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Welcome back for the second installment of our new series on poultry health. This column addresses some heavy hitters and a few of the most common predicaments you might find yourself in. It’s good to get a head start on these issues, knowing what to expect and having the remedies on hand when you need them. For this issue, we will cover the letters D and E. Let’s start with dehydration. (Read the other installments of the series here: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.)
Just like us, chickens can go longer without food than they can without water. When a chicken does drink water, it takes only a bit at a time; you’ll notice it dip its beak in the water, lean its head back and drink it down.
The chicken will do this several times at each visit to the water fount. Because of this, birds need to drink often. Without sufficient water, hens will reduce egg production—an egg is more than 70 percent water, after all—and chicks will fail to thrive.
“Birds regulate their body temperature through respiration. A panting bird means it is getting overheated. Hydration is the only way birds are able to maintain their body temperature. During periods of excessive heat, monitoring water consumption is very important,” according to “Small Flock Poultry Management,” from New Mexico State University.
Dehydration runs on a spectrum. It’s possible for a bird to be deprived of water and not be completely dehydrated. This still has lasting effects on the bird’s health. Laying hens deprived of water for a day or more can take weeks to recover. Going without sufficient water for three days or more can result in a permanent state of weakened egg-laying.
Water deprivation or dehydration can happen for many reasons. Even if their waterer is filled each day, other factors can prevent birds from accessing the water. First, can all of the birds, regardless of size, reach the waterer? Is there something in the water that alters the taste—such as feces or algae—and is it clean? Are birds lower in the pecking order able to reach the waterer or are alpha hens preventing them?
Most importantly, have a good waterer that is built to hold enough water for the size of your flock. Fill it as often as needed so that clean, fresh water is always available; only you can judge how often that is, based on your climate, flock size, season and style/size of water font.
Birds of different ages need varying amounts of water. The older a bird is, the more water it typically needs. In summer, keep waterers out of direct sun. In winter, take precautionary measures to make sure waterers don’t freeze, preventing the birds from accessing it. While hotter months tend to suggest the need for more water, proper hydration in the winter is critical to staying warm.
Lastly, invest in a good watering system. Good water founts are raised up at the height of the smallest chicken’s back. They are also designed to prevent roosting and, thus, the contamination of fresh water with droppings.
Egg binding is a very serious reproductive issue that is most common in young birds, called point-of-lay pullets. This ailment occurs when an egg becomes lodged in a chamber of the cloaca. It might be that a young bird is laying exceptionally large eggs, a disease caused the reproductive organs to swell or the issue is a matter of genetics. However it occurs, it’s important to know that an egg-bound hen is in a fatal predicament unless the egg is removed.
A hen’s reproductive tract is made up of the oviduct and the ovary, where the egg yolks develop.
“The completed yolks are released and picked up by the oviduct for the development of the rest of the egg. If the yolk is not picked up by the oviduct, it is shed into the hen’s body cavity,” writes Jacquie Jacob, poultry extension associate at the University of Kentucky, in “Egg Bound.” According to Jacob, “This phenomenon is referred to as ‘internal laying,’ and typically such yolks are absorbed by the body. But when internal laying occurs too frequently, the body cavity becomes overloaded with yolk. The hen is then said to be egg-bound and displays a distended abdomen.”
How do you know a hen is egg bound? It’s true that chickens will manifest many of the same symptoms for a wide range of illnesses; you have to be a bit of a detective to figure out exactly what’s wrong. With egg binding, there’s a telltale sign, something I call the “penguin stance.”
An egg-bound hen—in addition to not laying, rarely eating or drinking, crouching or walking oddly—will stand in a very unusual position. With her tail tucked downward and her feathers fluffed out just a bit, the egg-bound hen resembles a penguin. She might not move or might move very slowly.
There are several ways to remedy egg binding. Because the egg is blocking the vent, this is not an ailment where you can wait for very long. It’s a serious condition that will kill the bird if untreated. If it’s within your means and your philosophy of chicken keeping, you might take the bird to an avian vet. If you’re more of a DIYer, you have several options.
Some chicken keepers can help the hen pass the egg by removing her to an isolated, dark and quiet location away from the flock. Some keepers say their egg-bound hens pass the egg within hours. In addition to this approach, you can submerge the hen’s bottom half in a warm bath and gently massage her abdomen. If the case seems far progressed, it’s possible to remove the egg manually, taking great care not to break the egg in the process. If you choose to attempt this, do so with another set of hands for assistance.
The best cure for egg binding is prevention. Start with a healthy diet, limiting fatty treats such as scratch in the summer, and providing age-appropriate feeds and making sure the bird has sufficient calcium and phosphorus. Also, allow birds to free-range and exercise. Avoid using hens that bind frequently as your breeding stock, as they will pass along the trait to their offspring.
While egg eating is an incredibly frustrating dilemma for the keeper, it’s thankfully not a life-threatening ailment for the chicken. Egg eating becomes an issue when a hen learns that an egg is a delicious treat, and she starts eating them right out of the nest box. This might not seem like much of an issue, but the habit is incredibly contagious. Once a hen starts eating eggs—hers or those from other birds—word spreads quickly through the flock, and you might soon have many egg eaters on your hands.
While there is nothing physically harmful in eating eggs for the birds, the reason that you probably keep chickens is for the benefit of eggs yourself. A diet entirely of eggs is not healthful for the bird, either.
In this case, prevention is the only cure. First and foremost, have designated laying spaces for your flock. In the coop, there should be one nest box for every four to five hens in your flock. Of course, they’ll have a favorite box, and you’ll often find many eggs nestled into one box. That’s OK and perfectly normal. You might even find that hens line up and wait their turn, just for the pleasure of laying in that “perfect” nest box. Alpha hens always go first, while submissive hens go last.
Plan and manage your facilities so that your hens never get the first taste of a broken egg and keep stress low.
“Never feed hens used eggshells without smashing them to very fine particles. If a hen can associate the shell to the egg, the hen is encouraged to pick at the fresh eggs in the coop, writes Phillip Clauer, poultry extension specialist at Penn State University , in“Prevention of Egg Eating.” What’s more, “[D]on’t use bright lights in your coops, especially near the nesting area. Bright light increases nervousness and picking habits. Don’t scare the hens out of the nesting boxes. The sudden movement can break eggs in the box and can give the hens a taste of egg and promote egg eating.”
An ideal nest box is warm, safe, low to the ground, dark and dry. These are very important components to address if you want your birds to reliably lay in a place where you can gather the eggs easily.
Of course, collecting eggs is another form of prevention. Collect eggs daily to avoid the flock discovering that they can eat them. Large numbers of eggs sitting idle in the nest box are more prone to breakage, which will lead a bird to investigate with her beak. Keep nest boxes clean, dry and free of droppings and daily eggs.
But what should you do if you discover a hen has developed a taste for eggs and she’s simply insatiable? This is a serious concern. In my first flock, I had an egg-eater Easter Egger, and it was a nightmare. She spread the habit to two of our best layers, and while we were able to break the habit in the other two birds, the Easter Egger was never fully trustworthy.
You can try several things. You can isolate the egg-eating bird and monitor her own laying, removing her eggs immediately after she lays them. Another trick is to cover the nest-box entrances with curtains, split down the middle. I found this to be effective. Hens still know where to go to lay their eggs, but the resting eggs are out of eyesight to the general public and passersby.
Next, some keepers swear by creating a deterrent. Place a wooden egg or golf ball in the nest box, removing all of the eggs daily. Egg-eating hens will peck at the decoy and eventually come to conclude that there’s nothing yummy about it. Other keepers will create a decoy egg intended to turn off birds from the taste. In this method, you can blow the innards out of a raw egg by creating a small hole. Then, fill the egg with yellow mustard. Reportedly, some hens dislike the taste and will be turned off from eating eggs after repeatedly encountering the spicy flavor.
If you have an egg eater on your hands, you’ll soon learn that anything is worth trying. However, the only 100 percent foolproof way to stop egg-eating behavior is to remove the egg-eating hen. Sometimes rehoming her is helpful. If you regularly process and harvest your birds, you might consider culling these. However you choose to address the egg eating, sooner is always better. Habits can fly through a flock in an afternoon.
Thanks for joining me, and stay tuned for the next installment, where we’ll address ailments F through L, including everything you need to know about feathers, fleas, flies and fowl pox.
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Chickens magazine.