Around the Coop and Beyond

Fall is here.  The calendar tells me this.  And if I didn’t have a calendar, I could just step out the door.  The maple trees have peaked.  Their leaves are a solid red and yellow and are falling continuously like colorful snow.  And while the leaves are falling in the woods, the feathers are falling unabated in the coop as the fall molt I talked about in Tuesday’s post continues.
One of the projects I work on this time of year is my on-going battle with buckthorn, an invasive alien plant.  Buckthorn was first brought here from Europe in the mid-1800’s for use as a hedge plant.  Buckthorn makes a great hedge because of its long thorns, its ability to form an impenetrable barrier and its ability to grow prolifically almost anywhere.  It has become a terrible scourge because of its long thorns, its ability to form an impenetrable barrier and its ability to grow practically anywhere.  Once it becomes established, it outcompetes practically everything so no other plants grow and eventually you have a forest of buckthorn.  And it’s so thick and prickly that nothing can get through it—it isn’t even suitable for wildlife habitat.  You know the thick enchanted forest that grew around the castle in Sleeping Beauty?  I think that probably was buckthorn.

Here on the ranch, I’ve managed to keep buckthorn completely under control on part of the property.  There are other parts where it’s partially controlled—all the remaining plants are small, far apart, and periodically rooted out.  Then there are about three acres of wasteland—oak forest above with an under-story of solid buckthorn hell.  I’m in my second year of full retirement and during the last two falls I have laid siege to the wasteland.  It is a battle.  This is essentially a three-acre hedge—the buckthorn plants are spaced, for the most part, less than a foot apart.  And the big ones have grown way beyond hedge size—some are 25-30 feet high.  These are literally buckthorn trees!  There’s no way these monsters can be pulled by hand, but my trusty John Deere handles them.  So with tractor, brush cutter, chainsaw, and the sparing use of herbicide, I’m making progress.  And it’s not unpleasant work.  Eradicating invasive plants has the aura of important and meaningful work.  And it’s the sort of work where I can clearly see the progress I’ve made.  Plus it’s just pleasant to be in the woods this time of year.  Today there was a flock of hundreds if not thousands of migrating robins poking through the underbrush to keep me company while I worked.

It's hard to see the trees for the forest, but this is all buckthorn
My trusty John Deere sits in a cleared area of the buckthorn thicket -
This 25 ft. tall beauty is on the way to the brush pile

Another project that’s underway is the building of a new hen pen.  The chickens in the two coops take turns, every other day, going into the half-acre chicken run.  On the days that they’re not in the big chicken run, the 15 chickens in the big coop spend their outdoor time in the 450 square foot hen pen.  When the 9 chickens in the small coop aren’t in the big chicken run, the outdoor space they have to hang out in is the 16 square foot “chicken patio”.  That space was fine when it was just Snowball, Emily, and Angitou.  But then Courtney came along, and then her four surrogate Legbar babies grew to adulthood, and then Willow the buff Orpington was having interpersonal issues in the big coop and got moved to the small coop, and suddenly the outdoor space that was OK for three small chickens is embarrassingly inadequate for nine birds.  So I’ve finally got started on building them their own outdoor hen pen.  It’s going in along the side of the pole barn, and since it’s at the base of a steep hill, the first thing I had to do was excavate some dirt to make a level space.  Next I need to put up a retaining wall and haul in some class five gravel.  Only then can the fence go up.  The leaves are falling.  Will this project be done before the snow falls?  Stay tuned.

Some of the hens explore the trench that I've excavated along the side of the pole barn for the new hen pen.  They don't have a clue what I'm up to, but they certainly enjoy all that fresh dirt to scratch in!  The trench is filling with falling leaves.  Hopefully some progress will be made before it fills with falling snow.
On to the chicken news:  They are all healthy now, thank goodness!  But there have been a couple of weird traumas this past week.  On Wednesday, when I was cleaning the coop I noticed that some of the bedding under the roost was bloody.  Then when I looked carefully at the roost itself, I noticed a fair amount of blood smeared on the rungs of the roost—a disturbing situation to say the least.  With all the molting that's going on, I expected that the blood would be from bleeding pin feathers.  Pin feathers have a copious blood supply bringing nutrients to the forming feathers and they can become injured quite easily.  I gave the chickens a once over and didn't see damaged pin feathers or any other sort of injury.  They all seemed fine.   It took until bedtime for me to figure out that the blood was coming from a deep cut on the toe of Carmen Maranda the cuckoo Marans hen, and that it was still oozing blood.  On closer examination I saw that not only was there a deep cut on top of the back toe on her left foot, but that the toenail was completely cut off.  I decided to wait until morning before taking any action.  And in the morning a good solid scab had formed and it looked like it was on a positive track to healing.  And so far there’s no sign of infection.  Since chickens spend their lives scratching in the dirt, they’ve evolved a pretty robust immune system, and as Carmen demonstrated in this situation, often an injury or abrasion such as this doesn’t need any outside interference, but will do just fine if left alone.  The question that remains is how she got cut in the first place.  Some random piece of glass or other sharp object buried in the run?  It’s a half-acre run, but I’ll keep my eyes open.

Carmen Maranda the cuckoo Marans hen:  Wounded, but walking
The other bizarre chicken run situation happened yesterday.  The run is enclosed with a four-foot high wire fence topped by an additional four feet of netting.  On my way to the coop for my post-lunch check-in with the chickens (aka “the chick-in”) I saw the alarming sight of a chicken hanging from the fence.  It was Nicky the Cream Legbar pullet.  Somehow she must have flown right at the fence and gotten herself tangled up in the netting.  The netting had sagged a little under her weight, so she was being supported somewhat by the netting “pocket” that her body had formed—but mostly she was hanging by her leg.  I quickly grabbed her and the netting and set her free.  She is fine.  The netting, unfortunately, needed some splicing.  No chicken has ever done this before.  Was this a learning experience for Nicky?  Time will tell. 

Nicky the Cream Legbar pullet:  Sadder but Wiser??

“I’m Molting. Mooollllting!!!”

The biggest topic of conversation amongst the Hipster Hens these days is the fall molt.  As summer wanes, the shortening days are a signal to chickens everywhere that it is time to drop their feathers and grow new ones that will help them get through the upcoming cold winter.  Each chicken has thousands of feathers, and each one will drop so it can be replaced.  Needless to say, the coop is taking on the appearance of the aftermath of a pillow fight gone really wrong.  And then there are all those hens wandering around looking embarrassingly disheveled.  Not all hens start molting at the same time, nor do they all molt at the same rate, but many of them have bare patches of skin right now and others look like porcupines as the pin feathers that will eventually grow into real feathers emerge from their skin. 

Feathers in the Dust Bath:  The hens can "wash" off a lot of feathers while dust bathing
The rule of thumb is that the ugliest hens at molting time are the best egg-laying hens.  Egg and feathers are both mostly composed of protein, so a hen needs lots of protein to produce both, and if she’s making a lot of feathers, it would be really hard to make eggs at the same time.  So egg production falls off dramatically during the molt.  The good layers drop a lot of feathers all at once and get their molt over with in a couple of months, while the poor egg layers molt more gradually—they can take as long as six months.  They eventually resume laying eggs when they’re completely satisfied that each feather is in place and their plumage is impeccably perfect.  So all those pretty hens with the sleek and glossy feathers are generally real slackers in the egg-laying department. 

Veronica Molts: Veronica, my most heavy-hitting green egg layer, sprouts pin feathers in a patch that was bare skin just a few days ago.
The egg count yesterday was seven, by the way.  Seven eggs for the entire flock!  And four of them came from the four Legbar pullets.  The Legbars won’t molt and should keep their production up through the entire winter.  Why?  Well, these girls are just six months old.  They’ve already gone through several “juvenile molts” in the first six months of their lives and are good to go with the feathers they’ve got until they’re 18 months old a year from now. Then they’ll have their first adult molt along with all the other hens.  And because they’re young and vigorous, I should be getting an egg almost every day from each of them until then. 

Paulette, Nicky, and Marissa:  No molt for the Legbar pullets!
While it is unusual, hens sometimes go through molts at times of the year other than fall.  For instance, I reported on Angitou molting in May and Arlene molting in July.  Chickens that molt mid-year may or may not molt again in the fall—it depends on the extent of their molt, when it occurred and a whole slew of other variables.  So far, Arlene is still laying and shows no sign of molting.  Angitou, on the other hand, is not laying and is beginning to look a little like a porcupine.  Mid-year molts are often stress-related and as I mentioned in my first post in my series on cruel hen cages, the commercial egg industry use this circumstance to force hens to molt.  All the hens in a flock don’t start their molt at the same time, and the egg industry finds this imprecision annoying.  So hens in many commercial flocks are stressed by manipulating the light, by withholding water, and by starving them.  This practice is not legal in many countries and the Egg Bill that was before Congress in 2012 and 2013 that I reported on last week would have made it an illegal practice in the U.S., but that legislation did not pass.  Needless to say, the Hipster Hens don’t get that sort of treatment. 

So what do I do with my molting Hipster Hens?  Well, the poor girls need more protein to make all those feathers.  Some folks start giving their hens all sorts of high-protein food like meal worms and even cat food.  While hens love this kind of stuff, it's kind of pricey and too much over a long period of time can actually cause kidney damage, gout, and other problems.  So I just switch to a commercial feed with a higher protein content.  And I avoid handling them a lot.  All those pin feathers are sensitive.  They're called pin feathers, after all - and when a hen has a whole bunch of them sticking out of her skin, it probably feels just like you can imagine it would feel!  And other than that, I just tell the girls to be patient and that they'll get through this - and when they're done they'll be covered from head to toe with shiny new feathers!

Edging Away from Cruel Eggs: Part 3 - Strange Coop-Fellows

Read "Edging Away from Cruel Eggs: Part 1 - California's Prop 2"

Read "Edging Away From Cruel Eggs: Part 2—Slogging Toward Enactment"

Consumer polls have consistently shown that the majority of egg buyers think that keeping hens in small cages is cruel, that they would prefer to buy cage-free eggs, and that they would be willing to pay more for them.  So when California voters passed Propostion 2, “Standards for Confining Farm Animals” in 2008, an initiative that mandated more humane conditions for chickens by 2015, that’s when the egg industry should have gotten to work figuring out the best way to give their customers what they wanted.  Instead, what ensued was years of turmoil and stress as most in the egg industry looked for every possible way to block the changes required by Prop 2. 

In Part 2 of this series, I wrote about how certain egg producers rolled out “enhanced” cages as their answer to the required changes.  In spite of the positive spin of their PR fanfare, enhanced cages were really still just cages—they just gave each hen slightly more space.  I also discussed a lawsuit filed in California State Court in 2010 by egg companies that argued that the new rules were too vague because Prop 2 didn’t specifically say how much space a chicken really needed.  The case was ultimately dismissed in 2011.

Chickens in Battery Cages  (Wikipedia Commons - public domain)
It took less than a year for the next legal challenge—this lawsuit was so very similar to the first one that they could have been twins.  William Cramer, a trustee of a family business that owned egg farms in Riverside County, filed his suit in Federal District Court.  He claimed that Prop 2 violated the US Constitution because its vagueness would prompt arbitrary enforcement.  He maintained that most egg farmers would stop operating rather than comply with the new regulations, which would result in skyrocketing egg prices.  The Association of California Egg Farmers (ACEF) joined this suit just as it had the previous one.


Emerging Infectious Diseases, a scientific journal published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published yet another scholarly article linking salmonella infections in humans with backyard chickens.  The October issue of this respected publication includes an article entitled “Outbreaks of Human Salmonella Infections Associated with Live Poultry, United States, 1990–2014.”  The epidemiology in this article is pristine and makes a clear connection between people infected with salmonella and their chickens.  But unhappily, there have been several unfortunate consequences of this and other similar CDC studies. 

First of all, the popular press has gotten it’s clutches on this news nugget and raced right for the catchy headline while ignoring the broader underlying message.  Thus we have Huffington Post, under the category of “weird news” shouting “Kissing Chickens Can Spread Salmonella”; while CNN proclaims, “CDC Report Crushes Your Chicken-Kissing Dreams”, and NPR coyly announces, “Chicken Owners Brood Over CDC Advice Not To Kiss, Cuddle Birds”, and Jezebel interjects, “Hey, Don’t Kiss Chickens.”  These headlines would lead one to believe that chicken kissing was the main focus of the study.  Kissing chickens was listed as a high risk behavior, but the percentage of people in the study who got salmonella after kissing chickens (13%) was a fraction of those who acquired salmonella after bringing chickens into their houses (46%).  But then the popular press obviously thinks chicken kissing is just plain weird while bringing a chicken into your house is hardly worth an eye-roll.

The second problem I have with these studies is that after the CDC has demonstrated a real problem, people getting Salmonella from their backyard chickens, it takes the next step and offers solutions.  I’m sure that CDC consulted with a broad range of individuals before proposing solutions, but did it actually talk to anybody in the backyard-chicken-keeping community?  From some of the suggested solutions I suspect that it didn’t.

And that lack of dialogue is creating the third problem:  There is a growing feeling among some in the backyard-chicken-keeping community that the CDC recommendations for safely keeping chickens is just another example of government intrusion into their lives.  One on-line comment:  “They don’t want the general public raising chickens!”  I’ve been waiting for someone to say, “They can have my chickens when they pry them from my cold, dead hands,” but thus far that has not popped up.

So what are the CDC recommendations?  Here they are directly from the CDC website—CDC’s recommendations are bolded, my comments are italicized:

  1. Always wash your hands with soap and water right after touching live poultry or anything in the area where they live and roam.  I always wash my hands when I come into the house after having been in the chicken coop.  Do most chicken owners do this?  I’m going to guess, “Probably not.”  But speaking of washing your hands, many people have dogs and cats living right in their houses with them.  There’s probably a LOT of cat and dog petting going on all the time.  Cats and dogs, by the way, can carry about a gazillion diseases that are transmissible to humans.  The top five are hookworm, roundworms, toxoplasmosis, cryptosporidiosis, and Lyme disease, but the list goes on to include a whole host of other diseases that are rare but often fatal, including plague (aka Black Death).  So does CDC recommend that you wash your hands each and every time after interacting with your cat or dog?  Well, yes, actually.  Yes they do.  Does anybody do this?  I’m going to guess, “Probably not.”  And what about washing your hands after you’ve been in an area where cats and dogs “live and roam”?  Yeah, right.  Don't misunderstand what I'm saying here - I'm not unloading on cats and dogs--I've got several that live in my house, sleep in my bed, and walk on my face every day.  I'm just taking issue with the way CDC seems to be singling out one domestic animal.
  2. Do not let live poultry inside the house, in bathrooms, or especially in areas where food or drink is prepared, served, or stored.  Here’s the deal.  Most backyard chicken keepers know that it is practically impossible NOT to bring chickens into their houses in certain circumstances.  Many folks start their flocks with baby chicks.  Babies need heat, protection from drafts, and a controlled environment that small backyard coops just can’t provide.  I would guess that pretty much everybody starts their babies in a box in the basement.  By the same token, sick or injured birds also need a controlled environment.  The most recent sick chicken to live in my basement was suffering from myiasis, also known as flystrike.  She had maggot infested wounds after flies laid eggs on her.  She needed a fly-free environment—my basement could provide that but my coop could not.
  3. Don't let children younger than 5 years, adults older than 65, and people with weakened immune systems handle or touch chicks, ducklings, or other live poultry.  Is there good science behind this recommendation?  Absolutely.  Will everybody say, “Wow!  Look at this impressive science!  I’m gonna get right behind this good advice!”?  Abso-freakin-lutley not!  If you’ve got baby chicks you think your kids aren’t going to want to play with them?  Come on!  I reach the magical age of 65 next year.  The chances of me giving up my flock next year are slim to none - and slim just left town.  As useful advice, this one ranks up there with a bucket of warm spit.
  4. If you collect eggs from the hens, thoroughly cook them.  Or if you buy them from a store.  Or get them from a neighbor, or whatever.  Or we could figure out a way to get control of this Salmonella problem and go back to the good old days of homemade mayo, eggnog, and Hollandaise. 
  5. Don't eat or drink in the area where the birds live or roam.  Good advice.  And then I go back to the dog and cat thing in #1.
  6. Avoid kissing your birds or snuggling them, then touching your mouth.  Good advice.  And then I go back to the cat and dog thing in #1.
  7. Stay outdoors when cleaning any equipment or materials used to raise or care for live poultry, such as cages or feed or water containers.  I’ve got running water in my coop, so no prob.  Most people probably have a garden hose at the very least.  So this is doable.  Not bad -  there’s at least one bit of advice in this list that can be practically carried out.
  8. Buy birds from hatcheries that participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Poultry Improvement Plan (USDA-NPIP) U.S. voluntary Salmonella Monitoring Program. This program is intended to reduce the incidence of Salmonella in baby poultry in the hatchery.  Yes.  Stop disease at the source.  If you can eliminate Salmonella from hatcheries and guarantee that all those babies people are bringing into their backyards are Salmonella-free, it would effectively eliminate the main source of Salmonella in backyard flocks.  But here’s the problem.  Hatcheries that participate in NPIP inspections are tested for the presence of a few diseases:  These include a few Mycoplasma diseases—bacterial diseases affecting poultry.  Then there are certain strains of avian influenza (low virulence bird flu).  Finally, there are tests for a few of the Salmonellas.  But certainly not all of the bajillion different Salmonellas that chickens can carry and pass on to you.  The other ones are not in the NPIP guidelines and thus they're not tested for.  So how valuable is this recommendation?  Remember the bucket of warm spit?  We’re kinda back to that.
CDC Advice on Poultry Keeping
Now I’m going to say something that I think is really important, so I’m going to bold it and italicize it for emphasis.  Because to me, this is the whole deal:  If we could eliminate Salmonella from backyard flocks, or better yet, ALL flocks, all the CDC recommendations would be moot.  And while testing for and eradicating Salmonella from each backyard flock would be expensive and logistically difficult, testing and eradication at the source—the hatcheries and distributors—would provide a huge running start to eliminating Salmonella.  And the mechanism for doing that, NPIP, is already in place—it just needs to be broader, stronger, and more enforceable.  I suspect that there are hatcheries and distributors out there that are not very keen on this approach and would apply all sorts of political pressure against any legislation that would suggest it.  So it’s a whole lot easier and cheaper for government agencies like CDC to make lists of recommendations.  And if you're the press, publishing articles against chicken kissing probably actually sells copy.  So there you go.

The chief author of the EID publication that set me off on this rant is Dr. Colin Basler, a veterinarian and public health researcher who has done all sorts of good work on a variety of zoonotic diseases.  I sent him an email after I read the article expressing many of the same issues that I brought up in this post.  I haven’t heard back, but it would be nice if I did.  I realize that Dr. Basler doesn’t run the CDC, nor does he have the ability to legislate public health policy.  But it would be nice to have somebody in a position of authority recognize that since backyard flocks are growing in popularity for a variety of reasons, all of them good, that the incidence of poultry associated Salmonellosis will also continue to rise.  And since “education” by issuing lists of mostly impractical suggestions is not a good strategy for solving the problem, maybe it is time to explore better solutions.

Sour Crop and Flystrike: The Little Red Hen Gets Well

This is the story of how one tenacious little red hen at death's door fought her way back to the land of the living.  I’ve excerpted a lot of stuff from a previous post I wrote on this story in order to tell the complete narrative here.  If you’ve read the previous post, you are totally justified in skipping the first couple of paragraphs. I won’t be offended.

The first sign that something was wrong with Roxie the Rhode Island Red was the diarrhea.  Diarrhea is hard to miss—you notice the loose stools in the coop, and you can spot the perpetrator by finding the chicken with soiled feathers on her backside.   When I spot this on just one hen and it’s a new thing, I keep a watchful eye, but I certainly don’t panic.  Hens get diarrhea—sometimes it’s just due to the heat or “something they ate” and sometimes it’s due to something more serious. So I watch and wait.  Roxie seemed bright-eyed and active so my concern for her was mild at most.

A few days later, a Tuesday in mid-August, as I was cleaning the coop, I noticed Roxie make a couple of attempts to hop the short distance into a nest box and fail at both attempts.  This definitely raised my level of concern.  So I corralled the little red hen and picked her up for a quick exam.  Her eyes were bright, her comb was a nice bright red, and both her crop and her abdomen felt normal—neither puffy nor distended.  But there was a lot of poopy feathers on her back side, so I flipped her over to take a closer look and then audibly gasped.  She had become fly-blown.  Here’s the part you don’t want to read if you’re squeamish:  Sometimes in the summertime certain flies find their way to hens who are suffering from diarrhea.  Flies, as we all know, love poop.  So the female fly deposits her eggs on the poop-laden feathers.  When the maggots hatch, they immediately burrow into the chicken’s skin and create bloody skin lesions that are laden with thousands of maggots.  A hen can go from normal to fly-blown in 24 hours, and can go from fly-blown to dead in an equally short period of time.  Roxie’s back end was teeming with maggots.  I immediately carried her to the house, took her to the laundry room,  and bathed her several times in dog shampoo and water, removing all the poop and maggots that I could find.  There were a couple sizable maggot-eaten lesions around her vent.  I trimmed the feathers around all the bad spots and treated them all with Veterycin, a veterinary antiseptic. 

Then I set up a sick-room in the basement:  I put newspapers under a dog crate and furnished the dog crate with a piece of 4x4 for a roost, a dish with some chicken crumbles, and a small water fount filled with a probiotic/electrolyte solution to get her diarrhea under control.  I installed Roxie into this space and she hopped onto the roost and didn’t budge.  She showed no interest in the food or drink and simply roosted with her head and tail down and her eyes closed.  This poor hen was in pain.  I gave her a couple drinks of the electrolyte solution using a syringe, but mostly left her alone.  But I certainly didn’t stop thinking about her.

On Wednesday morning I gave Roxie a Betadine soak followed by a bath, a blow dry, and more Veterycin.  There were two maggot lesions near her vent. The smaller lesion seems to be healing. I found maggots in the large lesion, but just a few this time. She hadn’t touched her food, so I mixed up some oatmeal and she gobbled that right up.  The newspapers under the crate were soaked with green tinged fluid--This bird’s stomach was so empty that all that was coming through was bile-tinged water.  No wonder she was weak and in pain!  I noticed her drinking several times throughout the day, so felt like maybe she was making a little progress, but she would not eat at all—not even when I offered her more oatmeal.  What awful gastrointestinal disease did this little girl have?  There are about a million things that can cause a chicken to have bad diarrhea.  Many diarrheal diseases are caused by biological agents:  worms and other parasites, viruses, bacteria, and fungi.  Just to take a stab in the dark, I mixed up some Duramycin.  Duramycin is a veterinary antibiotic—a form of tetracycline—it would only be helpful if Roxie’s disease was bacterial, but it at least made me feel like I was doing something useful.  I decided to hold off on giving her the antibiotic until the next day, though.  Antibiotics should not be administered casually, and I hoped that she would show signs of progress on her own.

Roxie looks things over after her morning betadine soak, bath, and blow dry.

Thursday morning Roxie showed no improvement.  She was still sitting lethargically on her roost, and hadn’t touched her food.  I gave her another bath and blow dry.  Roxie actually loved her bath and blow dry.  As foreign as getting dunked into a tub of water must be for a chicken, she actually relaxed.  I suppose the warm water and blowing air just felt good.  After the blow dry I checked her lesions and was pleased to see that both of them seemed to be healing nicely.  Then, when I turned her bottom-side-up to apply more Veterycin something interesting happened.  Fluid trickled out of her beak and onto the floor.  I tipped her over a second time and a lot of fluid gushed out of her beak. 

There was a strong, nasty odor emanating from the pool on the floor--It smelled just like sour beer.  Have you ever tasted sour beer?  It’s one of the trendy brews showing up at all the best brew pubs and microbreweries and is characterized by its intentionally sour taste.  I think the taste and smell of sour beer is very unpleasant, so maybe that’s why it came to mind when I got the first whiff of the nasty puddle of chicken emesis.  Unfortunately, I’m sure the next time I sample a sour beer in some tony brew pub, the Roxie puddle will immediately spring to mind.  Then then I can arrogantly comment to the resident cicerone, “Ah!  This beer has a bright flavor reminiscent of chicken vomit with a subtle basement floor finish.”  But actually…the yeasty odor was making alarm bells go off in my head.  Roxie’s crop had been empty when I did my first exam in the coop.  Now, as I felt the right side of the base of her neck, I felt her crop making a large squishy bulge.  As I pushed at her bulging crop, more vile fluid came flowing out of her mouth, and again I was hit by the smell of sour beer.  Sour beer and maybe some notes of oatmeal stout.  The only thing Roxie had eaten since I took her out of the coop was oatmeal, which she should have long since digested. I suddenly knew exactly what was wrong with this hen.  Roxie had sour crop!

Roxie cuddled in a towel post-bath & right before I realized what her illness was
Before I talk about sour crop, I should first explain about crops and say a few words about a chicken’s digestive system.  When a hen has her morning breakfast of delicious crumbles, each time she swallows, the crumbles travel down her esophagus to a small pocket at the base of her neck.  That’s her crop.  The crop is basically a food storage pouch. Some very basic digestion takes place there, mostly food softening.  From her crop, the food passes into her stomach, and then into her gizzard, a muscular pouch that mixes the food with grit and grinds it.  A hen doesn’t have teeth, so she chews her food with her gizzard before it moves on to her small intestine.

The symptoms of sour crop are exactly what I’ve just described—a full, squishy crop, and the emanation of a bad smelling fluid from the chicken's beak when you tip the chicken.  I’ve seen sour crop in my flock once before.  When Emile the rooster was just a teenage cockerel, shortly after I moved him into the big coop, he got very sick with exactly the symptoms I’ve described.  I was a novice chicken keeper then, and surprised myself first by correctly diagnosing his illness, and then by saving the little guy.  I haven’t seen this disease in my flock since Emile was stricken with it, so I decided it was time to do some research.  I turned to my copy of the excellent “Chicken Health Handbook” by Gail Damerow, and, of course, to the internet.  My internet research turned out to be an exercise in extreme frustration. 

According to a recent UC Davis poll of backyard chicken keepers in California, 87% percent of respondents say they use the internet as the main source of information about poultry.  And there are indeed some excellent blogs and websites that give good information about all things poultry. I’ve mentioned Terry Golson’s “Hen Cam” blog and Kathy Shea Mormino’s “Chicken Chick” in a previous post.  Both of these bloggers give good information about chickens and rely on veterinarians and other experts as their sources of information. 

There are a host of other good chicken blogs, many of which are well written, amusing, and have an interesting story to tell, but much of the information given by these sites is specific to the life-lessons of the individual blogger and not always scientifically verified.  I include myself in this group of bloggers.  My career as a public health microbiologist has given me a certain body of knowledge about infections and infectious agents, but in general, since I am neither a veterinarian nor a poultry expert, I present any information I share with the caveat that it is only my own personal experience and is not intended as advice. 

Then there are the forums where any random person who has a few chickens roosting in the rusting car body on his front lawn can say any ridiculous thing he wants.  All he needs is an internet connection.  If he thinks he can increase egg production by whacking his hens upside their feathered heads with a two by four, he can say it in print for all to see.  But I would take this advice with a grain of salt.

By Googling “Sour Crop” I quickly accessed information from all of these sources with their range of reliability.  I found a ton of information but much of it was confusing, and much of it was contradictory.

Many, but not all, information sources agreed that there were at least two conditions affecting the crop that were separate from each other but also related. “Sour crop, or Candidiasis, is caused by an overgrowth of Candida albicans.  Simply put, it is a yeast infection inside the bird’s crop.”(Natural Chicken Keeping). “Impacted crop is when something…gets stuck in a tangled mess and blocks food from moving from the crop to the stomach.” (Purposefully Simple).  How are these conditions related?  Some sources say that sour crop causes impacted crop and other say the reverse—and some waffle on that very subject—it’s the classic “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” situation.  For example:  “Sour crop…occurs most often because of an impacted crop that hasn’t been cleared, and yeast begins to grow and feed on the food that is stuck in the crop.” (Purposefully Simple) and “As the hen becomes infected with the fungus [i.e. yeast], the lining of her crop thickens, and the infection can interfere with her crop’s ability to empty its contents into her stomach. This can lead to an impacted crop.” (The Frugal Chicken) and “Sour crop may also be associated with fungal infection, although there is some question about whether the fungus causes the poor emptying of the crop, or is a result of it.” (The Chicken Chick).

OK, let’s put the root cause and the order of sour crop and impacted crop aside and move to the more important issue of how to treat.  Again, there’s a lot of conflict. 
  •  “If you suspect sour crop, isolating your chicken in a warm, quiet area, holding her upside down, gently massaging the crop in the direction of the head and carefully trying to induce vomiting, encouraging yogurt,[my emphasis] olive oil [my emphasis] and water with apple cider vinegar is a great way to start. Apple cider vinegar [my emphasis] is an anti-fungal, and often avian vets will recommend it for cases of sour crop, since sour crop is basically a yeast infection.”(Fresh Eggs Daily)
  •  "Sour crop can be helped by holding the bird face-down, at about a 60 degree angle, and massaging the crop toward the throat…the stinky mess should come out like vomit, and reduce the swelling.  Be sure to let the hen breathe between bouts of massaging, and keep her inside for a couple of days after, feeding soft foods and adding a little bit (1 tbsp/gallon) of baking soda to the drinking water to combat the acidity.  Do NOT use cider vinegar to treat this, as it only adds to the acid burden.[my emphasis]  (The Chicken Chick)
  •  “A popular—but risky—method is to massage the crop to loosen its contents while briefly…turning the chicken’s head downward to try to drain out the contents…The chicken, however, runs the risk of inhaling regurgitated crop contents.” (The Chicken Health Handbook)
  • “Be advised, if you attempt to burp your chicken, there is a chance she will aspirate some of the vomit, which can lead to death.” (The Frugal Chicken)
  •  "Copper sulfate is commonly used to treat a chicken with sour crop, but an overdose is toxic.  To avoid overdosing, first prepare a stock solution…Feed as usual while using the stock solution to treat the chicken’s drinking water…Avoid using antibiotics which will make the condition worse…Adding vinegar [my emphasis] to the water at a rate of 1 tablespoon per gallon…can help prevent a recurrence of this infection.” (Chicken Health Handbook)
  •  “I feed them eggs with a tablespoon of plain yogurt. [my emphasis] I just smash the whole egg… shells and all - and stir in the yogurt.” (Natural Chicken Keeping)
  • “Dairy products including yogurt, [my emphasis] milk and cheese can give chickens diarrhea since they aren't designed to digest the milk sugars, so go easy on the dairy if you notice it's having a negative effect.” (Fresh Eggs Daily)
  • Give your chickens yogurt? Why? [my emphasis] First, it's scientific fact that chickens do not have the necessary enzymes in their gut to properly digest dairy. Too much can and will give them diarrhea. So, why are you giving your chickens yogurt?...For those of you that are going to post, "I've given my chickens yogurt for 50 years with no problems," keep doing what your [sic] doing, but for those of you that want to actually help your chickens, think about using probiotics that are actually for chickens!" (The Chicken Whisperer)
  • "Sprinkling a bit of cinnamon over some plain yogurt [my emphasis] and adding a drop of oregano oil might be an option you would want to consider. (This is a good option for the oregano oil since it's already diluted in olive oil.[my emphasis]) (Fresh Eggs Daily)
  •  "You may be tempted to give mineral oil or other liquid lubricants by mouth to break up an impaction. However, force-fed mineral oil or other liquids may end up in the bird’s lungs, with a fatal result. Mineral oil doesn’t help much to break up an impaction anyway (granite grit is more helpful than anything else you can give [my emphasis]).(Chicken Health for Dummies)
  •  The best way to prevent impacted crop is to offer granite grit,[my emphasis] free choice, and limit your chickens’ access to long dry straw or grass.” (Purposefully Simple)
  •   "Impacted crops are not caused by your birds needing more grit.[my emphasis]… Birds use grit in their gizzards to grind food; but the gizzard is far "downstream" from the crop. The crop is a kind of foyer into which all the food packs before moving into the digestive system. (Brown Egg Blue Egg)
So you see my confusion.  This huge bolus of contradictory information presented as verified fact really stuck in my craw (and that would be impacted crop, right?).  In the end I digested (phew, all better!) all of the information and just followed the course of treatment that made the most sense to me.  Here’s what I did:
  •    First, I dumped out the antibiotic solution I made.  If this was truly a yeast infection, antibiotics would only make it worse.
  •  Then, I went to my local farm store and bought copper sulfate.  I live in the country and the nearest farm store is 15 miles away.  The only copper sulfate they had in stock was for treating swimming pools—but copper sulfate is copper sulfate, it was just that it only came in 15 lb. containers.  Since it was almost closing time, I bought it.  I have enough copper sulfate to treat a gazillion chickens for a bazillion years!
  •  I made a stock copper sulfate solution following the formula in the Chicken Health Handbook.  Then I added a tablespoon of stock solution and a tablespoon of vinegar to a gallon of water.  I gave this to Roxie in a small plastic water font as her only source of water.  Several days later, when the gallon of copper sulfate water was gone I switched to water mixed with vinegar at a rate of one tablespoon per gallon.
  •  I did not ever give her yogurt.  I will never give a chicken yogurt, ever!  I've already stated that I won't dispense advice since I'm not a vet or a chicken expert but come on! Mammals drink milk.  Chickens are birds.  Chickens are lactose intolerant.  While yogurt contains less lactose than many dairy products, it still has waaay more lactose than a chicken can handle.  I believe that probiotics are important for chickens that are suffering from gastrointestinal illness, but the bacteria in yogurt aren’t necessarily the best choice for chickens.  There are probiotics designed for chickens at most stores that sell chicken feed, and I believe in the probiotic benefit of good, clean dirt.  I am pretty sure that there will be a future post on this very subject.
  • I tried to get Roxie eating again by offering small portions of a variety of soft treats such as mashed boiled eggs and oatmeal.  She wasn’t very interested.  Finally, on a nice, sunny day about a week and a half after I first brought her into the basement, I took her outside and let her wander on the lawn.  She loved that! She happily stretched out on the grass and spread her wings to soak up the sunshine.  Then she started scratching and pecking at the lawn and actually started eating bugs and worms and bits of dirt.  That’s what she was craving!  It definitely is not the sort of diet normally recommended for a chicken recovering from sour crop, but it was long past time for Roxie to get some nutrition into her system, and she was not just tolerating pecking around the lawn--she was relishing it!  That was the day I finally became sure that Roxie was going to get better.

Roxie scratches, pecks, and regains her appetite
I continued her daily baths and Veterycin treatments until finally, on the first day of September—two weeks after entering the basement infirmary, I decided her lesions were nearly healed and I moved her back to the pole barn.  She’s not back in the coop yet, but is living on her own.  Every day I put her outside in my small “chicken gazebo” so she can peck and scratch at the dirt to her heart’s content.  I put Willow the Buff Orpington in the gazebo with her so she can have some company.  She’s still not eating normally, but she’s improving.  She actually started eating scratch grain a few days ago!  And, good news, her poop looks like normal chicken poop again!  It’s getting to be that time of year when chickens go through their fall molt.  So soon her lesions will be covered by a layer of new feathers.  Long before that happens she’ll be back in the coop with her friends.  Roxie has proven herself to be one tough little red hen, and life for Roxie goes on!

Roxie and Willow get some outdoor time in the gazebo