Keeping Chickens Healthy and Happy

Understanding Chicken Behaviors and Health Needs

Chickens are very simple. That does not mean that they are unintelligent, but simple in the sense that they have uncomplicated motivations and few needs. They learn quickly to do most everything for themselves, including putting themselves to bed at night. They are susceptible to few diseases and are generally hardy under all sorts of conditions, including temperature extremes. Once the various chicken behaviors are understood and preparations are made for their healthcare needs, taking care of hens is easy and fun! This article will explore common poultry behaviors, steps to maintaining a healthy environment that prevents chicken health issues, and how to prepare a poultry medicine cabinet for emergency first aid.

Who’s in Charge of Whom?

164719-1Many people think chickens are not very bright and that they exist only so we can eat them or their eggs. In fact, pioneers in the field of humane animal training, Marian and Keller Breland, used chickens in their first animal training classes in 1947. The Brelands “clicker” trained chickens to to perform all sorts of complicated tricks, such as handing out fortune cards, walking tightropes, playing the piano, and running the bases in a miniature version of baseball. The chickens became so good at these tricks that they were invited to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and many other television programs and commercials.

Experienced chicken keepers know that chickens have huge and varying personalities, and highly intricate behaviors. Pecking orders are maintained by an endless series of interactions by which each hen knows her place in the flock. Instinctively, chickens know exactly how much to eat (an overweight chicken is a rarity in nature,) when to return to the coop for safety in the evening, and how to catch a fly in mid-air (without any training by Mr. Miyagi.) They learn quickly where to lay their eggs and when food will be coming.

I have not done much training of my chickens, other than trying to teach them not to poop on my patio. In fact, I must admit that the hens have trained me! Though it might appear that I have them trained to come running to me when I bring out the treats, it is really the other way around. It is so entertaining to watch them grab for tomatoes and run, chasing each other around, or splashing their way through a halved watermelon, that I am inclined to bring them treats more than I ought. Behaviorist B.F. Skinner would have been proud of their methods.They have me trained in another way, as well. When the days are long and the sun is up early, “the girls” begin to squawk and cackle loudly around 5:00 AM. And every day I dutifully get out of bed to let them out into the yard, at their request.

Though it would be just fine to leave them in the coop for another hour or two, I truly don’t being “up with the chickens” in the morning. Chickens are extremely compatible with people, and I enjoy working outside in the cool of the day with the hens milling around. Our family knows each of our 20 chickens by name. We enjoy their antics, and take pride in caring for their well-being and health.

Chicken Behaviors

Laying Eggs and Broodiness

broody henA rooster is not required for eggs that will be eaten; one is only necessary for fertilized eggs. When hens begin to lay at around 5 months of age, their first eggs may be small and have soft shells, or occasionally, no shell at all. Hens lay the most eggs in their first year. Eggs increase in size, but decrease in number as hens age.

Hens begin to lay when they are five to eight months old. When they are ready to lay, their combs and other areas of pink skin turn bright red. They may begin to squat down in front of you as you walk near them. When a hen lays an egg, she will alert you with a rhythmic and loud “BOCK-BOCK-BOCK-BOCK!”

Egg-laying decreases dramatically in the winter. Hens are sensitive to the number of hours of sunlight in a day, increasing production as days lengthen. If you desire to improve production during the winter, provide supplemental light. Using an automatic timer, set the lights in your coop to come on early in the morning, several hours before sunrise, so that your hens are exposed to light for 14 hours each day . This light should be incandescent, not LED. Do not use supplemental light in the evenings, allowing your hens to respond to the natural sunset as they make their way back to the coop and up to their roots for bed. If the coop is lit after sunset, some hens may not have made it up to their roosts before the lights go out suddenly. A chicken that has to sleep on the floor is a stressed chicken, and her laying may decrease in response.

Occasionally, a hen will “go broody,” meaning she will want to stay in her nesting box and sit on her eggs. She may peck at you if you try to collect the eggs from underneath her. Collect eggs every day to help prevent the condition. Remove a broody hen repeatedly from her nest, and place an ice pack in the box to deter her. If she continues to show broody behavior and stops laying, you may have to isolate her from her normal surroundings to break the cycle. As soon as she begins to lay again, return her to her coop and her companions.

Note that some breeds tend to be broodier than others. If you have a rooster and want to hatch some eggs to increase the size of your flock, then having a few broody hens would be an asset. Research chicken breeds to select those that will meet the needs of your particular flock.

For more information about nesting boxes and how to train your hen to use the boxes, visit the following link:

Keeping Chickens in the City

Pecking Order

Hens are very social and need others to hangout with, sometimes even forming little cliques within the larger group. Chickens assume various roles in the flock, according to their individual personalities and capabilities. An alert chicken with a loud call may stand watch and alert the flock of dangers. Other chickens will lead or call the other hens into the coop at dusk. Still others will scout around for food and alert the others to its presence. A particularly brave chicken may be the first to explore new areas of the environment and will let the others know that it is safe to follow.

Hens peck at each other until every hen knows her place in the flock. It is a natural process that usually occurs too much catastrophe or serious wounding. However, it sometimes turns violent, and sometimes even deadly. Pecking can be minimized by providing a comfortable environment in which all the hens’ needs can be met without having to struggle with other hens for them.

Chicks and hens will peck at each more if they are over-crowded, don’t have enough food and water space, or don’t have enough nesting boxes. Hens may also form “gangs” and pick on chickens who look different from the others, so try not to have one chicken in your flock that is too distinct in size, color or feathering from the others (such as a single Silkie or Polish.) I was concerned about this issue when I purchased our Naked-Neck hen, Galinda. To help her out, I got her a Naked-Neck companion, Elphie. Though very distinct from the rest of our flock, they acclimated very well together.

New hens introduced to an existing flock cause a disruption until the pecking order is re-established. This can take a week or two to accomplish. When introducing new hens, isolate them for a month to verify that they are disease-free. Then place them in the run, but separate them from the rest of the flock by chicken wire so that they can see each other, but not touch each other. After a week, integrate the flock at night when hens are sleeping.

To reduce pecking behavior, hang a head of cabbage or half of a melon just out of reach so the chickens have to jump to get at it. Add branches or other hiding places to the coop for newcomers to hide and escape. It also helps to provide treats and scratch, or let them range freely to distract them.

When adding pullets to the flock, wait until they are at least 6 weeks old to integrate them with the adults.

When pecking gets out of control and does actual damage to a hen, it is called “picking.” If a hen has been pecked until she has open sores, apply Rooster Booster Pick-No-More Lotion to the wounds. The balm smells terrible, deterring hens from continued picking, and it aids in healing. Purchase Rooster Booster products at your local feed store.

Chickens will peck at the color red, and can become cannibalistic in response to blood. To prevent disaster, isolate a bleeding hen in a quiet, dark place with food and water until she is healed.

If, however, you catch a dominant bully picking on a more submissive chicken to the point where you are concerned that she may draw blood , isolate the dominant chicken from the flock for a day or two. This will serve to weaken the bully’s place in the pecking order and give the “hen-pecked” chicken a break.

Poultry Care

Flying and Wing Clipping

Chickens can fly. It may come as a surprise to some folks, but lighter breeds, such as leghorns, can really catch some air! To deter chickens from flying out their enclosure, clip the flight feathers of one wing back to the length of the outer feathers. See the photo for an example. Chickens do not like this, even docile hens who generally don’t mind being handled, so have a partner help you with this procedure. It is not necessary to clip both wings. By clipping just one wing, the hen will be too off balance to fly very far.

Stretch out the chicken’s wing and look for the long flight feathers. They are often a different color from the other feathers. Using a pair of very sharp scissors, cut back the flight feathers to the same length as the shorter feathers adjacent to them.

When clipping, stretch out the hen’s wing and view it in the light. Do not cut any new growth feathers that still have blood in the shaft. You can tell the difference because the shaft will have a pinkish hue to it. Though clipping does not hurt a chicken, new growth feathers can bleed a lot. Only cut feathers that have a hollow shaft, through which light can shine.

Clipping is not necessary for every situation. If you have heavy, dual-purpose breeds, they do not fly as well as lighter breeds. And if your hens live in a fully enclosed area, there is no need to clip. For free-range chickens, the ability to fly to a safe height could be lifesaving if a predator is encountered. Weigh the benefits and drawbacks to flock before clipping.

If you clip your chickens’ wings, you will need to repeat the process annually. Every year, hens molt, or lose their old feathers and replace them with new ones. During this time, they may appear mangy and egg production may stop. You do not need to help a chicken lose its feathers, except for the ones that you have clipped, which might hang on after the others have fallen out. Gently pull them out. Wait until the new feathers have fully grown in before clipping the wing again.

Mite Control

One of the most common problems when raising chickens is mites. Several kinds of mites can infest your coop, brought in by wild birds, rodents, or new additions to your flock that are infested. Mites live in the coop and on the chickens themselves, feeding on small amounts of blood that they suck from your chickens while they sleeps. If left untreated, it can lead to foot and leg problems, lethargy, decreased egg production, and even death.

To help prevent infestation, the first line of defense is to keep the coop area clean and bedding fresh. Provide an area for your hens to “dust bathe.” Hens like to roll around in the dirt, which is their natural way to rid themselves of mites. If your chickens do not have access to bare dirt in which they can dig and bathe, provide a tub filled with dirt and sand for them. Sprinkle Diatomaceous Earth (food grade DE) in the coop and add it to the dust bath. DE does not harm the chickens, but it deadly to mites. Secure the hen house as much as possible from wild birds and rodents. These measures will deter mites, lice and even help to keep the fly population under control.

If you have an outbreak of mites, treatment must be performed to prevent loss to the flock. Products such as Sevin dust can be used directly on the birds, as well as in the coop. Another product, Johnson’s Pigeon Spray, contains Permethrin, which is effective against mites and lice. Some people wash their infested chickens with flea shampoo for dogs. A second, or even third treatment is often necessary as new mite eggs hatch to infest the birds.

If you prefer to use an organic product, Orange Guard is a non-toxic treatment for the coop, but it should not be used directly on the birds. Other organic options are products containing pyrethrum or pyrethrins, insecticides made from chemicals extracted from chrysanthemums. Or you may try washing an infested hen in a warm salt-water bath, followed by a bath with a few drops of dish washing liquid in the water, completing the process with a final rinse to rid hens of external parasites. Just be sure to keep their heads above water and dry them off very well so that they do not get chilled. A second or third treatment will be necessary, as bathing does not remove or kill the eggs that will hatch a week or two later.

If you will treat your chicken with DE or medicated powders, there are two good methods. Start by filling the foot of an old pair of pantyhose with the dust treatment of your choice. Tie the end, and use it like a powder puff to pat your chicken all over (avoiding the eyes, nostrils and mouth.) If the infestation is severe, place the dust in a plastic garbage bag. Put the chicken into the bag, head out. Holding the bag closed under the chicken’s head so that dust does not fly up into the eyes, pat or gently shake the bag so that powder gets under her feathers over her entire body (excluding the head.)

In addition to the above treatments that are useful for all kinds of mites or lice, scaly leg mites can be treated with a direct contact treatment using household products. If you notice mites on your chicken’s legs and damage to the scales, take action right away. Petroleum jelly, or oils, such as vegetable, mineral, neem or linseed oil are effective when directly applied to the legs and repeated daily until leg scales are smooth again.

To determine that your flock has mites, examine the chickens up close. Look for tiny dark spots (mite feces) on the skin and base of the feathers around the vent, tail, stomach, or throat. Your bird may appear to be “peppered” with brown or black dots. Check your hen’s legs. If the scales on their legs and feet are rough and scabby (like those in the photo) instead of flat and smooth, they may have scaly leg mites. Inside the hen house, look for tiny, slow moving creatures, which tend to congregate in nesting boxes. Poultry mites are most active and easiest to spot at night with a flashlight.

The treatments listed here are organic, EXCLUDING Permethrin, which is a toxic chemical (to be used as a last resort.)

Some of these items are harder to find locally than others, but you can obtain them all online. Amazon offers FREE Super Saver shipping when you purchase $25 worth of eligible items. I have found that I can often buy items cheaper than retail on Amazon, and plus get the shipping for free!

Bumble Foot

Bumble Foot is a bacterial infection on the feet of chickens and other birds. It causes a bump on the bottom of the foot, sometimes with a scab. Treatment may require opening the bump to clean the foot and remove the infection, antibiotic treatment and application of antiseptic cream. For a detailed discussion of Bumble Foot and detailed treatment instructions, click on the photo or go here. Kathy Shea Mormino, a.k.a. The Chicken Chick, provides an excellent tutorial, but beware! The photos are graphic, though extremely helpful if you need to see the procedure in detail before attempting to perform it on your own chicken.

Broken Nails and Beaks

A hen’s beak and nails continue to grow throughout her lifetime. If you notice a chipped beak or nail that is not bleeding, apply Vetericyn or antiseptic cream, and leave it alone to grow back naturally. If, however, you notice that a nail is bleeding, clean the foot with soapy water, apply Vetericyn to the wound and wrap the toe with Vet Wrap bandaging tape.

A bleeding broken beak can be staunched with softened bar soap. Apply the soft soap from the underside of a soap bar to the area that is bleeding. Once bleeding has stopped, inspect the beak. If it is split, carefully apply a small amount of super glue to provide a temporary repair and prevent further damage. If the beak is chipped, carefully use an emery board to file any dangerous points, being careful not to file the beak down too far, which may be painful to the hen. Keep an eye on the wound for signs of infection, which should be treated immediately by cleaning and applying antiseptic cream. The beak will eventually grow out.

If bleeding cannot be stopped, or an infection develops that resists treatment, a visit to the bet may be necessary.

A hen with a broken beak may have difficulty picking up pellets or crumbles. Feed her soft foods, such as scrambled eggs or crumbles softened with water, until she is able to feed herself again.


Moulting (or molting) is the loss of feathers, followed by regrowth, that hens endure annually. Moulting is easily identified by the loss of feathers beginning at the head and neck, proceeded by the back and wings, followed by the loss of tail feathers. It is a natural occurrence, but the condition may also be triggered by stressors, such as lack of water or food, broodiness, a parasite infestation.

During moulting, the hen may seem disinterested in food and may temporarily stop laying eggs. You can help her by reducing stress, as much as possible. Avoid handling her or introducing new flock mates at this time. To aid feather regrowth, increase the amount of protein she receives by switching her feed from layer feed to meat bird feed, or by offering meal worms as a treat. Normal, annual molting resolves itself within 4 to 8 weeks.

The Poultry Medicine Cabinet

There few items that I recommend to keep on hand for routine healthcare and emergencies.

First of all, keep disinfectant soap handy, along with a bucket and scrub brush. The best way to keep your chickens happy and healthy is to keep the hen house clean. On a regular basis, wash nesting boxes and roosting bars with soapy water. Twice per year, disinfect the entire coop with your product of choice (a 10% bleach solution works well.)

Additionally, keep a box handy with the following items:

Vetericyn Wound & Infection Care (my #1 recommendation.)

Vet Wrap bandages

Rooster Booster Pick-No-More Lotion

Blu-Kote Veterinary Germicidal and Fungicidal Wound Dressing

Baytril, Duramycin or other poultry antibiotic to use quickly if a chicken shows signs of respiratory distress. (Antibiotic use is a last resort for organic chickens, and eggs should not be eaten for several weeks after treatment with antibiotics.)

Neosporin (NO triple antibiotic. Chickens are allergic to lidocaine, benzocaine, anything in the “-caine” family.)

Apple cider vinegar

Mineral oil

Cotton balls

Rubber gloves

Finally, it may sound strange, but one of the best medicines for chickens is plain yogurt with live, active probiotic cultures. Chickens love it, and it seems to give ailing chickens a boost towards recovery.

Care for your chicken’s health and they will, in turn, provide you with abundant eggs and years of pleasant companionship.

9 Point Comb to Toe Chicken Check-Up and DIY Antiseptic Ointment

An important product in the poultry medicine cabinet is Blue-Kote for the effective treatment of fungus, infections, ringworm, surface wounds, cuts, galls, hoof-foot and pad sores, chafes, abrasions, moist or scabby lesions, itchy fungus eczema and sores. Blu-Kote is a germicidal, fungicidal wound dressing and healing aid effective against both bacterial and fungus infections most common in skin lesions of domestic animals. The ointment kills ringworm and fungus infections. It dries up blisters and pox-like scabby sores or lesions. It is a quick-drying and deep-penetrating ointment.

More Information

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