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Looking after Chickens

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Closeup of a Golden Hen

Terry Beebe shows you how to trim beaks, toenails and spurs, and clip wings in this useful guide to giving your poultry a chicken MOT.

See also:

Preparing Poultry for Winter
Keeping Poultry healthy in Winter

 

When you start keeping chickens, there are certain tasks that need to be carried out to keep them in good condition, and this is over and above the basic, regular, everyday cleaning and feeding.

It is very easy to overlook problems relating to the birds’ legs, feet and beak. Perhaps it is understandable why these parts of the birds’ bodies often appear a little neglected, but it is a neglect that can eventually lead to some very serious consequences. Regular checks must be made to make sure that these areas are not overgrown and causing problems for them. Regular cleaning and trimming will help to keep legs and feet clean and free from clogging, especially during the periods of bad, wet weather which are now just around the corner.

TOENAILS

Overgrown toenails can become hard and twisted, making it difficult for the birds to both walk and perch. The nails on birds’ feet grow very quickly, especially if they are on ground that does not give them the opportunity to wear down naturally. This can happen if the birds are confined to a run where the ground is soft or covered with grass; these surfaces don’t provide any rough areas which might wear down the nails during the normal daily routine. If birds are kept in a more natural, free-range environment with normal mixed ground cover, this will inevitably help to keep nail growth under control, but even in this situation nails will require regular checks.

 

Clipping using normal cutters.

Clipping using normal cutters.

TRIMMING NAILS

Hold the bird securely. If the bird struggles, wrap it gently in a towel, but allow clear access to the feet. To trim the nails use a good, sharp pair of nail-clippers. Small wire-type cutters are also ideal. Do not use scissors, as they are usually not strong enough to do the job. You can easily buy animal clippers made for this purpose, which are very easy and safe to use.

It may help to get someone to assist you by holding the bird while you are doing the trimming. Overgrown nails are certainly easy to see, and although there is no actual recommended length, they need to be cut back enough to enable the bird to walk in a normal manner. Really long nails curl and twist, and they can often be more awkward to cut back, as you may need to remove considerably more nail than normal just to get them straight. The length of nails will vary, as some breeds tend to have longer nails than others, but you can use your common sense and initiative to decide when they are too long.

Always take your time when trimming nails and carry out the task very carefully, removing only a small amount at a time. Take a close look and you will see that the end of the nail is paler in colour than the rear part of the nail; the paler part is what you are going to remove. To do this, hold the foot securely and take away the ends of the nail, a small part at a time, making sure that you do not cut into the darker part at the rear of the nail. The lighter section has neither blood vessels nor nerves, and in principle is very similar to our own nails.

If you do go too far into the darker part of the nail it is liable to bleed, and although it may bleed quite heavily, it will soon stop, with the birds generally showing no signs of discomfort, so do not panic if this happens. Once you are satisfied that you have trimmed enough, gently file the sharp and square edges from the nail using an emery board or nail-file, and the bird will feel a lot better and will also be able to walk and perch more comfortably.

 CLEANING NAILS AND REMOVING DIRT BALLS

All chickens seem to love dirt and sludge. This is not a problem until they come into the coop and the mixture of dirt, shavings and droppings stick to their feet, which then become very soiled.

Hardened dirt balls on feet.

Hardened dirt balls on feet.

This will eventually lead to the feet becoming so clogged with the mixture of damp dirt, bedding and droppings that large balls of dirt form on the toes and under the feet. The solid ball that gets attached to the toenails can be very difficult to remove, but soaking the feet in water helps to remove it without damage, and prevents the birds losing a nail. If this ball is removed without first being softened it is very likely that the toenail will be removed with the ball.

Soaking feet to soften hardened dirt balls.

Soaking feet to soften hardened dirt balls.

Remove the solid dirt balls by first soaking the feet in warm water until the lumps become soft. To do this, stand the bird in a bucket with a couple of inches of warm water and cover the bucket with a cloth. This will keep the bird calm while standing in the bucket. Alternatively, you could hold the feet under a running tap providing warm water until the dirt ball is soaked and softened.

Scrubbing feet clean

Scrubbing feet clean

 

You can also remove the balls dry by gently cutting into them, but doing this is more difficult and you can easily remove the nail together with the dirt. If you do decide to remove a dry dirt ball, make sure you proceed very slowly, and take great care to find exactly where the encrusted toes and nails are within the dirt ball.

Once the nails are clean and trimmed it is a good idea to carefully file off any rough edges left by the trimming. Leaving rough edges creates a surface which will soon cause the nails to become clogged again with the same type of dirt ball that you have just removed.

SPURS

It is quite normal for birds, especially cockerels, to grow spurs, which appear from the rear of the leg. They can vary quite considerably in both length and appearance, but these spurs can actually give you a reasonable idea of a bird’s true age. They can grow quite long, and, in some cases, this can become such an issue that it can seriously affect a bird’s mobility. I have seen a cock bird with spurs that had grown so long that they had curved upwards and were in fact growing back towards the bird’s leg. If left unattended they would eventually have penetrated the leg, causing considerable suffering to the bird.

Cutting spurs.

Cutting spurs.

 

TRIMMING

Spurs can be very strong and quite difficult to trim, as they are generally thick, solid and very hard, depending on the age of the bird. Trimming them is very similar to the way you trim both beaks and toenails, except for the thickness. You will need an exceptionally strong pair of cutters to remove the end of the spur, and as described earlier in the toenail section, only cut the end of the spur, which will be a lighter colour. When cutting spurs, there is always a possibility that the pressure you use may cause the whole of the spur to come away. This is not a problem and does no harm to the bird, although it leaves behind a very sharp, pointed spur that has been growing underneath the original one. The result will be quite bloody, but this soon heals with no adverse effect on the bird, and it will soon grow again naturally.

REMOVING SPURS THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY

Removing spurs many years ago involved a method which used a hot, baked potato. You simply pushed it onto the spur and held it there for about ten minutes. The heat caused the spur to loosen, and it came away with no ill effects for the bird. Within just a few hours it would be feeling fit and well, and looking very relieved to be free of the large, awkward spurs.

A hot baked potato on a spur.

A hot baked potato on a spur.

 

Old hens can also be found growing spurs, although these are much smaller than the ones that grow on cockerels. There are still, however, occasions when they will need trimming. Carrying out these tasks can be classed as basic general maintenance, but it will help to keep the birds in good condition, and is necessary for their welfare and well-being.

Removing the spur using the baked potato.

Removing the spur using the baked potato.

BEAK CLIPPING

The same principle applies to beaks, because they, too, can grow very quickly, causing the birds discomfort, and in really bad cases it may prevent them from feeding. A regular check is always a very good idea to prevent any problems relating to excessively long beaks. To some extent, checks will depend on the breeds you keep, but it is a good idea to carry these out every three or four months, and to trim whenever it is required.

Again, trimming the beak works on the same principle as the toenails. Check the beak and look for the part that darkens. You just remove a small amount, and take only the pale part, as this will prevent any bleeding. When cutting the beak, do so straight across the front paler part, and then carefully and gently trim the square sides slightly to take the beak back towards its original point. Wrapping the bird in a towel will make holding it a lot easier, and will also help to give you more control over the bird, which helps to keep it calm and reduce stress. To finish, very carefully file the edges, shaping the beak, and take great care, as it will bleed very heavily if overtrimmed.

Cut straight across the paler front part of the beak.

Cut straight across the paler front part of the beak.

Commercial hybrids are sometimes de-beaked to prevent cannibalism. This is a process that has been carried out for many years and is done by a qualified person with a tool that is specifically designed to carry out the task as humanely as possible. The beak is trimmed and automatically sealed by the machine. If this is not carried out in these large units, feather pecking and cannibalism will be a major problem. Although the practice may upset some people, it is actually carried out with the birds’ welfare in mind.

There are many chicken keepers who keep rescued hybrids, and often these birds will have a top beak that is shorter than the bottom beak. When you see these birds it can look quite strange, and gives them an unusual appearance. Although the practice prevents feather pecking, it in no way affects a bird’s ability to both eat and drink.

WING CLIPPING

There are times when you will need to clip your chickens’ wings. This is mostly required when the birds are free range and you need to keep them within your own area. If the birds can fly, it can create issues with neighbours (see Janice Houghton-Wallace’s article for the potential consequences of this!), or they could meet a fox or an angry dog. It is not cruel and does not in any way hurt the bird. In fact, you only need to clip one wing in order to make the bird uncertain of its balance when looking to take off, but many people do clip both.

The wing held open for clipping.

The wing held open for clipping.

This is better as a two-person job, with one holding the bird while the other performs the trimming. Once you have caught the bird, give it a little time to calm down and relax, then spread out the wing to reveal the primary feathers. Hold the wing away from the body and select the feathers you are going to cut. The primary feathers are generally longer than the others, and are in many cases lighter in colour. There are about ten of these, and they are the ones you need to cut.  Use a sharp pair of scissors and clip about two-thirds of the feather, but do not forget that feathers do have a blood supply, so don’t cut too far back.

Clipping the wing.

Clipping the wing.

When carrying out any of these procedures, and certainly if doing so for the first time, please refer to the photos accompanying this article, which demonstrate how to do the job in a correct and safe manner. Also, do bear in mind that when you are trimming it is inevitable that you will occasionally go a little too far – I’m sure you’ve all done it when cutting your own fingernails! If it does happen, it is better to keep the bird separate from the flock until the bleeding stops. This does not take long and will prevent any problems from starting with the other birds.

A wing after clipping.

A wing after clipping.

 

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