Raising backyard chickens is a fun and rewarding pastime. Not only are chickens amusing to watch, but they are natural fertilizers for your garden and lawn and offer fresh, organic eggs. Yet raising chickens can also come at a price. Lack of knowledge and consistent care can lead to destroyed yards, foul smells, and sick or dead birds.
Can you tell the difference between a healthy chicken and a sick one? Sometimes it’s not as obvious as one would think. Sometimes, the first clue that something is wrong is a dead chicken. Yet there are some signs you can keep a lookout for. Sick chickens may have drooping wings or tail or paralysis of one or both of their legs or wings. Blood in droppings, loss of appetite, discharge from nostrils and eyes, labored breathing, or breathing with their beaks open (unless it is particularly hot) are all trouble signs. A healthy chicken should be active and alert. Its eyes and nostrils should be clean and it should hold its head high. Its droppings should be white, its breathing should be unnoticeable and silent, its legs should be clean, and its feathers should be smooth. Your chicken’s comb should not be black or dark blue. The birds should eat frequently and be social with the other chickens. If you observe your flock regularly, it should be fairly easy to pick up the signals that something is wrong.
What causes disease or sickness among a flock of chickens? According to Roy Butler of the Government of Western Australia Department of Agriculture and Food, inadequate shelter, feed, and water as well as too much stress are common reasons for ill chickens (http://www.agric.wa.gov.au/objtwr/imported_ assets/content/aap/gn_diseases_of_backyard_chickens.pdf). Infectious diseases can also be caught, just as humans catch and transmit diseases. Even mosquitoes can carry diseases harmful to chickens.
Birds can be infected with a variety of different parasites. Chickens can be infested by poultry lice, which cause irritation and stress and often cause a bird to stop laying eggs. Fleas are another common problem. Mites, ticks, and worms also can take a toll on your flock. There are plenty of diseases and infections chickens can get too, including fowl pox (from mosquitoes) and bronchitis.
Diseases and bloodsuckers aren’t the only problems you may face with your backyard flock. Rodents are frequently attracted to leftover chicken feed. No one wants a rat or mouse infestation. Not only are they disgusting, but they carry diseases and can eat young chickens. Remove debris piles and keep your chicken feed in well-sealed containers. Take care to provide secure fencing as well to keep out predators. From birds to cats, dogs, weasels, or coyotes, there are dozens of neighborhood creatures who would love to make a meal out of your chickens.
What’s the best thing you can do to keep your chickens healthy and safe? Check your flock frequently for signs of trouble. Feed your birds plenty of high quality feed and remove feed from the container that has molded. Provide a consistent supply of clean water and clean out your coop several times a month. Check your birds for fleas, ticks, and mites and don’t be afraid to ask your local veterinarian questions if you suspect trouble or if you want advice in making your chicken’s living area healthier. Regularly check your chicken coop and run to make sure they are secure enough to keep out predators. Diligence is a necessary trait in a backyard farmer. No one, after all, knows your chickens better than you.