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Your questions answered: introducing new hens, diet changes and impacted crops

Mike Colley answers readers' questions regarding flock management, offering tips and advice for the everyday keeper.

20 November 2019, at 8:24pm

Am I right in thinking that you should introduce new hens into your coop during the night?

Domestic chickens on the whole are social creatures, with a few exceptions – namely the Asian Hard Feathered breeds. Some of these, like the Malay, are very aggressive and even tend toward monogamy. Aggression in poultry is a way of protecting resources, getting the best mates or even roosting positions. The aggression may be expressed in head pecking, through to full-blown kicking and jumping fights that may result in death. Badly pecked birds may lose combs, wattles and eyes. Vent and feather pecking are not aggressive behaviours but behavioural disorders (vices) that have to be dealt with in other ways. So aggression in chickens is very unpredictable, but night time is a good time to mix birds as they become acquainted with smells and sounds. The mixed birds will have to sort out a new pecking order, so expect some fighting, as long as it’s not prolonged or injurious. Anything to distract the flock will help – fresh leafy vegetables are good, or some plain mixed cereals, also plenty of space and obstacles to work around. Characteristics which may exacerbate problems between mixing birds are size, colour or any noticeable differences like a crest. The key is caution and patience; it’s worth putting new birds in an adjacent pen so they can become acquainted through the mesh for a week or so.

What adjustments to diet should I make to support my chickens through moulting?

Moulting is a natural annual process that all birds go through, but it can present some problems and is not always predictable, though autumn is the usual time for chickens. Going back a few decades, commercial poultry farmers practiced forced moulting towards the end of the first laying cycle. This was done by putting the birds in a darkened shed and depriving them of food and even water, some may just feed a few oats. This would put the birds in shock; they would stop laying and start moulting. Once the feathers had dropped the birds would be returned to the normal routine, feathers would grow back and laying resume for the second cycle. Thankfully this practice is now illegal, but the legacy of changing feed etc. may still be in the psyche of domestic poultry keepers. The main components of a poultry diet supply energy, protein and minerals such as calcium carbonate. During lay the bird needs energy to maintain its body and its functions, protein for body repairs, growth and eggs; finally the minerals are required for bones and eggshells as well as general health. In moult and cessation of egg production, birds need energy primarily for feather growth. Feathers are made of keratin which itself is a type of protein, and then the birds need minerals to replenish its skeleton and maintain other bodily processes. You can get diets specifically for moulting birds which you can use by all means, but personally I would continue feeding a standard layers rations which should continue to supply the necessary nutrients to your birds.

What is the best way to deal with an impacted crop?

Poor old chickens, they do tend to draw the short straw when it comes to veterinary treatment. An impacted crop in your pet chicken is a medical emergency and should really be treated as such. Impacted crops happen when the exit from the crop to the proventriculous (glandular stomach) is blocked or damaged. In more severe cases the digestive tract may be blocked or damaged further down. If the impaction is not dealt with there is a slim chance it will clear by itself – put the bird somewhere comfortable on its own with access only to water, and don’t be tempted to syringe water or oil down its throat as this can too easily get into the respiratory tract and choke the bird. If after 24 hours the size or texture of the crop has not reduced or changed, you have a duty of care seek professional advice from a vet. If the condition is left the poor bird will suffer an uncomfortable death as it slowly starves. To avoid a compacted crop, ensure food is available throughout the day so very hungry birds don’t gorge themselves on dry food which may expand in the crop and cause a blockage and choking. Supply insoluble grit (flint or granite) to aid breakdown of solids and fibres in the gizzard. Grass can cause obstruction issues in the digestive system, and this is especially true of birds with a restricted diet such as the very heavy breeds as they try and top up their ration with excessive grass consumption.