Water in the Shade
Salty drops fall like rain from my brow as I bend over to pick up a dead bird from inside the coops we built for the grow out test. “Why are these birds dying?” I thought. This is the fourth bird in two days, and it’s always been in the same area – inside the coop. The coop door is open, the waterer is clean, the food is clean, there’s plenty of air, plenty of grass and grit, the stock is good, there’s no undue stress – mentally I rehearsed my check list, the same checklist that I use when people call me with chicken medical issues. The four birds that had died had been raised from hatchery stock. So I could blame it on the stock – but what was really going on?
Last week I opened up a bird for a friend who was experiencing a slow attrition of his flock. He had lost one bird one week, another bird the next, and he was getting worried. I had gone through my check list with him, and when it seemed to pass on all points, I had suggested he bring a bird over for me to cut open. If you’ve never done a necropsy, it is worth learning how. I’m a rank beginner at it – and would love the opportunity to learn more – but I’ve opened up a few birds to see if there were any obvious clues.
The bird’s mouth had some white/yellow cottage-cheese-like curds, which could indicate wet-pox – a normally fatal form of fowl pox. Since the bird had been dead for 24 hours, I wasn’t sure if that was the cause. So I kept on. The throat and windpipe look good. The heart was smaller than I expected. In fact, all the internal organs were smaller than I expected. I found the gizzard – small – not a good sign. I could already tell without cutting it open that I wouldn’t find grit inside. A strong gizzard is a sign of a healthy bird, and a bird on pasture should have a monstrous gizzard. I opened the gizzard up and – no grit – just 4-5 pieces of broken glass and a bunch of undigested grass. This bird had literally starved to death with a full gizzard. I inquired about the grit. He replied that they were on pasture so he had thought they would pick up rocks as they needed them, but obviously not. Give your birds grit today!!! Feed it to them in a bowl and then start adding it to their feed.
I’m not a vet, and I don’t pretend to be an expert. Many times people call with chicken questions related to symptoms that I’ve never seen – only heard of. I think this is because MY PRIMARY MEDICAL MANAGEMENT TOOL IS CULLING. If I see a sick bird, I don’t try to nurse it back to health – I cull it. If the whole pen is sick then I might cull the whole pen – or treat it – depending on the circumstances. By culling sick birds, my flock stays healthy, and I don’t propagate chickens that have a tendency to get sick. So when someone calls – if I’m in my office – I look up the symptoms in Gail Damerow’s book, The Chicken Health Book (second edition). If you don’t have one, please get one and save both of us the call. And if you want to take your chicken to a vet to find out what’s wrong, be prepared to pay way more than the bird is worth.
The next day, I found another dead bird, but this time it was one of mine – so I couldn’t blame it on the genetics. “Five birds in three days,” I thought, as I wiped my forehead. From the seat of my feed cart I could see that most of the birds were in the shade of the live oak tree. All five birds that had died had been in the same coop, the one closest to the shade. The necropsy had showed nothing. “It’s got to be the heat,” I thought – yet they are in the shade, not panting, just acting like chickens.
Then it hit me, “It’s the water you big dummy.” They are leaving the shade and going out into a sunny area to go to the coop for a drink – but because of the heat, they don’t like to leave the shade, so they don’t drink as much as they need. Water in the shade, did I have that in my Hot Days check list? Yes, it was number 1. But just having water in the shade isn’t enough. To count, it’s got to be in the same shade as where the birds are. I put two 3-gallon waterers in the shade of the tree, and within the next 12 hours they drank 2.5 gallons. Do as I say – not as I do 🙁
Trying a New Feeder
Once we find something that works, we stick with it until something better comes along. But at the same time, we’re always trying to learn from our mistakes, and we always stay on the lookout for what we can improve. So I try lots of different ideas. For example – once I get it assembled – I’m trying a feeder that claims to waste less food and give the birds an outlet for their natural pecking instinct. If it works, I’ll let you know – wasted feed is a sore spot with me.
Grow-Out Test Results
I weighed the birds from the grow-out test last night – not as exciting as I hoped it would be. We had an early lead in weight which we squandered. I think that the early lead was due to shipping stress. The chicks that we had hatched here were initially ahead because they didn’t have two days of travel without food. The hatchery birds nearly caught up to them at about 8 weeks – my birds were always a bit a head, but not enough to make a significant difference.
In the end my males were 3.2% larger and my females were 3.2% larger. From my birds, there were two that “stood out” for growth – that is, two that I will keep to see if they “make the cut” to be breeders or not. So out of 25 chicks, 2 were good enough to move forward – the rule of 10 again. Of the hatchery birds, none were exceptional – mostly crow headed, long legged and poorly shaped. And I saw a difference in behavior. One of the hatchery males only survived because he was in the grow out test – he was way too aggressive and likes to bite the hand that feeds him.
So what did I learn from the test. First, they all eat a lot of food – both mine and the hatchery birds were eating almost 1/2 pound of food a day. The hatchery birds die more easily from heat stress. My birds have better shape and temperament. And hatching my own gives me the opportunity to improve from year to year. For me, those elements make it worth it.
Until next time – grit and water in the shade to you all.