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Brains Trust: Tabitha’s Tips For Healthy, Happy Chickens

Tabitha Bilaniwskyj-Zarins answers readers questions about all things poultry.

My frizzle Harriet was unwell (scaly leg mite) which is now under control but her ‘cheeks’ are still a little pale. Is there any particular vegie or something else I could feed her to help build her system back up again? [tashmohring]

A chicken’s omb and wattles should be bright red; if they are pale then this can be a sign of anaemia, lack of oxygen in the blood, or dehydration. The comb may also appear dull and discoloured. The comb and wattles, where the blood is cooled, are a good indication something’s wrong. Seek veterinary advice immediately if Harriet has stopped eating or drinking.

Anaemia can be caused by parasites such as red mite, lice or worms. Lack of oxygen in the blood can be caused by a respiratory disease. Check for parasites, and if evident treat accordingly. Clean out housing and refresh with clean, dry bedding. Wormwood is great for preventing parasites in nesting boxes, and chickens may browse on it to self-medicate.

Give your hens fresh water with a dilute solution of garlic and cider vinegar (one millilitre each day) or add it to feed. Cider vinegar helps boost the immune system, and garlic is a good antibiotic. Together these are a good external parasite deterrent; and chickens can be bathed in a warm bath with a little of each added.

Free ranging, dust bathing and sunshine are a fabulous natural tonic also.

How do we get rid of stickfast fleas? [Avril Cox]

Stickfast fleas are slightly smaller than regular fleas, and brownish in colour. They stick fast to the skin around the eyes, face and feathers. They reproduce quickly, the larvae hatch then burrow into the soil until they emerge 100 days later. They are seen more in warmer months, but can be present all year round. They can cause serious blood loss in chickens, and death.

A preventative measure is to concrete the poultry housefloor. This breaks the life cycle (larvae can’t burrow into the soil beneath) and numbers will be greatly reduced or eradicated. Or use deep-litter flooring, with a layer of eucalyptus and tea tree mulch changed regularly.

Control adultfleas with an application of petroleum jelly, to suffocate thefleas. Treat outbreaks with a registered poultry spray (e.g. Maldison, from your veterinarian, or pet/produce store) on housing and perches, and/or dusts (applied to birds). You may have to repeat treatments.

Quarantine new birds to avoid re-introducing parasites.



What’s the best – and gentlest – way to show a cocky rooster who’s boss (and work my way back up the pecking order)? [sophmg]

Cockerels (under twelve months) and young roosters are like teenagers: full of testosterone, and primed to take on rivals. There is sometimes heightened aggression at breeding time, which can be anytime the female chooses to brood. From two years and older roosters will generally settle down and can provide valuable comfort and protection to the hens.

If your rooster is an older bird and aggressive towards you, that can be an undesirable genetic trait and there is nothing you can do to train him out of it. Always buy from a reputable breeder or, if breeding, choose birds without this behaviour. Choose breeds known to be gentle and quiet.

If you would like to persevere with your cocky rooster, remove him at breeding time (or at irregular intervals) from your girls, and keep him isolated until it’s over. Move slowly and confidently around him when feeding and watering. Handling him often will also help quieten him down. If he’s exerting his dominance over other roosters (e.g. attacking, pulling out their feathers) you might need to rehome them.

What is the best way to snap a broody chook out of her broodiness? [justsomegardening]

Broodiness is a trait that some chickens are bred for (e.g. Silkies), and it can be more apparent in certain individuals. Basically it has to run its course.

A natural cycle for chickens is to lay eggs over a period until a nest of eggs is obtained. Then their body temperature increases and they begin to sit on the eggs; incubation of each egg begins at the same time. Broody hens are hypnotised blobs of feathers, very reluctant to go anywhere. Be prepared for broodiness to last for at least incubation time, or longer – depending on her breed.

To prevent broodiness: collect eggs daily and keep hens active; at the first sign of broodiness, remove the nest or lock her out of the nesting area, and encourage her to participate in her daily routine. If she starts to become broody while other hens are laying there will be nothing to stop her from sitting. Or choose breeds with less broody traits, such as Leghorns.

Do you need to protect baby chicks from the other hens or rooster in the flock when they hatch? [sarahj99]

That depends on your hen and how much handling she’s had, your flock, and how protective your rooster is. It can be a good idea to set her up in a safe place once she starts to sit on her eggs, because it’s much harder to move her once the chickens have hatched. She may not like being moved – and leave the nest – so design your pen and nesting area carefully.

Leaving hens with chickens with the rest of the flock is great for socialising the chickens, and your hen will feel more relaxed and confident, particularly a first-time mum. And experienced, successful mother hens left with others will teach younger hens how to be mothers.

As soon as chickens hatch provide shallow water containers and chicken-specific crumble. They will eat and drink in twenty-four to thirty-eight hours after hatching.

I have just put four guinea fowl eggs under my clucky chook. Will they grow up as chickens or guinea fowl –when it comes time to leave the nest will they follow mama hen around or gravitate to the guinea fowls? Will the hen realise she has to sit on the eggs longer, or will nature tell her to jump off at twenty-one days? []

Your guinea fowl (keets) will imprint on the mother that they hatch under: they will think they’re chickens; and the other chooks will think they are too. However, eventually they’ll migrate to their own kind, and you can hasten this by putting them with the adult guinea fowl once they can fend for themselves and are large enough. Guinea fowl are slow to mature, so be prepared to have them living with their mother hen for at least a year if you want to transition them naturally.

The hen will usually incubate as long as required. Raise your keets on turkey or game starter.

Why do some chooks pluck or lose feathers below their neck/chest area? [Miranda Jean Elizabeth]

Feather loss can be factor of stress (e.g. not having enough room, food or water) or normal.

Self-plucking may mean external parasites (e.g. lice or mites). Clean out housing and replace with fresh bedding. Fresh wormwood is a good natural pest repellent, or spray perches with a solution of garlic and cider vinegar in water. Allow chickens to dust bathe and sun bake. Broody hens may self-pluck to line their nest.

Chickens moult at regular times, mostly at end of summer; a natural process, where old feathers are replaced by new, and bald spots are common. Moulting starts at the head and neck, and continues down the body through to the wings, thighs and tail. Chickens are cannibals – so plucking out and eating blood-filled new quills is tempting – make sure there is plenty of food, fresh water and room to move.


We want to start keeping chickens, and feel strongly about heritage breeds. What breed(s) would you recommend for first-timers? [thewitchofhedgerowcottage]

There are many beautiful, practical, bred for purpose, and exotic heritage breeds to choose from. Attending a local agricultural or poultry club show will provide an excellent opportunity to view a grand selection of heritage breeds, and the chance to talk to the breeders, before you choose.

Many heritage breeds are fine for first-time owners, but do your homework on the characteristics of your preferred breed. Some questions to ask are: what am I keeping poultry for (eggs, meat, both)?; do I want a pretty chook, or a big/ small chook?; heavy (non-flight) or light (can fly)? When you see the array of heritage breeds there will be one you will ‘just have to have’! So learn about them before you decide, and provide the appropriate housing and yards to suit their needs. For example, if choosing a large breed for meat and eggs, you will need housing and yards that have enough space to accommodate large birds, and quality feed is expensive. Choosing a small laying chicken that can «y can be fine for free-ranging, roosting in trees around the house, but consider predators and the collection of eggs.

Once you have chosen a breed, the next consideration is genetics: make sure you buy from a reputable breeder, and


I really want chickens, but we have little dog stay with us every second week. Can dogs and chicken be friends? [westiewestwest]

Dogs and chickens can be friends. However, if the dog has not been exposed to chickens then a slow supervised introduction is recommended. Have doggy treats as positive rewards in your pockets when introducing the dog, on a lead; and have the dog with you when you feed and handle the chickens. Do not allow unsupervised contact unless you are certain that the dog will not get excited by a feather «utter or a running chicken. Alternatively, build a dog-safe chicken yard.


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