Permaculturing in Portugal

One family's attempts to live in a more planet-friendly way

Crook chooks

It suddenly turned into summer a week ago and with it came summer’s heat. After a day’s work in the garden, I was concerned to find the largest of our four hens, a Cochin-Pescoço pelado crossbreed, down on her haunches and unable to support her own weight. Thinking it was likely the effects of the sudden heat, I made sure she took a good drink of water and put her to bed.

Collapsed hen

Collapsed hen

This particular bird had also produced similar, though less severe symptoms during the coldest winter mornings. Letting her out of the coop in the mornings, there were several occasions when she was unable to walk properly, though in all cases she recovered within 15 minutes or so, so I was anticipating a similar recovery this time.

The next morning though she seemed no better, lying wherever and however she collapsed after flopping about supporting herself on her wings, hunched over and tail right down. She still had an appetite, she was bright-eyed and alert and her stools were normal. She even produced an egg. But she couldn’t stand and her breathing seemed a bit laboured.

It’s times like this I’m so thankful for the internet. My first destination was the website of a British woman living in France, Sue Colley, whose common sense, intelligent and thorough attitude to caring for her flock impressed me the first time I came across her site, The Holistic Hen. I didn’t have to look far to find a post on stress in chickens, and also a further post with emergency remedies for the condition.

The first step was to make a sweetened salty drink to replace lost electrolytes. I added a few drops of apple cider vinegar for good measure. The hen drank it happily from a small cup (as did the others who wanted in on the act as well). The chickens are very used to me getting them up in the morning and putting them to bed at night, but they’re not used to a lot of attention outside of those times, so it was a delicate balance between making sure the hen was properly hydrated and stressing her out further by so much attention. Taking her away from the others would certainly have added to the stress, so I made sure she took a good drink, had food to hand, and let her be.

By early afternoon with no obvious improvement, except in her breathing which was no longer laboured, I moved onto the next step recommended by Sue and gave her some banana dipped in coconut oil into which was mixed a little grated brazil nut and turmeric. Although Sue prescribed the turmeric/brazil nut combination for a chicken with stroke-like symptoms, I figured that remedies targeting the nervous system were no less appropriate for a bird with loss of motor function and a potassium boost from the banana would likely help as well. Again she ate well, so I gave her more of the sweetened salty drink and let her be again.

But by evening time she was still down. At this point I started to think about other potential longer term stressors. The other Cochin-Pescoço pelado has been getting very slowly scruffier, losing feathers in patches though without progressing into a full moult or with any sign of parasites. I had been scratching my head as to the possible cause, wondering if it was just a very slow moult or whether the other birds were picking on her in the coop (though I’ve never seen any signs of bullying behaviour). Could there be a nutritional deficiency involved?

Hen with feather loss

Second Cochin-Pescoço pelado showing patches of feather loss

Ideally I would like to free range the birds, but early experiments resulted in them consistently ending up on a neighbouring quinta where the untended vegetation was more lush and then being unable to get back up again to the coop, necessitating frequent forays on our part to recover them. Additionally, some dog owners in this area allow their dogs to roam ‘natural’ and free … and supplement their ‘vegetarian’ rations by killing other people’s hens. After a few visits from these dogs, free ranging seemed out of the question. (This is such a mistaken notion about dogs! They’ve evolved in association with man for thousands of years and like nothing better than to have a job to do within their ‘pack’. Allowing them free range with no function is a form of rejection. So aside from trying to get themselves a balanced diet, this particular pair have also been trying desperately to find themselves a new home where they can have a role to play.)

In the absence of free ranging, the birds get a good armful of greenstuff from the garden every day, along with some duckweed from the pond and mixed grains – sunflowers, rye, wheat, barley, oats, sorghum which I buy individually from the seed merchant at market and mix with oyster grit for calcium – and occasional grubs and slugs. We rarely have leftovers, so they don’t get much from the kitchen. (They don’t seem to like corn, which is just as well as all animal feed corn in Portugal appears to be genetically modified.) I have been feeding them this mixture since we got them over a year ago and they’ve been fine and healthy up until now. What could they be missing?

Then the penny dropped. Apart from a brief slowing down around Easter time, the four birds have been producing a steady 3 eggs a day pretty much since January. Despite an apparently reasonable diet, it possibly hasn’t been enough to support this level of production so I figured the likely underlying cause was protein deficiency. The two Green legs are less affected, but have still lost a few feathers from their chests.

Green legged chicken showing loss of a few feathers on her chest

Green legged chicken showing loss of a few feathers on her chest

Back to the internet, where I found this useful page on chicken diet. From the information on protein content of various foods, I put together the following mixture:

Broad beans/favas (boiled 15 minutes to remove trypsin inhibitors, cooled and mashed)
Duckweed (Lemna spp) from the ponds
Chopped comfrey leaves
Flax seed
Pumpkin seeds
Sunflower seeds
Yeast flakes
Plus occasional additions of coconut oil, yoghurt or cream/cottage cheese

This went down a treat with all the birds, and after 5 days of these rations, Big Bird is now back on her feet and moving around, albeit still somewhat stiffly and with her tail not quite upright yet.

Hen on her feet again, tail still down

Hen on her feet again, tail still down

Hen on her feet again, tail level

Tail coming up now

Scruffy Bird is still scruffy, but feather-growing takes a bit more time. It will be a while yet before I can be sure my reasoning is correct about this and that I have the right treatment, but so far, so good.

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  1. Andrea June 30, 2013

    Fascinating to follow your thought process, and really useful links. Great post. Thanks.

  2. Quinta do Vale July 1, 2013

    Thank YOU. Big Bird was first out the coop this morning and tail now 3/4 of the way up, so fingers crossed …

  3. Sue October 19, 2013

    This is a great post, Wendy and thanks so very much for the mention. I hope everyone is doing well now. It’s funny actually because we seem to be at the opposite ends of the stress scale here, your chicks with heat stress and ours with cold. It got so bad last year, I ended up making coats for a couple of them, they got some queer looks from the neighbours but it worked. It was particularly bad with a 9 year old Sebright x frizzle, Andy brought him in one morning with his legs stretched out and pretty much looking like he had rigor setting in! I’m used to this with baby pigeons, so popped him over the wood cooker and got him thawed out. I never again left his coat off, even overnight, until the Spring weather really set in.

    Moulting takes a toll on birds, particularly a late moult, or a very hot Summer, when there is not as much foraged protein and vegetation available. I am convinced that stress is symptomatic of B12 and folate deficiency because of the links between lack of animal protein and green leafy veg and neuron damage, which is why I always take a bird showing stress off grain, up the animal protein and vegetation and follow through with restorative curcuma/turmeric. Stress and B12 and folate deficiency are unfortunately a vicious circle so dealing with this at source, through nutrition, is really important.

    I’m sorry I didn’t write this sooner. I have been in the throes of hatching and rearing quail with a bantam for several months and still have got this late into the season without getting their Winter accommodation fixed up. At the moment they are all in the greenhouse including the mother hen still finding food for them, they bonded so well I think they will never want to leave ‘home’! If you haven’t thought about it already, quail would be a great addition to your poultry and add their medicinal and very tasty eggs to your menu/possible swaps and/or income.

    All the very best, Sue xxx

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