One myth about broody hens is that the hens go all sweet and motherly. Children’s books depict the hens wearing calico scarves on their heads and smiling. I wish someone had told Blackie that’s how she’s supposed to behave. A few times a day I pick Blackie up and put her outside. It’s to be expected that she doesn’t want to leave her nest. Still, she turns into a raging henzilla. Because her feathers are all fluffed out (broody hens do this to increase body temperature), she looks twice her size. Whichever poor girl is in her direct line of sight gets charged at. This is one bad-tempered hen. But Blackie got her comeuppance today. She went after Candy and got a beak full of rabbit hair. Blackie spent the next five minutes trying to get it off. This was such a distraction that her feathers laid down flat and she looked like the placid hen that she normally is. Unfortunately, she’s back on the nest, and her raging alter ego is back.
It’s that time of year when half of my emails are about broody hens. A broody hen is one that stops laying. Instead, she is fixated on sitting on the nest as if she is going to hatch a clutch of eggs. A broody hen will sit whether there are eggs under her or not. Her feathers will fluff up and she might pluck a few out, all so that her body temperature rises, so if there were eggs there, they’d be the right temperature to develop into chicks. Broodiness varies by the hen and the breed, but it can last several weeks.
Most broody hens do get up to eat and drink and poop, although you’re unlikely to see that as it will be a brief excursion. With Hencam, I can spy on my broody hens, and I know they are doing fine. Still, whenever I go into the coop, I unceremoniously scoop up the broody hen(s) and shove her outside into the pen. She always eats and drinks before coming back to the nest. Snowball, my broodiest of hens (is anyone surprised at this?), rasps a warning at me when I pick her up, but I ignore it and toss her out. Within seconds, she is happily scratching in the yard. But only a few minutes later, the impulse to brood takes over and back in she goes.
Hens bred to supply most of the world’s eggs have been selected to lay an egg each day, and once they’ve done their job, to ignore that egg and eat and drink so that they can make more eggs. Even some of the old-time breeds of chickens were developed to lay but not sit on their eggs. This makes a lot of economic sense. So, even within a backyard flock, only a few hens might be broody at a time. I tend to tolerate the reduced productivity, but I do get the the hens off the nests a few times a day to make sure that they are drinking enough.
If you only have three hens and two are broody, you will yearn for fresh eggs and want to break the broody cycle. During the day you can lock your hens out of the henhouse and away from the nest. Or, you can put your hen in a wire cage (with food and water) – the air circulating under the hen will cool her body temperature, which will send a message to her body that the broody cycle is over. Or, to speed that up even more, put a bag of frozen peas under her. (Then feed them to the hens when thawed. It’s a welcome treat.)
Broodiness is a normal thing for many hens. First time chicken keepers often think that their hens are sick. Don’t worry, they’re not – but they are boring sitting there all day! Despite your hen’s protestations, it is good to get them up and out. But, breaking that cycle takes effort, and you have to be more determined than your chicken! I’m sorry to say that in this flock, Snowball always wins.
(Viewers of Hencam will notice that Blackie is currently broody.)
At the beginning of June the hens in the new barn got terribly sick, and when a disease hits a flock, it hits hard and fast. Within days every hen – except Prudence – had swollen eyes. Some had eyelids so puffy that they couldn’t see to eat.
A vet diagnosed Mycoplasma gallisepticum, (MG). The bacteria which causes MG is an odd creature; it lacks a cell wall. That means that it is fragile when it is outside of the birds and can be killed with heat, sunlight, disinfectants, or simply time – after 3 days, it dies. But, inside the birds, it is virulent and can lead to severe respiratory disease. Fortunately, I caught it in time before that happened. Also, fortunately, there are drugs that work.
Thanks goodness for drugs. I’m one of those people who buy “antibiotic-free” meat, but I am so grateful that drugs are available to save my pets (and children!) So, don’t even get me started on farmers and doctors who use these sub-therapeutically, creating drug-resistant, highly dangerous, bacteria. (And really don’t get me started on people who chose to travel for their own pleasure, knowing that they could transmit drug-resistant TB!)
Anyway, a vet visit and $200 dollars later, my hens are on Tylan, an antibiotic powder mixed in their water. I also put terramycin ointment in their eyes for a few days. Now, all of the hens look 100% fine. BUT, although MG is easy to kill outside of the body, inside it remains viable for several weeks, even after all symptoms have passed. So, they will remain on the Tylan for 3 weeks, in the hopes of killing it all off. I’ll have to live with the knowledge that my hens might be carriers for the rest of their lives. I won’t take them to shows and I won’t breed them.
There are a few theories about how the MG arrived here at Little Pond Farm. Perhaps Prudence was a carrier; she’s a new hen, and the only one that wasn’t affected. Then again, she stays away from the other hens (who don’t like her at all) and so perhaps, she just didn’t get in contact with the MG (which spreads by touch, not through the air.) My husband thinks that perhaps he was the vector. About a week before the outbreak, he scrubbed out moldy bird feeders and refilled them. He tromped through the barn several times during this task. Wild house finches suffer from MG and it is a likely scenario that he brought it into the barn.
In any event, it is over (for now, at least) and it is a pleasure to go out to the barn and have cheerful, bright-eyed hens greet me.
I started this blog about a year ago, and I’ve so enjoyed hearing from Hencam viewers. You’ve shared your enthusiasm for poultry, your humor (it’s a rare person who lives with chickens that doesn’t have a humorous take on life) and your questions. I’ve been told great stories about memorable hens. I’ve heard from people from Australia, Africa, Great Britain, Spain, Argentina, Canada, and the US (sorry if I left anyone out!).
But I have to tell you, that the concern and support – and good humor – that I’ve received since telling you about the illness to strike my hens, has not only lifted my spirits, but I’ve learned a lot, and it has helped my girls. I’ve had people send me well wishes, and links to Web sites with the information I needed, and Buffy even got a get well card! (Hilarious – it’s a hen saying, “And no matter what, don’t let them tell you that soup will help.”)
The only hen that remains puffy-eyed is Snowball, and I think she’ll be fine by tomorrow. Her understudies, the beautiful Betsy Ross and Egger, were eagerly waiting in the wings (pun intended) to take Snowball’s place in this weekend’s photo shoot. But the young girls will have to wait their turns. Snowball remains the star.
After all of the stress of this week I’m off to an early bedtime. I’ll fill you in next week on what I’ve learned about mycoplasm gallisepticum and avian conjunctivitis.
The drugs are working and everyone is on the mend. Buffy suffered the most and remains puffy-eyed and uncomfortable. Snowball, after a day with her eyes squeezed shut and holed up in the nesting box with her tail to the world, is looking around and is out and about. The other hens appear almost normal, and unless you are acutely observant, you wouldn’t know that they’ve been sick. Prudence never succumbed. Perhaps she was the carrier?
I’ve had sick hens before, and have had hens with respiratory ailments that died, but I’ve never had an illness sweep through the barn like this. I don’t wonder why farmers cull a bird at the first sign of disease. Also, like human medicine, the drugs are expensive – I’ve spent over $60 so far. Then, there’s the issue of transmission. These hens are saved, but will they pass this disease along to the next bird to join the flock? If I was a farmer, I wouldn’t want to wait to find out.
But I’m not a farmer; I have these chickens for eggs, but they are also my pets. They’re treated and they get to stay.
That said, I have some questions that my vet couldn’t answer. Some readers have sent me links to academic papers, which don’t have the answers either. I need to know:
- How long can mycoplasm gallisepticum survive outside of the bird? At what point can I put the dirty shavings from this barn into the compost pile?
- Is it true that a hen that has recovered from the symptoms will be a carrier for life? Has anyone done studies on this or is it simply a cautionary assumption?
- Once the symptoms are over and the eyes are clear, how likely is it that I will carry the disease into my other barn? A backyard situation like mine is not set-up for biosecurity. Children visit my hens. I am in and out several times a day. I can’t change clothes when going from one barn to another! Already, one chicken was swapped from one barn to another (just days before the outbreak) to no ill effect. What is realistic to do and to expect?
It’s unlikely that there will be any studies funded on issues of health in backyard poultry flocks. So, it’d be helpful if anyone who has experienced this write to me. I want to know about your flock after the illness passed through! Thanks.