As with any other pet, chicken health is very important. The good news is that most illnesses that your chicken may be at risk of contracting can be cured, provided you catch them in time. If you think for any reason that your pet chicken health is subjected to a chicken disease, it is always best to isolate them from the flock to avoid the risk of spreading any possible chicken disease further among your chooks. Remember that it’s important that you continue to provide your sick chicken with easy access to fresh water and food.
Healthy Sussex chicken drinking water from trough
It is also important to schedule an appointment with your local veterinarian immediately if your chicken displays serious symptoms. When keeping pet chickens you will need to take care to locate a vet that specialises in farm animals or avian medicine. It is actually a good idea to locate such a vet before you start keeping chickens in your backyard coop.
Possible Symptoms of Chicken Illness
There are a few symptoms that you should look for on a regular basis which could indicate that your chicken’s health is at risk. These symptoms include:
Visible mites and lice
Excessive feather loss
Respiratory issues like sneezing and wheezing breath
As distasteful as it might seem, you will need to examine your chickens’ stool regularly. This will help you to become familiar with what your chickens’ dropping should look like so you will know when there is a problem. Such possible problems might include droppings that are all white, diarrhoea, visible worms and the presence of blood. Normal stool should be primarily brown with a small amount of white.
Lack of energy and loss of movement
Loss of appetite
Keep in mind that during extreme climate changes, such as a heat wave, your chickens may experience some loss of appetite.
Sudden reduction in one chicken’s position within the pecking order
You will likely notice right away that your chickens develop a pecking order. Anytime you notice that a chicken which was formerly higher in the pecking order of your flock has dropped in that pecking order, this should be cause for concern. Birds of all types, including chickens, often have a sense of when another chicken is ill and will frequently pick on them.
Chicken Disease Prevention
The best method for maintaining your chicken’s health is to prevent disease in the first place. By following careful coop specifications and regular maintenance and care instructions you will have a much better chance of having a flock that is both happy and healthy. Keep in mind; however, that as is the case with any other animal or pet, chickens do run some risk of illness. This is why it is imperative to check on your flock daily. Doing so will help you to catch any sign or symptom of illness early on and greatly increase the chances of a good outcome.
Many people often have questions about bird or avian flu, also known as A(H5N1). This is a strain of bird flu that can quickly mutate into a disease that can be transmitted from one human to another. In most cases, you will not need to be concerned about such problems; however, if you choose to keep pet chickens you should be aware that if there is an outbreak of this disease in your local area, authorities may require that all pet birds be terminated.
When keeping pet chickens, it is important to always exercise good common sense. For instance, always wash your hands thoroughly after contact with your chickens. If you need to deal with droppings, wear gloves. You might also wish to use hand sanitise right after having contact with your chickens. Many people also prefer to use a specific pair of shoes when they go into the coop and then never wear those shoes indoors, to help prevent transferring faeces. This saves both, the Chicken’s health and your family’s too.
Coping with Chicken Death
While it would certainly be nice if we never had to deal with the subject to death when it comes to pets, death is inevitable for all living things. You might be quite surprised to discover how attached you become to your feathered pets and as a result, the death of one of your chickens can be difficult. When facing the death of a chicken, you need to know how to properly handle it. If the chicken died as the result of being attacked by a predator or from old age, you may handle it just as you would with the death of any other pet. Do be sure to bury a hole deep enough to bury it and ensure no predators are able to dig it up.
On the other hand, if the death occurred suddenly, if there was no apparent reason or if your chicken had seemed ill before dying, it is important to take some time to investigate the possible cause of death. Otherwise, you may face an epidemic and more deaths are likely to follow.
This project took several months simply due to gathering materials and trying to construct this after work or while watching my 2 yr old. Much of the materials I was able to scavenge, I to try keep my costs low. This took basic carpentry skills.
I started by laying the foundation on block. I opted not to dig because of building code restrictions and I started this in Jan. and wasn’t sure if the concrete would even set.
These 4X4 logs were salvaged from a pipe company that shipped their pipe on these, then threw them away. 9 ft long oak, talk about lucky.
Window I built out of plexiglass that was lying around.
Showing how I notched the back wall. Just used a circular saw to cut out about an inch of both logs.
First wood purchase, couple of 2 x 4s for the roof. Support beams are pallet wood.
Plywood added as well. Another purchase.
I went with Enduro fiberglass roof. This is not metal, its supposed to last as long, but its quiet and very easy to use. All in all, with wood, nails, and roofing I think I was somewhere around $200 so far.
I framed the door before the walls. I definitely would have done this part different. I bought the door for $10 at a reuse store. I’ll probably build a new door for this. The big issue is once the front walls were build it pushed the frame out and I had to do some serious cutting and sanding to fit it back.
The cordwood was all cut to 10″ and stripped of bark. Reading some of the tips to build an actual house, they recommend 12″ logs or bigger, but I’m not too worried about the R-Value.
The mortar around the cordwood is 3 part sand, 2 part soaked sawdust, 1 part portland cement and 1 part hydrated lime. This is a recipe from some of the pros. What I didn’t know is the combination of portland cement and hydrated lime is some harsh stuff. Super alkaline, I had some pretty bad burns on my hands at first. I had to buy a box of latex gloves for protection.
I used beer and whiskey bottles to give a stained glass affect. I took the bottle, put a mason jar on top of it, wrapped it with tin foil, then duck taped them together. The mason jar allows for more light to shine through, and I hope the tin foil will help transfer more light.
The chinking between the logs was an oldschool recipe that included clay, ash, and salt. Its hard stuff but I’m not sure about the durability. If I have to continually replace it, I may start using a more modern mix. My wife actually did most of the chinking. It was nice working on this together.
Cedar shakes were left over from a project my parents had. Still think they would have fairly cheap.
The run is about 10x10x8. I’m going to add several perches to it. Its a work in progress. I’ve also yet to shingle the back wall, but the rain comes from the other side most of the time.
A view of the bottles.
I did a brooder inside. I read about this and am going to try it out next year. Small 4×6″ hole they can escape from the bigger girls. We’ve done 3 generations of chicks in the basement and its a lot of hassle.
All in all this was a fun project. I learned a lot and I hope to build another in the future. I would love to be able to build a log cabin to live in so this was great practice.
Deep Litter Method The Easiest Way To Deal With Chicken Litter Dlm
Deep Litter MethodDLM is basically a method in which you allow your coop litter to build up over a period of time. As the chicken manure and litter of choice compost, it helps to heat the coop, which in turn helps keep the chickens warmer. I had never heard of this before BYC and cleaning the coops once or twice a year, as opposed to weekly cleanings fits our lifestyle.
I began using the DLM in early September ’07, when we moved most of our Bantam flock from the Teacup Pterodactyl Townhouse into the main coop. I started out by adding 4 – 6 inches of pine shavings to the coop floor. After laying down the shavings, I used my sifter to sprinkle a fine layer of food grade DE over the litter, then stirred them together. I’m using the DE to help dry the pooh faster, which helps eliminate odor and reduces the fly population. The DE also helps protect the flock from mites/lice as they love to dust-bathe in the shavings/DE mix.
Litter first added to coop in September.
I added a “kick-board” to the doorway to help keep the litter in the coop. I just used a piece of scrap 1/4″ plywood that we had handy. It’s 10″ tall.
I stir the litter every few days, sometimes everyday, it just depends on how much time the gang spends inside and how much pooh there might be. The Banties do a great job helping me keep it stirred when they’re dust-bathing in the litter, which helps cut down the work for me also.About once a month, I’ll add a fresh layer of pine shavings and food grade DE. Again, this varies depending on how much time the birds spend inside. That’s what I like about using the DLM. There are no set rules, you do this however it works best for you.
Before adding new shavings…
Layer of food grade DE on stirred liter…
Layer of fresh pine shavings…
At this point, I just let the flock stir in the new shavings and food grade DE. I don’t measure how much of the shavings I add, I just add it until the old stuff is fully covered. As of today (11-20-07), I’ve been building the litter up for just over 2 months. There is no chicken smell in the coop what-so-ever, which really surprised visitors. It is approximately 6-8 inches deep at this time. I may do a clean-out in spring, but I may let it go longer…it will all depend on smell, how deep it is, are the shavings covering up the pophole door (just kidding)…
I’ve had some dust issues, nothing major though. I just use a plant mister full of warm water and mist the shavings before stirring them up to help keep the dust down. I’m also using DLM in the Chick-N-Barn. I just added a few pieces of wood in the access door to help hold the litter inside. I won’t be able to go very deep, about 6 inches, so I’ll probably have to clean it twice a year. Only time will tell.
Patandchickens’ Big Ol’ PageVENTILATION Or, Go out there and cut more holes in your coop! Now! Really truly!
Why is ventilation such a big deal? Because chickens are amazing producers of moisture, ammonia and heat, that’s why. Small but mighty! (Mighty messy anyhow). 1) Ventilation removes dampness and humidity from the coop. Chickens generate scary amounts of water vapor, partly through breathing out (same as we do, that’s why a mirror fogs when you breathe on it), and largely through pooing (chickens do not urinate as such – all the water they would be peeing out if they were any other sort of animal is contained in their poo). They process a lot more water than you might think. All of this water tends to make the coop air humid. High relative humidity (especially in cooler temperatures) makes chickens more susceptible to respiratory disease and increases the chance of frostbite. Chickens can stand considerable cold without frostbite if the air is dry; not so much if the air is clammy.
2) Ventilation removes ammonia fumes from the coop. Unless you sit there all the time, ready to whisk each plop of poo away to the compost pile the moment it comes out of the chicken, there will be some ammonia being released into your coop’s atmosphere. It does not take all that much ammonia to cause subclinical damage to the tissues of the chicken’s respiratory tract, which makes the chicken more vulnerable to any respiratory ‘bugs’ that may be floatin’ around the environment. Basically if your nose can smell ammonia, there is enough of it to be harmful to lung tissues.
3) Ventilation usually helps keep the coop from getting too hot in summer. Chickens’ bodies perform best below about 75 degrees F; over 90 F they start to have real problems, suffer heat stress, and if it gets too hot they can die, especially larger-bodied and heavier-feathered breeds. Proper ventilation will at least keep your coop from getting any hotter than the outside air.
When do I need ventilation? Always. Yes, even in cold weather. Yes, even in northern cold weather. Realio trulio. There may be a night now and then when it’s so vastly cold you close things down, or if you’re having a hurricane you may close the vent flaps and windows so that the weather stays outdoors, but those sorts of things will be rare exceptions, not the rule.
Types of ventilation Passive (natural) ventilation means that you have openings that air flows through with no help from you or the power grid — just the natural action of wind and the tendency of warm air to rise. Passive ventilation includes an open window, a ventilation slot, a louvered gable-end vent, that sort of thing. Passive ventilation is the easiest, cheapest, safest, and most foolproof method for the vast majority of backyard coops, in my opinion. Build lots of it. Wind turbine ventilation means those spinning turbine things, about the size of a basketball, that you mount on a building’s roof. When the wind blows, it spins the blades and they suck air actively out of the coop. This can move a goodly amount of air, but only if the wind is blowing. When the wind stops, it becomes a smallish hole in the roof, period. Active (mechanical) ventilation means using an electric fan, generally plug-in although small solar powered units do exist. This allows you to get greater air movement with smaller holes in your coop walls, but with several important drawbacks. You really ought to get a fan designed for dusty and outdoorsy environments (designed for barn or workshop use), which costs more – a house fan will very quickly clog with dust and stop working or die altogether. Even appropriate fans need to be cleaned regularly or their performance becomes poor and they can become a fire hazard. Also, if your power supply fails, so does your coop air quality (solar units usually run only when the sun is actually shining on them, so are no use at night). Opening the door a couple times a day to walk in and out of the coop does not count as ‘ventilation’, sorry.
So how much ventilation do I need? More than you probably think. More, proportionately speaking, than you’re used to seeing on a house, or doghouse, or garden shed, or things like that. It is really impressive how much water vapor (as well as ammonia and heat) even just a chicken or two will emit, round the clock, day in day out. So the best answer is probably “as much as (or slightly more than) you can reasonably build”. Honestly, that is the simplest, easiest, most foolproof way to go. It is ever so much better to have more than you need than to need more than you have! Especially if “needing more than you have” comes down to a trip out back with the reciprocating saw to hack big ugly holes in your nice pretty trimmed-and-finished coop in the depths of January. Plan ahead. If you really want me to suggest numbers: if summer heat is not a big problem where you live, then you will most likely be fine if you build at least 1 sq ft of vent opening per chicken, or (if you want a lower but therefore less-conservative number) 1 sq ft of vent opening per 10 sq ft of floor area. In a hot area, you will need more for summertime, possibly just having one or more walls being totally hardwarecloth. If you have unusually few chickens for your size of coop, or live in a very dry area, you may be fine with less ventilation; if your chickens are very crowded, your climate wet, your coop full of poo, or the bedding is wet for any reason, then you may need more than the above numbers. All vents should have doors/flaps/covers/what-have-you so that parts can be closed down when not desired. Unless you’re in a climate that stays fairly warmish year-round, covers should be draft-proof. Either they should fit very snugly, or be weatherstripped in places the chickens can’t peck, or (sometimes simplest) the ones you’re not going to ever use in cool weather can just be “decommissioned” at the end of the summer, panels bolted over them, and any gaps sealed til Spring in some manner the chickens won’t peck at. In areas where cool weather is not all that cool and only lasts a few months, you can reverse the concept — just build one or more walls entirely of wire (on studs) and simply cover ’em with plywood or plastic for your so-called winter. If you live in a hot climate, you need large areas of ventilation that can be opened up on all 4 walls, and really it is best if one or more walls can be pretty much removed entirely so they’re just screen (like hardwarecloth). In a climate where it never gets really all that hot, you can probably skip the whole-wall-coming-off part… unless you are in a desert-y area with giant temperature swings from day to night, in which case you may still want something of that sort. But even up North it is far-and-away best to have the ability to fling open the hatches and get lots and lots of fresh air. If nothing else, this will be of great assistance to you in drying the coop out if you should ever find yourself needing to hose down or disinfect the inside! Securely screen your vents, whatever the size, with something like hardwarecloth that predators can’t rip off, climb between, or grab handsfulls of chickens through. “What if I just use a hole-saw to put a buncha 2″ holes in the walls and screen them, that’ll be good, right?” Unfortunately, a 2″ diameter hole is about 3 square inches of total area. To put this in perspective, a square foot is 144 square inches. You would need almost 50 holes to equal one square foot of ventilation, and a typical coop is going to need MUCH more than just one square foot of ventilation! So, no little round holes. You want actual decent-sized openings, like 6″ x 4′ or 1’x3′ or like that, on most if not all of the walls.
Ventilation yes: drafts NO While ventilation aka air exchange is necessary and good, having cold air aimed right at your chickens is BAD. (I’m talking about in cool weather, here, not your ‘pleasant cooling breeze on stifling August day’ which would of course be good.) Small “air leak” type gaps can also cause condensation and frost, which nullifies much of the value of what ventilation you have. So you need to design your ventilation intelligently. Ventilation that you’ll be using in cool/cold weather (i.e. all year-round) should be high up above chicken level, at the tops of the walls, ideally protected from rain and wind to some degree by roof overhangs. You can put vent slots, long and relatively narrow, atop all four walls. (By narrow I mean like 4″-8″ wide or something like that, not an inch or two width of ‘arrow slot’, unless it is a small coop for just a couple few chickens.) Vents near the roost are good in hot weather but bad in cold weather. Ask yourself “will a chicken experience a noticeable breeze on the roost in the winter?” If yes, arrange things so you can shut down those vents when temperatures drop. You’ll want additional ventilation for warmer weather, that can (should!) be lower down where the chickens can catch some breeze. Windows work; giant removable wall panels work; that sort of thing. Do the coop ‘people door’ and pophole count? Sort of. I mean, yes, they do provide ventilation when they are open, but remember that they will not always be open and you need to be able to provide sufficient airflow even when they aren’t. I would not suggest counting on them towards your basic ventilation needs. Manage your ventilation intelligently — you will want to change the amount that’s open according to the weather, although as mentioned you don’t want to shut it all down except in very rare instances. Sometimes you’ll want to close upwind vents if it’s getting too windy in the coop on a windy day. In a really windy site, you may want to build some sort of baffle or hood for some of the usually-upwind vents (the high year-round ones) to blunt the force of the wind.
What about winter? Don’t I need to close the vents to keep the chickens warm? NO. Well ok, yeah, you will close some of them down, relative to summer conditions; but you still need a goodly amount of air exchange going on, so you cannot shut your ventilation off. In some ways ventilation is actually more important in winter because cold air can’t hold nearly so much water vapor before it gets saturated i.e. really damp and humid and clammy, i.e. you’re trolling for frostbite and respiratory disease. So yes, your vents will be letting in cold air, but you know what, that’s OK as long as it is not breezing down directly at your chickens. If you’re concerned about the chickens getting too cold — although most standard-sized breeds are fine down to freezing and significantly below, as long as the air is dry and relatively still and they have an appropriate-width roost and plenty of food — then insulate your coop. And yes, insulation is quite useful even with vents open (for some reason this issue comes up often); would you think it pointless to wear a winter coat just ‘cuz you had no hat on?
What insulation does is reduce heat loss from the coop so that you can afford to admit more cold air without making the place too cold. In a super-cold climate, and let me say that I do not consider southern Ontario Canada where I live to fall into this category (!), you may want to think about arranging for your vents to be taking air in from a somewhat thermally-buffered source… a predatorproofed flue run along the ground a ways and covered in insulation, or a translucently-enclosed space that the sun warms, or the building’s attic, or a larger barn, or like that.
Some links with useful further information about ventilating chicken quarters: They’re mostly aimed at big commercial barns (poultry and otherwise), but there is a lot that applies just as well to our little backyard coops, so take a look:
Hens have been laying eggs, sitting on them and and hatching them for centuries without human interference. Considering their ancestors the jungle fowl still manage to maintain a reasonably healthy species population despite the hens nesting on the jungle floor where they may stay for twenty four days or more while they wait for their young to be sufficiently mobile to roost in the trees with the rest of their group.
Until comparatively recently the domesticated chicken has survived in rural villages, farms, smallholdings and estates all over the world with the minimum of human intervention and without coops and without custom built nest boxes.
The availability of coops and nesting boxes has meant the modern hen has learnt to adapt to new nesting environments in an incredibly short period of time and this I would argue is a testimony to the intelligence of the species in general.
I became interested in what makes the ideal nesting site having had many hens over the past seven years, make nests in various places away from their coops. I could find no common factor in seclusion, height (I had one hen make a nest in the top of a rotting palm tree stump) material or degree of protection. The only common factor I could find with all the various sites was, in each site the hen had been able to make a basket with the site material and these baskets all had an indentation in the base of the nest in which the hens laid the eggs.
The nesting behaviour of every hen I have observed, with, or without, a roosters assistance has been the same. The hen chooses a site and then scratches the ground. If there is loose material such as straw, wood shavings, cut grass, e.t.c. this material is scratched to the perimeter, or sometimes completely away in the case of a nest box with an open front and the hen settles on the base material. Once the hen has laid her clutch she positions herself in a manner that enables her to cover the maximum number of eggs. This way she can control the temperature and humidity of her eggs with maximum efficiency. During the next 18 days the hen will turn her eggs at regular intervals.
The ability of the hen to turn her egg in these 18 days helps to prevent development deformities. For the last three days of incubation the hen must keep the eggs in a particular orientation to facilitate hatching. The overall success of egg hatching is attributed to the hens ability to turn the eggs in the first few days of incubation.
Most chicken keepers make their nesting boxes with the same material as they use for egg boxes; wood, metal, or plastic. Often these boxes are partially filled with loose bedding material such as straw. It is not possible for a hen to scratch out a hollow in the bases of these boxes and she must rely solely on her ability to manoeuvrer her eggs into the optimal position.
Here is an entertaining challenge for the reader. Place a dozen eggs in such a box. Mark one side of each egg and see if you can turn all the eggs so the mark is facing upward using the palm of your hand and one finger to represent a hens beak.
I first noticed the impossibility of this task with a young hen called Cheepy ( a very small bantam) a number of years ago. Cheepy was rescued from a nest she had made on an exposed bank and put in the isolation coop with a dozen of the twenty something eggs she had accumulated. The isolation unit has a removable plywood floor. Plenty of straw was provided and I used to sit and watch cheepy sitting for many hours over the incubation period. Cheepy’s frustration at trying to control the position of her eggs was evident. No sooner had she pulled couple under her when another couple would roll out to the edge of the straw nest. I took the plywood floor out after a couple of days of watching this and cheepy immediately dug a hollow in the now exposed earth into which she rolled the eggs. She could now sit on top of the eggs and turn them without them rolling away from under her and arrange the straw around her to help maintain humidity and warmth. She hatched 10 of the 12 and checking later the two unhatched weren’t fertilized.
A much happier Cheepy sitting on 12 eggs on an earth floor in the isolation coop.
I’ve watched the much larger Maran and Maran bantam crosses have similar problems controlling eggs during sitting on man made nest bases. On hard surfaces the Marans in particular seemed to have great difficulty in supporting their weight in a position that allowed them to sit on top of the eggs and they arranged the eggs around their bodies and under their wings, their legs tended to splay outwards because their feet were unable to find a grip on the flooring. This wouldn’t be a problem in the comparatively short time it takes to lay an egg but prolonged periods of time in such a position resulted in two hens having tendon strain due to splayed legs.
In the last three days of incubation the hen communicates with the embryos and the embryos with each other. These communications allow the hen to assess the development rate of the clutch and by adjusting the position of herself relative to the eggs slow down, or speed up the embryos development, thereby ensuring that the embryos hatch within a time frame that permits the maximum number of hatchings before she has to leave the nest with her chicks to find food and water; usually 24 hours. This also means that all the chicks that hatch develop at approximately the same rate and the situation I have encountered here where there may be a 36 to 48 hour gap between hatchings is avoided and all the chicks have a relatively equal size and development state which maximises all the chicks chances of survival in competing for resources as they develop.
Many chicken keepers make broody boxes which are placed inside the coop and often separated from the rest of the coop in some fashion. This can compound the problems already mentioned. In order to successfully incubate eggs the hen not only has to control temperature but also humidity. Chickens do not have sweat glands so they cannot impart moisture to the eggs environment through sweating; they are reliant to a greater or lesser degree on atmospheric conditions. In dry climates in particular in such sheltered arrangements this can be problematical. In a natural setting i.e. outside on the ground, there is in all but the most extreme environments some dew fall that moistens the ground and the hens body heat will convert this into vapour helping to maintain humidity levels in the site locality.
There is one final problem with the interior closed broody coop and that is in a ‘natural’ setting a hen will leave the egg clutch at some point each day to feed, drink and defecate, but equally important, dust bath. The importance of dust bathing and having the opportunity to defecate away from the nest site for broody hens cannot be emphasised enough. It helps the hen keep her nest site free of parasites and clean of droppings which attract further parasites. Many of the hens I’ve observed have preferred slightly damp soil for dust bathing while sitting on eggs. While this is conjecture it seems possible that the hen moistens her plumage in such baths and this helps with maintain humidity when she returns to the nest site.
With the above in mind and my experience with Cheepy I decided to experiment with a different nest box arrangement using the same isolation coop that Cheepy hatched her 10 chicks in.
The most obvious course was to simply remove the plywood base of the isolation coop leaving bare earth underneath. However, this left a coop security problem. It would be relatively easy for a ground predator to dig underneath the coop. I wanted the coop to be moveable so the next most obvious solution; make a security skirt around the outer edges of the entire coop dug a few inches into the ground wasn’t an option.
I stapled a mesh to the underside of the coop next and filled the bottom two or three inches with plain earth. The hens seemed interested in this arrangement but the earth quickly dried out and with the ground scratching of both roosters and hens when making a nest and the mesh below became exposed. While having exposed mesh didn’t pose much of a problem for the hens, if chicks were hatched over the exposed mesh there seemed to be a risk that the chicks toes could get caught in the holes.
Isolation coop showing mesh base.
During my research for the book I’m writing I made contact with someone in Finland who also uses a multi coop arrangement for his chickens. He keeps a relatively rare Finnish breed of chicken which he is trying to preserve and re-populate. He had found similar problems with nest boxes and he is particularly interested in maximising the clutch hatchings from his sitting hens. He found that a large clod of soil cut from a semi bog environment which grew lichens and the small roosted plants made an excellent nest box base. The plant root system helped hold the soil together and thus helped preserve the hollow his hens scratched out when making nests. He also suggested spraying the hen and soil with a plant mister once a day to help maintain the moisture content of the nest base.
The climate where I live is dry and it took me some time to find a suitable patch of ground from which I could dig a section of turf which has well enough established plant roots system to hold the soil together when the hens scratched a hollow.
Next I had to wait for a suitable hen to go broody and sit, preferably one that had used the nest box in my house. The hens that have used this nest box in the past have been transferred to the isolation coop on day 17 so that when the chicks hatch they have immediate access to natural ground, the coop being at ground level. This allows the mother to take the chicks in and out of the coop at will.
This year such an opportunity arose and I cut a turf which had long grass growing on it. I cut it about 4 inches thick and at the dimensions of the coop floor plan and placed it in the coop on top of the wire base. I also made a hollow in the soil and on top of this a placed a layer of straw in which I carefully placed the hens eggs in as near to an identical arrangement as they had in the nest box.
In the past when hens have used the nest box in my house it had taken a few ‘placings’ of the hen to get her to accept that the coop is where she should sit. The hens tend to leave the coop and return to the nest box in the house, despite there being no eggs in the box. For this particular hen it took two attempts before she settled. She had 4 eggs which while she sat in the house nest box had been spread around her body under her wings. In the nest in the isolation coop she sat with the eggs underneath her breast, her feet gaining ground purchase on the outer edges of the hollow. She hatched all four eggs within 12 hours, one chick didn’t survive.
Given I’ve watched over twenty hens sit and hatch chicks in a variety of circumstances here now and what I’ve learnt through the experiences of others I have made contact with over the last seven years who also keep chickens I’m left with little doubt that the ability of the hen to control the orientation, temperature and humidity of her eggs is vital to maximise clutch hatching success. I’m also left with little doubt that the ‘modern’ nest boxes made with solid floors is far from ideal. Such nest boxes are constructed for the convenience of the keeper and are liable to give rise to many of the problems outlined above.
Unfortunately the opportunities to test various alternatives are dependant on conditions outside the chicken keepers control; one needs a broody hen, an appropriate alternative nesting box and the time and patience to observe and note the various outcomes. The main problem for me had been trying to reproduce what nature provides without any human assistance.
It’s my intention to continue experimenting with soft base nest boxes.
(Unfortunately I didn’t take any pictures while the turf base was in place. At that time I had no idea that I would be writing an article before I had finished experimenting and before I finished the book.)
The picture below demonstrates the problem that some hens have with posture due to nest boxes constructed with a hard base. This is Fudge. She has been sitting on her eggs for two days. When she first started sitting both her legs were underneath her body and her body weight was supported by both legs. After some hours of trying to maintain body contact with her eggs the eggs moved from underneath her and formed a ring around her body and under her wings; one leg jutting out at an angle.
Isolation coop with plywood base.
Isolation coop with front in place
Isolation coop with butile matt. I tried this to reduce egg breakages and give the hens feet more grip.
Mel and Cillin not overly impressed with the nesting arrangement.
Mel and Cillin creating a hollow in the ground in the run in preference to the coop.
If you need immediate instructions on how to assist a hatch, you may skip this section and go to the next one, where the instructions are.
To start with, I want to address the fact that some people think assisting during a hatch is wrong. I respect the decision to not help during a hatch. It’s a personal choice and everyone does what they are comfortable with. Unfortunately, people do not always return the favor and respect the decisions of those who do choose to assist during hatch. I would like to begin by outlining why I assist when hatching, and why some of the common arguments leveled against those who choose to assist a hatch are incorrect. I might not change anyone’s mind, but I might be able to provide a response that those who are criticized for deciding to assist can provide to their critics.
I assist during hatching because I don’t like to see healthy chicks die for no reason. One of the most common arguments that is brought up against assisting during a hatch is that if a chick couldn’t hatch on its own, it is weak or has something wrong with it and so should be left to die without hatching. In my experience, I have not found this to be the case. Most of the time, when a chick needs help to hatch, it’s because of things that went wrong in the incubating process. Either the humidity got too low and it shrinkwrapped, or because of the fact that it was artificially incubated it is malpositioned in the egg, or the temperature was too high so it grew too big to be able to turn and zip. Or, sometimes chicks are just so healthy and so large that they can’t turn to zip. Letting any of these chicks die by not assisting is letting a perfectly healthy chick die for no reason because something went wrong in incubation and it couldn’t hatch.
Can the chick be unable to hatch because something is wrong with it? Yes, that does happen. But, in all my years of hatching hundreds, probably thousands, of chicks, I have had this happen to me only three times. Twice were chicks that had slipped tendons, something that might possibly be fixable. The other time it was a shipped Call egg. The embryo was damaged during shipping and developed in a way that was incompatible with life. That one died before I could even finish the assist.
Those three are the only ones out of very many assisted hatches that I’ve done that had real issues keeping them from hatching. The rest did well, grew up healthy, and all have given me healthy chicks that don’t need help to hatch.
I will pause here to say that when assisting hatches and when hatching in general, you must be prepared to humanely cull any chicks that hatch with issues so that they don’t suffer. A gentle way to do this is detailed in this post here, along with why you don’t want to use carbon dioxide as is commonly recommended.
Another argument commonly brought against those who assist is that assisting is not natural. What I say to that is, incubating itself is not natural. If we are talking natural, the natural thing is for a hen to sit on her clutch of eggs and hatch them underneath her. What is not natural is to stick eggs into what amounts to a heated box for 21 days, adding water to try to get the air cell right, sticking them in automatic turners, etc. None of that is natural, so of course things can go wrong that will cause a chick to need help hatching. Shipping eggs through the mail is also not natural, and a big cause of chicks needing help to hatch.
All that said, assisting a hatch is very much natural anyway! Mothers help their eggs hatch. Here are some pictures that my friend @Ravynscroft let me borrow showing her two Call ducks helping their ducklings hatch.
The final argument I hear a lot is that assisting will lead to weak birds that always need help to hatch and will overall bring down the vigor of your birds. I addressed this a little bit earlier when I said that all the chicks aside from the three that I talked about above that I have assisted have grown up healthy and strong. And that’s true! None of my assisted chicks have been any weaker than their hatch mates, because usually what causes them to need help is improper incubator conditions, being malpositioned, or being hatched out of shipped eggs, all of which don’t impact their health. They have grown up healthy and strong and I don’t have to assist all their chicks hatch. It’s mostly shipped eggs that need my help to get out. Very rarely do I have to assist a chick from my own eggs.
Now, like I said, I respect the decision not to assist. If what was said above didn’t change your mind and you want to remain hands off, that is fine. Please just respect the decision of those of us that want to assist, as we will respect your decision not to.
Assisted Hatching Method for All Poultry
First I would like to state that, as always, it is important not to rush to assist a hatch. Assisting too soon can kill a chick. Hatching is a process that takes time. A baby chick/duckling/gosling/etc needs to absorb its yolk and the blood in the veins along the shell before it can hatch safely. Assisting too early could cause a baby to bleed out and die, or could mean that the yolk is not fully absorbed.
Luckily, the method I use has very little risk of causing a major bleeding event and killing a chick if followed correctly.
This guide will work for chicks, ducklings, geese, peachicks, keets, etc. I will just be saying chick for ease of writing, and will specify if there are differences between species. If there are no notes about a specific species, then it is safe to assume that what is written is fine for all poultry not specifically mentioned.
What You Will Need
For assisted hatching, I have a little kit of items. I have a small sharp screw (a small drill bit works as well), a pair of tweezers, some cotton swabs, and some coconut oil. That’s all you’ll need! Instead of coconut oil, you may use bacitracin or neosporin without pain relief if you would prefer or have it on hand.
It’s also not a bad idea to have styptic powder or paper towels on hand in case you do cause some bleeding and need to apply pressure, or to use to prop eggs up if needed, etc.
Paper towels used in assisting should always be dry. It’s not a good idea to wrap a wet paper towel around an egg or place one under an egg that you are assisting. While it seems like this would help keep things from drying out, it may actually chill the hatching chick, which is not good. To increase humidity if necessary, you may place a wet sponge or paper towel elsewhere in the incubator, away from and not touching the eggs.
A Safety Hole
A lot of my assists start with a safety hole. In fact, I tend to put them in on eggs that are more valuable to me even if I don’t yet think they will need to be assisted. I do it a lot with goose eggs and peafowl eggs.
A safety hole is a small hole in the air cell, rather like the pip a chick would make. I like to put mine in towards the top of the air cell, because I know I won’t hit anything accidentally to cause injury putting it there and because it’s very unlikely to get blocked as the chick turns to zip. I’ve had too many goslings, ducks, and chicks block their pip as they turned to zip, thus cutting off their air supply and causing them to suffocate. However if you want to make it closer to where a natural pip will occur, that’s fine too.
A safety hole should be made if the chick has been internally pipped for 18 to 24 hours with no progress. If you don’t know how long a chick has been internally pipped and are worried, the chick is making less noise than before, etc, go ahead and put the safety hole in. It won’t hurt anything.
To start with, candle your egg to see if the chick has internally pipped. An internal pip will look like a triangular shadow in the air cell. Below is a picture of an internally pipped chick.
When it is time for the safety hole, candle the egg to determine the position of the air cell. Once you know where the air cell is and where it’s safe to make the hole, take your screw or drill bit and gently twist it back and forth on the egg while applying slight pressure. Eventually, the screw will create a small hole in the shell. Eggs with tough shells like geese might take awhile to break through, just keep going. Please note that this should be a small hole. There is no need to widen it further than the size that is made by the tip of the screw. Widening it may even lead to shrinkwrapping. After making the hole, you can put the egg back into the incubator and let it work on absorbing and getting ready to hatch. The chick may well take it from there on its own and zip and hatch with no further help. After a safety hole, if a chick is capable of externally pipping on its own and continuing to progress, it will do it. The safety hole in no way impedes external pipping or hatching of the chick.
Three chicken eggs with safety holes.
A safety hole in a peafowl egg.
If your chick is malpositioned, please see the Malpositions section before proceeding. You may need to do some things differently than they are listed here.
If it’s been 18 to 24 hours since the chick externally pipped or you made a safety hole and there has been no more progress, it’s time to start to assist in earnest. Ducklings and goslings take a really long time sometimes from the time of external pip to the zip. You may want to allow them 24 to 36 hours before you start an assist.
Using the external pip or the safety hole you made as a starting point, start to chip away the shell over the air cell. ONLY chip away shell that’s over the air cell. There will be no veins here so it’s safe to take the shell off. Elsewhere will cause bleeding and possibly death if the chick has not finished absorbing the blood and yolk. If at any point you hit blood during this procedure, stop, apply gentle pressure with a dry paper towel to the bleeding area until it stops, and then take a break for an hour or two and come back later. If you stay over the air cell, though, you should not hit blood.
Once you have the air cell chipped away apply your coconut oil to the internal membrane surrounding the chick. This will both keep things moist and allow you to see whether the veins have receded and the blood has been absorbed. Below is a picture of a chick that has had coconut oil applied to its membrane that has active veins and is clearly not ready to come out of the egg yet.
That chick needs more time to finish absorbing things. If you see active veins like this, put the egg back in the incubator and let it be for several hours so it can continue to absorb. After awhile, the veins will recede as the chick absorbs the blood and yolk. The egg below shows an internal membrane with no veins, meaning it is closer to being ready.
However, it might still be absorbing the yolk, so don’t go yanking it out yet. If the chick is making yawning or eating motions, it’s still absorbing the yolk. Leave it alone for now. Ducklings especially take a long time to absorb everything. If your duckling is yawning or chewing, let it be, it’s not ready.
Getting the Chick Out of the Egg
So, the membrane is no longer showing active veins, your chick is not yawning or chewing, and it seems like it’s time to get it out of the egg. Here’s the good news: you might not have to do anything at all. Most chicks, as long as they are not shrinkwrapped, can push themselves right out of the hole you made in the top of the egg on their own. They probably don’t need your help to get out.
But if the baby is stuck and can’t get out, you’ll know it’s ready because it will be really pushing against the membrane, moving its beak like it’s trying to strike the shell, and a lot of times they will cry and carry on. A baby doing that is ready. You can carefully peel the membrane away from it and widen the hole in the egg past where the air cell was if that’s necessary. The chick will likely push itself right out at this point. If not, carefully free its head and use a flashlight to look down into the shell. If the yolk is gone, let it get itself the rest of the way out. If there’s still yolk left and it was a little too early, see the next section.
What if you accidentally did this too soon and the chick wasn’t done absorbing the yolk? What if the chick got too excited to hatch and pushed itself out without absorbing the yolk? Don’t panic! See the next section for what to do.
Yolk Sac Not Fully Absorbed
Your chick hatched early, or you assisted a little too soon, and the yolk was not done absorbing. Don’t panic, there’s an easy fix. Firstly, you need to get that chick back into the lower half of its shell, if it has come out. Tuck it gently back in there. This will protect the yolk and keep it from getting ruptured. Next, you need to keep the chick in the shell and from being able to push itself out. We accomplish this by placing the chick, shell and all, into a small cup, which will hold the shell and the chick upright, thus preventing it from getting out of the egg. I find that a disposable plastic cup works well for this. You may have to prop the egg upright by using a dry paper towel to hold it in the proper position.
If there is a lot of yolk, it may take some time for the chick to finish absorbing it. Just let it be. When it’s done, it’ll be really moving around and struggling to get out of the bottom of the shell.
There are several malpositions that a chick can end up in for one reason or another, such as feet over head, head over wing, beak away from air cell, head in wrong end of egg, etc. These require a little bit of a different approach when assisting. You can see illustrations of the most common malpositions in this PDF on page 4. Some of these malpositions, like head over wing, usually don’t cause issues hatching so we won’t be talking about them.
Feet over head is the most common malposition behind head over wing. In this position, the chick’s feet have ended up over its head, and because of this it cannot get the leverage it needs to pip the shell. This will be hard to catch unless they internally pip, which they can sometimes do. In this malposition, they will usually not be able to externally pip, or if they can, they will not be able to zip. What this means is that the hatch will be a full assist. You will need to follow all the steps above from Safety Hole to hatch, or for those that externally pip, all the steps from Further Assisting onward.
Facing Away From Air Cell
the outlined area is the air cell, the duckling has pipped away from it.
In this malpostion, the chick ends up positioned away from the air cell, meaning that it cannot internally pip into the air cell like it normally would. That means that when it tries to internally pip, it will have to externally pip instead. Now, the chick may end up hitting a blood vessel and bleeding out when this happens. If that’s the case, there’s really not much to be done. However, a lot of the time they are able to externally pip. But because they didn’t get to internally pip, they still have a lot of absorbing to do. Don’t start to worry that they are not progressing until it’s been 30 to 48 hours from the external pip. The good news is most of the time they can hatch themselves in this position, so you will likely not have to do a thing. If help is needed, you will still want to open the egg over the air cell, even though the chick is not in there, the reason being that it’s a place that you can safely open to assess how far along the veins are, etc. Then from there you will progress in the assist. But you will nearly never have to do this. Chicks in this position have nothing that is stopping them from hatching. Only shrinkwrapping could cause issues for a chick like this.
Head in Wrong End of Egg
This malposition commonly results from an egg being set small end up in the turner instead of large end up, so it is very important to make sure that you are setting the eggs correctly in the turner. In this malposition, the chick is facing the wrong way in the egg. They will end up externally pipping at the wrong end of the egg, where of course there is no air cell. Just like a Facing Away From Air Cell chick, you will need allow more time before worrying that they are in need of help, and again, they usually can hatch all on their own. You can open the egg over the air cell to assess how far along absorbing is if it is seeming like the chick needs help. Make sure you’re allowing plenty of time before doing this because most of the time, they get out on their own just fine with no interference needed.
With duck eggs, especially Call eggs, sometimes the duckling cannot externally pip the shell, but you will see evidence that it has tried. The shell will look like it has a bruise.
In this case, you will need to very carefully open the shell over the bruise. Start by making a small hole with your screw and then widen it until you can find the beak so that the duckling can breathe.
After you find the beak, apply coconut oil to any internal membrane you have exposed so that it does not dry out. Hopefully the duckling can take it from here. If not, and this will be common with Calls because of their short necks and beaks, you will need to go for the full assist. Just as with other assists, open the shell over the air cell so you can monitor absorption. In this case, you will probably also be able to see the yolk and will be able to know when that has absorbed too. Here is a picture of a backwards chick that is still absorbing. You can see the veins, the yolk, and the leftover embryonic waste.
Once everything is absorbed, you will likely need to finish hatching the duckling out because with no bottom shell to push on it won’t have the leverage to get itself out. Since you can see everything absorbing, wait until it’s done, and then open the egg and take the duckling out.
Shrinkwrapping occurs when the humidity was too low throughout incubation, the incubator was too dry after external pipping, or if you made the safety hole too big or didn’t moisten the membrane after you started opening the shell for assisting. True shrinkwrapping does not happen as often as people say. You will hear that chicks will shrinkwrap if you so much as open the incubator once during lockdown. This is not true. I have had chicks hatch in my incubator that I didn’t know the due date on and forgot to move them into the hatcher, and they hatched fine on their own. That means that they hatched with the turner going, in an incubator that never has the humidity above 30 or 40 percent. The small hole that they make at external pip, and the small hole you make as a safety hole, is usually not large enough to allow them to shrinkwrap. Now, if the humidity has been too low all throughout incubation, then a chick might become shrinkwrapped.
What happens in shrinkwrapping is that the internal membrane pulls away from the the shell and shrinks down over a chick so tightly that it cannot move to turn or get out of the egg. Here is a picture of shrinkwrapping; the membrane has pulled away from the shell and is tight to the chick.
In these cases, since the chick cannot move on its own, you will need to do a full assist, likely from Safety Hole onwards. Follow all the normal assisted hatching steps.
Chick Stopped During Zipping
If you ever have a chick that starts to zip its way out of the egg, and then stops, it is stuck and needs help. Once a chick starts zipping, it will generally finish within an hour. If you have a chick that is having a hard time zipping and is taking too long, or starts to zip and then stops, go ahead and finish the zip for it.
Here are some notes about various things that might be helpful in assisted hatching.
Call ducklings almost always need to be assisted, thanks to their short beaks and necks which cause them a lot of trouble when trying to hatch. The procedure outlined above should work for them but I am a bit more aggressive as far as timelines go when I assist them. Now, I’ve only hatched shipped Calls so far, which likely plays a role here, but I have found that every time a Call has tried to zip on its own for me, it has blocked off its air supply and suffocated. So at this time, I don’t like to let them do that. I will open up the air cell as detailed in Further Assisting before they get a chance to want to start to zip. I usually wait about 12 hours from when I do the safety hole to do this. Then I proceed as usual.
Goslings, like ducklings, also take a very long time to hatch, so don’t rush them! But I usually put safety holes in them whether I think they need it or not, because I don’t like to take the chance of them blocking their air off when zipping, which I’ve had happen in higher instances with them than other poultry. That is a personal preference and is not something you need to do. I highly recommend checking out Pete’s excellent guide to incubating geese and other waterfowl here, as it also details how he uses safety holes and a method of assisted hatching called capping. There are many excellent illustrations, too. It will also walk you through general incubation practices for geese, which are a little different than chickens and even ducks.
Have you ever wondered how a hen can lay an egg every day? Why some eggs are brown and some eggs are white? How many days an egg takes to hatch?
Here are the answers to those questions and many more.
Hens and eggs
Female chickens are called pullets for their first year or until they begin to lay eggs. For most breeds, around 20 weeks is a typical age for the first egg.
Some breeds lay eggs daily, some every other day, some once or twice a week.
Some individual hens never lay eggs, due to narrow pelvises or other anomalies.
Normal laying routines can be interrupted by molting, winter daylight shortage, temperature extremes, illness, poor nutrition, stress, or lack of fresh water. Hens usually return to normal laying habits when the disruption-causing factor ends or is corrected.
Most hens are productive layers for two years before declining in production, but some continue to lay eggs for several years.
Hens will lay eggs whether or not they’ve ever seen a rooster. Roosters are necessary only for fertilization of eggs.
Egg development and laying process
A female chick is born with thousands of tiny ova, which are undeveloped yolks. Once she reaches maturity, an ovum will be released into a canal called the oviduct and begin its journey of development.
At any given time a productive hen will have eggs of several stages within her reproductive system. The eggs most recently discharged from the ovary are just tiny yolks, and the eggs farther down the oviduct are progressively larger and more developed.
From the time an ovum leaves the ovary, it takes approximately 25 hours for the egg to reach the vent for laying. During that time period, the yolk will grow larger while being surrounded by albumen (egg white), wrapped in a membrane, and encased in a shell. Pigment is deposited on the shell as the last step of the egg production process.
If sperm is present, the yolk will be fertilized before the albumen is deposited.
As a chick embryo develops in a fertilized egg, the yolk provides nourishment and the albumen cushions the embryo.
Although a hen has only one exterior opening (the cloaca or vent) for egg laying and elimination, eggs are not contaminated during the laying process. Two separate channels, the oviduct and the large intestine, open into the cloaca. As the egg nears the end of the oviduct, the intestinal opening is temporarily blocked off. The egg passes through the cloaca without contact with waste matter.
The typical interval between eggs laid is about 25 hours, so a hen that lays an egg every day will lay a bit later each day.
Hens don’t usually lay eggs in the dark, so once a hen’s laying cycle reaches dusk time, she will usually not lay till the following morning.
Eggshell production drains calcium from the hen’s body. The comb, wattles, legs, and ear lobes will fade as the calcium leaches out. Calcium must be replenished through either feed containing calcium, supplements such as oyster shell, or high amounts of calcium in the soil of birds with outdoor access.
Young pullets often lay malformed eggs before getting established in a normal laying routine. Older hens may occasionally lay abnormal eggs due to age, stress, or illness.
Pullet eggs–the first ones produced by each pullet–are smaller than the eggs that the same hen will produce as an older hen.
“Fart egg” and “oops egg” are terms for tiny eggs that quickly pass through the oviduct without reaching full size.
Shell-less eggs are released before they have time to develop a shell. They may have membrane holding them together or just be loose yolk and white.
Double eggs or “egg in an egg” are created when an egg with a shell is encased by the next egg in the oviduct and a shell is produced over the outer egg as well.
Double yolkers may have a normal amount of egg white with two or more yolks. In the shell, the egg may be unusually large.
Yolkless eggs, also called no-yolkers, dwarf eggs or wind eggs, consist of egg white alone.
Occasionally an egg will come out with a wrinkly, misshapen, rough, bumpy, or unusually colored shell.
Egg size is dependent on breed, age, and weight of the hen. Larger chicken breeds tend to lay larger eggs; banty breeds lay small eggs. Older hens tend to lay larger eggs than younger hens.
The shell color is a breed characteristic. Most chicken breeds lay light-to-medium brown eggs. A few breeds lay white, dark brown, green, blue, or cream colored eggs.
Shell color is only “skin deep”– the eggs inside are the same as eggs of other colors.
The shell color intensity of eggs laid by one hen can vary from time to time, with an occasional darker or lighter eggshell.
While most eggs have a slight sheen to the shell, some breeds or individual hens tend to lay eggs with a chalkier texture.
Most hens will lay eggs in the same nest box as flockmates, so it’s not necessary to have a nest box for each hen.
Some hens like to lay their eggs in private and others will join their sisters in the nest box. Often two or three hens will crowd into one box while another nest box remains empty.
Sometimes a hen will sit on previously laid eggs and add her egg to the clutch. Another might prefer to sit in another area and deposit one egg by itself.
Often a hen will sing “the egg song” before or after she lays an egg. Some will sing during the process of laying. It is a cheerful song that seems to be a proud announcement.
Chickens learn by example, so a fake or real egg left in a designated nest box may encourage hens to lay there instead of on the floor or outdoors.
Unconfined hens may lay eggs anywhere outdoors if they don’t want to return to the nest box. Sometimes a free-ranging hen will go missing and reappear weeks later with a parade of chicks.
Chickens like to eat eggs, even their own. An egg that gets accidentally broken will likely be eaten by one of the chickens. If you occasionally find pieces of shell or egg yolk in the nest box, it’s usually nothing to be concerned about.
Some chickens become habitual egg-eaters that break eggs open and eat them. An egg-eater should be culled from the flock if you wish to have eggs for the kitchen. Not only will that chicken continue to eat eggs, but others will learn from watching and you may end up with several egg-eaters.
Holes in eggs and cracked eggs do not necessarily mean there is an egg-eater in the flock. A hen can accidentally crack an egg in the nest when she sits down or adjusts the nest to lay her own egg. Sometimes curiosity or boredom leads a chicken to peck at an egg without the intention of eating it.
Chickens can be fed their own or other eggs either raw or cooked. Eggs provide protein and the calcium in the shell is beneficial for laying hens. A potato masher can be used to break boiled eggs into pieces of egg and shell.
Empty eggshells from the kitchen can be fed back to chickens as a calcium supplement without concern for developing egg-eaters. However, to be safe, crushing the shells or running through a blender is a good idea.
Chicken birds and bees
The only reason a rooster would be required with a flock of hens is to fertilize eggs. As a side job, a good rooster also serves as a watchman, warning his hens of predators and other dangers. He also seeks out food for his harem.
Even with a virile rooster in residence, not all eggs will be fertile. Some hens just don’t interest a rooster and others never get caught. Often, roosters will have favorite hens that get most of their attention and others remain unnoticed.
Hens do not have an estrus cycle. They can mate and develop fertile eggs at any time.
Sperm can remain viable in the hen’s oviduct for three to four weeks, so one mating will fertilize numerous eggs.
Brooding and hatching
A broody hen of any breed can be used to hatch eggs and raise chicks from other hens of any breeds.
A broody will sit on any eggs, whether or not they are fertile and regardless of who laid them. To gather a suitable clutch of eggs, she will not only lay her own eggs but may roll other hens’ eggs into her nest.
While a hen is brooding, you can remove daily any extra eggs she gathers into her clutch. Drawing pencil “equator” lines around the eggs you want her to brood will help with identification.
A setting hen will usually leave the nest at least once a day to eat, drink, and defecate. The eggs are not in danger of cooling off too much during a normal foray into the coop or run.
Typically, chicken eggs hatch about 21 days from the beginning of incubation or nesting by a broody hen. A few days early or late is not unusual, and some breeds lean toward earlier or later hatches.
Not all fertile eggs will develop into embryos. Some never develop due to egg deficiencies or temperature fluctuations.
Not all chick embryos will successfully hatch. They can die any time before hatching, even after pipping a hole in the egg. Double yolk eggs rarely hatch due to crowding during embryo development.
If a broody hen has pushed an egg out of the nest, she probably knows something is not right with that egg or embryo.
In the kitchen
A normal fresh egg has a yellow yolk, a layer of thick albumen (egg white) surrounding the yolk, and a thinner layer of albumen surrounding that.
At opposite sides of the yolk are two chalazae, short white twisted strands of albumen that anchor the yolk to the white. A large chalaza does not indicate embryo development.
Every egg yolk has a white disc called a blastoderm. It is usually visible but may be very pale. In an infertile egg, the blastoderm is solid white. In a fertile egg, the disc has a faint or distinct ring that makes it look like a donut or bulls-eye.
Fertile eggs are completely edible. In fact, some people consider fertile eggs more nutritious than infertile eggs, but scientific research does not confirm this.
Fresh fertile eggs collected daily will not have embryos in them. Embryos do not begin to develop unless the eggs are in a favorable warm environment under a broody hen or in an artificial incubator.
The yolk of a chicken egg may be any shade from pale yellow to orange, depending on what the hen has eaten. The color is usually consistent if hens are fed only one type of feed, but foraging hens and those fed kitchen scraps will often produce a variety of yolk colors.
The egg yolk or egg white may have red or brown specks in it. These “blood spots” and “meat spots” are harmless bits of tissue and are allowed in commercial Grade B eggs. If they look unappealing, the spots can be removed with a spoon or knife before cooking.
An eggshell has a protective coating that prevents bacteria from entering the egg. To retain this coating, eggs should not be washed until just before use.
Some eggs are soiled with blood from minor tissue damage or mud or feces from the nest box. This can be wiped off carefully; the shell should be thoroughly dried.
If you aren’t sure how old an egg is, you can submerge it in water. The freshest eggs will remain at the bottom of the container, while old eggs will float. Floaters should either be discarded or opened far from your nose.
Infectious bronchitis (IB) is an acute and highly contagious respiratory disease of chickens. The disease is characterized by respiratory signs including gasping, coughing, sneezing, tracheal râles, and nasal discharge. In young chickens, severe respiratory distress may occur. In layers, respiratory distress, decrease in egg production, and loss of internal egg quality and egg shell quality are reported. Some strains of the virus cause severe kidney damage and may be associated with high mortality.
IB has been reported as a disease only in chickens. All ages of chickens are susceptible to infection, however, clinical disease severity varies. IB is considered to be worldwide in distribution. The incidence is not constant throughout the year, being reported more often during the cooler months.
The disease was first described in 1931 in a flock of young chickens in the United States. Since that time, the disease has been identified in broilers, layers and breeder chickens throughout the world. Vaccines to help reduce losses in chickens were first used in the 1950s.
IB is caused by a coronavirus. It is an enveloped, single-stranded RNA virus. Three virus-specific proteins have been identified; the spike (S) glycoprotein, the membrane or matrix (M) glycoprotein, and the nucleocapsid (N) protein. The crucial spike glycoprotein is comprised of two glycopolypeptides (S1 and S2). These spikes or peplomers can be seen projecting through the envelope on electron micrographs, giving the virus its characteristic corona. Hemaglutination Inhibition (HI) and most SN antibodies are directed against this S1 portion. The unique amino acid sequences, epitopes, on this glycoprotein determine serotype. The virus is fairly labile (fragile), being easily destroyed by disinfectants, sunlight, heat and other environmental factors. IB virus has the ability to mutate or change its genetic makeup readily. As a result, numerous serotypes have been identified and have complicated efforts at control through vaccination. Three common serotypes in North America are the Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Arkansas 99 IB viruses. In Europe, various “Holland variants,” usually designated using numbers (D-274, D-212) are recognized.
Several strains of IB virus have a strong affinity for the kidney (nephropathogenic strains). These strains may cause severe renal damage. This affinity for kidney tissue may have derived from mutation as a result of selection pressure following widespread use of the modified live IB vaccines. That is, after prolonged use of live IB vaccines, which provided protection against IB virus infection in respiratory tissues, new tissues where little protection was present were infected as a result of viral mutation. These viruses have become more prevalent in recent years.
IB virus is spread by the respiratory route in droplets expelled during coughing or sneezing by infected chickens. Spread of the disease through a flock is very rapid. Transmission from farm to farm is related to movement of contaminated people, equipment, and vehicles. Following infection, chickens may remain carriers and shed the virus for several weeks. Egg transmission of the virus does not occur.
Clinical signs include coughing, sneezing, râles, nasal discharge, and frothy exudate in the eyes. Affected chicks appear depressed and will tend to huddle near a heat source. In an affected flock, all birds will typically develop clinical signs within 36 to 48 hours. Clinical disease will normally last for 7 days. Mortality is usually very low, unless complicated by other factors such as M. gallisepticum, immunosuppression, poor air quality, etc.
Clinical signs of coughing, sneezing and râles may be observed. A drop in egg production of 5 to 10% lasting for 10 to 14 days is commonly reported. However, if complicating factors are present, production drops may be as high as 50%. Eggs produced following infection may have thin shells, irregular shells, and thin, watery albumen. Loss of pigment in brown-shelled eggs is common. In severe complicated cases, chickens may develop airsacculitis. Chickens that experienced a severe vaccination reaction following chick vaccination or field infection during the first two weeks of life may have permanent damage in the oviduct, resulting in hens with poor production. In recent years, nephropathogenic stains have become more common in laying flocks. These strains may cause an elevated mortality during the infection or long after as a result of kidney damage that progresses to urolithiasis.
Lesions associated with IB include a mild to moderate inflammation of the upper respiratory tract. If complicating factors are present, airsacculitis and increased mortality may be noted, especially in younger chickens. Kidney damage may be significant following infection with nephropathogenic strains. Kidneys of affected chickens will be pale and swollen. Urate deposits may be observed in the kidney tissue and in the ureters, which may be occluded. Laying chickens may have yolk material in the body cavity and developing yolks in the ovary may be flaccid. Infection of very young chicks may result in the development of cystic oviducts.
Serologic testing to determine if a response to IB virus has occurred in a suspect flock is performed by comparing 2 sets of serum samples, one collected at onset of clinical disease and the second at 3½ to 4 weeks later. Serologic procedures commonly used include enzyme labelled immunosorbent assay (ELISA), virus neutralization, and HI. Confirmation of IB requires isolation and identification of the virus. Typically this is done in specific pathogen-free chicken embryos at 9 to 11 days of incubation by the allantoic sac route of inoculation. Tissues collected for virus isolation attempts from diseased chickens include trachea, lungs, airsacs, kidney, and cecal tonsils. If samples are collected more than 1 week after infection, cecal tonsils and kidneys are the preferred sites for recovery of IB virus. Virus typing has traditionally been performed by neutralization using selected IB antisera. More recently, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP) have been used to differentiate IBV serotypes. Lesions in embryos are helpful in diagnosing IB. Affected embryos examined at 7 days after inoculation are stunted and have clubbed down and an excess of urates in the kidneys. The amnion and allantois membranes are thickened and closely invest the embryo. These embryos will not hatch. IB field virus may have to be serially passed in embryos to adapt the field virus to the embryos before typical lesions are recognized.
Prevention of IB is best achieved through an effective biosecurity program. As a second line of defense, chickens in IB problem areas should be vaccinated with modified live vaccines to provide protection. The multiplicity of serotypes identified in the field presents a challenge in designing an effective vaccination program. To be successful in protecting chickens against challenge, it is essential to identify the prevalent serotypes in the region and to determine the cross-protective potential of available vaccines. In North America, the common serotypes used in most vaccination programs are the Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Arkansas serotypes. These serotypes are availabe in both modified live vaccines and inactivated water-in-oil emulsions. Regionally important serotypes (e.g. California strains) may be included in inactivated vaccines. In Europe, various “Holland variants” usually designated by number (e.g. D-274, D-1466) are recognized. Polyvalent vaccines, which contain multiple strains, are also available. Control of other respiratory diseases (e.g Newcastle, MG) and strongly immunosuppressive diseases (e.g. IBD, MD) must not be forgotten.
IB vaccination programs in broilers involve the use of modified live vaccines. Vaccination of layers has historically involved administering a series of live vaccines and progressively increasing the aggressiveness of the route of vaccination (i.e., start with water administration and progress to fine particle spray) and strain of vaccine (highly attenuated to less attenuated). In breeders, a similar program is often followed, however, prior to onset of production, an inactivated vaccine is also administered to stimulate antibody production. Inactivated vaccines stimulate higher levels of circulating antibodies than live vaccines and would be of value in a breeder program where maternal antibody protection is needed. However, modified live vaccines provide better stimulation of cell mediation (T cell system) and elicit a superior local antibody (IgA) response as a result of local mucosal infection and thus would be of more value in protecting commercial layers.
With dozens of IBV strains having been identified around the world, choosing appropriate strains for vaccination may seem a daunting task. The immune response produced to one strain, however, often shows a signficant degree of cross protection to heterologous challenge. Cross protection has been demonstrated especially for the live type vaccines. If the prevalent strains for a region have been identified, it is often possible to design a program using commercially available vaccine strains (Table1).
Although no reasonable combination of IB vaccine strains provides full protection against all heterologous challenges, there are combinations which are broad in coverage. Once the prevalent serotypes in an area have been identified, use of modified live vaccines containing carefully chosen strains can be used to immunize broilers, layers and breeders. Additionally, polyvalent inactivated vaccines can be administered at point-of-lay to breeders. It has been demonstrated that “classical” strains of IBV can act at least as partial primers for subsequent administration of an inactivated IB vaccine containing variant and standard strains. Inactivated IB vaccines do not stimulate local and cell-mediated immunity as effectively as modified live virus IB vaccines, however, they can provide a degree of immunity against variant strains without the risk of introducing new strains of IB into a poultry operation. Imprudent overuse of live IB vaccines results in the vaccines being the problem rather than part of the solution.
While deciding which strains to use in an IB vaccination program, the basics must not be ignored. Good vaccination practices are especially important when administering live IB vaccines. It is a relatively fragile virus and can easily be inactivated if proper vaccination procedures (e.g. protection from sunlight, removal of sanitizers from water used for mixing/administration, use of skim milk stabilizer, etc.) are not followed.
Table 1.Percent cross-protection afforded SPF white leghorn chickens vaccinated by eyedrop at 2 to 3 weeks of age with live infectious bronchitis virus (IBV) vaccines and challenged 4 weeks later with homologous and heterologous reference strains and variant field isolates. (Adapted from Gelb et al, Variant Serotypes of Infectious Bronchitis Virus Isolated from Commercial and Broiler Chickens. Avian Diseases 35:82–87, 1991.)
mean % =
mean % =
Figures indicate percent protection—the percentage of chickens not yielding virus from tracheal swabbings collected 5 days after challenge-virus inoculation. “mean % =” represents percent protectio of an IBV vaccine against reference strain.