Bullying, rats, parasites, predators, diseases… who’d be a chicken? Some books give so much space to lists of problems that you’d be forgiven for wondering why anyone bothers, but all that’s needed is experience and a little know-how.
Chickens are usually fairly hardy beasts and you may go years without having a sick bird, but they are also prone to an impressive range of possible diseases – so many, in fact, that we’ve devoted a whole page to them.
Feather pecking (bullying)
For chickens kept in a run, you need to make sure that their environment is kept stimulating by including a few diversions. Bored chickens bully, and bullies pull feathers; don’t go there. Diversions can include wad of straw to scratch around in, a stump or crate to perch on, a CD hanging on a string (which fascinates some birds) or hanging a bundle of greens quite high up so that the birds can jump for a nip at the tasty leaves, and you can let the bundle down a little at a time as they eat the lower bits. Try something new every time they lose interest in your old tactics.
If feather pecking does start, watch the birds carefully to see if they are pecking each other, or pulling at their own feathers. If the damage is self-inflicted check the birds and house carefully for mites, but if the birds are picking on each other you need to provide more distractions or a larger run. You’ll also need to break the habit using anti-pecking spray, which is harmless but tastes horrible.
When you set up chicken housing you’re creating an ecological niche that rats will be keen to fill, and if you aren’t wary it won’t be long before they find it. When dealing with these versatile and tenacious creatures, remember the golden rule: if you can see one rat, there are ten more nearby.
There are things you can do to make it harder for rats to get established, however. One of these is to raise the house well clear of the ground, but after this the single most important thing that you can do is to keep the rats away from the feed. This means a hanging feeder suspended as high off the ground as possible (that’s determined by the size of your smallest bird) in an open area. Rats dislike open ground, since while they are out and about they are at risk from owls and other predators. Finally, make sure your feeder is put away at least half an hour before the birds turn in, to make sure that they peck up every last crumb.
Nobody likes having creepy crawlies on them, and chickens are no different. Not surprisingly, birds that are being fed on by mites, fleas, worms and the like don’t do as well as they would otherwise. They lay fewer eggs, gain weight more slowly (or even lose weight), and can become irritable and unhappy, scratching and biting at themselves. In the case of red spider mites, which are often missed by new chicken keepers, they may even refuse to go back to the henhouse at night.
Then of course there are the nasties you can’t see – the internal worms, which you should treat for periodically, even though you don’t usually know if they’re present or not. As a rule of thumb, free ranging birds come into contact with wild songbirds and also each slugs and snails, so sooner or later they’re going to pick up worms. Happily poultrykeeper.com maintains an excellent page that explains all about the different worms and how to treat your birds, including natural remedies.
Humans aren’t the only species that find chickens tasty, and unless you’ve designed your coop and fencing carefully you may find your flock has been targeted by the local critters. Worse yet, if you’re not around when the attack happens you may not even know what you’re dealing with. Raising-chickens.org features a list of chicken predators and the telltale signs they leave behind. Being an American website they don’t feature badgers, but if you look for the entry on bears you’ll have some idea of what to expect. As the site says ‘The best defense is to not attract them to start with.’
If you know that you’re in the territory of a fox, some defences are more or less mandatory. You can reduce the likelihood of your flock being completely wiped out by raising your hen house on stilts, accessed using a rickety ladder that the fox will knock down. Daytime raids are another matter, and can only really be prevented by using serious fencing dug in at the bottom, or better yet an electric fence.