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By February 13, 2018 0 Comments Read More →

Healthy Chickens Check List

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In this post Jason Weller of Mantel Farm focuses specifically on the health and welfare of your flock.

Sitting down to write my first Home Farmer post seems a daunting task. Keeping readers interested month to month on the subject of keeping poultry – a topic which has been tackled repeatedly – is a considerable responsibility, so I shall try to do things differently, discussing various aspects of husbandry, focusing mainly on chickens and bantams, referring to them generally as ‘your birds’, and hopefully keeping you entertained along the way with the odd Mantel Farm-ism!


This can appear a vast subject, from where you keep them during the day and house them at night, to the matters of health and wellbeing and the equipment you use, while not forgetting pests and diseases. The very thought of these puts many people off keeping animals, and with poultry, as with most other animals, the list of problems can be long. For many years we have run courses on chicken keeping, and I regularly give talks at shows and agricultural events. On the subject of pests and diseases I always explain that there is no real cause for concern; most common poultry problems are easily dealt with, and efforts should be focused on preventative measures, with the next step being appropriate and sufficient action once a problem is discovered.

Signs of unrest in a flock can suggest many things, but the cause is often overcrowding ‒ a serious problem with many knock on consequences, including boredom, feather pecking, an increased risk of fleas, lice and mites, fighting over food and water, soiled or broken eggs (or even egg eating), and unhygienic conditions. The last problem alone creates much more work for a keeper if decent conditions are to be maintained, but all of these factors will result in a poor quality of life for your birds.

I am quite critical of many chicken housing manufacturers for ‘overstating’ the capacities of their housing, and for many inexperienced keepers, following what they assume to be expert guidance, this often results in overcrowding. Eventually common sense usually prevails, with most recognising a problem and either increasing the space or decreasing the flock. As a general rule, if a house/run is described as suitable for 8 birds (and very few seem to take in to account size and breed), I would suggest it will be fine for 8 bantams, reducing to 5 or 6 standard chickens, and perhaps 4 larger fowl, subject to doors, pop holes and nest boxes, of course.


Let’s submit your birds to a ‘chicken MOT’ by taking a look at a few of the main problem areas to see how they stand up. Over the next few months I’ll look at these issues in greater detail, with practical solutions and handy tips, so if they fail this time, you can be confident that no bird should fail next time around.


Observe your birds; find time to sit and watch them, whether in the run or free ranging. This can be very relaxing, but a lot can be achieved. A healthy flock is content, going about its daily life with birds minding their own business and not constantly pestering each other. Do your birds look healthy; are there any sitting alone, possibly all puffed up with head retracted into their neck ‒ generally signs of ill health, but usually requiring further monitoring as we all have off days.

Spend some time observing your birds’ behaviour.

Are any birds limping? This could be muscle strain, bumblefoot or another injury requiring attention. Do any look skinny or show signs of feather loss? This might indicate worms, lice or mites, in which case consider applying appropriate treatments, or possibly bullying ‒ perhaps a recently introduced bird is being prevented from feeding by a resident matriarch. Do any birds look overweight, particularly at the back end? I often ask if a bird is ‘walking like a duck’, which can suggest a bird may be ‘egg-bound’, meaning she is unable to pass an egg. As regards general weight gain, ensure your birds are receiving a proper balanced diet, and limit treats, in particular kibbled maize contained in mixed corn – a small handful per bird per day is plenty.

Do your birds have nice fluffy bums? This is a sign of good health, with no dribbly or crusted poo around the vent – often a sign of internal infection or stress. Unless a specific condition is diagnosed, the first port of call should be a herbal tonic. And are there signs of feather loss around the back end? This could simply be down to the annual moult, but it could also be feather pecking by other birds, parasite infestation, or constant vent leakage, all needing treatment.

See our post on chickens with dirty bums

Have your birds got nice legs? Joking aside, are they smooth? They should be scaly (almost reptilian, in fact, showing off their distant ancestry), but also smooth, flat and even, not raised or rough looking like coarse sand paper, often a sign of ‘scaly leg mite’, which needs appropriate treatment. We find this is more common in older birds and cockerels, and don’t forget that in much older birds feet often do become gnarled, which can be confused with this mite infection. If unsure there is no harm in treating it anyway, particularly if you also have younger birds.

A smooth scaly leg and foot.


Now it’s time to get close up. This involves picking up each of your birds in turn. Their eyes should be bright and alert, constantly looking and checking, with no discharge or crusty bits. The nostrils should be clear from discharge or blockages, and birds should be breathing with no struggling or wheezing. Feathers should be full and without gaps; any gaps require further investigation, with fleas, lice, mites, moulting or feather pecking all potential causes, so action may be required. Feathers should also be clean and shiny, not greasy and smelly – possibly a result of an inability to dust bathe.

A shiny and clean coat of feathers.

Tops of feet should be as above for legs, and the undersides should be clean and free from injury; look out for swellings, either here or between toes ‒ this is most likely bumblefoot, a pus-filled abscess often caused by splinters or abrasions allowing bacteria to enter; it can be serious if untreated, and painful. Claws and toenails should be clean and straight, free from twists and not overgrown. Consider clipping if they are too long (seek advice if necessary). Natural free ranging provides good even wear for nails and claws. If your birds are confined to a run, ensure the surface material allows this.

Clean feet, free from injury, with nails in good condition.

Beaks should be even, with the top part just slightly overhanging the bottom, and not twisted, or with bits missing or extra bits! They should also be clean and free from discharge. If your birds’ beaks are in need of attention, seek expert advice. Don’t attempt any beak clipping unless you are totally confident and well informed ‒ a subject I shall cover in detail in the coming months.

Feel for a bird’s crop ‒ a small pocket where food is stored after swallowing. This is located slightly to the side of the right breast muscle, and when full is often visible at the front of the bird. A normal crop feels like a small bag of beans; it shouldn’t be enlarged or feel squidgy or jelly-like, or solid. If it does then a bird might be crop bound, with either sour crop (soft) or crop impaction (hard). This needs attention.

Lastly, what about the shining red health beacon on top of their heads? This is the ‘comb’ (‘wattles’ are the bits that dangle below their cheeks). The comb is recognised as the main indicator of poultry health. A healthy bird should have a nice upright bright red comb, but don’t immediately panic if one doesn’t! There are exceptions, and yours may simply not be complying! A young bird, from a chick to around 20 weeks of age, will barely have a comb, as they usually haven’t grown it yet! It will also be pale pink at the beginning, only reddening with age.

The large red comb of an older hen with bright eyes, a clean well-formed beak and clear nostrils.

Remember this when buying point of lay (POL) hens. At this stage you are not looking for large red healthy combs; in fact, if a bird does have one it’s most likely an older bird, so watch out!

A healthy POL bird showing a normal small and pale comb. However, the top beak will need minor clipping.

As always, there are exceptions. Leghorns often develop combs early, so would have a comb as a POL. And there is an additional exception in the case of the Leghorn ‒ they have a comb that naturally flops to one side, though it should still be bright red. There are also breeds such as Silkies where the comb is naturally dark, and occasionally crimson or purple. Consequently you need to know a little bit about individual breeds too when attempting to read this particular health indicator!


Jason, together with wife, Kerry, and their two sons, has run Mantel Farm in East Sussex since 2002, where they specialise in poultry and bees. They run courses, sell livestock and equipment, and offer a comprehensive poultry and small animal boarding service.





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