be highs to follow.

Featured Photo: JoJo Siwa

2 comments on “The Lows Of Keeping Chickens

  1. Karen carroll

    I cannot express how precisely you’ve described my experience! I’ve been keeping chickens for two years, and the joys have surprised me, but so have the issues. I lost my first hen to suspected Marek’s at 6 months. I vaccinated the rest of the flock. Lost my second to a sudden, but unnamed illness (purple comb, obvious distress), and my third to vent prolapse I couldn’t fix in time. Those are the losses. I’ve also dealt with a severe mite infestation that I took way too long to figure out (but finally did), and I now have a girl with chronic sour crop. Like most backyard chicken keepers, I’ve tried to care for my hens without the benefit of a veterinarian (no vets that handle chickens for miles and miles). More than once I’ve thought of giving my hens away, but I love them too much to let them go.

    What you said is right: people will tell you chickens are easy, but they are not–not if you care about their well-being at all. I think the struggle is worth it, but I wish I’d realized it would BE a struggle from the beginning. I would have felt less overwhelmed from the start, I think.

    Thanks for writing this great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow! I haven’t decided to have chickens yet, but I’ve wanted to. I’m glad I found this article. I don’t think it will deter me (and I don’t think that’s the point of it), but you’re definitely giving me things to consider as well as some realistic expectations.

    Liked by 1 person

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