Health & Nutrition

Thanks to UFPA friend Doris Robinson for compiling the following information.

Interesting Facts About Chickens: The Species

Perhaps a simplistic review of what a chicken is could be helpful in understanding some of the “hows” and “whys” in poultry incubation, production, management, and health.

A chicken is a bird. One of the features that differentiate it from most other birds is that it has a comb and two wattles.

The comb is the red appendage on the top of the head, and the wattles are the two appendages under the chin. These are secondary sexual characteristics and are more prominent in the male. A few other birds have a comb or similar appendage, in some cases bearing a different name such as helmet in the guinea, and a few have wattles with some having a single median one rather than a pair. The comb is the basis of the Latin name or classification of chickens. In Latin, gallus means comb, and the domestic chicken is Gallus domesticus. The Red Jungle Fowl, ancestor of most domestic chickens, is Gallus bankiva. There are eight recognized kinds of combs: single, rose, pea, cushion, buttercup, strawberry, V-shaped, and silkie.

The chicken has two legs and two wings, a fact that influences housing and management. Domestic chickens have essentially lost the ability to fly. Heavy breeds used for meat production cannot do more than flap their wings and jump to a little higher level or move more rapidly along the ground. The lighter-bodied birds can fly short distances, and some can fly over relatively high fences. The feet and shank portions of the legs have scales.

Respiration rate is higher in chickens than in larger animals. In general, it can be said that the smaller the kind of bird the faster it breathes. For example, a hummingbird breathes more times a minute than a chicken. The male chicken breathes about 18 to 21 times a minute and the female about 31 to 37 times when they are not under stress.

The heart beat of chickens is rather fast, being about 286 times a minute in males and 312 in females in a resting condition.

Digestion rate is somewhat rapid in chickens. It varies from 2 1/2 to 25 hours for passage of food depending on whether the digestion tract is full, partially full, or empty when feed is ingested.

The chicken’s temperature is about 107 degrees to 107.5 degrees F.

Chickens are hatched, not born in the truest sense of the word.

Chickens are covered with feathers but have a few vestigial hairs scattered over the body. The average consumer does not see these hairs, because they are singed off in the processing plant. The chicken has a beak (or bill) and does not have teeth. Any mastication occurs in the gizzard. Many commercial poultry producers do not provide grit to their chickens, because they feed a ground feed of fine meal consistency that can be digested by the bird’s digestive juices.

The chicken has pneumatic bones, making its body lighter for flying, if it had not lost the ability to do so.

There are 13 air sacs in the chicken’s body, again to make the body lighter, and they are a functioning part of the respiratory system.

Chickens have comparatively short life spans. Some live to be 10 to 15 years old, but they are the exception, not the rule.

UNDERCOLOR: The Importance when breeding!

by Rip Stalvey

We need to talk a bit about undercolor and how it can influence the surface color in our birds.

Many of the old time breeders were often heard to say that undercolor feeds surface color. That is to say that the shade or intensity of undercolor does seem to have an affect on the surface color.

For example in Columbian colored varieties the American Poultry Association “Standard of Perfection” specifies the undercolor to be “light bluish slate”. When judging Columbian varieties at a show if I find a bird that doesn’t have enough black in the surface color I typically find the undercolor to be more white than what the standard calls for. I also run across some birds that have too much black in the surface color, sometimes even in sections that should be white; these birds typically have a dark slate undercolor.

The color of the undercolor is not mentioned in the Black Copper Marans Standard, so we have nothing to guide us in this area. When judging a class of Black Copper Marans if I run across a male that shows white fluff at the base of the tail I will also find lighter than “normal” undercolor. Even though the color is not specified, by paying attention to the undercolor the white at the base of the tail can be eliminated by breeding from birds with darker undercolor. I often wonder if the white we sometimes see in older Black Copper Males sickle feathers is some how related to the color of the undercolor.

With these two examples we can see that while you can’t see the undercolor of a bird without handling them, the undercolor can have a profound effect on the color we can see when looking at birds.

Why Scratch Grains Just Don't Cut It!! 2014

While you may have watched your grandparents or friends throw out cracked corn or scratch grains to the chickens, we now know in order to keep your chickens (especially your hens) in tip-top condition and production, they need far more advanced nutrition than your run-o-the-mill scratch feed.

Grains are an excellent source of energy, but fall terribly short in protein, vitamins and minerals. And in order for a hen to make an egg, she needs optimum nutrition. Your typical scratch grains contain just barely 50% of the minimal required protein for basic egg productions. In addition, Vitamins A & E, as well as Calcium are nearly non-existent in most scratch grains. Compare feeding scratch grains to chickens to feeding candy to your child!! They get that boost of energy (the “sugar high”), but nearly zero nutritional value.

So what does this mean for your “girls” out on the coop who are getting a diet of mainly scratch grains?? Well, there will be fewer eggs… poorer quality eggs… thin egg shells… lower fertility. You will also notice that your “girls” seem to be in a constant molt. By not feeding a balanced ration, the body doesn’t know when to “turn off” the molt… and it just keeps on going. This, many times, contributes to fewer eggs.

Scratch doesn’t have to be eliminated from your hens’ diets. Treat it as a treat!! Like mentioned earlier, it’s the “candy” treat for chickens… occasionally, and in moderation. Stick with a high-quality and balanced ration and your girls will give you all the eggs you want!

Coccidiosis in Chicks

This is a very infections disease which is most likely to affect chicks aged between 10 days and 8 weeks old but not always. After this age the chicks have usually acquired a degree of resistance to it, except if severely challenged. One of the problems, according to an older vet is that people keep their chicks that have been hatched in an incubator in such a pristine condition so they won’t get sick. But if they stop to think when they are hatched under a mother hen the conditions are completely different. They are immediately exposed to the environment that they will be living in daily. He suggested that it would be a good practice to bring in some shavin or soil from the chicken coop to put in your brooder box with the chicks and give them that natural exposure. This should be done each time the brooder is cleaned. That made sense to me and it seemed to work.

Most chick starter crumbs should already contain an Anti-coccidiostat or “ACS.” Some people try to rely on that to prevent an outbreak and allow hygiene to lapse thinking they are safe. Don’t make that mistake. A severe or even sometimes a not so severe challenge will march straight through those defenses.

Always be on the lookout for Coccidiosis when the weather is warm and humid as it thrives in these conditions and can strike very quickly and spread very fast. Considering that we keep the chicks under heat laps this also makes sense. Unless you are vigilant in your hygiene the first signs you may well find are dead chicks. At other times of the year, you will still get attacks of course, but in my experience the severest type always seems to occur during warm, humid weather.

Infected chicks will usually look listless, standing around with ruffled feathers, they frequently don’t want to eat, their eyes are often closed, and they lose weight. The usual thing that books will tell you to look out for is blood in the droppings. This is by no means always present. Some forms of it do not produce blood in the droppings. If blood is present, then you can assume the disease has already got a good foothold and any delays in treatment will mean losing birds.

The disease is caused by an unpleasant little protozoa called a coccidia. Coccidia are host specific, so there is no risk that a Coccidiosis attack in turkeys will spread to your chickens or visa versa. The stage where the disease is passed between birds is called an oocyst. These get passed in the droppings. They are tough little blighters and can survive over a year outside the body and are not killed by normal disinfectants. There are many types of Coccidiosis that can affect your birds; some are severe whilst others are relatively harmless. If your birds are ill we can assume of course that your birds haven’t picked up a harmless type!

The usual treatments are a very effective group of drugs called Sulphonamides which are administered in the water. These should be available from your vet or in our case from your favorite supplier. (If you’re hatching chicks have some on hand.) Do NOT be tempted to give more than the stated dose or you could end up doing more harm than good. Try to ensure each affected chick has drunk some of the dosed water. But remember to treat the entire batch of chicks as even the healthiest looking ones are likely to already be infected. Sometimes when the chick is completely listless and won’t drink you might have to put a few drops in its mouth with an eye dropper or syringe. Be sure not to force it down or you might inadvertently force it into the lungs.

During an outbreak the chicks MUST be kept clean and dry so as not to keep re-infecting themselves by contact with the wet droppings. If keeping them on shavings these should be changed at least every 24 hours, preferably every 12 hours. If bloody droppings are present change the litter as often as you can to prevent the chicks ingesting the oocysts. Another good way is to get the chicks onto a wire floor so the droppings fall through and away from the birds.

Dryness of litter is vital. Coccidiosis thrives in the warm damp conditions which are readily created if chicks are under heat lamps with spilled water.

Although coccidiosis is usually thought of as a chick disease do not discount it at any age.

Stress in Poultry

by KJ Theodore 2014

STRESS is a big factor in determining the overall health of our birds. Stress comes in many forms and seems to affect the best of our show birds the most if not well trained. There’s something inherent about the genetic makeup it takes to produce the finest colors and the best type and a bird’s reaction to stress. Everyone has heard of the relationship between the ‘mutt’ dog and good health. The same seems true with fancy fowl. The finer the breed, the more susceptible they are to stress and disease.

What can cause the most stress?

They don’t call them ‘chicken’ for nothing. By nature, most chickens {and waterfowl), are cowards. They’re afraid of their own shadow. Poultry are prey and their genetic code predisposes them to the flight instinct, even when they’re hand-reared and tame.

  • Fear creates stress and there’s a sound medical reason why stress allows disease to take hold in an otherwise healthy bird. Without giving you a poultry veterinary science lesson, let’s just say that stress causes changes to occur in the gut that lowers the pH. When the pH is low, ‘Gram negative’ bacteria become comfortable in the environment and begin to take hold and replicate. The rest you can imagine.
  • Severe cold or heat – or a dramatic change from one to the other. Only healthy birds are capable of making it through the night when it’s sub-zero. And only healthy birds are capable of enduring severe heat if there’s no water, breeze, or shade for them to find relief in. Poultry are more susceptible to this than people realize. Have you ever seen the flurry of activity that takes place right before nightfall amongst the wild birds? They’re filling up with food and water to make it through the night. You can almost tell when a storm is coming because they’ll sense the barometric change and feed heavily to weather the storm. Your own chickens and waterfowl will have a last meal and drink at dusk – before they can’t see anymore to roost and settle in for the night. If you can’t feed and water twice in a particular day and you have a choice, choose to feed and water late rather than early for the above reasons. The late feed is most important during cold weather.
  • Another concern of cold weather is frostbite. Single comb varieties with long wattles suffer the most. Some believe that massaging Vaseline into the comb will help prevent frostbite. I’ve tested this and found no evidence that the roosters who received massage and/or Vaseline fared any better than those that didn’t. Keeping drafts out of the coop to keep wind chill effect down is probably more effective. A sign of frostbite is having the comb or wattles turn white. Eventually they turn black and scab over. In severe cases, the bird will lose the part that turns black.
  • Breeding and laying are stressful for many reasons. It’s especially stressful if it’s the first season of maturity for either sex. (Most losses due to diseases such as Mareks occur right before or right after sexual maturity.) I’ve heard old wives tales about young roosters ‘going crazy’ if they’re not allowed to breed. I don’t think there’s medical poultry science to support that – but you get the picture. The first egg’ for a female can be difficult – both in the hormone changes that occur and in the ‘effort’ it takes.
  • Although it seems benign, a change to your birds’ environment or housing can also be stressful. If I’m going to change around cages or separate birds that were accustomed to being together, I usually won’t do it when they’re stressed for some other reason. I once had a hen that was one of a pair that were alike in all ways. They had never been apart. I wanted to show them so I split them up (since they were lovingly pulling each other’s beards out). The one bird survived just fine – I still show her today. But it sent the other into a tailspin. She never quieted down. She paced the cage with no rest. Then she was further stressed with Pullorum Typhoid testing. She didn’t survive long after that. She was a nice little bird – I learned a hard but subtle lesson. Stress is a little like having allergies – one or two stresses may be livable, but if you pile on a bunch of changes at the same time, the stress they cause
    can have a cumulative effect. So I try not to throw too much at them at once.
  • I can’t cover everything here but the article wouldn’t be complete unless I mentioned our birds’ number one stress – showing. Many of the reasons showing is stressful are listed above. Things like changes in their environment, grooming, temperature changes, etc. Now imagine the number of illnesses your birds are exposed to at a show. Add to that the travel, the chaos, the noise, the bird next door to yours in the showroom that wants ‘a piece’ of your bird – and your bird knows it, being handled by the judges, people walking up and down the aisles, some sticking their fingers in the cage and doing worse.

Marke’s disease (MD) is the most commonly diagnosed disease in backyard chickens. Many types of birds can be affected, but chickens seem to be the most susceptible. Marek’s disease is caused by a herpes virus that results in tumors in various parts of the bird. Once infected, the birds become carriers for life. The virus is present everywhere in the environment where chickens are raised. The virus does not cause harm to human beings. It must be noted that most, if not all, chicks hatched in North America are vaccinated for MD.

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Gapeworms in Chicks

While gape worms are relatively rare today they do sometimes infest chickens so you should be aware of them.

by KJ Theodore 2003

A gape worm, also known as a red worm and forked worm, is a parasitic nematode worm infecting the tracheas of certain birds. The resulting disease, known as “gape” or “the gapes,” occurs when the worms clog and obstruct the airway. If you suspect a bird may have them, you can tell for sure by swabbing their throats with a cotton swab (the worms will appear as thin red strings when you remove the swab).

When the female gape worm lays her eggs in the trachea of an infected bird, the eggs are coughed up, swallowed, then defecated. When birds consume the eggs found in the feces of an intermediate host such as earthworms, snails, or slugs, they can become infected with the parasite.

Blockage of the brochi and trachea with worms and mucus will cause infected birds to gasp for air. They stretch out their necks, open their mouths and gasp for air producing a hissing noise as they do so.

These clinical signs first appear approximately 1-2 weeks after infection. Birds infected with gape worms show signs of weakness and emaciation, usually spending much of their time with eyes closed and head drawn back against the body. An infected bird may give its head a convulsive shake in the attempt to remove the obstruction from the trachea so that normal breathing may be resumed.

Severely affected birds, particularly young ones, will deteriorate rapidly; they stop drinking and become anorexic. At this stage, death is the usual outcome. Adult birds are usually less severely affected and may only show an occasional cough or even no obvious clinical signs.

The drug Ivermectin is often used to control gape worm infection in birds.

NOTE: There are several diseases that can produce the same symptoms. Bronchitis, Chronic Respiratory Disease (CRD) are just two with somewhat the same symptoms. Before treatment know what you are treating your birds for. Guess work won’t always save their life.