Basics Care

Best Practices For Chicken Keepers

Sometimes I feel like I’m a bit of a lone voice in the wilderness when I’m on Facebook, a bit like Sisyphus rolling that proverbial boulder up the hill. What do I mean by that? I’m someone who’s always been a curious life-long learner who challenges myself to understand why and how things work. I get frustrated that the world of social media is typically dominated by opinions – views and judgments – often not rooted in fact or knowledge. Unfortunately that leads to a multitude of conflicting dialogues.

I work as a Health Promotion Educator and understand that folks do things in lots of different ways for varying reasons. Sometimes there is no ‘right’ way, but sometimes there is. In my field we call that ‘best practices’ which refers to “a procedure that has been shown by research and experience to produce optimal results and that is established or proposed as a standard suitable for widespread adoption.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

When Facebook members speak of having always done something in a particular way does that mean it’s the most effective way? How do we know it even works?

I see all kinds of advice that makes me pause: how you can sex a chick by the shape of the egg its in or by hanging them upside down and observing how much they struggle; or the folks who hearken back to the days of their grandparents who ‘never had any health issues with their birds’.

I would hazard a guess that previous generations either culled a bird at the first sign of illness or didn’t notice until a bird was very sick or died. Many current backyard chicken keepers view their chickens as pets and thankfully those days of animal neglect are often a thing of the past.

Small flock folks tend to spend more time with our chickens and see them as creatures deserving respect and care, which is why it’s important that we elevate the health of our birds and alleviate any suffering on their part. I understand finances are an issue when it comes to veterinary care, but if we practice good fundamentals we can avoid some of those health challenges.

Who Defines Best Practices?

Best practices are rooted in science.

sci·​ence | \ ˈsī-ən(t)s  \

  • from Latin scientia meaning ‘knowledge’  
  • a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the world
  • foundation tenets include: the use of observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena

As someone who has kept chickens for 13 years, read lots, and spent time with folks with veterinary training I feel I know a fair amount about small flock health issues and management. I am by no means an expert and defer to those with more experience and training than me. I’ve been fortunate that I have several vet techs and veterinarians that have mentored me along the way.

I recently saw a post in an online chicken health group. Someone had followed the advice of a well-known chicken blogger (with 800,000 followers) to dip her chicken’s legs in gasoline to kill scaly leg mites. She did so and two of her hens suffered major side effects. When she asked for help a vet responded that she had poisoned her bird. Obviously she regretted her actions, but was merely following the advice of someone she thought was recommending best practices. It was a hard lesson to learn.

I was happy to see that both a vet and the group moderators responded to her post:

“Members: I think this is a great learning opportunity. The admin team receives a great deal of complaints from disgruntled members when we remove links to the (website name deleted). We do this because whilst there is some good information in there, it’s not all good. Our rules and guidelines have been set up with heavy input from our volunteer vets. We follow them strictly to try and make this group as safe as possible. Thanks to the OP (original poster) for sharing their experience.”

Why Are They Important?

As anyone new to chickens can tell you it’s a sharp learning curve if your only pets prior to poultry have been cats and dogs. Even Vets trained to work on mammals are often out of their depth when it comes to avian anatomy, physiology and pathologies. If you understand and follow best practices for chicken husbandry it will save you lots of time and energy trying to figure out what is best for your flock. Doing so builds on the experience of all those chicken keepers that have come before you who worked things out through trial and error. By adopting their methods you have committed to finding the best ways to care for you flock and will avoid some of the pitfalls of inexperience. Think of it as a framework for success and a means of avoiding failure.

The Evolution Of Best Practices

Chicken husbandry is based on everyday experience as well as science when it comes to understanding and treating health issues. As the science improves our best practices adapt to incorporate new ideas. That doesn’t mean what we did previously was wrong, just that we were working with the information we had available at the time.

I am always interested in learning something new which requires being open to other ways of seeing and doing things. It feels good to have a fair level of expertise on a subject, but it feels even better to surround myself with folks more experienced and skilled than me who can mentor me to become a better chicken keeper and blogger.

As avian veterinary medicine expands from its historical focus on the commercial poultry industry to incorporate small flocks the knowledge exchange between practitioners and keepers will enrich both groups.

“You need people in your life that are further along than you, people that are more experienced, people that are out of your league. You need to be exposed to new levels so that you can go to new levels.” – Joel Osteen

Finding Best Practices

I guarantee that if you scroll through any Facebook chicken group you will find a number of varying and conflicting opinions about all aspects of chicken keeping. The dilemma is often trying to figure out which one to put your faith in. That’s not always an easy decision to make.

Online groups can be a great source of self-help, often in the absence of veterinary care, but it’s important to recognize when folks lack the requisite skills or knowledge to be able to effectively advise others. I understand the desire to be helpful, but sometimes being given the wrong advice makes a difficult situation worse.

On a recent online thread about the use of antibiotics in chickens one poster stated the he “didn’t need to pay some idiot to know what meds were required for my birds”. To that I responded, by some ‘idiot’ do you mean a trained veterinarian? It’s that very attitude that has led to the widespread misuse and overuse of antibiotics that has created antibiotic resistant bacteria.

It’s not always possible to find, or affordable to use, the services of an Avian Vet, which leaves many folks searching the internet for assistance.

My advice would be to find a consistently reliable source of information and stick with it. It may sound cynical, but be cautious when there is money involved. As a small blogger I actually pay for the privilege of sharing my work. Other folks have a wider audience and receive payment from a variety of sponsors. Sure, it would be great if I earned some income from my work, but at the end of the day I’m not beholden to folks that pay for links to their products and promoting their viewpoints in my work. The bottom line for me is to support the community of small flock keepers and to improve the lives of their birds.

In using the image of Sisyphus I don’t want to imply that best practices are arduous, rather the real challenge is having folks adopt science-based practices. I am happy to see that more small flock keepers are becoming educated in chicken health issues and supporting others along the way.

If you are interested in an overview of some best practices in chicken husbandry check out this link.

3 comments on “Best Practices For Chicken Keepers

  1. Thank you thank you! You are one of my favorite go-to pros in chickens!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We have been ‘chicken people’ for just under a year now. Blogs and limited university extension posts have guided us so far. Today I found your blog and, as a physician, am so excited to see someone reading through studies and comparing sources cited etc while advocating for practical, safe chicken practices. Thank you for your time and sharing your passion!

    Liked by 1 person

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