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Backyard chickens – common problems and what to do about them…

 

Keeping hens

When we first had poultry I remember being nervous about all the different ailments that were potentially lurking out there.  Each time one of them was slightly off colour I began to panic a little, reaching for my backyard chicken bible and frightening myself half to death with names like Marek’s Disease and Avian Pox.

Of course you have to be aware of these things but they are pretty rare, particularly in a backyard situation where you generally have a non-transient community of just a few hens …and in our case, one cockerel to keep them all in check!

Anyway, to make your life simpler and less stressful I thought I would write about my encounters with chicken disorders – all parasitic, as it happens – over the years and hopefully put your mind at rest when caring for your own flock.

Roundworm

When we first had chickens we had to deal with roundworm. Our first flock were rescue hens towards the end of their egg laying life and saved from the slaughterhouse, arriving at the Villas already infested. The worms themselves can be clearly seen in the birds’ droppings,  so unpleasant as it might be, keep your eyes open and check every so often!

We used a product called Flubenvet, which was very effective. You can either buy it in powder form and mix it into the feed for seven consecutive days (as we did) or apparently buy the layers pellets with it already added, which I imagine is much less fuss.

Diatomaceous earth is another treatment that you can use against roundworm, mixed with the chickens’ feed at a rate of 5%. It’s made out of fossilised algae with a microscopically sharp crystalline structure which is highly abrasive causing the parasite to dehydrate. However, to be effective against roundworm, it has to be used all the time and not just as a reaction to an infestation.

Incidentally, I recently read that allowing your chickens to feed on rhubarb leaves is a good natural preventative measure. It just so happens that we grow rhubarb and I can confirm that our chooks enjoy nothing more than snacking on the leaves!

Chooks eating rhubarb leaf

Fleas

I first noticed our chickens had fleas when I found I was being bitten to bits whilst cleaning out the henhouse! Not nice. It just so happened that our cat had an attack of fleas at the same time so I expect one picked them up from the other as they both had access-all-areas in the garden. That year we even had fleas in the compost bin, presumably mown up with the grass clippings – so all in all a bit of a nightmare really! Fleas thrive during summer months and if you do develop a flea problem, the sooner you act the better.

When treating your coop and flock for fleas, because of their breeding cycle, it’s important to repeat the process again 10 to 14 days later.  Apparently the adult fleas that you see only represent 5% of your flea population – the other 95% exist in egg and larvae form.

Of course, if at all possible, prevention is better than cure and one of the best ways to keep your flock  flea-free is to maintain a clean and tidy coop. You can also try adding a few cloves of garlic to their water supply and sprinkling Diatomaceous earth in the hen run (paying particular attention to where they take their dust baths) and directly on the birds themselves – especially under their wings and around their necks. Also, I’ve heard that if you grow mint around the chicken coop and hen run it acts as a flea deterrent. We do this at the Villas and interestingly I’ve noticed the chickens don’t actually eat it, therefore plant decimation won’t be an issue!

Mint deters fleas in the chicken run

Red mites

These are tiny parasites that can live in your chicken house and feed on your birds whilst they sleep at night. They multiply at an alarming rate and feed on all parts of the animal including blood, feathers, skin and scales, then they retreat to dark (and preferably damp) cracks and crevices in the hen house where they also lay their eggs. They are clearly visible and you can tell the ones that have just fed because they are dark red and when squashed leave a smear of blood – yuk.

When we designed and built our current hen house we bore this in mind and kept potential hiding places to an absolute minimum. It seems to have made a big difference because we haven’t had an infestation for a couple of years now…

Like fleas, even without a food source red mites can survive for months on end, which makes eliminating them very tricky. So constant vigilance is needed, particularly during warm weather. Net-tex Poultry Total Mite Kill is what we use to treat the hen house and a sprinkle of Diatomaceous earth in the nesting boxes and on the birds themselves can’t do any harm.

Scaly leg

This is a nasty looking condition caused by an eight-legged mite called Knemidocoptes mutans that burrows under the scales on your chicken’s legs and spends its entire life cycle (a week or two) on the bird.

It is generally brought to your chickens by wild birds so is mainly going to be an issue if your flock enjoys living a free range life style. I’ve never actually seen one in the flesh so to speak, but apparently the scaly leg mite is pale grey in colour and has a flat round body.  It burrows under the scales on the legs and feeds on the connective tissue. The picture below shows a hens foot that has been treated for scaly leg mites and is on the mend – the pink areas are where the damaged scales have been shed and new scales are forming.

Scaly leg mite on chicken leg

Chickens with feathered feet are particularly susceptible to scaly leg because the feathers lift the scales making it easier for the mites to gain access. However, feathered feet or otherwise, remember to check your chickens’ legs on a weekly basis.

A commonly used (if somewhat messy) treatment is to smear petroleum jelly such as Vaseline on their legs. This not only softens the legs making them less uncomfortable, it also kills the mites by suffocating them. It is a good idea to do this at night so that dust and mud doesn’t get stuck to the Vaseline while the chickens scratch around. We’ve tried petroleum jelly and no doubt it’s very soothing for the bird but we find a product called Just for scaly legs from NetTex clears up the condition very swiftly and so we always make sure we have a bottle in the cupboard. Unlike petroleum jelly, it’s clean and easy to apply and not at all messy.

Scaly leg spray for chickens with scaly leg

The over-riding rule is that if you spot raised flaky looking scales on your birds legs and feet, act immediately because scaly leg is extremely contagious. Keep your eyes peeled! Incidentally, the mite-damaged scales are replaced naturally during the chicken’s moulting process and therefore will eventually re-grow and look normal again.

Finally it’s important to bear in mind that during the six years that we have kept hens we have encountered roundworm just once and fleas and red mites only twice – two years running and both times during the summer, so please don’t let any of the above put you off if you’re thinking of keeping hens – it’s really no biggie and in our experience the endless pleasures gained from backyard chickens far outweigh the problems!

 

2 thoughts on “Backyard chickens – common problems and what to do about them…

  1. How do you stop chickens pecking other’s until its a sore and bleeding ?????

    1. Hi Paul

      There will always be a well defined pecking order in any group of chickens and therefore there will always be one poor little hen that’s on the bottom rung of the ladder. This is normal. It might be the smallest, the newest, one of a different colour or breed to the others, or maybe one that’s moulting or generally under the weather for some reason. This doesn’t always lead to pecking in the flock though and thankfully we’ve never had it happen at the Villas.

      I’ve done a bit of research and understand various things may lead to this bullying, for example boredom (lack of distraction), lack of space to roam and even a lack of protein in their diet…

      Chickens are sociable creatures and are happiest in groups, free ranging, scratching in the dirt for grubs and the like and space to get away from eachother if need be.

      If one chicken in particular is adopting this behaviour, the only thing to do is separate it from the rest of the flock for a few days and allow injuries on its victim(s) to heal (bright red blood and wounds are an attractant and perpetuate the problem), then re-introduce it to the flock again, supervising closely until you’re satisfied the dust has settled – literally as well as metaphorically!

      …and I also wonder whether it helps having a cockerel to keep the girls in check – because they do. All our hens have a great and unflinching respect for our cockerel Bee.

      Good luck and let us know how you get on.

      Bridget

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