Agnes’ Dark Comb

A couple of months ago, Agnes looked poorly. She sunbathed, hunched and fluffed. She didn’t lord it over the other hens. Her comb turned dark and shriveled.

This is a sick bird.

Agnes is a Golden Comet, which is hybrid designed to lay day in and day out for two years. After that, it’s assumed that she’s done. She’s three and she hasn’t laid an egg yet this spring. Neither has her sister, Philomena, who doesn’t look sick, but is also depleted. A real farmer would dispatch them. I’m not a real farmer and so I’ve come up with some treatments to help these old hens.

Agnes looked to be on death’s door last month, but she’s still here thanks to epsom salts. Epsom salt is a combination of magnesium and sulfate. You can find it in the pharmacy, as it’s used by people as a laxative and as a foot soak. For such a simple and inexpensive product, it has many curative functions. The magnesium improves circulatory health, flushes toxins, improves muscle and nerve function, maintains the proper level of calcium in the blood and increases oxygen use. The sulfates help form brain tissues and joint proteins, creates mucin proteins that line the digestive tract, detoxifies contaminants, and improves absorption of nutrients.

Obviously, epsom salts might be jus the thing for a hen worn out by expelling calcium and protein in the form of eggs.

There are two ways to dose the hen. One is by dissolving 1 teaspoon in an ounce of water and, using a syringe, carefully squirting it down her throat. The other is much easier. Fill a small washtub with warm water and stir in a heaping 1/4 cup of epsom salts. Put the chicken in the bath. Let her sit there for 15 minutes. She’ll like it! (I have a YouTube video of how to bathe a chicken here.) If it’s a chilly day, blow dry before putting her back out. If the epsom salt treatment is going to work, it will after two days, a treatment each day (oral and/or bath both times.)

I did both treatments, and it worked for Agnes. She’s still with us. Look at her comb now.

I still don’t expect Agnes to lay another egg, or even last past the summer, but I’ve made her more comfortable. I even saw her lord it over the treats the other day and peck Betsy out of the way. The old girl is feeling better.

A Fantasy Come True

Admit it. We all have fantasies. Mine involve strapping young men. With strong backs. Bent over.

Doing this:

And also doing this:

I am sipping iced coffee and watching the guys edge the lawn, fix the holes left by a horde of partying moles this past winter, and wheeling load after load of mulch into the gardens. Fantasies do come true.

The girls are not going to be allowed out to mess this up. Not until after the garden tour on June 1 and June 2. But not to worry about them. They love guys with wheelbarrows, too. Some of the dirt dug up from the flower bed in the backyard has been dumped into the chicken runs. They have plenty of scratching and grub-eating to do. Chicken fantasies are so easy to fulfill.

Bare Butts, Feather Loss and Feather Picking

It is a joy to see a colorful, glossy-feathered, fluffy-butted hen.

Chicken skin, on the other hand, is not pretty. It’s a sad yellowish or brick color, and bumpy. When irritated it’s a painful-looking red. Chicken keepers become worried and upset and when see it.

There are many reasons why your chicken might look bare, and several of them are of no cause for concern. Once a year, a mature hen molts – all of their feathers fall out and they grow new ones. Some hens go through a dramatic molt during which they turn almost naked over night. Others just look unkempt. For more about molting, see this post.

When a hen goes broody, she’ll pull out her breast feathers so that her skin is in contact with the eggs. If you have a bad-tempered, bare-chested hen sitting in a nesting box, she’s healthy, but broody.

One clue to what is amiss is where the bare spots are. If you have a rooster, you’re likely to see feather loss around the neck and back, due to the rooster pulling out and shredding feathers when he treads the hens. Sometimes the rooster favors one hen, so that her saddle (back) feathers get worn off, while all of the other girls look lovely. If there are open wounds, or her skin is so red that the others peck at her, you’ll have to separate her, or get rid of the rooster.

Sometimes hens develop scraggly bare patches. This is not necessarily due to illness. Every year, a couple of my best layers lose their neck feathers and go bare near their vents. It takes a lot of protein and energy to make feathers, and these hens put their resources into egg laying instead. It is perfectly normal.

But, if your hen has irritated, raw, bald areas, especially near the vent, take a closer look for parasites. Pick up your birds and examine them closely. (To learn how to do this, watch my youtube video.) Feather loss can be due to external parasites, typically lice, or sometimes mites. A louse infestation is first seen near the vent. There will be bare skin, and the feather shafts will look like Q-tips. You might see the lice crawling about.  I’ve written about lice here. Mites are nighttime blood suckers, the size of pins. You’ll see dried blood and rawness near the vent.

Once in awhile, there will be a feather-picking hen in the group. You might never catch her in the act, but she’ll peck away at the other hens’ feathers, until, one day, you notice bare spots and possibly blood. Some feather pecking is due to aggression. In other cases, the culprits are pecking the feathers off to eat them. Usually you’ll see the bald areas near the vent or at the base of the tail. Once a chicken is pecked at, the behavior escalates because all hens will peck at red skin. So, it’s important to catch and stop this behavior quickly after you notice it.

Once hens get into the bad habit of feather picking and eating, it is hard to stop, but possible. The first step is to darken the afflicted hen’s skin, which reduces the cannibalistic behavior. You can dye the skin with blu-kote (similar to genetian violet in the UK.) It dyes the skin purplish-blue, so the hens don’t peck. (Use disposable gloves when doing this, as it will also stain your skin.) Feather eating can occur because the hens need more roughage and more protein in their diet. It can also start because of boredom and crowding. So, make sure that they have access to oyster shell and grit. Reduce empty calorie treats like cracked corn and stale bread, provide greens and interesting things to eat like melons and squash. Also take stock of your housing. Is there enough space and access to feed for everyone?

Sometimes, everything is fine but there is still feather picking. In the case of Jasper, the hen seen in the photo above, she lets the other hens pick her tail feathers off. Jasper is a dominant hen and she could stop this behavior if she wanted to. Blood is never drawn. It’s an odd habit, but I ignore it.

Some hens lose feather near their vent because they have a continual stream for thin diarrhea. This might be vent gleet, which is an intractable yeast infection. I’ve written about it here.

On the other hand, feather loss combined with a swollen bottom that feels like a water balloon can be any number of dire diseases, from cancer to egg impaction. You’ll know if there’s an underlying ailment because the hen will show other symptoms, like an odd, penguin-like walk, tiredness, and a lack of appetite. Without those additional clues, feather loss is rarely a serious problem.

Sometimes, you never know why a hen has raw, red, rough skin. I have a Barred Rock who developed what looked like a rash. For a while the skin was hot to the touch and she walked with stiffness. She lost all of her butt feathers, which never grew back, I bathed her and used povidone and she moved with less discomfort, and the skin thickened but remained red. Two years later she still has a bald bottom, but is otherwise fine. Sometimes feather loss is a mystery.

Children’s Books Featuring Chickens

Chickens are innately comical and some of the best children’s book authors and illustrators have tapped into that to create wonderfully fun books. Here are my favorites. Please contact me if you have a suggestion to add to this list! Of course, I have to start this list with my very own book.

Tillie Lays an Egg
by Terry Golson, photos by Ben Fink
2009

Farm
by Elisha Cooper
2010

What I love about this book is that it is set on a real Midwest farm, with tractors, dust and chores. It resembles, in the best of ways, the Provensen’s books about Maple Hill Farm in Vermont. Most books about farm animals are anthropomorphized to the point where the animals are unrecognizable as animals, and the farms have little in common with real farms. This book is charming, and yet doesn’t idealize the farmer’s life. I’d like to see Farm in every kindergarten library!

Chickerella
by Mary Jane and Herm Auch
2005

Really, any of the books by this team could be on this list. The Auchs do crazy, silly, over-the-top punny chicken fun. Some books are illustrated, some are a combination of photographed dressed up models and art. Most have chicken themes. Totally unrealistic but sure to produce giggles.

The Red Hen
by Rebecca Emberly and Ed Emberly
2010

I’m a sucker for most versions of The Little Red Hen, and this one, by the talented Ed Emberly and his daughter is a riot of color and fun.

The Chicken of the Family
by Mary Amato, illustrated by Delphine Durand
2008

When Henrietta’s sisters tease her and tell her that she is a chicken, she believes them and goes up the street to join the flock in Farmer Barney’s coop. It turns out that hens are much nicer than older sisters! Amato uses just the right amount of words to describe both sibling relationships and the affinity of kids for chickens. The illustrations are charming (though I wish that Durand didn’t give chickens smiling, toothy mouths under their beaks!)

Chicken Cheeks
by Michael Ian Black
illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
2009 

All kids like to talk about animal bottoms, and this book has a gazillion names for them, from “cheeks” to “tush” to “heinie.” The cover has an especially nice view of the backside of a chicken. Just for that, the book gets a shout-out mention here.

Chicky Chicky Chook Chook
by Cathy MacLennan
2007

This is the sort of book that you want to read again and again to the very young who are beginning to enjoy sounds and language. “Splitter, splatter. Wet. Wet. Wetter.” There are darling yellow chicks and hens with striped and polka-dotted combs. They’re not anatomically correct – but they’ve got that silly chicken look.

Minerva Louise
by Janet Morgan Stoeke
1988

Minerva Louise reminds me of my late beloved hen Snowball — she’s inquisitive, cheerfully innocent and totally silly. Janet Morgan Stoeke has written 11 delightful picture books about this hen. Perfect for children, but also welcome in any household that loves chickens. Start with this first one and work your way through the oeuvre (pun intended!)

Daisy Comes Home
by Jan Brett
2002

Jan Brett is an author/illustrator of beautiful children’s books. She also raises Polish and is involved in a Bantam Club. Daisy Comes Home is about a chicken in China who gets lost and eventually finds her way back home.

The Problem With Chickens
by Bruce McMillan
illustrated by Gunnella
2005

This is a very funny and silly book about chickens in a village in Iceland. There are charming illustrations of large women in aprons having tea with chickens and exercising with chickens, and, you’ll have to read the story to believe it, shimmying on ropes down a cliff to collect chicken eggs. Delightful.

How the Ladies Stopped the Wind
by Bruce McMillan
illustrated by Gunella
2007

This is the second book by McMillan and Gunella about the ladies of Iceland and their chickens. The chickens are crucial to the plot as “It was the chickens’ job to make fertilizer for the trees. They did their job very well.” Obviously, the author knows chickens!

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?
(Many illustrator-authors)
Dial Books for Young Readers
2006

Fourteen talented children’s book illustrators come up with answers to this age-old question. Very funny.

The Painter Who Loved Chickens
by Olivier Dunrea
This book is about, well, exactly what the title says. It is absolutely charming. The picture of the Silkie is worth the price of the book.

Chickens to the Rescue
by John Himmelman
2006

Exuberant and madcap fun.

Also worth finding are:

Big ChickensBig Chickens Fly the Coop and Big Chickens Go to Town by Leslie Helakoski, illustrated by Henry Cole
Hattie and the Fox by Mem Fox
Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins
My Life as a Chicken by Ellen Kelley
Chicken Boy, by Frances O’Roark Dowell, is a middle school novel about a seventh grader in a dysfunctional home. Chickens play a large part in teaching him about life and helping him cope. It’s well-written, touching, difficult yet hopeful.

A Good Day

The plants are having a good day. The drenching rains have revived them. The dogwood is blooming.

Scooter is having a good day in the sun (and see, more plants are blooming and having a good day in the little pond.)

The goats are having a good day. We moved their electric fence and so now they can reach new grass and brambles in the meadow. That makes Pip smile. Of course, Pip always has a good day, although perhaps some are even better good days than others.

Candy is having an especially good day. This morning she had a hop-around in the goats’ paddock. This afternoon she has claimed the prime spot in the pen – the dirt wallow. It’s sunny and dry, which are perfect dust-bathing conditions for the chickens. But, Candy rules. There she is.

This is a bunny having a very, very good day.