Trouble With The Molt

Yesterday morning when I went to open up the Little Barn,  I noticed that Buffy was on the bottom rung of the roost. This is not her usual place. She hopped off and joined the others outside, but I knew that something was amiss. Late in the afternoon I found her out in the run. She tried, but she couldn’t stand up. I checked her over and there was nothing obvious. Whenever I have a hen that is showing signs of something wrong, the first thing that I do is put her in a safe and comfy coop so that I can observe what she eats and what comes out. I have a little rabbit hutch in the pen for situations like these. Because the hen can still see the flock, and they her, there’s no separation distress and no pecking order issues when she returns to the group.

I put down fresh bedding and placed Buffy facing out, with her beak close to the feed and water dishes. She immediately started eating. She was bright-eyed. This was encouraging. I decided to leave her there for the night and see how things progressed. This morning I noted normal manure. Buffy looked fine – except that she still didn’t have the strength to stand up. It was time for a Spa Treatment.

Buffy settled right into her warm epsom salt bath.

She rather like the blow-dry, too.

I noticed two good signs. The first was that Buffy was free of lice. A hen that has been sick for awhile always has lice because she can’t dust bathe and groom. This told me that her leg weakness had only recently come on. I also noticed that she had a clean bottom with no signs of diarrhea. I was becoming more optimistic.

But, I also noted that Buffy was skinny and her crop was empty. Then, the final clue fell into place. Although Buffy looks lovely fluffed out after the blow-dry, I realized that she was molting as her larger feathers were in the process of emerging from their sheaths. She had not gone through a scruffy-naked phase, so I was surprised to see this. This is why it’s so important to observe your birds closely and handle them when something looks off. If I hadn’t bathed Buffy, I’d never have known that she was at the end of her molt.

Buffy is six and a half years old. She’s a very old hen. The molt is a hard drain on a hen’s body. The feathers are 85% protein, and in order to build them the hen has to extract protein from what she eats and from her skeletal system. A hen as old as Buffy is sure to have tumors on the intestinal tract and is thus is not digesting food efficiently. She also doesn’t have the strength to forage for bugs. The Gems, being young hens, eat all day long. The old hens spend their time napping. Buffy eats only enough to get by. Buffy needed a boost. Epsom salts do wonders in these situations. They are absorbed through the skin during the soaking bath, but I decided to dose her with them as well. I wanted to give Buffy a jolt of energy, too. So, I put 1 teaspoon of epsom salts into one ounce of V8 Berry juice (it’s what was in the pantry. A sport drink would also be a good choice.)

I held Buffy in my lap, and, using a small syringe, I opened her mouth and dropped some in.

I let her swallow.

Even chickens make faces when made to take medicine. I repeated this until I got about a half-ounce down her throat.

Finally done, I put Buffy back out in the hutch. I filled her bowl with laying hen pellets and hulled sunflower seeds. She set right to eating.

I don’t know if this will work, but I am confident that this treatment is what Buffy needs to recover. It might be that she’s too worn out. It might be that she has cancer or something equally serious. But, as I’ve said before, this hen has had more lives than a cat. Several times now I’ve thought she was a goner and she proved me wrong. For now she’s clean, she’s fed, and she’s loving her sanitarium, where the other hens can’t bother her and food and water is within easy reach.

I’ll be off-line for most of the weekend, so don’t worry if you don’t get an update until Monday!

Amber’s Bald Head

I have three Buff Orpington hens who, at sixteen months of age are at the end of what will be their most productive laying season.

Being Buff Orpingtons, the “laying season” doesn’t entail much laying. They are prone to broodiness. Beryl and Topaz have been on and off broody all summer. When a hen is broody she doesn’t lay. She looks like this:

Even with that maniacal glint in her broody eye, Topaz is a beautiful bird. Buff Orps have a sleek outer feathers, with soft and fluffy undercoats. They are the golden girls of the flock.

But Amber has not gone broody all summer. She has laid eggs day in and day out. Her head looks like this:

Notice, too, the sparsity of feathers around the neck. Sometimes red skin and feather loss are signs of mites or disease, but not in this case. Topaz is a hen who has worked hard all season and is starting to molt. It will take her a good two to three months to grow back her feathers and rejuvenate before laying resumes again next spring. (This is why I don’t push egg production by adding a winter light. Pullets, who don’t molt in their first year of laying can handle that extra push, but the almost-two year olds need a break.) In any event, this is not a chicken that I would enter in a poultry fair as the goth vulture look is not in the “standard of perfection.” But if I were judging a show, I’d mark give her the “best in breed” blue ribbon.

Chickens In Winter

The leaves are turning, the goats have grown thick coats, and the hens are molting. Winter is on its way. This was the time of year that flocks were thinned and all hens over two years of age were harvested and canned for winter meals. The youngest hens were kept on, as were a favorite chicken or two.

This photo shows a family in Maine. It’s telling that the portrait was taken with a rooster, a hen, and a cat. No doubt that they were all loved pets.

It looks cold, doesn’t it? But you can be sure that those chickens didn’t have an insulated barn and heat lamps and did just fine! Your hens will be fine this winter, too. Shelter them in a draft-free, dry and clean coop, and keep them busy with cabbages and greens. When there’s snow and ice on the ground, shovel what you can and spread some hay so that they can step outside for fresh air and exercise. For more about how to care for chickens in cold winter weather, read my FAQ.

Pepto-Bismol for Pip

Pip had a bellyache last night. Since a goat has four stomachs, that can be a lot of ache. The largest stomach (technically there’s only one stomach with four compartments, but everyone calls them stomachs) is the rumen. The rumen is like an expandable pouch. It’s where all of the bulky, grassy, thorny, leafy, barky things that goats eats are stored. It’s amazing the quantity of feed that can fit in there. Sometimes Pip eats so much that his left side (where the rumen is) sticks out in a lopsided way. Counterintuitively, an asymmetrical, bulky belly is a sign of a healthy goat. Bacteria in the rumen break down the tough matter. The goats regurgitate clumps of it and grind it with their teeth. That’s called chewing their cud. The goats burp. A lot. Burping is another sign of a healthy goat. Eventually it all goes back through the stomachs and on through the twists and turns of the digestive tract and comes out either as pee or as “goat berries.”

Last night Pip was not burping. He stood with his back roached (think curved like a Halloween cat.) His stomachs weren’t gurgling. He wasn’t chewing his cud. He didn’t want to eat. He looked wretched and you could tell that he felt very sorry for himself. I called the vet, who recommended dosing with an item that all goat-keepers have in their first aid boxes: Pepto-Bismol.

I gave Pip an ounce. He peed and pooped within the hour. By midnight he was chewing his cud. This morning at 5 am I heard him burp. He got another dose at 9 am. And that’s why Pip has a pink beard.

It’s hard to get Pepto-Bismol pink off of a goat’s beard. It’s rather like in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. In the book the pink spot moves on through the house, all the while getting larger and larger. In the barn the pink gets on my boots, on Caper, and on the stall door.

So, I’m leaving his beard pink. Let’s just say that he’s getting ready for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

This is my first time treating goat bloat. I think that it came on because I moved the pasture fence and the boys had access to lots more greens. Perhaps there’s a toxic weed out there. At the same time, I gave him less hay in the morning, so he was eating all of those greens on an empty (for a goat) stomach(s). I provide goat minerals a couple of times a week; because of this experience I’ll finally build and put in a goat-proof mineral feeder so that he can have them free choice. Any experienced goat keepers want to chime in?