In Eggs and Poultry Made at Home (Firefly, 2012) by Dick and James Strawbridge is an ideal read for poultry farmers. Learn more about what it takes to raise and keep poultry such as chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys. If you have any questions about poultry this the book for you. Find this excerpt in Chapter 3, “Chickens.”
Pests & Problems
Chickens are good animals to rear because in general they are problem-free. A chicken is hardy and will survive outside in most weather conditions. There are issues that can occur if their house is not kept clean, their diet isn’t varied enough or if they are not protected with proper fencing, and all these problems can be quickly dealt with, but the key thing is that prevention is better than cure. We have always tried to clean out the chicken coop as part of a weekly routine, keep fences in good repair and feed our chickens well, primarily so that the only risk to them is when we want to eat them.
Red mite is a small blood-sucking parasite about 0.5 mm (1⁄64 inch) in size. They hide in small gaps and crevices in chicken coops and feed on roosting birds. We find the best way to deal with them is to keep the coop clean, apply special red mite powder and use plywood instead of planks, to avoid gaps in the coop – you can run but you can’t hide!
Scaly Leg Mites
Scaly leg mites are tiny mites that burrow under the scales on a chicken’s legs and through the skin. Lameness can be the severe result, and the best treatment is to isolate affected birds and apply special medicated spray from the vet or your local agricultural merchant. Clean the legs afterwards with soapy water and an old toothbrush. In its mildest form, scaly leg mites can cause discomfort for the hen, and it is far easier to deal with the problem early, before it gets really bad. Another preventative method is to make sure that the hens’ perches are clean and their run is washed with disinfectant – air the coop thoroughly before laying down fresh sawdust.
It used to be the case that predators were only a problem for chickens in the countryside. However, with the shrinking green spaces, predators are finding there is lots of food in towns and cities, too. Unfortunately, they don’t just scavenge for garbage but will come into your yard and kill your chickens. Predators that will kill a hen include foxes, raccoons, skunks, coyotes, wolves and sometimes rats.
Preventing the loss of hens to predators is best countered by good electric fencing, chicken wire, keeping a dog or having a rooster to protect them. You could set snares, in strict accordance with legal guidelines, but it is vital that you check them daily. Never leave a snare out if you cannot check it, as this is horribly cruel to the animal. Shooting predators is sometimes an option, but this may require a bigger rifle or a shotgun. If using a shotgun, make sure you use cartridges with larger shot. You may find that it is necessary to clip your birds’ wings to stop them from escaping and becoming vulnerable to predators.
Trimming the spurs of your rooster is very important in order to protect your hens from getting injured during mating. It is also important if you have any small children running around. Hold the rooster firmly – you can wear leather gloves and secure him in a towel if you are worried about him struggling – and use wire cutters to cut back his spurs a little at a time. It is vital that you cut off a small bit at first and gradually work up the spur. Try to avoid opening up his veins, which run in the center of the spur, and stop at the first sight of blood below the surface. Then file the spurs smooth. If your hens are getting damaged by more than one rooster and trimming the spurs doesn’t remedy the situation, either separate or eat the young males.
Eggs with soft shells are a sign of calcium deficiency in the bird. If you notice this when you are collecting your eggs, make sure your birds have a ready supply of oyster shell and grit to increase the strength of the shell. Soft shells are unlikely to be a problem if your chickens are free-range and have access to land outside.
If a hen starts to eat eggs you need to deal with the problem immediately. Other hens will follow suit unless you separate her from them. The sad reality is that if she returns to the nest boxes after some time apart and still eats eggs, you may need to slaughter and eat her. The only other advice is to provide extra grit in case she is deficient in calcium.