Keeping Chickens and Things That Can Go Wrong
The principal routine jobs are providing food and water, cleaning out and, in due course, collecting the eggs. You can expect the first eggs when the pullets are about 23 weeks old if you buy the type of bird recommended on Choosing Chicken Breeds.
In a deep-litter house, turn the litter over occasionally with a garden fork if it shows any signs of becoming compacted.
Weekly removal of droppings from beneath the perches is necessary. If the house has a run attached, fork the soil over every week, and replace the top 6 in. (150 mm.) with fresh garden soil at least twice a year. Even better, if you have space to spare, move the whole unit to fresh ground every week or two.
These are the necessary tasks, involving only a few hours throughout the year. But no time spent with your birds is wasted.
Give them, if possible, a few minutes each day, getting to know them, studying their individual characteristics, and watching for any signs that may occur of bullying, broodiness or illness.
Once pullets have begun to lay, they will continue to do so for the next 12 months — or for up to 15 months in the case of some cross-breeds — provided they have the right conditions and there is artificial lighting in the house during the winter. During this period, each bird will produce an average of five eggs a week.
After this, they will begin to moult. Until they grow new feathers, they will produce no eggs at all. During this time, keep them as free from stress as possible, feed them on a high-protein diet and, in winter, prolong the day with artificial light.
After six to eight weeks they will begin to lay once more, but in their second or subsequent seasons they will not be so productive as they were in their first. Neither will the internal quality of the eggs be quite so good, with a tendency for the whites to be thin and watery.
For this reason, many people regard old birds as uneconomic, and prefer to replace them with young birds. Certainly, a professional poultry-keeper would endorse this point of view, but whether you follow suit is up to you.
But do not get rid of just a few hens and mix new birds with the old. The earlier inhabitants of the house will resent the newcomers’ presence, and will drive them away from food and water.
Getting rid of old stock
Killing, plucking and dressing their own birds is a task that many people do not wish to face, and in any case should not be attempted unless you have experience and can be sure of doing it humanely. Failing this, ask your local butcher, a poultry expert or even the RSPCA inspector if he will do it for you. A butcher may be interested in buying the carcases; or you can, of course, put them in your freezer for casseroling at a later date.
There is not much difficulty in leaving your pullets for a week or two, provided you can persuade a neighbour to take over the routine tasks for you. Ask him to change the water each day, and top up the feeder every two or three days.
The eggs must be collected daily. No doubt you will tell him to keep these to repay his efforts.
Things that may go wrong
If you have bought your pullets at the right age, and from a reputable dealer, they will already have been vaccinated against most of the
diseases they are likely to catch, so that with a high standard of hygiene you are unlikely to have much trouble.
If a bird does seem to be off-colour, separate it from the others and put it in a warm place with food and water near by. If it does not improve in a day or so, make a note of the symptoms, such as the colour and size of the comb, whether the bird is perching or not and if it is off its feed, and ring the vet or the poultry supplier.
Sometimes the trouble may be due to a fault in management or housing rather than to disease. The essential thing is to spot as quickly as possible that all is not well, so that prompt remedial action can be taken.
Inspect your birds regularly, as parasites can cause a decline in egg production. If lice are present, they are usually seen running between the feathers below the vent. Dust the bird with a delousing powder.
Red mites are more persistent and harder to spot, since they do not live on the bird during the day. Instead, they live in cracks and crevices, often at the ends of the perches, and emerge only at night to suck the blood of their victims while they are roosting.
Remove the perches from time to time and inspect the sockets for signs of the mites. When active, they are bright red in colour and about the size of a pin-head ; inactive, they are considerably smaller and usually grey.
In either event, dust the crevices with red-mite powder, which may be bought from your poultry supplier, or dab creosote regularly on the perch supports.
Cracked or soft-shelled eggs
Pullets sometimes produce soft-shelled eggs at the very beginning of their laying period. This is because their reproductive systems have not yet settled down, and the trouble should cease within a week or so.
If it does not, contact your feed supplier or poultry breeder and ask for their advice. Soft-shelled, or very small eggs are also occasionally laid at the end of the season, just before the moult begins.
If you are constantly finding cracked eggs, the chances are that it is your fault, either because the nesting material is inadequate or because you are startling the birds with noisy or abrupt movements.
Always work quietly and smoothly, and tap on the door of the house before opening it. Ridiculous as it may seem, this does prevent panic — and broken eggs.
If this occurs outside the normal moult period, it may be due to one of several causes. The most common takes place in autumn when, for some reason associated with the dwindling daylight hours, some birds lose their neck feathers.
This can be corrected by lengthening the day by using artificial light.
Fourteen hours of light is the period to aim for, gradually extending the time when the lamp is switched on, either in the morning or evening, as the days shorten. This will also promote egg production.
But the same symptoms may also occur through fear, lack of food or water, or bullying and feather-pulling by the birds’ companions. Whatever the reason, keep a watchful eye on any bird that is losing its plumage and, if possible, separate it from the others and keep it in a warm, dry place until the feathers start to grow again.
This behavioural pattern, that induces hens to attempt to hatch their eggs, has been largely bred out of modern birds. This is for the very good reason, so far as poultry-keepers are concerned, that no eggs are laid while the period of broodiness lasts. But if it does occur it is necessary to act quickly.
The symptoms are easily recognised. A broody bird will, when approached, sit tight on the nest, fluff out its feathers and, after a squawk of warning, peck at any intruder. The tip of the comb assumes a purplish hue and the underside of the body is hot — both signs that the bird is running a temperature.
If forcibly removed from the nest, the bird will strut about for a few minutes and return as quickly as possible.
The best cure for a broody bird is to take it out of the house and put it in a cage or crate with plenty of ventilation through the floor and sides. Purpose-built broody units, often attached to the backs of poultry houses, have wire-netting floors. Leave the bird there for three or four days, with plenty of food and water, and it will soon return to normal.
As on all other occasions when returning single birds to the house after a prolonged absence, do so after the flock has settled down for the night. Otherwise its old companions may turn on it.