By Andy Cawthray
Spend enough time around a flock of chickens and it will soon become apparent that there is a significant amount of husbandry by eye that is required. A good stockperson will be able to cast a glance over their animals and spot anything that seems amiss. This is a skill that is particularly worth acquiring when it comes to a flock of chickens as the birds can disguise ailments that might identify them as being weak or vulnerable to predation.
A hunched or drooped stance, a discoloured comb or droppings, poor feather condition, or a lack of alertness can all be indicators of illness or stress and should be investigated further. This will require the keeper to catch and carry their chickens. On the surface this may seem simple enough, but not all chickens are tame or easily tamed. The simplest time to catch a chicken is after the flock has come in to roost. The bird will have taken its place on the perch and can easily be lifted off and handled. However, if you need to catch the bird during the day, try to corral it into a corner.
Once the chicken is in hand, trap its wings against the sides of its body. With a tame bird this can be done simply with your thumb and little finger as the bird’s undercarriage sits in the palm of your hand. If the bird is not tame and is struggling to escape, hold it with one of the wings to your chest and one hand over the other wing (this will stop the flapping). Your second hand should then be used to hold the legs firmly together (but not so firm as to squeeze them tightly). This will stop the bird from scratching you or getting caught in your clothing. If the bird continues to struggle, placing a cloth over its eyes can help it to settle.
If you are likely to be holding a chicken for any length of time, be sure to hold it with the rear end away from you. This is a simple handling error you will probably make only the once.
Whenever you are holding a chicken it is always worth checking the bird over for parasites and assessing its overall condition in much the same way as you would when you purchase a bird. Crop reading is one particular exercise worth performing. The crop is the first section of a chicken’s digestive system reached after food has entered the mouth and travelled down the oesophagus. It sits beneath the neck of the chicken and towards the front of the breast and it can easily be felt by the keeper when the bird is in the hand.
Being able to ‘read’ the crop by gently feeling its condition means that you can perform a basic health check on the bird. Normally a crop will contain food (unless the bird has yet to eat that day) and it will feel like a slightly soft ball when squeezed gently. If the bird has not eaten or is off its food, the crop should feel empty and almost absent. If the crop feels solid and hard, the bird could have an impacted crop, whereas if it feels watery and squidgy (and the bird’s breath smells strong), it could have sour crop.
Being familiar with these basic crop conditions, particularly when crop reading is combined with other observations of the bird’s physical condition made at the same time, will help significantly in managing the welfare of individual birds, contribute towards problem diagnosis and ultimately it could avert more serious issues
….and while you have the bird in the hand
Wing clipping is only really necessary for flighty birds and if this is an issue with
any of your flock then it is simple enough to do. It is, however, far simpler if you have an extra pair of hands to hold the bird, so firstly find yourself an assistant. Next you need to locate a good strong pair of scissors; kitchen scissors do the job nicely.
Have your assistant hold the bird firmly while you extend the wing out. Count 10 feathers in from the outmost feather. These are the primary feathers and provide the most lift in the wing. They are also hidden, or protected, by the secondary feathers (the next ones along the wing) when the wing is at rest. Try it, fold the wing back and see how the primary feathers are hidden.
When the wing is extended, use the scissors to cut off these 10 feathers just below where the other feathers (the primary coverts) overlap with them.
Points to remember
Cut off the primary feathers on one wing only. This will serve to unbalance the bird and hopefully reduce the height it can gain.
The primary feathers are not seen when the bird’s wing is closed, so cutting them doesn’t effect the look of the bird at rest.
Only cut when the feathers are fully grown and only do so on mature birds. Don’t cut the feathers while they are still growing.
The feathers will remain cut until the bird moults, at which point new primary feathers will grow. Once they are fully grown then you can clip them again, but by this time the bird may have got out of the habit of ranging a bit too far.
Once you are holding the chicken, trap its wings against the sides of its body