A Poultry MOT Checklist For Health

MOT checklist - Driving Miss Daisy (& Henrietta too!)

A brief intro to who’s doing the talking – my name is Jason Weller, together with my wife Kerry and two sons we run Mantel Farm in East Sussex as a ‘Garden Farming’ business, concentrating mainly on the small scale livestock side, specialising in poultry & bees. We sell a wide range of poultry, feed, equipment, runs, housing / hives, provide a range of training courses, also having a poultry and small animal boarding service, which we established in 2007.

We purchased Mantel Farm early 2002 as a run-down ex-commercial egg producing chicken farm, once being a home to 10,000 birds, its fortunes rising and falling since it was established back in 1947. We found it as an overgrown, bramble and stinging nettle ridden farm, but with potential. In a nut shell, leaving behind two professional jobs (you guessed it, everyone said we were mad!), we undertook to ‘do something’ with Mantel Farm! Our previous experience being a back garden, two allotments & a few pet chickens! It’s been (and still is), a rollercoaster of ups and downs, an adventure some would say! A story that one day would be great to tell, but for now, we are just here to tell of the chickens!

So, sitting down to write my first article for Home Farmer magazine, at first quite a daunting task, the thought of a monthly feature, trying to keep the readers interested, telling all how to care for and keep poultry, (it’s all been done before, you know!), don’t panic, I thought………, let’s make it different, so here goes, hopefully how to keep and care for your poultry from the experiences of what’s turned out to be, so far, quite a ride through the first fifteen years at Mantel Farm!

I’ll be talking about the various aspects of poultry keeping, focusing mainly on chickens and bantams, referring to them generally as ‘your birds’, and hopefully keeping you entertained with the odd Mantel Farm-ism!

Caring for your poultry…………it can appear a vast subject, starting with the space where you keep them, accommodation, health and wellbeing, the equipment you use and how to best use it, also, never forgetting the huge subject of pests and diseases.

I think that the very mention of pests and diseases is enough to put many people off keeping any animals! With poultry as with most other animals, the list of possible problems can potentially be a long one. For many years at Mantel Farm we have run courses on chicken keeping, and I have given talks on the subject at various country shows. When I get to the subject of pests and diseases I will always explain that there is no real cause for concern, in fact most of the common problems are easily dealt with and our methods of dealing with these problems are mainly centred around preventative measures, with the next step being appropriate and sufficient action when the first signs of a problem are discovered.

Starting with their daytime space - in the run, signs of unrest can suggest many things, the main one is often overcrowding.

Overcrowding is a serious problem, having many knock on consequences, including: boredom, feather pecking, increased risk of fleas, lice and mites, fighting over food & water, soiled or broken eggs, egg eating, dirty under foot – requiring far more cleaning out, to name but a few, and in general just a poor quality of life.

I am very critical of many chicken housing manufacturers ‘over stating’ the living capacity of their poultry housing. Inexperienced keepers following what they assume to be expert guidance often results in overcrowding. Usually common sense prevails and most soon realise and increase the space or decrease the flock. As a general rule, if a house / run is stated for 8 birds (very few seem to take in to account size / breed of bird), then I would normally say it would be fine for 8 bantams, reduce to 5 or 6 for standard chickens, and say 4, for larger fowl, though ensuring a double check on ‘fit’ for doors, pop holes & nest boxes!

So, let’s submit your birds for a kind of ‘chicken MOT’, have a look at a few of the main potential problem areas, and see how they stand up. Over the next few months I’ll look at some of these issues in far more detail, so, if they fail the MOT this time, you’ll be confident that no bird will be failing next time around!.......enabling you to take control, where many lose control, by providing practical solutions and handy tips to prevent and eradicate!

The first thing to do is just observe your birds, find a little time to just sit and watch them, whether in the run or out free ranging, it can be very relaxing doing so, and a lot can be achieved from this. A happy healthy flock is content, going about their daily life, minding their own business, not constantly pestering each other.

From purely a common sense point of view, do your birds look healthy?, are there any sitting alone, possibly all puffed up, head down in their neck - generally a sign of ill health, though monitor, as anyone can have an off day.

Is anyone limping?...possible muscle strain, bumble foot or other injury requiring attention,

Is anyone looking skinny / showing feather loss?...possibly worms, lice or mites – apply appropriate treatment, or maybe bullying, it may be that a recently introduced bird is being prevented from feeding by the resident matriarch,

Is anyone looking over weight?...particularly at the back end, I often ask if the bird is walking more like a duck, this can be that a bird is ‘egg-bound’ – the inability to pass an egg, general weight gain – ensure a proper balanced diet, limit treat foods, particularly kibbled maize, contained in mixed corn – a small handful per bird per day is plenty,

Has everyone got a nice fluffy bum?!...this is a great sign of good health, no dribbly or crusted poo around the vent – signs of internal infections or stress, unless recognised as a definite condition, the first port of call for us is a herbal tonic, either NopexBK or VermX. What about the most common one, feather loss around the backend? – could simply be down to the annual moult, feather pecking by other birds, parasite infestation or constant vent leakage needing treatment.

Have they got nice legs!, by this I mean are they smooth?, scaly looking, yes (almost reptilian – showing off their ancestry), but appearing smooth, flat and even. Not raised, rough looking like coarse sandpaper – most likely a sign of ‘Scaly leg mite’, apply appropriate treatment. More common in older birds and cockerels we find, and don’t forget that in much older birds, their feet often become gnarled, and can be confused with this mite infection. If unsure, no harm in treating anyway, particularly if you have other younger birds.

Now, time for a closer inspection, this may involve picking up each of your birds in turn. Their eyes should be bright and alert, constantly looking and checking, with no discharges or crusty bits. Similarly, the nostrils should be clear from discharge or blockages, and the bird should be breathing freely and normally, no struggling or wheezing. The feathers should be full, without gaps (any gap requires further investigation as to why – fleas, lice mites, moulting, feather pecking – action might be required), clean and shiny, not greasy and smelly (inability to dust bath- I’ll feature this essential bit of kit next month). Top of feet – as above for legs. Underside of feet should be clean and free from injury, look out for any swellings, here or between the toes, this is most likely bumblefoot, a pus-filled abscess often caused by a splinter or abrasion allowing bacteria to enter, can be serious if left untreated. Claws / toe nails should be clean and straight, free from twists and not overgrown, consider clipping if too long (seek advice if necessary before I have a chance to cover in detail). Natural free ranging should allow good and even wearing of nails. If confined in a run ensure the surface material allows this. I have read articles on rubber chips as a flooring material for runs, whilst I can see some of the advantages of this I have concerns over the birds not being able to keep their nails in check. The beak should be of even form, with the top part just slightly overhanging the bottom, not twisted or with bits missing, or extra bits!, clean and free from discharge. If your birds’ beak is in need of attention, seek expert advice, please do not attempt any beak clipping unless you are totally confident and well informed. (Again, a subject I will be covering soon)

Feel for you birds crop - located slightly to the side of its right breast muscle, when full, often visible on the front of the bird, this is a small pocket where food is stored after swallowing. A normal crop will generally feel like a small bag of small beans, it shouldn’t be enlarged in any way, feeling squidgy or jelly-like or opposite to that, solid. If it does, your bird could be crop bound with sour crop (soft) or crop impaction (hard). This will need immediate attention, I’ll cover this in some detail soon.

Lastly, what about the shining red health beacon on top of their heads?, this is called the ‘comb’ (the ‘wattles’ being the two bits dangling below their cheeks). The comb is generally recognised as the main indicator of health in poultry. In general a healthy bird should have a nice bright red upright comb. Though don’t panic, there are exceptions to the rules, should yours not be complying! A young bird, from chick to around 20 weeks of age would barely have a comb to speak of, they haven’t grown it yet!, also it is pale pink at the start, and reddens with age. Remember this also when you are buying point of lay hens (POL’s), you are not necessarily looking for a big red healthy comb, in fact if it’s got one, it’s most likely an older bird, so watch out! Though a breed such as Leghorns often develop their combs early, so would have the comb as a POL. Leghorns hold two exceptions, as we said, the sign of health is an upright comb, these birds have a comb that naturally flops to one side, though should still be red. Lastly, there are a few breeds where the comb is naturally dark, crimson or purple, such as ‘Silkies’, so, you need to know what breed you have when judging this health indicator!

So, did they pass the MOT? Next month I’ll be looking at some of these points in far more detail! - putting you firmly in the driving seat ready to carry out a Full Service on your birds!

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