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By January 29, 2018 0 Comments Read More →

Looking After Hens with Special Needs

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Flo (Florence), an ex-battery chicken 3 months on from being rescued.

The most obvious birds with special needs are re-homed birds via the British Hen Welfare Trust or similar, which may never even have seen the outdoors prior to their retirement from the commercial world, but I have tried to deal with the question of combining different birds, dealing with particularly nervous birds and keeping fancy fowl, a number of which are undeniably high maintenance in terms of the work their unusual plumage creates for the keeper. In many respects all chickens have their own special needs, in the sense that they will add considerably to the workload of any new chicken keeper, and the following examples will require just that little bit extra TLC, but the returns will be worth it as your ex-battery birds enjoy their very first dust bath, or your prize Poland takes first prize at the local poultry event.

Care of the battery or barn-reared birds

When taking on this type of chicken there are certain considerations that you must take into account – these birds have known nothing other than the inside of an intensive production unit for the whole of their lives. In many cases they have never even seen the outdoors or natural sunlight, and have only ever been fed on a specialist feed designed to maintain a good level of egg production.

Points to consider

Birds can easily be stressed by such a complete change in their environment. After being removed from the cages and placed in a free range environment or a run, they must suddenly feel as though they have been transported to a different planet. They will require a period of quiet and time to settle in and explore their new home at their own speed if serious stress levels are to be avoided. Try to keep your distance and leave it to the birds to approach you as they eventually come to associate you with food. This relaxed transition to a new environment will make it much more manageable for them, and should enable them to enjoy a long and happy retirement.


A sudden change in feed may also mean that the birds throw the pellets out of the feeder –this may simply be the result of them not actually realising that it is in fact feed. They will, however, adapt very quickly and get used to the new feed.

There are feeds available to buy which are designed specifically for rescued hens. Usually they are in the form of a crumb feed containing extra protein and other minerals, which are very important in helping these hens return to a healthy condition. In truth any good feed such as standard manufactured layers’ pellets together with extra vitamin supplements, grit and a constant supply of fresh water should be sufficient to bring them back into peak condition over a short period of time

When the birds arrive it is highly likely they will have a very poor and sad appearance with a lack of feathers, large patches of bare skin, and they may be under weight and unsteady on their legs due to their earlier confinement. Although battery cages in the traditional sense were outlawed from the beginning of 2012, the replacements, although a huge improvement on the earlier cages and with considerably more room to move, are still just a more humane variation of the concept, with birds kept indoors and confined, but in greater spaces and together with other birds rather than separated from each other by wire mesh. The birds will eventually regain their intended appearance, and the feathers will regrow with time and the correct diet, but it may take quite some time for them to return to the normal appearance of the standard brown hen with which we are all familiar.


Although newly acquired re-homed hens will more than likely be in poor condition as regards plumage when you receive them, they will more than likely begin to moult early on. This will prevent them from laying for a short period as their energy is diverted into acquiring new feathers, but even though they may not be laying, keep them on a ration of layers’ pellets as they will need all the ingredients to regrow the much needed plumage.

Recently rescued chicken with feathers in a poor state.


Commercial battery chickens are normally vaccinated, and sometimes overly so as a compensation for their unnatural environment, which can cause problems if you introduce them directly into an existing flock, especially if the existing birds have not been vaccinated. There is always a chance that the vaccinated birds might be carriers of the various disease for which they have been vaccinated. Consequently, keep them in isolation before adding them to your current birds until you are completely satisfied that they are clear of disease and have replaced most of their missing feathers. If they are introduced prior to having restored their plumage they may, in some cases, be bullied by your existing birds, and this can become very serious and occasionally fatal if not kept under control.

Ex-battery hens are usually 18 months old when they are replaced. They will have been through an extremely extensive egg laying period during this time, and although they may no longer be up to full industry-level performance, they will still be more than capable of supplying you with eggs on a regular basis.

Perches/Nest Boxes

Barn hens will at least have some idea when it comes to using nest boxes and perches, but ex-battery hens will have absolutely no idea what they are for. To get them used to perching you will have to place them on the perches as they become more passive in the evening when it goes dark, and repeat this several times until they get the idea that this is what they should be doing as birds, and for their own good – roosting clear of soiled or moist bedding will help prevent mite and other insect infestation and keep the birds in considerably better health than if sleeping on bedding. Putting perches and nest boxes quite low will help initially until they eventually discover how to use them as they become used to returning to the coop each evening. As with most things, your patience will win out in the end.

Poorly Hens

Any birds showing signs of illness will need immediate treatment, and wherever possible they should be separated from other members of the flock. It is ideal if you can keep a small area or pen solely for the purpose of housing any birds that are, or become, poorly. By keeping them separate you can often prevent an illness or disease from spreading, and confinement is certainly the safest and easiest way of doing this.

A very young chick with splayed legs, possibly caused by an over smooth floor in the brooder., which made getting a grip impossible when taking those all-important first steps.

Often poorly hens are not carrying an infectious disease, but if birds are in any way poorly they may become victims of bullying by healthy members of the flock. By separating unhealthy birds from the flock it will prevent them from becoming targets for healthy birds to pick on and prevent bullying, which can become a major problem if allowed to continue unchecked, especially during longer periods of overnight confinement in the coop in winter.

Nervous Hens

Most breeds of poultry are nervous… and many could even be described as downright cowardly, with the exception of roosters with attitude, in which case everything around becomes a potential target for attack, and often even more so during the breeding season.

Many of these birds may have been victims at some point in their lives, but it is extremely unlikely that you will be able do anything for them, other than trying to make their lives as straight forward and unstressed as possible, which simply means leaving them to get on with things, with you as the keeper providing food, drink and any additional treats or supplements.

If you need to catch such birds, wait until dusk or even later to do it whilst they are roosting, as this will reduce the chances of having to chase them around the pen, saving both your energy and that of the bird. If ever you do need to examine them during the day and in good light, use a net to prevent the trauma of the chase — the bird will not be happy, but any stress will be brief and short-lived.

Chickens are naturally social animals who usually sort out their own hierarchy without any problems.

Most birds, if treated with care, will eventually settle down, and in most cases become quite tame. This can take a considerable period of time and patience on your part, but if you avoid rushing into the pens, refrain from wearing very bright clothing (especially red, as this seems to upset certain types of bird), move slowly, allowing birds to move out of the way at their own pace, and make feed times a pleasure (undeniably their favourite form of human interaction), they will very soon lose much of their fear as they become used to you entering the pens. Again, patience will achieve results.

Hens that have been bullied

Birds that have been bullied will need to be separated and kept calm: bullying causes considerable stress, and stress itself can be a killer. Even in an all-female pen there may be times when a bird is, for one reason or another, just not accepted by the other birds, and this can result in that bird becoming a complete outcast, and under constant threat. Such a bird will hide and cower in a corner, or refuse to leave the coop, but it will be difficult not to notice that something is very wrong. If this happens, separate the bird and keep it on its own for reasons of safety. Try, if at all possible, to relocate any such birds, unless you have another pen where they might live happily and be accepted by other birds.

A crest showing signs of damage through pecking and regrowth of new feathers.

Bird socialisation

Chickens are, for the most part, quite sociable, but some breeds seem to find it difficult to live together in harmony. Certain breeds, especially game birds, will fight, and this applies to both male and females.

Birds of a similar size will usually get on well.

Under most circumstances, hens of a similar size and breed will live together reasonably well, at least after the initial introduction, where there will almost certainly be an amount of arguments as to who is boss (hence the term ‘ruling the roost’), but once a pecking order has been established, birds will get along without any real further problems. There is no hard and fast rule form introducing new birds, but doing so at night time into a dark coop helps to minimize initial disturbance, and if you are introducing a significant number of birds, allow them to get close but separated by chicken wire so that they can get used to each other before a proper introduction takes place.

Keeping game birds together with soft feathered birds is also not a good idea as the game will, without doubt, cause problems for any less aggressive breeds. If you are looking to mix more traditional breeds together with hybrids then doing so with young birds will be more successful than with birds at point of lay.

Other Special Needs

Some birds, often referred to as fancy breeds, also require special care due to their unusual plumage. This is very much the case with crested Polands and Houdans and, to a lesser extent, Silkies, with a fine covering of feathers that was originally likened to the fur on a cat. There are also breeds with feathered feet and legs, such as Brahmas, Cochins and Langshans which have their own unique requirements.

Crested varieties should be kept separate from standard breeds, and preferably under cover. They are almost always kept as exhibition birds and need considerably more attention than any ordinary chickens due to their impressive crests, which, while they are undoubtedly the birds’ main attraction, are also their main weakness and the reason why they are often described as ‘high maintenance.’ The crests are prone to mite infestation, and as a consequence of the crested covering they can also suffer from eye problems too. This problem is further compounded by the fact that many birds today have been bred incorrectly, making the above problems even worse in such birds. Polands also have restricted vision, making them even more vulnerable to attack if kept together with other types of bird.

Keeping the crest clean and mite free is of the utmost importance. Shampooing birds with a dog or cat flea shampoo works well, with the bird wrapped in a towel with the head well forward, which helps to make it feel safe and secure and prevents any struggling. Next, gently wet the crest, shampoo carefully and rinse when any mites have been removed. The birds can then be left to dry naturally on warm days, or using a hair dryer on less warm days, but keep wet birds away from dry birds. I am often asked in disbelief why I wash a chicken, and my usual answer is, “If they become soiled and dirty, then why not?” We have birds who really enjoy being washed and others who are less happy about it.

We use Frontline on the crest as a treatment to keep mite and other insects at bay – it works wonders and lasts for up to six months after each application. It is not a licensed product for poultry use, but is recommended by vets in the UK. Needless to say, with any kind of spray or aerosol, do not spray anywhere near the eyes, mouth and nose, which should be common sense.

A bad eye infection caused by neglect of the crest above the eye.

With certain crested birds the front vision may be hampered. You can either trim the crest carefully using a sharp pair of scissors, or alternatively, tape it up using automotive masking tape, which can be removed with no discomfort or damage to a bird. If cutting you must be careful if a bird becomes spooked and begins to struggle, especially if cutting close to the eyes, and if using tape, mite will almost certainly be attracted to a taped-up crest, so remove the tape periodically to check the condition.

A final problem with crested birds is encountered when they try to feed and drink; the crest puts them at an immediate disadvantage, and it is not advisable to use any kind of open or wide-rimmed drinker, as the crest will rapidly become wet and soiled and even more attractive to insect infestation, with even greater risk of eye problems and infection. Narrow-lipped drinkers are an essential requirement, and pellets accompanied by occasional corn are the best feed options. Any food which becomes either powdery or dusty, especially when the crest is wet, will most likely create further problems for both the eyes and the plumage.

The requirements for birds with feathered legs and feet are considerably less than for crested birds, with mud being the most difficult potential problem. In all other respects they are very much standard pure bred birds, capable of living together with other birds and spending much of the time outside. The Brahma, often referred to as a gentle giant, is a most impressive bird, and a firm showing favourite, but with considerably fewer drawbacks than their crested counterparts.

This is an extract from The Healthy Hens Handbook by Terry Beebe. This hardback, full colour book covers every angle of maintaining a healthy flock of chickens. Intended for both the backgarden chicken keeper who has a few birds for eggs as well as smallholders with larger flocks of non-intensive stock. It covers all aspects of keeping your birds both healthy and productive.







Posted in: Poultry

About the Author:

Ruth Tott is the publisher of Home Farmer Magazine, and together with her husband, Paul Melnyczuk, Editor,is founder of the company. But her background is far removed having specialised in Costume History with a Post-Grad diploma in Museum Studies to boot. A far cry from looking after chickens, growing veg and making bread!

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