Ascites in Hens

This past week I have fielded questions from two readers about clear fluid coming out of their hens’ beaks.

Chickens do not vomit. Unlike humans, they don’t have the ability to upchuck the contents of upset stomachs. So, when you see fluids come out of your hen’s beak, something is very, very wrong. It might be that the chicken has a tumor, or an impaction, or a dead section of the intestinal tract that is blocking the passage of material, so that the only way out is up through the throat and mouth. If that’s the case then what is ejected is dark and vaguely food-like. Your hen might have sour crop, which is when the crop isn’t doing it’s job, and yeasty, sour-smelling liquids accumulate there. Your hen might have peritonitis, which is often caused by internal laying and a subsequent infection. Dark fluids fill up the body cavity, and when there’s nowhere else for them to go, they come out the beak. It’s awful. I’ve seen it here.

If the fluids coming out of the mouth are clear, then it is likely a case of ascites. This is a disease seen across the animal world. Humans can get it. Hypertension and liver damage cause fluid to accumulate in the body cavity. Chickens also get ascites. It is an economic liability in the commercial broiler world. The meat birds grow so fast that their organs can’t keep up. There’s a genetic component to this disease, specific to industrial agriculture, but ascites is also being seen in backyard chickens. There are some possible causes.

Chickens have lungs, but unlike ours, they are fixed in the thoracic cavity and are small and can’t expand. When the hen has oxygen demands that it can’t meet, ascites can occur. Poor ventilation and damp conditions with ammonia in the air can reduce the lung’s ability to function. Too many backyard coops are small, dank, and not well-ventilated. That can add to the ascites risk.

Liver damage can cause ascites. Cancer and tumors in older birds can impair liver function. A necropsy on my elderly hen Edwina showed a diseased liver, with the concurrent clear liquid in the body cavity. This was understandable to find in a nine-year old bird. But if your young (under two-years of age) hen shows signs of ascites, it might be because what you are feeding is harming the liver. Excessive scratch corn can cause fatty liver disease and possibly contribute to ascites.

There is some research that shows that stress, including rapid changes of temperature, can increase the ascites cases in a flock. This makes sense, since the disease is linked to blood pressure and overworked hearts.

So, what to do if your hen “vomits” clear liquid? Unfortunately, that will likely be the first sign that something is amiss, and by then the situation is severe. Do not isolate and bring inside. Your chicken needs fresh air and sunshine. If she is so ill that others are bullying her, separate to her own pen. Do rethink what you are feeding. If your ill hen is eating and drinking, leave her be. She might rebound. However, if after three days she is lethargic, and is not eating, she could starve to death. Please consider euthanizing her. This is the hard part of chicken keeping. You can’t always fix the problem.

If you’ve had a hen have clear fluid come out of the beak, please tell me about it here in the comments, or send me an email. I know of no scientific research on ascites in backyard flocks. The more that I learn, the more that I can share.

black star

A healthy Black Star hen.

Feeding During the Molt

It’s molting season. The chickens are looking scruffy.

cochin molt


The hens are stressed. Some have come out of weeks-long broody spells, only to head right into the molt. Others have been laying so steadily all summer that now they are depleted of nutrients. All chickens over a year old are losing their feathers. Replenishing their bodies and growing new plumage takes a lot of energy, protein and calcium. You see your girls looking like this and you want to do something.


During this time, hens need an optimum diet. Continue to feed high-quality laying hen pellets and avoid empty-caloried treats, like handfuls of cracked corn and stale bread. You can purchase laying hen pellets that are designed especially for molting season with nutrients added that promote feather growth.  I’m not convinced that this expensive feed is worth the cost. (Skeptical me thinks that the manufacturers are catering to the owner’s worries more than what is actually necessary for the flocks.) I caution against feeding a lot of high protein treats, like mealworms, because chickens will gorge on them whether they need them or not, and excessive protein causes kidney failure.

I do what farmers did back before supplements. I feed alfalfa. Alfalfa looks like hay (which is a grass), but it’s not. Alfalfa is a legume. It’s packed with digestible (for chickens, not you!) protein and calcium. There is evidence that feeding alfalfa reduces the amount of salmonella in a hen’s gut. The difficulty for the urban and backyard chicken keeper is finding it in a form that you can handle and bring home. Pellets are convenient, but they are formulated with more stem than leaf, and what the hens require are those nutrient-dense leaves. A small box of alfalfa, sold in the rabbit section of the pet store, is very expensive and wouldn’t last a week. A bale at the feed store usually weighs over a hundred pounds! But, you can find what you need in the horse aisle: chopped alfalfa mixed with molasses. (This is horse feed, the molasses makes it more palatable for the animals; the hens don’t mind.)



This is the brand that I feed – it comes in a 40 pound plastic bag, the size and heft of a bag of pine shavings. Every morning, I toss a handful out into the run. Because the stems are chopped, your hens won’t get impacted crops. They like it enough, but don’t eat too much. They look for the leafy bits and ignore the rest. What they don’t eat is quickly scratched into the ground and improves the soil. Here, Ruby is finding the best pieces. She is a superb layer who hasn’t yet begun to molt.



Jasper, however, is another story. This head shot shows the few remaining feathers falling out, and the new quills coming in.

Jasper head


Here’s a view from another angle. Oh, Jasper.

Jasper butt


It’s a good thing for her that she likes the alfalfa. Eat up, girl.

hen eating alfalfa


I started feeding Lucerne Farms alfalfa in early August, when I first noticed thin-shelled eggs. The hens already had free-choice oyster shell and an excellent diet, but their fragile eggs were breaking in the nesting boxes. Within a few weeks of feeding alfalfa, the shells thickened up.


Now that we’re halfway through October, there are fewer eggs for the hens to put their resources into laying, but many feathers to be built. Hens like Jasper could use help! Once the molt is over, I’ll continue to feed alfalfa through the winter when the girls will appreciate the green tidbits. So, my hens get alfalfa, but my horse does not. Alfalfa is too rich for him – Tonka eats classic timothy hay (he is indulged with carrots and peppermint candy.)

(FYI, I stumbled upon the Lucerne Farms alfalfa at a horse expo, and I asked them for a bag of their alfalfa to try. So, I did receive free product for this post, but I was not paid for a positive review. I have tried products by other companies that I have not endorsed.)

Authentic. Or Not.

I drove out to the Percheron World Congress with much anticipation. Right there, next to the parking lot, was what I’d come to see. Massive work horses, doing what they’ve done for centuries – working alongside their people.



This was teamwork, both between the horses themselves,

horse team


and between the animals and their plowman (and, for some, plow-woman.) One horse is the furrow horse, The other walks on the land yet to be tilled. In this competition the team is judged on how straight they go and how uniform the depth of the furrow is. Note that the reins are around the man’s neck. The horses respond to voice cues, only rarely does the plowman tug on a rein.

in furrow


I chatted with some of the plowmen and women, and spectators. It was a small group. Wives told me that this is what their husbands do for fun. None of these horses are necessary for their farms (although I did see some Mennonites, and perhaps they relied more on horsepower.) But, the horses do seem to be necessary for their hearts. It’s a day in, day out, commitment of time and resources. Folks joked about it, but no one regretted it.

These horses are huge, but their temperaments are calm. They have to be, to have the patience to stand in a field. There was a lot of affection shown between the horses and people.



After watching the plowing contest, I went into the Coliseum to see the show horses. These horses were even more massive. Here is a champion stallion.

Percheron stallion


At first glance, these gleaming, polished animals are glorious. The show horses are from a lineage used to pull heavy carriages, and to go at a trot for long distances. But, these days the distance traveled is more likely around a ring in front of a judge. LIke so many show animals, (purebred dogs come to mind) these Percherons have been bred for extreme looks and movement.

Percheron two horse


Spectacular. But, look closely.



The hooves are grown out, as large as they can go, to the point that they crack and have to be filled in with putty.

cracked hooves


The shoes are weighted. This is what causes that fancy action. Polish hides only so much.

polished hooves


For comparison, here are the feet of a Percheron plow horse. As big as dinner plates, but natural in shape. Tonka weighs 1,000 pounds less, but this is how he is shod.



The shoeing isn’t the only way to get the flashy action in the show ring. For in-hand classes, whips are waved at the horses, scaring them into erect posture and pricked ears. This is the antithesis of what the plowmen want. (As an aside, you can train alert, arched posture using positive reinforcement. No threats necessary.)



Check reins are used to hold the heads up. See that strap going through the mouth and up towards the ears? It has no purpose except to create an upright carriage.

check rein


Once my eyes saw what was going on under the all of the flashiness, it was hard to watch.

horse team


There were a few carriage teams that did not buy into the saddlebred look. Those horses had naturally-shaped hooves, and even had full tails (Percherons usually have docked tails – most of the tail, including the bone – is cut off – which means they can’t flick flies. Supposedly this is done to keep the tails from getting tangled in harness but it is unnecessary and cruel.) None of those teams won ribbons.

So, I went back outside to watch the plow horses.

Percheron and plowman

Authentic. Worth preserving.

At The Fair

When you think about a fair, is it the midway and the carnival games that come to mind? Do you go for the fried food and the evening entertainment? Fairs have all of those things, but underneath they retain their original purpose, as educational meeting grounds for rural, agricultural communities. Nowhere is that more evident than in New England’s remaining county fairs. Last weekend, I spent the day at the Fryeburg Fair, which is in the lakes region of Maine.

The day began with the Grand Parade. In the 1800s, yoked oxen powered small farms. Amazingly, there are still families that raise up these animals from birth and dedicate hours to their care and training. Young and old. Boys and girls.



The goal is a matched team. Look at how this one is so perfectly in tune that they are walking in unison.

in stekp


Horses are still used for logging and other tasks in the Maine woods. Some also go to fairs and compete in pulling contests. Here is the grand champion team from this year’s fair.

best team


It is expensive, in both time and money, to keep horses that pull carts. Most people are unaware that there are horses (other than the Budweiser Clydesdales) that do this. The fair is the place to see these animals, and for their owners to socialize with each other. There was much showing off. Driving a team of six Haflingers takes tremendous skill!

haflinger team


There are rows of wooden barns at the  Fryeburg Fair. Inside, there were sheep being readied to be judged. This young woman is cleaning her ewe’s ears with a Q-tip.

sheep grooming


In the barns are hardworking girls in pigtails and jeans. Breaks from showing and grooming are taken with the animals.



The pig showmanship class is always a draw.

curly tails


I’ve a feeling that this old sow has taught many 4-H children.



I love the faces of the fair, like this duck in the poultry barn,



and these Nubians in the goat barn.

Nubian goats


On the wall in the goat barn was this sign. How true.

goat sign


The petting barn was filled with goats and kids (both human and caprine.) Everyone was smiling.

goat petting


In the afternoon, there was harness racing, which has a long history in Maine.

harness racing


It was a full day. Good thing that there was plenty of food to sustain us. I gravitate to the booths run by the church ladies. I had some excellent corn chowder, and having come to this fair before, I knew exactly which fried food to get – these French fries. Made from fresh Maine potatoes, of course.

french fries

Is it fair season in your neck of the woods? What specialities do you have?

Chickens in the Classroom

This week I received a packet in the mail from a classroom in Florida. Enclosed were delightful drawings and letters from the students.



There was also a letter from Mrs. Sibilia, their teacher. We’ve corresponded before. She is a teacher of a self-contained class of students from second to fifth grade with learning disabilities. Some are highly functional with Down’s syndrome, some are autistic, some are language impaired. HenCam is part of their daily curriculum. From my website and Tillie Lays an Egg, they’ve learned many things about animals, such as the differences between roosters and hens, and how chickens sleep on roosts. They’ve even taken note of the temperature. These children, despite their academic struggles, now know about thermometers and even understand what the the “F” stands for! They live in Florida, but are thinking about cold weather as they watch the goats grow their thick winter coats, and they’re looking forward to seeing snow here.



Mrs. Sibilia wrote to say, watching a live cam of a little farm in the country is not only educational, but is calming and serene. All of the therapists who come into the room are impressed with my kids’ behavior and knowledge of the farm and its workings. It has produced an atmosphere of tranquility and joy.

I emailed her to ask if I could share the drawings and her letter on my blog. She said yes, and also had this to say: They may be in Special Education, but I’m the one who feels special — I get to teach them… and you: you and the flock are my partners in development. Thank you.

Thank you, Mrs. Sibilia.



Dylan picture


Look for a package in the mail, Mrs. Sibilia! I have beautiful feathers from my molting hens to share with your students.