When “she” becomes “he” – spontaneous sex reversal in chickens

Sometimes chicken observers see birds do odd things… and few seem stranger than

In rare cases, a hen may take on the characteristics of a rooster.
In rare cases, a hen may take on the characteristics of a rooster.

when a hen transforms into a rooster. It’s not common, and a backyard flock owner may never experience it, but it happens.  Automatic, or spontaneous, sex reversal has been studied by many scientists including Dr. Jacqueline Jacob and Ben Mather, and Richard Blanchford. The change doesn’t happen overnight but a person could have six hens in the spring and five hens and what appears to be a rooster months later.  

Roosters crow, usually have pointed feathers, grow long spurs, and sport a larger comb than females of the same breed. Hens generally have softer and more rounded feathers and a tiny spur.  They never welcome dawn with enthusiastic crowing.  

Unlike mammals, which have two ovaries, female birds have only one functional ovary on the left side.  The right ovary is an incomplete organ and doesn’t develop in a healthy bird. But, if a hen’s functional ovary is injured or develops a cyst or cancer the tiny right one becomes what scientists call an ovotestis. It can contain tissues common in ovaries, testes, or both. An ovotestis may secrete androgens that cause the birds comb and wattles to grow and feathers to change to the male pattern. She may crow. Crazy, right?

So, is she now a rooster? Dr. Jacob and F. Ben Mather, in an article on the topic, state that she’s genotypically female but phenotypically male. Big words that sound like the poor bird is a blend of both genders. There are reports of these birds producing semen capable of fathering offspring but most will not do so, nor will they lay eggs. The reverse switch doesn’t seem to happen. Roosters don’t automatically become hens.

One thing is certain.  Most ordinances specify that roosters may not be kept in suburban or urban back yards.  Scientists may not consider a crowing chicken with male feathers and a spur a total rooster, but whoever enforces the ordinance will almost certainly declare the bird illegal.  Any neighbor woken up by predawn crowing will agree. So, a hen that seems to transform into a rooster may be a candidate for rehoming. 

Resources: Backyard Poultry; University of Florida Extension

Salmonella safety tips

We emphasize the importance of good sanitation practices in many parts of our every day lives. But what about good sanitation practices with your poultry? Specifically, keeping you and your family healthy and safe can depend quite a bit on how you interact with your poultry on a daily basis.

The risk
Salmonella is a disease that can be transferred from poultry to humans. Even birds that look healthy and clean can spread Salmonella germs to people; in addition these germs are shed in the feces and quickly contaminate any housing, equipment, etc. Salmonella can result in diarrheal illness in people that may range from mild to life threatening.

Wash your hands!
One of the main ways to help prevent the spread of this disease is to wash your hands. A phrase coined by the CDC can help you and your family stay healthy: “After you touch ducklings or chicks, wash your hands so you don’t get sick!”

 

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after interacting with livestock.
  • Supervise children to ensure proper hand washing techniques.
  • If water and soap aren’t immediately available, use hand sanitizer until you are able to wash your hands properly.

Handle with care!

  • Don’t let poultry in the house, especially in areas where food is prepared, served or stored.
  • Don’t kiss, nuzzle, or touch the birds to your mouth.
  • Don’t eat or drink around poultry.

You can access the CDC’s fact and tip sheet on Salmonella here and contact their listed resources for more information.

How to supplement calcium to your flock

EggsThe shell of each egg that your hens are laying is made up of nearly 95% calcium carbonate by dry weight. To produce hard eggs, your chicken will be consuming up 20 times the amount of calcium in one year than the amount of calcium that is contained in her actual bones. As their keeper, it is your responsibility to make sure each chicken is consuming a steady supply of calcium in her diet.

DON’T Feed Egg Shells
There are some chicken owners who swear by reusing eggshells and feeding them back to their flock. Some people may crush these before feeding. Feeding your chickens their eggshells may seem like a convenient way to recycle them, but there are several health risks that will be brought upon them.

1. Risk of salmonella for hens. Salmonella can be found on the inside and outside of eggs. The kicker? Salmonella can be on eggs that seem to appear completely normal. Feeding your hens eggshells infected with this bacterium can cause this sometimes fatal illness. Some people prevent this by baking their eggshells before feeding, however, that is not always effective and is a time-consuming process
2. Risk of salmonella for humans. This is where the “domino effect” comes into play. If a chicken is eating eggshells with salmonella and becomes infected, this affects the eggs they are producing, and any human consumption of those eggs.
3. Can teach hens to start eating their own eggs. When chickens start to recognize their food as eggshells, this runs the risk of them eating and destroying the eggs they lay.

DO Feed Them Oyster Shells or Limestone
Though this may seem like a higher investment up front, feeding your laying chickens oyster shells or limestone instead of their own eggshells with pay off in the end. By cutting out serious health risks to your chickens and to those eating the eggs they produce, feeding oyster shells or limestone is a cost effective and safe alternative. In addition, a little bit of these products go a long way – a 50 lb. bag of oyster shell or limestone will last the average flock an extended period of time – up to several months for a flock of 6 – 8 birds. Feeding these products is easy – simply put the oyster shell or limestone in a separate container and allow birds access free choice. Your girls will take what they need.

Just keep in mind that when it comes to calcium supplementation for your flock,  ground limestone or oyster shells are safer options than feeding eggshells back to your girls.

Bumblefoot – causes, treatment and prevention

The health and success of your chickens lies in your hands. Knowing what diseases Spurs_Bumblefootthey’re at risk for is critical for you to allow them to lead healthy lives. Bumblefoot, or plantar pododermatitis, is caused by introduction of staphylococcus bacteria and is found on the toes, hocks and pads of a chicken’s foot.  It is characterized by a pus-filled abscess that is covered by a black scab and is paired with lameness, swelling, and the infected bird’s reluctance to walk. To keep this becoming a fatal problem in your flock, learn the causes, treatments and prevention methods.

How did they get Bumblefoot?
Knowing how your birds can get Bumblefoot will help you to catch it early and even begin to prevent it. The disease enters through breaks in the skin caused by:

  • Splinters
  • Sharp wire ends
  • Jumping repeatedly from a perch (heavier breeds are at a higher risk doing this)
  • Skin irritation caused by poor litter management

How do I treat it?
The best treatment is catching it early, so you have a higher chance of beating it. Once you find it, use the following treatment methods:

  • Administer proper antibiotics for a specified amount of days, as prescribed and instructed by your veterinarian.
  • Soak the lesion in warm water filled with Epsom salts to soften the exterior. This will allow you to drain the lesion with hydrogen peroxide, filling it with antibiotic ointment once the pus and debris is cleared.
  • Keep the bird separate from the time you find the disease and until treatment is complete, and provide them with adequate bedding.

Can I prevent it from happening in the future?

  • Keep infected bird separate and disinfect the area where your healthy flock is housed.
  • Provide clean and proper bedding on a regular basis.
  • Have your perches less than 18 inches from the floor.
  • Eliminate all rough and sharp edges.

While you are treating birds infected with Bumblefoot, remember to be careful and to make sure you are protecting yourself from the infection with gloves and proper disposal of materials so it does not pass on to you and others.

Laying Issues: Internal Layers and Peritonitis

Call a veterinarian if you suspect a serious health issue.
Call a veterinarian if you suspect a serious health issue.

Similar to egg binding, Peritonitis (an indicator of internal laying), is a distressing issue that can occur with laying hens

Internal laying is a disorder where the yolk of the egg, rather than being laid in the normal manner, is not taken up by the oviduct and instead is deposited in the abdomen. This can be a genetic issue, but often times it follows an incidence of infection or trauma to the oviduct, such as a thin shelled egg breaking inside the hen.

Internal laying by itself is not always an issue. Occasionally a hen will lay internally for no apparent reason and the yolk will simply be absorbed back into the body without complications if there is no bacteria present. The problem results when bacteria is present and when eggs build up. Egg yolk is a rich medium for bacteria growth, and a build up of eggs internally can provide a playground for infection. This infection is known as peritonitis. If your hen continually lays egg after egg internally, the yolks can not only harbor and grow bacteria, but all the yolk material puts pressure on internal organs, making it difficult for the bird to breathe and causing her to adopt a penguin-like stance.

Symptoms of an internal layer with peritonitis can include:

  • Yolk colored feces
  • Weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy/Depression
  • Swollen & spongy feeling vent area and/or abdomen
  • Respiratory problems
  • Fluffed feathers
  • Penguin stance; abnormal waddle

If an internal layer is identified early on, steps to prevent the laying process can be taken. The bird may be spayed or have a hormone implant placed that stops ovulation. Unfortunately, an internal layer is often in discomfort and pain. Sometimes it may be necessary to euthanize the bird to end her suffering.

If peritonitis is suspected, the choices for treatment are usually limited, due to the amount of time the infection has most likely been brewing before symptoms become evident. Giving antibiotics if caught early enough in the process has had some success.

If you suspect you have an internal layer, with or without peritonitis, contact your avian veterinarian for a full diagnosis and treatment options.

 

Egg Binding – symptoms, prevention and treatment

Chickens are one of the only pets who can also make you breakfast – about once a day they provide you with a nutritious egg that can help feed yourself and your family. But Hen sitting in nest boxwhen a normally healthy hen starts to have problems laying, it can be distressing on many levels. There is an important distinction between an absence of eggs and a sick hen. Eggs may not be found for many reasons, including:

It’s the health issues that we are concerned with for this article. One of the most troubling laying issues is a hen that is egg bound.

A hen that is egg bound has an egg that has become stuck in the oviduct and cannot pass out of the body. Egg binding is a potentially fatal condition, and hens who do not pass the egg within about 24 hours will usually perish. Eggs can become stuck for a variety of reasons, including

  • lack of calcium in the diet (helps with muscle quality)
  • poor body condition (overweight)
  • issues with the egg itself (excessively large)
  • Underdeveloped reproductive tract

If your hen is egg bound, she will most likely exhibit symptoms to tell you there is an issue. These symptoms can include:

  • Lethargy
  • Straining
  • Uncharacteristic sitting/squatting
  • Tail pumping up and down
  • Loss of appetite
  • Change in normal behavior

If you suspect a hen is egg bound, the best course of action is to contact your avian veterinarian.

In absence of a veterinarian’s help, you can try to assist the hen yourself. It is important if you are attempting treatment yourself that you are careful to not break the egg inside the hen, as this almost always leads to infection and further issues.  Separate her from the rest of the flock. Gently palpate the vent area to see if you can feel the offending egg. Use moist heat to try to help relax the vent and allow the egg to pass. Sitting the hen in a warm bath that covers the vent area is a good way to do this. Applying a lubricant to the vent area may also help the hen pass the egg. Keep the hen in a separate, dark area.

To try and prevent episodes of egg binding in the future:

  • Use a commercial layer feed as the main part of the diet, supplementing treats at no more than 10 – 15% of the total ration
  • Offer a free choice calcium supplement (like oyster shell) at all times
  • Do not put pullets under lights to encourage early onset of the lay cycle 

Medicated Chick Starter Facts

A dry and clean brooder is a must for chicks.
A dry and clean brooder is a must for chicks.

You’ve decided on a breed, you decided how many to get, you may have even decided on some names – now there is one more decision to make: should you feed medicated or non-medicated chick starter? This is a personal choice, and to help you make an informed decision, we’ve summarized what medicated starter does and does not do.

Medicated chick starters utilize coccidiostats, which help limit the incidence of coccidiosis in young birds. Coccidiosis is an intestinal parasite that is widely spread and found just about everywhere. It multiplies rapidly in the gut and then appears in the feces. As chicks scratch and peck they ingest the coccidiosis from the feces and become infected. Symptoms of infected chicks are a red or orange tint to the feces, a drop in feed consumption and lethargy. This disease can quickly infect your whole group of birds and is often fatal if untreated; Coccidiosis is one of the leading causes of death in baby chicks. One way to help protect your birds against this disease is to feed a medicated chick starter.

It is important to note a few things that medicated chick starter is NOT:

  • Medicated chick starter is not necessary if your chicks have been vaccinated for coccidiosis. However, the coccidiosis vaccination is relatively new and fairly rare so chances are your chicks will not have been vaccinated.
  • Medicated starter is not a cure after you have an outbreak of coccidiosis. There is only enough medication in the feed to act as a preventative – and once your chicks become sick with coccidiosis their feed intakes usually drop dramatically, so feeding them medication will not help.
  • Medicated chick starter is not targeted to prevent anything other than coccidiosis. It is not a dewormer, respiratory medication, etc.

There are certain instances where it is usually a good idea to feed a medicated starter:

  • Brooding large batches of chicks – 50+ at one time
  • Brooding large batches consecutively
  • If you live in a hot, humid environment
  • If you have a history of coccidiosis in your facilityNotes on Amprolium:
    Amprolium is the coccidiostat that is used in Nutrena’s NatureWise® and Country Feeds® medicated chick starter. Here are some specifics about this medication:

    1. Amprolium is a drug that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
    2. Amprolium IS NOT an antibiotic
    3. Amprolium has no withdrawal period, either in birds raised for meat or those used for egg production.
    4. Amprolium works by limiting uptake of thiamine (vitamin B1) by the coccidia parasite, which needs the thiamine to actively multiply.
    5. Amprolium allows some of the coccidia to remain in the system, stimulating creation of antibodies to develop against the disease.

Whether  you decide to feed a medicated or non medicated chick starter, there are other things you can do to help decrease your chances of coccidiosis in your flock:

  • Chicks kept on wire have less access to feces to peck at and this reduces their chances of becoming infected
  • Clean regularly, change litter frequently and keep  the brooding area dry
  • Don’t crowd your birds – overcrowding quickly leads to unsanitary conditions