19 August 2014

A chicken-killer: blocked crop

I just had to buy the latest issue of New Zealand Lifestyle Block magazine for its article on 'sour crop'. It's a fairly common way for chickens to die, and it killed one of mine a couple of years ago. Here's a photo of how my best layer looked when she first got sick.

These are clear indications of a sick chicken: a floppy comb, hunched body and closed eyes. Poor thing. She stayed very still, and didn't eat or drink.

She also had a bigger than usual grapefruit-sized lump in her chest. This is her crop: a kind of holding chamber that food goes to first when it's swallowed. You'll often notice your chickens looking engorged in the chest region in the afternoon. That's a normal thing for a bird that's been feeding all day. The engorged crop is often off-centre, and goes down overnight as the food is digested.

In this case, the crop was bigger than usual and the bird was obviously ill. What to do about it? When I rang my 'chicken adviser', a friend in his 70s who's kept chickens since he was about 8, he said "I've never saved one". "But she's my best layer!" I told him desperately. "Oh, they always are," he chuckled, with the wisdom of one who has seen much life and death.

There's a blockage somewhere in the digestive system, he said, and sometimes it's further down than the crop. Because chickens have no teeth, and the food has a while to travel before it gets ground up in the gizzard, they're prone to this problem.

Here's the official word on treatment (bearing in mind my friend's dire prediction) from the magazine. Firstly, feel the crop. If it's hard, see (1) below. If you can feel fluid instead, it's sour crop.

1. A hard blockage. Dribble a few drops of olive oil and warm water down the throat. Gently massage the crop downwards from the outside to try to break up the ball and send the contents south. Do this several times, placing the bird in a quiet resting place in between sessions. If she perks up and starts to eat or drink, isolate her and give her soft food for a couple of days, until the crop returns to normal.

2. Sour crop. Tip the bird upside down and massage the crop contents towards the beak. Often fluid will pour out. Stop every 5-10 seconds to let the bird breathe. Then, to counteract the fermentation inside the crop, dribble an antifungal treatment down the throat: a small amount of baking soda dissolved in water, or plain unsweetened yoghurt.

I've often read about the need to be careful when squirting stuff down a chicken's throat, because it's quite possible to squirt it down into the lungs by mistake. For that reason I didn't treat my bird, other than tipping her upside down to drain her out. After a couple of days of not eating or drinking, she died. I wish I'd tried, now. Also, once I realised death was inevitable, I wish I'd put her out of her misery. I''ll write more on how to manage that another day.

Fortunately, sometimes they live! I've had two birds showing signs of the same thing, one of which I tipped upside down and one that I just left. Both were totally normal again the next day. However, neither of them ever looked as sick to start with as the first one.

Why, when one of my hens swallowed a 20 cm long blade of oat grass yesterday, did I dive in and pull it out of her beak before the entire thing disappeared? Because tangles are a main cause of a blocked crop. I now always tear or cut up long grass before throwing it to my birds (I missed that oat leaf).

In nature, of course, chickens don't get chucked long pieces of grass while they live in a barren pen. They tear off bite-sized lengths of grass, which is possible because the plant is anchored by its roots. But when greens-starved birds are chucked long grass, they can't nip off bite-sized bits. They have no teeth to do so, and not enough brain to realise that if they stood on one end of the leaf they could tear off just the tip of it, bit by bit. So they swallow it whole, swallow by swallow, until it's all down there. Then, very occasionally, it balls up and tangles inside.

My friend reckons that the plastic fibres of cut-open feed bags that sometimes get mixed with pellets are also a likely culprit. I pick them out.

Finally, many have pointed the finger at grass clippings. I avoid giving them to my chickens, although apparently they love them. If you must do it, give small amounts only. Because although mostly it's fine and chickens are generally tough and healthy, you don't want to be decorating a casket for your Mrs Cluck.

14 August 2014

The best reason to keep chickens

For those of us who keep chickens, being near our feathered creatures give us a slice of bliss. I've certainly noticed myself how a sense of calm and being at one with the world descends on me when I'm in our back garden with our chickens.

The best time ever, I think, is when I first started to meditate and to escape the family noise inside I sat in the shade of our garden near the chicken coop. When I opened my eyes, there was my lovely black Orpington sitting as close as possible to me behind her fence, eyes closed, as if she was meditating with me! Talk about vibes!

I'm sure it's not just me who feels that way. Chris Graham wrote in Wisdom for Hen Keepers how you "temporarily lose yourself as you care for them". He went on "After a hard day at the office, or a stressful time running your children here, there and everywhere, twenty minutes losing yourself in their world can be just what the doctor ordered."

There are many reasons to keep chickens, but this, I think, could be the best.

5 August 2014

A kiwi how-to guide to keeping chickens

This is a helpful "How we do it" guide to chicken-keeping in NZ can be found on this blog. Good for anyone thinking of taking the plunge.

The blackest chicken ever

Did you know there are all-black chickens? My son reckons they should represent New Zealand! Even their muscles, bones and innards are black! Imagine the roast dinner or chicken stew. There are two types, an Indonesian breed called Ayam Cemani and the Swedish Black Hen. A mere US$1999 for a young pair of the former, and $1499 for the latter. There are more photos on the website of the people who sell them in the US. I can't see any record of them being available in New Zealand.
A photo from Greenfire Farms, suppliers of these amazing birds.

A chicken cuddle to treasure

This is amazing and heart-melting. I think you need to raise your birds from chicks, with daily snuggle time, to get this kind of result.
Have you hugged your chicken today? See the video here.

Play Video

Hand-feeding chickens

Hand feeding chickens is such fun - here is a photo of Anna feeding our old black Orpington last weekend. She was thrilled! The old girl is about four now, with the odd grey head feather, but still very beautiful.

Photo: Hand feeding chickens is such fun - here is a photo of Anna feeding our old black Orpington last weekend. She was thrilled! The old girl is about four now, with the odd grey head feather, but still very beautiful.

Giving chickens fresh ground

It's the middle of winter, muddy and grey. Sometimes on rainy days my chickens spend much of the day "in bed" - in other words, up on their perch. This amuses me greatly!

At this time of year the soil never dries out, and that really matters to confined chickens. These wonderful birds love to spend their days scratching and pecking through mulch, finding and gobbling insects and other greeblies. And my silverbeet, of course. The stalky look is not good.

And my silverbeet, of course. The stalky look is not good.

My favourite chicken, a 4 year old black Orpington, behind a
hen and chicken fern.

The vegetable munching of free-ranging chickens is a big problem. Another is that they poo on paths. (Well, why would they poo on the grass? That is where they peck and eat!) Children walk barefoot on paths and then into the house. So I fence my chickens into a pen. It's the only solution for most urban chicken keepers. Unfortunately at this time of year the pen's soil is quickly exhausted , and they end up on a hard, smelly pan of dirt.

The best option is to regularly move the pen. We don't have much space for that. Another option is to chuck lots of stuff, such as weeds or leaves, into the pen to create some mulch for them to scratch through. Every now and then I also dig over the soil, but when I did it recently my nostrils were greatly offended. I know chickens have a good sense of smell, so it must be a fairly torturous situation for them - their flooring, their entertainment and their dinner plate are all foul. It's too foul for my fowl.

But I can do better. I've come up with a way to give them a "holiday" on a bit of fresh ground. Earlier this month I went to the Fieldays (no spelling mistake, it really has only one d). I bought a bunch of horse-size electric fence posts for $40. I felt like a real farmer! I like the posts because they are light, but most importantly they are easy to get in and out of the soil, and therefore form the basis of an easily portable fence.

Back home I used strips of old clothing and whatever else I could find to tie some plastic garden mesh between the posts to make my moveable fence. The mesh is only 90 cm high - not high enough to imprison agile birds like brown shavers if they really want to escape - but I've noticed that on fresh ground they don't try.

So now my chickens have happy little breaks from their overused soil for a few hours at a time whenever the fancy takes me. I love watching them in their element, heads down and tails up, as they happily work hard at discovering goodies.

One of their favourite spots seems to be under our citrus trees. I suspect that they are eating something there does bad things to the citrus, which have whitefly and sooty mould. The slug damage to the ripe fruit weighing down our mandarin tree certainly seems to have stopped.

A tip: If you like to give your chickens fresh ground in this way, remember to give them a bowl of water in their temporary pen. They need to drink little and often, even in winter.

Can you spot the vege garden safe in the background?

This kind of ground is paradise for chickens. Remember, thousands of years ago they were junglefowl - give them a bit of jungle whenever you can!