Stress Management for Chickens

STRESS is a big factor in determining the overall health of our birds. Stress comes in many forms and seems to affect the best of our show birds the most. There’s something inherent about the genetic makeup it takes to produce the finest colors and the best type and a bird’s reaction to stress. Everyone has heard of the relationship between the ‘mutt’ dog and good health. The same seems true with fancy fowl. The finer the breed, the more susceptible they are to stress and disease.

They don’t call them ‘chicken’ for nothing. By nature, most chickens (and waterfowl), are cowards. They’re afraid of their own shadow. Poultry are prey and their genetic code predisposes them to the flight instinct, even when they’re hand-reared and tame. Fear creates stress and there’s a sound medical reason why stress allows disease to take hold in an otherwise healthy bird. Without giving you a poultry veterinary science lesson, let’s just say that stress causes changes to occur in the gut that lowers the pH. When the pH is low, ‘Gram negative’ bacteria become comfortable in the environment and begin to take hold and replicate. The rest you can imagine…

But let’s talk about the many things that stress out our birds. Some of these may be a surprise to you. My first example is severe cold or heat – or a dramatic change from one to the other. Only healthy birds are capable of making it through the night when it’s sub-zero. And only healthy birds are capable of enduring severe heat if there’s no water, breeze, or shade for them to find relief in. Poultry are more susceptible to this than people realize. Have you ever seen the flurry of activity that takes place right before nightfall amongst the wild birds? They’re filling up with food and water to make it through the night. You can almost tell when a storm is coming because they’ll sense the barometric change and feed heavily to weather the storm. Your own chickens and waterfowl will have a last meal and drink at dusk – before they can’t see anymore to roost and settle in for the night. If you can’t feed and water twice in a particular day and you have a choice, choose to feed and water late rather than early for the above reasons. The late feed is most important during cold weather.

Another concern of cold weather is frostbite. Single comb varieties with long wattles suffer the most. Some believe that massaging Vaseline into the comb will help prevent frostbite. I’ve tested this and found no evidence that the roosters who received massage and/or Vaseline fared any better than those that didn’t. Keeping drafts out of the coop to keep wind chill effect down is probably more effective. A sign of frostbite is having the comb or wattles turn white. Eventually they turn black and scab over. In severe cases, the bird will lose the part that turns black.

Breeding and laying are stressful for many reasons. It’s especially stressful if it’s the first season of maturity for either sex. (Most losses due to diseases such as Mareks occur right before or right after sexual maturity.) I’ve heard old wives tales about young roosters ‘going crazy’ if they’re not allowed to breed. I don’t think there’s medical poultry science to support that – but you get the picture. ‘First egg’ for a female can be difficult – both in the hormone changes that occur and in the ‘effort’ it takes.

The nutritional requirements of a laying hen or duck must be met. Oyster shell is a good source of calcium and should be available to your females on a free-feed basis. If the calcium requirement is not met to help form the eggshells, the female will actually steal it from her own bones. I’d like to caution you about oyster shell though. The free-feed of calcium before sexual maturity can cause kidney damage. Also, some people mistakenly use it as grit, as well as a source of calcium. Since finely ground oyster shell literally dissolves in the crop, it never reaches the gizzard in its hard form. The gizzard is where the food is actually ground up so this is where the grit is needed. Large particle oyster shell has a better chance of reaching the gizzard. I prefer providing sand or poultry grit (sold at most feed stores) at all times if your birds are confined. If they free-range, they’ll find grit on their own. Nature provides this instinct. One last thought on laying females – make sure they have plenty of water. Their water intake increases when they’re producing an egg. A little flavored probiotic liquid in their water will encourage them to drink more. See my article on probiotics for how to use them.

Although it seems benign, a change to your birds’ environment or housing can also be stressful. If I’m going to change around cages or separate birds that were accustomed to being together, I usually won’t do it when they’re stressed for some other reason. I once had a hen that was one of a pair that were alike in all ways. They had never been apart. I wanted to show them so I split them up (since they were lovingly pulling each other’s beards out). The one bird survived just fine – I still show her today. But it sent the other into a tailspin. She never quieted down. She paced the cage with no rest. Then she was further stressed with PT testing. She didn’t survive long after that. She was a nice little bird – I learned a hard but subtle lesson. Stress is a little like having allergies – one or two stresses may be livable, but if you pile on a bunch of changes at the same time, the stress they cause can have a cumulative effect. So I try not to throw too much at them at once.

Grooming practices of the Fancy such as bathing, pulling feathers, clipping and shaping beaks and nails, and treating for feather mite, are all stressful and unnatural to our birds. If you have a grooming routine you like to follow, try performing them over a longer period of time instead of doing everything to one bird in one day. And whatever you do, please don’t hold those birds upside down by their feet. It turns out there’s a link between respiratory disease vulnerability and being held upside down. I’ve seen people do this at the shows and swaps. Aren’t these birds stressed enough?

I can’t cover everything here but the article wouldn’t be complete unless I mentioned our birds’ number one stresser – showing. Many of the reasons showing is stressful are listed above. Things like changes in their environment, grooming, temperature changes, etc. Now imagine the number of illnesses your birds are exposed to at a show. Add to that the travel, the chaos, the noise, the bird next door to yours in the showroom that wants ‘a piece’ of your bird – and your bird knows it.

I hope I haven’t scared you off with all of these examples of stress. Sometimes stress can be a positive thing. Why do think little ‘Rocky’ struts his stuff at the show for the judge, but looks like a roost potato at home? Just remember the stresses our birds endure everyday for our fun and recreation, and eliminate the stress that you can. You’ll have healthier birds as a result.