by Jennifer Behm – Chicken farmer| Last Updated – 17 December 2020
No matter how much care and attention you give your chickens, unfortunately, disease, illness or injury can still strike your chickens. When they do get ill their conditions can often deteriorate quickly if they are not given the correct timely treatment. If you keep chickens it is always a good idea to have the number of an avian vet handy, you cannot always rely on your local vet to be knowledgeable about chickens, especially if you are in an urban area. In this section, we will cover most of the diseases, pests and injuries you will be likely to encounter when keeping chickens.
- Common Chicken Diseases/ illnesses
- Have Your Hens Stopped Laying?
- Respiratory System Problems
- Chicken Crop Problems
- Pests, Mites, Lice
But this is a guide and not a substitute for professional advice, if in doubt consult a qualified vet.
Before looking at the specific problems here is a quick reminder of some preventative measures you can take on a daily basis, to prevent diseases and injuries among your chicken flock.
- Keep water dishes clean and food dry, fresh and contained. Always keep your coop clean and never overcrowd your chickens.
- When feeding your chickens scraps, always check that the food is fresh as rotten food will make them ill and you cannot always rely on them to be discerning.
- Watch your birds, their behavior, physical health and poop, often there are tell-tale signs which will help catch the problem early. If you suspect a chicken is ill, isolate it from the rest to avoid the problem spreading.
- Possible problem signs include coughing, wheezing, swollen joints, feather loss, reduced egg production, thin eggshells, cuts fever, discharge from nose/mouth, diarrhea/blood in the stool, not eating/drinking, weight loss, or swollen abdomen.
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Common Chicken Diseases/ illnesses
Have Your Hens Stopped Laying?
A question we are often asked especially as winter sets in is “Why have my hens stopped laying and is this normal?” Well, hopefully, the answer to this is “Yes it is normal for hens to stop laying at certain times of the year”. However, there are several reasons why hens stop laying and we will look at these in this article.
Shortening Day Length
Hens need 14 hours of daylight to maintain egg production and so as day length drops below 12 hours, production will decrease and frequently stop. This will happen naturally in the Western Hemisphere from October through to February/ March. Artificial light can be used to prevent this and maintain a day length of at least 14 hours. It is best to extend the morning hours, letting the birds roost naturally as the sun sets. A 40 watt light with a timer is sufficient per 100 square feet of coop.
Laying eggs uses a lot of energy and if maximum egg production is to be achieved it is essential that the hen has a well-balanced diet. Inadequate levels of energy, protein or calcium can often cause a decrease in egg production. This is why it is so important to supply your laying hens with a constant supply of nutritionally balanced layer food which contains a healthy 16% – 18% protein. Feeding too many whole grains, scratch feeds and kitchen scraps can cause the bird’s diet to become improperly balanced. Calcium-rich oyster shells or similar should also be freely available.
In addition, as eggs are made up of over 70% water one of the most common reasons for a drop in egg production is a lack of fresh water. This can often happen in winter when the water may freeze and the bird is unable to drink.
One of the first signs that a hen is unwell may be a drop in egg production, keep an eye on the bird for any other symptoms such as watery eyes or breathing difficulties. If you suspect a disease, contact a poultry veterinarian for help in examining your flock to get an accurate diagnosis and treatment.
Age of the Hens
After two or three years, many hens egg productivity declines. This varies greatly from bird to bird and good layers will lay about 50 weeks per laying cycle. These cycles will be interrupted by a rest period when the bird molts. Poorer layers and older hens will molt more often and lay less.
Any stress such as moving, handling, changes in environmental conditions or a fright (e.g from a predator or a loud noise) can all contribute to or be the main cause for reduced egg production. Parasites such as mites can also cause problems.
Finally, if your hens are free-range and egg production has stopped or dropped off it may also be worth checking that the birds are not just hiding their eggs somewhere or they are being eaten by predators or even by other hens.
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If your chicken is limping it is possible that it has developed bumblefoot, also known as ‘plantar pododermatitis’. Bumblefoot is usually caused by a cut or bruise to the skin of the footpad which becomes infected, causing a large growth or abscess on the bottom of the chicken or bird’s foot, although any injury to the foot can turn into bumblefoot. It doesn’t have to be a wide-open cut just a small scrape or light abrasion to the footpad is enough to cause a problem. Regular inspection of your birds’ feet is recommended. Most cases of bumblefoot involve the following bacteria: Staphylococcus Aureus, E.coli, or Corynebacterium. Once the infection takes hold in a matter of days the foot and or footpad becomes swollen, puss may develop and it will become red or black and maybe hot to the touch. If the foot is swollen but is still soft to the touch you have a very good chance of curing the problem with antibiotics alone. The chicken will often limp or not rest on the infected foot. This infection can cause distortions and disfigurement to the feet and toes causing future difficulties with walking, perching and in cock birds with mating holds. If you allow bumblefoot to go untreated, the chicken will likely succumb to secondary infections and die, so it is essential it is treated as soon as it is suspected.
Prevention of bumblefoot
Obviously, if your birds have free access to roam wherever they wish, ensuring that they never cut their feet whilst scratching around for food is nearly impossible. But you should always ensure that the yard is free of obvious sharp stones or items that the bird could cut its foot on. In addition, any runs should be checked and all perches should be inspected regularly to make sure that they are smooth and free of rough edges or splinters top prevent the chickens from injuring themselves. Always make sure perches are not too high off the ground as a bird can injure its foot jumping down, especially if it is of a heavier build, such injuries can also lead to bumblefoot. If the perches have to be high, make sure there are stages the birds can use to descend.
Treatment for bumblefoot
It is recommended that the chicken be taken to the vets for the foot to be examined where a course of antibiotics will be administered as this is a bacterial infection. Treatment should be obtained quickly as this infection can quickly cause further problems for the chicken with extreme swelling sometimes leading to surgery.
The foot should be kept disinfected and this can be done using an antibacterial animal spray or the use of a measured iodine solution. Whilst the foot is healing the chicken should be kept in an isolated area with clean soft bedding to avoid further irritation. The infection usually clears up within 7 days, but if it does not appear to be responding you should seek further professional help.
Respiratory System Problems
Symptoms of typical poultry respiratory problems include: Runny / watery eyes, swollen sinuses, wheezing, sneezing, gurgling / rattling, and difficulty breathing.
Birds with respiratory problems can quickly deteriorate and it is always a good idea if you suspect a problem to quickly seek the advice of a qualified vet. The information on this site is for reference only and is not meant to replace that of a qualified practitioner.
Some of the respiratory problems chickens can suffer from are:
Aspergillosis is a fungal infectious disease, caused by Aspergillus fumigatus, in which the typical sign is gasping for breath, especially in young chicks. Sometimes the same organism causes eye lesions or chronic lesions in older birds. The fungus can infect plant material and many species of animals including birds and man. Occasionally similar lesions are produced by other species of Aspergillus or even other fungi such as Penicillium, Absidia etc.
It affects chickens and most waterfowl. The infection has an incubation period of 2-5 days. Morbidity is usually low, but may be as high as 12%. Mortality among young affected birds is 5-50%. Transmission is by inhalation exposure to an environment with a high spore count; there is usually little bird-to-bird transmission. Spores are highly resistant to disinfectants.
- Acute form:
- Silent gasping.
- Rapid breathing.
- Nervous signs (rare).
- Chronic Forms:
- Ocular discharge (ocular form only).
- Yellow to grey nodules or plaques in lungs, air sacs, trachea, plaques in peritoneal cavity, may have a greenish surface.
- Brain lesions may be seen in some birds with nervous signs.
This is usually based on the signs and lesions and microscopic examination for the fungus, preferably after digestion in 10% potassium hydroxide. It may be confirmed by isolation of the fungus, typically by putting small pieces of affected tissue on Sabouraud agar. Growth occurs in 24-48 hours and colonies are powdery green/blue in appearance. Differentiate from excessive exposure to formalin or vaccinal reactions in day olds and from heat stress in older birds.
Usually none. Environmental spraying with effective antifungal antiseptic may help reduce challenge. Amphotericin B and Nystatin have been used in high-value birds.
Dry, good quality litter and feed, hygiene.
Infectious Bronchitis (IB)
Infectious Bronchitis (IB) is an acute highly contagious viral respiratory disease of chickens. This is a disease affecting chickens only and all chickens are susceptible to Infectious Bronchitis unless they have been vaccinated. Recovered birds are immune for several months.
Infectious Bronchitis is considered to be the most contagious known poultry disease and is spread by air, feed bags, infected dead birds, infected houses and small animals. Infected birds excrete the virus in their faeces for several weeks following clinical recovery. The symptoms of Infectious Bronchitis develop and spread rapidly, infecting 100% of the flock, mortality rates are very high.
The severity of the symptoms are influenced by age and immune status and general health of the flock. Food and water consumption declines, there is a watery discharge from the eyes and nostrils, breathing is laboured with some gasping in young chicks. Eggs laid are also likely to be misshapen and egg production drops to half.
Problems are primarily in the respiratory tract and infected embryos die before hatching. Young birds exhibit conjunctivitis (eye inflammation) followed soon by nasal discharge and thick mucus in the traches (windpipe ), which can asphyxiate.
There is no specific treatment for Infectious Bronchitis, though antibiotics can be administered for 3-5 days and may aid in combating secondary bacterial infections.
Mycoplasma gallisepticum (M.g)
Mycoplasma gallisepticum or M.g, is an infection which can affect chickens, turkeys, game birds, pigeons and other wild birds. Ducks and geese can also become infected if kept in close proximity to chickens.
Mycoplasma gallisepticum is less evident in birds kept commercially due to them being kept single age sites and with high biosecurity monitoring. However, in extensive flocks where there are multiple age groups and exposure to wild birds, Mycoplasma gallisepticum is relatively common.
The route of infection is via the conjunctiva or upper respiratory tract. The incubation period is 6-10 days. Transmission can be through the egg from the breeder birds or directly bird to bird through dust, feathers, aerosols, faeces and carriers such as equipment. Birds can recover from Mycoplasma gallisepticum but will remain infected for life; subsequent stress may cause a reoccurrence of the disease.
- Nasal and ocular discharge
- Poor productivity
- Slow growth/stunting
- Leg problems
- Morbidity and mortality
- Reduced hatchability and chick viability
- Occasional encephalopathy and abnormal feathers
The infectious agent survives only a few days, but has been shown to live longer on the feathers. Mycoplasma gallisepticum can be transmitted by humans on hair and in the nostrils. Predisposing factors for clinical disease are the presence of respiratory viruses (IB/ND/ART), other disease and challenging environmental conditions.
Mycoplasma gallisepticum needs to be confirmed by taking blood samples of a flock to check if the birds are positive. Subsequent blood samples may be necessary. Post mortem examination alone is not sufficient to diagnose this disease, although there are tests available to diagnose the presence of the genetic material in infected organs
There are some antimicrobial treatments available which will help in the control of Mycoplasma gallisepticum but they will often not eradicate it completely from the site.
Biosecurity and good management practices are essential. Reduction of multiple age groups, low stocking densities, alongside implementing a vaccination program, operating a closed flock where possible, antimicrobial treatments and reducing exposure to wild birds.
Newcastle Disease in Chickens
Newcastle disease (also called Avian Distemper, Paramyxovirus or Fowl Pest) is common worldwide, but currently outbreaks in the UK and the USA are relatively rare.
Newcastle disease is a respiratory disease caused by a virus and was first discovered in Newcastle upon Tyne, England in 1926, with other strains being simultaneously discovered in other parts of the world. Generally the strain of the Newcastle virus found in the USA and the UK is relatively mild, but continual vigilance is exercised, especially over the import of exotic birds, who may carry more virulent strains.
Symptoms include coughing, sneezing, gurgling and holding the beak wide open in an attempt to breathe more freely. Chickens may also get diarrhoea and stop laying eggs, or lay eggs with soft shells. After a few weeks, sometimes nervous system problems can occur, with the birds developing twisted necks, droopy wings and dragging legs.
Transmission occurs through inhalation of the virus via the respiratory discharges from carriers or ingesting it via other excretions, e.g contaminated feed.
Commercial chicken flocks are vaccinated against the disease and if there is an outbreak nearby you will probably by law have to vaccinate your flock too.
Newcastle disease is a notifiable disease in the UK and most developed countries and if you suspect that your birds have Newcastle disease, you should report it immediately to your local Animal Health Office.
Chicken Crop Problems
The crop is an out-pocketing of the esophagus and is located just outside the body cavity in the neck region. Any swallowed food and water is stored in the crop until it is time to pass it on to the rest of the digestive tract. The two most common crop problems are sour crop and impacted crop. The impacted crop is also known as being crop bound.
Sour crop is caused when the crop doesn’t empty fully overnight and as a result, the food ferments within the crop causing a fungal infection. You can identify sour crop by checking the crop before the bird eats in the morning and if it is sour crop the crop will be watery or squishy like a balloon and if you open the bird’s beak a foul smell will emanate from it.
A look at Sour Crop in Chickens
Sour crop is caused when the crop doesn’t empty fully overnight and as a result the food ferments within the crop causing a fungal infection. When a chicken takes food and water it is passed from the mouth into the crop which is located just outside the body cavity in the neck region. It is then stored there until it is time to pass it on to the rest of the digestive tract. You can identify sour crop by checking the crop before the bird eats in the morning and if it is sour crop the crop will be watery or squishy like a balloon and an unforgettable foul smell will emanate from the chicken’s beak.
Sour crop in chickens is caused by the Candida Albicans yeast in the crop. Sour crop can occur after a course of oral antibiotics (such as Baytril or Tylan) or if there has been a shortage of Vitamin A in the bird’s body. It is more common in growing birds than in fully developed adult birds.
Some home remedies for sour cropTry turning your chicken upside down with its head away from you and gently rub the crop in the direction of the mouth to get them to vomit up the crop contents. Once this has been done mix some natural, live, yogurt into the bird’s food and feeds this to the bird along with water mixed with unfiltered apple cider vinegar. The apple cider vinegar should not be the type purchased from supermarkets, but from a specialist supplier, a teaspoon should be added per litre of water.
You will probably need to repeat this procedure over three days or until the crop stops filling and the bacteria in the crop returns to normal. If the problem still persists after that time you should seek the advice of a vet who will prescribe a course of anti-fungal medicine.Preventing sour crop
As with most things prevention is better than cure. Try to ensure that all long grass is cut where the chickens forage as long blades of cut grass or tough plant fibers tend to form a mass in the gullet and crop that can cause a blockage, leading to sour crop. In addition, keep living areas free of foreign objects such as plastic or rubber bands that your birds could eat. Also provide lots of freshwaters, adding unfiltered apple cider vinegar to their water regularly will lower the pH in the crop and help prevent bacteria growth. A weekly treat of plain live yogurt will also promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the digestive system
Crop Bound with Impacted Crop
Impacted crop (or being crop bound) is similar in that the crop does not empty overnight but in the morning it will feel hard and swollen.
Impacted Crop or Crop Binding
Typically, a hen’s crop will become impacted by something the chicken has ingested. The blockages could be the result of the hen ingesting tough long grasses, sawdust, straw, hard grains or meat bones that get lodged in the crop. As chickens cannot chew, tough stems etc cannot be broken down before entering the crop.
Chickens may exhibit a large bulge in the crop area and also a sudden loss of weight. The bird may also jerk its neck around trying to dislodge the blockage. Additionally, the stuck items in the crop may begin to rot, resulting in a sour (sour crop) smell coming from the chicken’s beak.
If you examine the chicken, the crop will feel very full, as if it is full of dough. The best time to do this is first thing in the morning (before the chicken has had a chance to eat any food) as the crop should empty overnight.
Treatment in mild cases
It is important to treat an impacted crop quickly otherwise the bird will starve. In mild cases, the contents of the crop can be softened before emptying. Whilst this sounds difficult, it is in fact quite straight forward and usually does the trick in mild cases of impacted crop.
Holding the bird firmly pour a couple of teaspoons of olive oil down its throat and then massage the crop for about 5 minutes, to soften the contents. This is probably best done by two people. Then turn your chicken upside down with its head away from you and massage the contents out through the beak for a short while. Do this for only about 10 seconds at a time and then turn it back the right way so that it can breathe properly. If you are at all concerned about doing this you should take the bird to a poultry vet.
Treatment in serious Cases
In more serious cases, when the crop cannot be emptied easily, you will need to take your chicken to the vet. A vet will usually have to open the crop up to empty the contents and then stitch the bird back up.
Prevention is better than cure so try to ensure that all long grass is cut where the chickens forage and keep living areas free of foreign objects such as plastic or sharp objects that your birds could eat. Always make sure that water and grit are always available.
A pendulous crop is when the crop hangs down lower than it should do and as the name suggests often swings ‘like a pendulum’ as the bird moves around.
Pendulous Crop – Impacted Crop
A pendulous crop is when the crop hangs down lower than it should do and often swings ‘like a pendulum’ as the bird moves around.
This problem is very similar to an impacted crop, but in the case of a pendulous crop, the crop has been stretched by the weight of the food and the muscles have been damaged and cannot push food down to the proventriculus.
Treatment in mild cases
It is important to treat a pendulous crop as with an impacted crop quickly otherwise the bird will starve. In mild cases, the contents of the crop can be softened before emptying. Whilst this sounds difficult, it is in fact quite straight forward and usually does the trick in mild cases.
Holding the bird firmly pour a couple of teaspoons of olive oil down its throat and then gently massage the crop for about 5 minutes, to soften the contents. This is probably best done by two people. Then turn your chicken upside down with its head away from you and massage the contents out through the beak for a short while. Do this for only about 10 seconds at a time and then turn it back the right way so that it can breathe properly. If you are at all concerned about doing this you should take the bird to a poultry vet.
Treatment in serious Cases
In more serious cases, when the crop cannot be emptied easily, you will need to take your chicken to the vet. A vet will usually have to open the crop up to empty the contents and then stitch the bird back up. In severe cases where the muscle tissue is badly damaged corrective surgery may be needed.
In all cases the bird is likely to seem lethargic, will lose weight and may make strange head movements due to the discomfort of the crop.
How to check for problems with a Chicken’s Crop
When a chicken takes food and water it is passed from the mouth into the crop which is located just outside the body cavity in the neck region. It is then stored there until it is time to pass it on to the rest of the digestive tract. When the crop is empty, or nearly empty, it sends hunger signals to the brain so that the chicken will eat more. Although salivary glands of the mouth secrete the digestive enzyme amylase, very little digestion actually takes place in the crop, it is simply a temporary storage pouch. Inspecting the crop of a chicken regularly should spot cases of either impacted or sour crop early, conditions that if left unchecked can be serious and in the case of an impacted crop, may result in the death of the chicken. As part of your daily routine, it is a good idea just to check that the chicken does not appear to look swollen in the morning. Recommended weekly routine to check for crop problems.
- Inspect your chickens, looking in particular at the chest where the crop is located. Look out for any birds whose chests seem bigger than usual or are obviously swollen. Are any of the birds lethargic and showing a sudden weight loss? In addition, they may make strange head movements, swaying them back and forth, due to the discomfort of the crop.
- You should carefully pick up the bird, keeping it firmly tucked under one arm with its wings and feet secured. Inspection should be done in the morning since their crops should be emptied then after having not fed during the night. It may also be easier to pick the bird up while it is still on its perch.
- Gently rub the chicken along the chest with your hands, to locate the crop. This is located just below the neck and in the center of the chest. Feel for any abnormalities, the crop should feel empty and loose without any hardness or sensation of liquid inside. Chickens with a ‘squishy’ crop, may have the beginnings of the sour crop, a condition which will also be confirmed by a foul smell emanating from the beak.
- If when you examine the chicken, the crop feels very full, as if it is full of dough, but no foul smell comes from the bird’s mouth, it is likely that it has an impacted crop or is crop bound. This condition needs treatment to prevent the bird from starving to death. In mild cases, the contents of the crop can be softened before emptying.
- You should take a chicken with suspected crop problems to a vet immediately, where treatment can be provided.
Avoiding Crop Problems
In order to avoid crop problems, you should ensure that you keep an ample supply of poultry grit available for your chickens. The grit breaks up the food in the crop and without it the food cannot be broken down and digested, the calcium in the grit also benefits laying birds.
Long grass should be cut down as this can compact in the crop and stodgy foods such as bread and pasta should be fed sparingly as these can also cause a compaction.
It is also recommended that you use apple cider vinegar, (not the type found in supermarkets) added to the chicken’s water and you should always make sure that your birds are properly wormed.
Apple cider vinegar for chicken health
Apple cider vinegar is used widely by chicken keepers. It is the product of pulverised and fermented apples, apple cider vinegar contains acetic and other acids, mineral salts, and amino acids that are great for your chickens. The apple cider vinegar should be the unfiltered and unpasteurized kind and you will not find this in your local supermarket. You should use a specialist supplier, see our recommendations. The apple cider vinegar you will find in most shops has been filtered and pasteurized to remove the bacteria and to ensure that it has a longer shelf life. In the process the ‘friendly’ bacteria which are believed to be good for the chickens are also removed.
Apple cider vinegar has several uses for the chicken keeper:
Helps the chicken’s digestive system
By adding unfiltered apple cider vinegar to their water regularly the pH of the bird’s crop is lowered which in turn prevents crop problems such as sour crop. A teaspoon per litre of water added just once a month for adult birds should be enough. Put another way, use four teaspoons of apple cider vinegar for each gallon of water, or one quart apple cider vinegar per fifty gallons.
Many chicken keepers also believe as well as keeping the bird’s digestive system healthy apple cider vinegar also increases egg production. It can also act as an antiseptic, killing any harmful mucus or bacteria in the throat that can cause respiratory ailments.
Using apple cider vinegar to clean your chicken coop, feeders and water containers
You can also use apple cider vinegar to clean your chicken coop walls, floors, roof, windows, feeder and water containers. Just add a few teaspoons of apple cider vinegar to a spray bottle filled with water. The raw, unfiltered, and unpasteurized apple cider vinegar is always best, but for cleaning purposes, any type of apple cider vinegar will work.
To clean with apple cider vinegar, just spray any dirty surface with your solution and wipe clean with a rag or towel. Frequent cleaning with apple cider vinegar will disinfect any surface and prevent mold, mildew, dust and unpleasant odours from building up in your coop. Many chicken keepers report that cleaning the chickens’ area with apple cider vinegar prevents flies and ants from congregating around chickens as well.
Using apple cider vinegar as an abrasive cleaner
Apple cider vinegar makes a great abrasive cleaner for areas like cages, cracks, and brooders that may get particularly dirty but are difficult to clean effectively. Mixing apple cider vinegar with coarse sea salt will help to safely rub off any build-up on dirty surfaces.
For the ultimate clean feeling, mix baking soda with a small amount of water to scrub surfaces thoroughly and then spray with an apple cider vinegar solution to disinfect.
Pests, Mites, Lice
Northern Fowl Mite
Northern Fowl Mites are an aggressive type of chicken mite and unlike Red Mites live on the birds themselves feeding around the clock. The insects will be visible during the day as small red/brown insects and various degrees, depending upon the level of infestation, of telltale discoloration around the feathers will be present, due to the eggs and waste of this mite.
The chickens will soon suffer from severe Anaemia as the mites feed on their blood. They will stop laying, suffer loss of appetite, their combs and wattles will become pale and feathers will quickly become damaged, with increasing bald patches appearing as they scratch themselves. If left untreated the birds will eventually die.
Prevention and Treatment
Prevention of Northern Fowl Mite is difficult as it is passed from wild birds to the chickens and then from bird to bird within the flock. in addition, the life cycle, that is the time from an egg laid to a laying adult, can be less than 7 days, so a major infestation can happen quickly.
Early detection and prevention remain the best way to control these pests. Keep the chicken coop and bedding clean and fresh and regular scrubbing of the coop and nesting boxes with a product such as Poultry Shield is the main defense. In addition, inspect your birds regularly and be on the lookout for scratching behavior especially to the head and ear area. Always ensure that the birds can take a dust bath when they wish.
Treat infested chickens with a louse and mite dusting powder as instructed on the label, a product such as Diatom Earth is also effective in killing mites. If the infestation is severe or for advice on a particular mite treatment, especially an internally taken remedy we advise contacting a qualified veterinarian.
Mites can cause severe irritation to human skin and can crawl up your arms when you are treating or examining an infected bird. It is advisable to change your clothes and shower after contact with the birds.
Red Mites or Poultry Mites
The red mite or chicken/poultry mite (Dermanyssus gallinae) is a common external parasite of poultry and wild birds and although very small it can be seen by the naked eye. Red mites feed on blood, feathers, skin or scales of birds and a large infestation level of mites will cause stress to the birds, leading to reduced egg production, anaemia and in extreme cases death. Red mites can be brought to your flock or chicken house by wild birds or mammals.
Red Mite and its Life Cycle
Red Mites are Arachnids and as such have 8 legs and belong to the order Acari. As with all mites they have an unsegmented body and in the adult stage, 4 pairs of legs and mouthparts which are adapted for piercing. The adult red mite measures approximately 1mm in length and 0.4mm in width, varying in color from grey/ white to red depending on the level of blood engorgement.
Red mites feed on the bird between one and two hours each night, only in the dark, retreating during the day into cracks and crevices in the hen house, where they lay their eggs. This can make them hard to spot and treat before the infestation becomes large.
The female mite lays clusters of eggs near the chicken’s roosting area, the eggs of red mite are small (0.4mm x 0.25mm) oval and pearly white. Under warm conditions, the eggs hatch in 2-3 days into 6-legged larvae. Before the first feed, the larvae moult into an 8-legged protonymph (usually within 24 hours of hatching). These protonymphs start to feed on the roosting birds and moult to a deutonymph that continues to feed before moulting into an adult male or female.
Under favorable conditions, a mite can complete a life cycle, from egg to a laying female in 7 days. So populations can build up extremely rapidly within poultry houses. To make matters worse the red mite can survive for up to 8 months in cracks and crevices without a blood meal.
Spotting the signs
If you are to avoid a major infestation of red mite it is important to be vigilant and treat the problem before it grows. One tell-tale sign of infestation may be the chicken’s reluctance to go back into the hen-house at night. The best time to check for red mites is early morning when they can be seen easily by the naked eye after feeding on the blood of the birds overnight. Another tell-tale sign is a build-up of grey dust in the coop, this is the waste matter from the mite. Look particularly under perches and in perch sockets for live mites, they can also be found hiding in the dust on the floor under bedding and in the timber joints.
Red Mites versus Red Spider Mite
Red mites should not be confused with red spider mites or similar clover mites which are relatively harmless garden bugs. The red spider mites are a bright red color and are seen during the day often on brickwork. Red mites are usually grey during the day and even when engorged with blood are not the bright red/ orange color of the spider mite or clover mite.
Identifying if you have a Red Mite/ Poultry Mite Problem
One of the biggest difficulties poultry keepers face today is Red Mite or Poultry Mite infestation. These mites are becoming an increasing problem both in Europe and North America and are responsible for a significant reduction in egg production and increase in bird mortality on many farms and small holdings.
Early detection is important as if left unchecked the problem will quickly magnify. Red mites are very efficient reproducers and in fact an egg will hatch and turn into an egg-laying adult all within the space of seven days. In addition they can lie dormant for up to eight months, during winter, or in uninhabited hen houses, becoming active again in warmer weather or when a new host arrives.
However red mites are often difficult to detect, especially for the inexperienced chicken keeper, until the infestation has taken hold. This is because they are only about .7mm in size and they hide in crevices and cracks on perches, walls and flooring during the day only coming out to feed on the birds for a couple of hours during the hours of darkness.
Often the first thing a chicken keeper will notice is their birds’ reluctance to go back into the chicken coop at night. However with a bit of knowledge and experience it is possible to learn to spot these mites and treat them before they become too serious a problem.
Spotting the Problem
The best time to spot red mites is the first thing in the morning when they are still full of blood from the chickens they have been feeding on. They will be a reddish colour soon after a feed but will quickly lighten in colour back to a grey/white colour during the day when they are significantly more difficult to spot. Early in the morning you should be able to spot various colours of these poultry mites depending upon when they fed on their host bird.
An early sign to look out for, which you can often see before you see any mites themselves are grey ash like deposits around the perch ends which is the waste matter from the red mites. If you then remove the perches, you will likely spot groups of mites in the perch sockets.
Effects of Red Mite on the Birds
Apart from showing a reluctance to go into the hen-house at night chickens will display restlessness during the night. They will begin to lose condition and their combs and wattles will become paler. Their egg production will drop eventually stopping all together. Any eggs produced will often have spots of blood on them. If left untreated the problem will lead to anaemia and eventually death in the birds, especially young chickens.
If you believe you have a red mite problem you should immediately clean and treat your hen-house and birds, with one of the many recognized treatments. In addition, there are preventative measures you can take to try to avoid the problem in the first place.
Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth for Poultry
Diatomaceous Earth (DE) is the fossilised remains of microscopic one-celled plants (phytoplankton) called diatoms that lived in the world’s oceans and lakes. These deposits are mined from underwater beds or from ancient dried lake bottoms.
Diatomaceous Earth has a wide variety of uses such as in filtration for swimming pools and abrasives found in cosmetics such as facial scrubs and some toothpaste and as an absorbent for liquids, for example in cat litter. Food grade diatomaceous earth is particularly useful to reduce internal and external parasites, such as Worms, Lice and Mites in animals, including poultry. Because the milling process produces different sized and shaped particles, it is important only to use the food grade type of diatomaceous earth for livestock. Pool filter grade diatomaceous earth has been heat and chemically treated and will poison an animal or human who ingests it.
Food grade diatomaceous earth makes a very effective natural insecticide. The insecticidal quality of diatomaceous earth is due to the razor-sharp edges of the diatom remains. When diatomaceous earth comes in contact with the insects, the sharp edges lacerate the bugs waxy exoskeleton and then the powdery diatomaceous earth absorbs the body fluids causing death from dehydration.
Food grade diatomaceous earth has also been used for many years as a natural wormer for livestock. Some believe diatomaceous earth scratches and dehydrates the parasites. Some scientists also believe that diatomaceous earth is a de-ionizer or de-energizer of worms or parasites. Whatever its effect it does give definite control.
Food grade diatomaceous earth works in a purely physical/mechanical manner, not ‘chemical’ and therefore has no chemical toxicity. More importantly parasites don’t build up a tolerance/immunity to its chemical reaction, so rotation of wormers is unnecessary.
Internal Daily recommended food grade diatomaceous earth feeding
Chickens and other poultry – 2-5% in feed (but follow package instructions)
Internal feeding of food-grade diatomaceous earth does help eliminate most internal worms, though possibly not all and feeding needs to be done daily. Although larvae in the bloodstream will not be killed. It’s also excellent when fed daily to keep down fly loads, since food grade diatomaceous earth is eliminated from the body, exactly as it went in, it helps reduce the manure odor and kills flies that come in contact with it. Users report a noticeable reduction in flies. However unfortunately it will also have a similar effect on more welcome insects such as bees, so be careful where you use it outside the coop.
Use diatomaceous earth throughout the barn, chicken coop and pastures. When cleaning the barn and coops, lightly, but thoroughly sprinkle diatomaceous earth throughout. It keeps the hen-house clean and dry. In between barn mucking, sprinkle diatomaceous earth on wet spots to help dry them out and keep flies from laying eggs.
Diatomaceous earth is also a useful weapon in the fight against red mite and should be applied to cracks and crevices in the roosting area. In addition, Diatomaceous earth can be dusted between the feathers of the birds and onto the skin regularly to control mites. It can be also added to dust baths which are particularly effective.
Preventing Poultry Red Mite Infestation
As red mites can be brought to your flock or chicken house by wild birds or mammals, there is no 100% guaranteed way of preventing red mites from reaching your chickens. It is unlikely nowadays that you will be able to keep chickens for any length of time and not come across these mites. However there are certain measures that you can incorporate into part of your chicken care routine which will lessen your chances of having a major red mite infestation.
If you are to avoid a major infestation of red mite it is important to be vigilant and treat the problem before it grows. One tell-tale sign of infestation may be the chickens reluctance to go back into the hen-house at night. The best time to check for red mites is early morning, when they can be seen easily by the naked eye after feeding on the blood of the birds overnight. Another tell-tale sign is a build up of a grey dust in the coop, this is the waste matter from the mite. Look particularly under perches and in perch sockets for live mites, they can also be found hiding in the dust on the floor under bedding and in the timber joints. Another good way of checking is to run a tissue, in the dark when the mites are likely to be feeding on your chickens, along the underside of a perch and check for tell-tale bloodstains.
There are a wide variety of methods used by chicken keepers, with varying success, here are some of them:
1. Make sure all joints and cracks in nest boxes, perches and the chicken house in general are sealed wherever possible, as these are where mites love to hide. The lack of hiding places is one of the strong arguments for selecting a plastic hen-house over the traditional wooden one.
2. If you have cracks and crevices you can make sure that there is nothing nasty lurking, by regularly using either a pressure washer, a wallpaper steamer or if you are happy you will not burn the house down a blow torch can be used.
3. Double-sided sticky tape or fly paper can be applied to the underside and ends of the perches.
4. A solution of Paraffin and Vaseline can be applied to cracks and crevices, which will smother any lurking mites. Carbolic soap can also be used with the same result.
5. Barrier Red Mite Powder is an insect repellent for use against red mite and versions are stocked by most good poultry suppliers. This can be applied directly to the birds and should also be sprinkled liberally on the housing, paying particular attention to the perch ends, corners and crevices.
6. Provide dust baths for your chickens, this is the natural way for birds to rid themselves of parasites. Since red mites only attack the birds for a couple of hours at night the dust baths won’t in themselves get rid of any mites. However, if a dusting powder such as Diatomaceous Earth is added to the dust, the birds will be nicely coated ready for any night-time attack. When the red mites crawl onto the birds at night, they will rub against the diatom, this is fossilized algae which has a crystalline structure and is highly abrasive to the mites’ waxy shell, so cuts it open, causing the mite to de-hydrate and die.
Red mite is an increasing problem for backyard chicken keepers and is a potential problem that you cannot afford to ignore, so good animal husbandry and preventative practices are essential.
Scaly Leg Mite
Scaly leg is caused by an eight leg mite (Knemidocoptes mutans) that burrows under the scales of your chicken’s legs and spends its entire life cycle of 1 to 2 weeks on the bird. The scaly leg mite is pale grey and has a flat round body and can be brought to your chickens by wild birds. The scaly leg mite burrows under the scales on the legs and feeds on connective tissue.
Symptoms include leg inflammation, swelling and lameness. If left untreated, the condition gets worse, as the scales get pushed away from the skin by the mites’ excretions. In really bad cases chickens develop leg and joint problems and their toes could die and fall off.
Never try to lift or remove any affected scales as this is very painful for your chicken and unnecessary, as the damaged scales are replaced naturally during the chicken’s annual moult and therefore will eventually regrow and look normal again.
If your chicken has scaly leg, you must isolate the affected bird(s) as scaly leg is extremely contagious. Most vets will advise regular, gentle washing (baby shampoo and a soft babies toothbrush are good for this) of the legs to remove the surface layer and then an application of a suitable treatment to allow the leg to heal.
A commonly used treatment is to rub a petroleum jelly like Vaseline onto the legs, which softens the legs and makes them less painful, in addition the Vaseline will also suffocate and kill the scaly leg mites. It is a good idea to do this at night so that dust and mud doesn’t get stuck to the Vaseline as the chickens scratch around. You will however have to do this every night for 3 weeks. You can also use a solution of surgical spirits once a week for 4 weeks, to ensure that the mites are killed. Some vets will also prescribe Ivermectin drops applied on the skin behind the neck and on the body to kill the scaly leg mites. Never be tempted to use creosote or diesel for scaly legs, both of which are old remedies, as these could kill the birds.
As with all mite infections, you must also clean out and disinfect your chicken coop. Check for any damp patches caused by a leaking roof or similar and fix immediately as scaly leg mites love damp conditions. Chickens with feathered feet are particularly prone to scaly leg, so remember to check their legs regularly.
All poultry have some lice at some time in their lives. Lice are extremely irritating to your chickens and they will if left cause them to injure themselves through excessive scratching and preening. Severe infestation can also prove deadly to small chicks.
Lice can be spotted with the naked eye. If you examine your chicken’s feathers, you might spot these small pale insects crawling around the base of the feathers and you may also see clusters of their eggs on the stems of the feathers. Lice particularly like the warm area under the wings and vent. Symptoms of lice include, weight loss, reduced egg yield and a dirty vent area.
A specialist lice powder for chickens should be applied as per the instructions on the product. You will need to apply the powder to every bird in your flock, infected or not as lice can survive for up to 5 days without a host bird to feed on and can reproduce in just 3 weeks. As lice eggs are resistant to the powders, the treatment will have to be applied 7-10 days after the first to kill off the next louse generation before they have a chance to breed.
Regular cleaning and safe disposal of bedding and poultry litter will help reduce the likelihood of lice problems. You should also change bedding and clean the coop thoroughly with a product such as Poultry Shield, before allowing the birds back in after they have been treated for lice.
Always make sure your chickens have access to a clean dust bath so that they may keep the lice under control naturally.
Worms in Poultry
Understanding worms and worming is essential if you are to keep healthy chickens. Many health problems that your chickens can get are related to worms of some kind and therefore ongoing worming and good hygiene are essential.
Worms are Endoparasites, which mean they live inside their host, unlike mites and lice that are Ectoparasites and to be found on the outside of your poultry. As the worms live inside the body it means they are not always possible to spot with the naked eye. The usual external symptoms of worms are loss of appetite and weight, lower egg production, faded comb colour and runny droppings.
As most people keep their chickens for periods of time on the same area of ground the birds will be caught up in a continual cycle of shedding worm eggs in their faeces and then picking them up and reinfestating themselves and others as they graze. It is for this reason that moving your run frequently is a good idea. Keeping grass short also helps if they are free ranging as this will allow the sun to dry out and kill the worm eggs.
There are various types of these parasitic worms or nematodes and unfortunately they tend to live inside earthworms, and snails which of course are favourite chicken snacks. Once your chicken eats the earthworm or snail, the parasitic worms attach themselves to the lining of your chicken’s oesophagus, crop and mouth, causing swelling that constrict the gut.
Young birds can also suffer from tetramer infestation, whose larvae are to be found inside woodlice and beetles. The newly hatched female worms live in the chicken’s stomach, causing anaemia and general ill-health.
All types of parasitic worms can be treated/prevented by regularly worming your flock. There is of course much debate about whether regular preventative worming is either necessary or desirable, so if in doubt seek advice from your veterinarian.
Coccidiosis in Chickens
Coccidiosis is a parasitic disease of the intestinal tract caused by the coccidian protozoa, a single cell organism. Chickens are susceptible to some 11 species of this coccidia, the most common however being Eimeria tenella. As the coccidia reproduces inside the chicken’s intestine they cause bleeding and swelling.
How do Birds Become Infected?
The disease spreads from one animal to another by contact with infected feces or ingestion of infected tissue. Normally, most birds pass small numbers of parasitic eggs, or oocysts, in their droppings without apparent ill effects. However, the problem really occurs when chickens are reared in conditions that permit the build-up of infective oocysts. For example, the intensive chicken rearing methods used by some industry members often provide such ideal conditions. Oocysts can remain viable in the litter for many months. Coccidiosis occurs most frequently in young birds, older birds are generally immune as a result of prior infection.
Coccidiosis can cause severe damage to the chicken’s small intestine and infected birds lose a lot of liquid, cannot absorb nutrients from their food, and will quickly die if left untreated. The most obvious symptom is bloody droppings, in addition, the chicken will often have white diarrhea around its vent, it will lose weight and will have a hunched up appearance with ruffled feathers.
If you suspect Coccidiosis you should consult a veterinarian immediately, who will be able to advise on an authorized drug and the prescribed egg withdrawal period ( (i.e. eggs must not be eaten) for that drug. Additionally, Coxoid is a widely available treatment. Toxoid is administered in the drinking water for seven days, egg withdrawal period 28 days. Severely infected birds may need the medicine administered by a small syringe or pipette (a straw also works well).
You must clean the chicken house, run (and the ground they live on), and all utensils with a disinfectant such as Bi-OO-Cyst which will kill all coccidial parasites. Regular use of this will prevent any further infection as parasites can live in empty houses and the ground for several months.
Good management practices are the best way to control coccidiosis. Here are some:
- Avoid overcrowding.
- Keep food and water away from droppings.
- Try to avoid mixing different age groups of birds.
- Keep chicks off areas where older birds have been.
- Roost birds over netting if possible to trap droppings.
- Most chick crumbs and growers pellets contain Anti-Coccidiostats (ACS) that can protect against Coccidiosis.
- Place water vessels on wireframes to reduce spillage leading to wet droppings, in which the chicks can walk and pick up or spread the disease.
- Keep litter dry and replaced frequently.
- If coccidiosis does break out, seek advice from a poultry vet.
Marek’s Disease is commonly found in flocks of chickens and turkeys. Marek’s Disease is caused by a herpes virus and chickens suffering from Marek’s develop tumours in their nervous systems which result in varying degrees of paralysis. This in turns leads to the birds dying of dehydration or suffocating as they are unable to swallow or breath properly.
Incubation period is usually 6 to 8 days but visible signs can take weeks to appear. Chickens who survive an outbreak become carriers of the disease but may fall victim again if they are under stress, e.g large fluctuations in temperature.
You can spot a Marek’s Disease carrier adult bird by their eyes; if the pupil colour flows into the iris,making it look grey, then the bird is probably carrying the disease. The eye of the chicken on the right above has Marek’s Disease.
Marek’s disease is spread by feather dander, which is microscopic dust that can float miles on the wind.
There are two main ways of preventing it; either buy vaccinated chicks or have your chicks vaccinated yourself which is often too expensive however for those with large flocks. In addition good hygiene should always be practiced including during any brood periods.
Stress in flocks should be kept to a minimum and if possible different age groups should be kept separate as far as practically possible.
If you suspect that your chickens are suffering from Marek’s Disease or you would like advice about vaccination then you should call your veterinarian.
Broody Hens – How to stop Broodiness
Hens are most likely to become broody in spring and early summer, but it can happen at any time throughout the year, especially in the hen’s second year. A broody hen will refuse to leave the nest and may cluck loudly in protest when you go near her. She will only leave the nest once a day to eat, drink and poo. The droppings she will produce when broody will be large and rather unpleasant.
Not all hens will go broody and in fact most types of hens that have been bred for egg production wont as they have had the ‘broodiness genes’ bred out of them. If a hen goes broody she will not lay for up to 12 weeks and if left will take over the nest box preventing other hens from entering. It makes no difference whether there is a cockerel present or not, as the hen will go broody with or without him. A broody hen will also sit on eggs regardless of whether they are fertile or not.
There are a few tried and tested methods for stopping a hen from being broody, although if she is very determined it maybe impossible to stop her and she will sit anywhere. Even if you do manage to stop your hen from being broody, she still probably won’t lay again for a few weeks but this is still better than the twelve weeks or so if she was left to try to sit on eggs.
1. Keep taking her off the nest, this may take a few attempts, but often works with a less determined broody hen.
2. If this doesn’t work try moving the hen to a different place where she cannot see her old nest and keep her there for four days.
3. For a more determined broody hen a wire bottom cage often works. The airflow up through the wire keeps her underside cool and after a few days she will usually give up.
4. You can try dunking the broody hens lower half into a bath of cold water until her feathers are wet. Her instinct will be to dry herself off and preen her feathers, which may be enough of a distraction to make her forget about sitting on her nest.
When using methods 2 or 3, be careful when re-introducing her to the flock as she may get pecked for a while until the pecking order is re-established. Try to keep the broody hen near to the rest of the flock so that they can still see and smell her, this should make re-introducing her easier.
If you want to hatch eggs using a broody hen then a determined broody hen will be welcome. Even if you don’t want to hatch eggs there are usually plenty of others who will welcome your broody hen or offer to buy her.
Molting is a natural process where birds renew their feathers thereby ensuring their plumage is in top condition for flight and warmth. For most poultry, this occurs once a year but more rarely in some breeds molting may occur twice a year or very rarely every two years.
The first moult can be quite alarming for first time chicken keeper, who cannot understand why their otherwise healthy chickens suddenly lose their lovely feathers and look so grim.
The following articles should answer most of the questions we get asked about moulting:
Moulting – My Chicken is Going Bald
New chicken keepers are often shocked when they witness their birds first moult. They take one look at the pile of feathers in the coop and assume a fox or other predator has been in and attacked the chickens.
But don’t worry if it is late summer/ early autumn chances are your chickens are only doing what comes naturally and replacing their tired old feathers with shiny new ones. This is natures way of ensuring the birds are ready for winter and although you might not want this, they are in tip-top flying condition, (for this reason poultry with clipped wings will have to be clipped again once all their new feathers have grown in).
Most breeds of chicken will moult once a year, but more rarely in some breeds moulting may occur twice a year or very rarely every two years. A partial moult can sometimes take place earlier on in the year although it is usually just the neck feathers that are replaced at this time.
During a molt, a hen’s egg laying will slow down and even stop. This gives her reproductive tract time to rest and rejuvenate. It is also a time for her to build up her nutrient reserves that have been depleted producing eggs.
Just as eggs are mostly formed from protein so are feathers, therefore the protein that would normally be used for eggs goes to produce new feathers. So it is important to ensure that your chickens get plenty of protein in their diet during this time to grow new healthy feathers quickly and start laying as soon as possible.
It is a good idea to limit their corn or scratch at this time as they will fill up with this over their higher protein feed if given the chance. Occasionally hens will lay the odd egg while they are moulting but most will take a complete break for the 4 to 6 week moult period.
During a moult, birds generally do not lose all of their feathers at the same time as of course in nature it would be dangerous for them to have no flight feathers at any one time.
As well as increasing their protein feed, your chickens will also benefit from Apple Cider Vinegar, which can be added to their water, during molting.
Moulting – Order of Moult
Moulting occurs naturally at least once a year and the moult usually happens in a fairly set order. The first feathers are usually lost from the head and neck, then from the saddle, breast and main body, followed by the wings and finally the tail feathers. Often good layers will continue to lay while the feathers are being moulted from the neck and body but then stop completely when the wing feathers begin to drop.
The main wing feathers consist of four tiny finger feathers on the extreme tip of the wing, then ten large primary or flight feathers (these are the ones to clip if you wish to prevent flying), the small axial feather and the fourteen secondary feathers, which are smaller and softer than the primaries.
During a moult, birds do not lose all of their feathers at the same time. This is because, in nature, they still need to be able to escape from predators so it would not be helpful to lose all of their flight feathers at once. Primary wing feathers are shed first, from the axial outwards to the end of the wing and then the secondaries, which are not shed in such a set order as the primaries. The axial feather is dropped at the same time as the secondary next to it. The new quill starts to grow as soon as the old feather is out and takes approximately six to seven weeks to grow. The moult is complete when all primary flight feathers on the wing are replaced. The feathers of the moulted bird are large and full, softer, cleaner, brighter and glossy in contrast to the feathers before moulting which were smaller, harder, dryer and probably frayed and tattered.
Why are My Hens Moullting in Winter?
It is not unusual to see chickens moulting in winter despite the fact that it appears to defy all logic. Why would chickens want to lose their feathers just when they need them most? Moulting in winter seems to be quite common, however as it does appear to go against the usual efficiency of mother nature, it is worth considering what factors might be causing the moult.
The obvious culprit might be lice or mites and you should check carefully for these and take action to remove them immediately, paying particular attention to the area below the vent, under the wings and at the base of the tail.
If you are happy that your chicken does not have lice or mites then check that she is not displaying any other signs of illness such as breathing problems. If she appears to be her normal healthy self then consider whether the feathers may have been lost as a result of fighting with her peers or from an encounter with an over enthusiastic rooster.
Another point worth considering is whether you have changed your chicken’s diet recently and the feather loss has happened subsequently.
In the majority of instances chickens will only experience a partial moult when they lose feathers in winter. Very often the birds will only be in their first year of life and many growers may have up to three partial moults in the first year. In addition when the birds have a partial moult, their owners will notice no or very little reduction in egg production.
Some other points regarding winter moulting that we have noticed over the years is that birds who are bred for high egg production often do not actually have a full moult in their first year, but instead have a partial moult when they are a year old, no matter what time of year it is. Of course in the natural state birds would only be born in late spring and summer and therefore their annual moult would also be at that time of year. But chicks of course can be artificially reared at any time now.
In addition, if the birds have been bred for high egg production the chances are that those who do not have a full molt and stop egg production for a period of time will be favored when it comes to breeding stock, thereby passing on the tendency.
Clipping Chickens’ Wings
Wing clipping is necessary if you wish to prevent your chickens from flying off and annoying the neighbors or falling prey to predators. If done correctly the bird will not feel any pain and wing clipping is easily done.
You should only clip one wing as this will throw the birds balance out and prevent it from flying. If you clip both wings with a lot of effort your chicken may still be able to fly.
You should take a sharp pair of scissors and clip the first 10 primary flight feathers, you should shorten these feathers by about 50 % as a general rule, although more determined flyers may need a little bit more off. The diagram above demonstrates how to do this.
Be careful that the birds have finished their molt and their feathers are fully grown in. Developing feathers contain blood and if cut it may be difficult to stop the bleeding. The quills of feathers with blood still in them will appear black as opposed to the usual white color.
Wing clipping is only temporary and you will need to repeat the process after each molt. In addition, it is not uncommon for clipped feathers to prove difficult for the bird to shed itself during a moult and you may need to assist your chicken with this.
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