Choosing Healthy Chickens

If you are planning on buying chickens for the first time, or you are thinking of buying some new additions to the flock then it’s always a good idea to know what to look out for before you go to look and find yourself making a decision in the heat of the moment you might regret later on!

Signs of health

Healthy chickens should look alert and be reasonably active most of the time, generally on the look out for food. Chickens should not be hunched up, drowsy or even asleep during the day this is a sure sign of something being wrong.

white orpington

Healthy white Orpington growers.

Stress is the biggest cause of chickens picking up a disease. Stress is brought on by a number of things, including moving them to a new environment or introducing them to a new flock.  If their immune systems are weak to start with, there is more chance of them becoming ill after you have got them home so it can pay to look out for positive signs of health and potential warning signs that all is not quite right.

Combs are usually a good indication of heath. Hens in lay have bright red combs. Combs that look blue in any way indicate circulation problems, especially in cockerels and blue combs can indicate potential disease or organ problems. Cockerels with excessive scabs on the comb can indicate that they have been fighting with others  which would make me wary about the breeders management of his birds.

Inspection

Don’t be afraid to ask whether you can inspect the birds you are planning on buying. This will give you an idea of their temperament and give you the opportunity to inspect them for lice. Lice are like skin coloured miniature grains of rice that can be found on feathers and skin. They are fast moving and will crawl away as you expose them to the light. They are not a huge problem and treatment is quite simple but if they are heavily infested it might be an idea to look elsewhere if the birds don’t look in top condition. Northern Fowl Mite can look like tiny specks of dirt around the vent area.

chickens in the garden

Young Black Australorps

Feathers should be relatively clean around the vent (some profusely feathered breeds can get slightly messy around this area) but a bird with a lot of muck on the feathers around the vent can indicate the bird is carrying a worm burden.

Feathers should not be missing unless a bird is going through a moult (in which case you should not really be buying them as the moult is a very stressful and demanding time for them). Missing feathers can indicate bullying in the flock which does occur but often an unwell bird can lose her position in the pecking order if she is not in the best of health and get bullied as a result.

Check legs and feet for raised scales (scales sticking out at 90 degrees) which indicates Scaly Leg Mite, a particularly uncomfortable problem for chickens.

The upper and lower beak should meet in the middle and should not be crossed over.  Toes should be straight. Bent toes are a deformity that is usually inherited and whilst birds with these are good pet birds, you should not breed from birds with such deformities.

Respiratory problems

Eyes should be clean and not have any bubbles in the corners. When picked up, a bird should not be wheezing or coughing. If in doubt, put your ear close to their beak and listen for a minute. Birds with respiratory problems should definitely be avoided.

32 Responses to Choosing Healthy Chickens

  1. Emma says:

    Hi, we are just in the process of setting up our coop and building the run. Hopefully we will be ready to get our hens in a few weeks. Can you offer any advice on whether it’s ok to get the chickens at this time of year (September) or would it be better to wait until spring?

    • Keeping Chickens says:

      The Autumn and Winter is usually the best time to buy them as breeders have the most stock and want to cut down on the numbers before the cold weather so you get the best choice and best prices. Spring is when everyone is hatching but there is very little adult stock around and what is left is either poor quality or has been over-wintered and costs more.

  2. Niki says:

    Hi

    We brought 2 chickens home at the weekend, they are 16 weeks old. When i come home from work they are just sat in their house on their perches, when i go in to the run with them, they come out and start grazing and clucking away. I’m just a bit concerned that they are sat in their house alot! I’m new to keeping chickens so just wanted a bit of advice!

    • Keeping Chickens says:

      I am surprised they are doing this, however they are probably still finding their way around and feel safer in the house at the moment. You can throw them some corn around the run to get them active and scratching around which might help perk their interest up! I’m sure in time they will find their feet, especially if they get some time free ranging where they will discover all sorts of treats!

  3. Ijlal says:

    Hi. I have three light sussex chickens. Normally they are very healthy and active. However for the past week or so,specially since the rainy days have started, there is discharge from their noses,littles bubbles in corners of eyes(sometimes) and sneez. Apart from that they are active, eating good and generally healthy. I was wondering if I keep giving them ACV, like you have advised, would that be enough for them to recover.

    Thank You

  4. Dawn says:

    Hey,

    do you know of any visual signs of stress in chickens?
    thanks

    • Keeping Chickens says:

      They do have the obvious panic signs if put under pressure, like when they are trying to be caught. Lack of eggs is usually a good indication and then forced moulting in extreme circumstances like lack of water for a long period of time.

  5. tina strutt says:

    Hi we have a 4×2 foot coop on legs and a 6×9 foot run (they will be able to access the garden too). Does 6 chickens seem about right (aiming for 2 each of calder ranger, spekeldy and black rock). We have one nest box at present but will I need another? These will be our first chickens. with thanks ..

    • Keeping Chickens says:

      You normally need a nest box for every 4 hens and a minimum of 2 so that they can lay if it’s got a hen in a box already.

      The run sounds a little small for 6 hens but if they can come out into the garden during the day then you’ll be alright.

  6. Seren says:

    hiya
    I’m getting some chickens have you got any tips on how to settle the chickens down when the first come to there home

    thanks

    • Keeping Chickens says:

      Apple Cider Vinegar (see my page on this) helps to reduce stress. Keep them in their house or run for a couple of days so they can find their food and water and learn where to roost… that’s about it!

      • seren says:

        thanks for the info, i would also like to ask you another question how can you tell weather the chick is a cockerel at 4 weeks old
        please i really need some tips

        • Keeping Chickens says:

          Unless you hatch an autosexing breed, you cannot tell until the comb / wattles start to develop and ultimately until they crow.

  7. Tess says:

    Hi recently bought three great plymouth rock hens (well thats what I was told they are) we have converted a large green house which we had been using as a shed (took glass our and replaced with marine ply and fixed perch/next boxes) but left some glass in roof which was painted so not too hot but makes the shed light & airy as has the vents that open ) – the girls have free range use of our garden – and we have been getting three eggs a day – but one egg has always been really small (like a bantams egg) but all the chickens are standard size – is this a sign of illness or lack of something !! – also we bought them from a local farmer (has about 50 running about yard) and I noticed they have scaly leg so have bought spray – just had loads of fun catching them as “mad as hatters” at moments, but caught them and sprayed leggs and then put vaseline all over their legs – also whilst I had them doused them with mite powder – is there anything better than “just scaly leg” spray which I bought from Countrywide ?? Sorry such a long email but new to all of this and have loads of questions Thanks

    • Keeping Chickens says:

      Sounds fine. Keep applying the Vasselline over a few weeks.

      An alternative is Ivermectin which can be applied as drops and kills mites and most worms too. It’s really good stuff although not licensed for poultry (usually medication isn’t because it costs so much to get it approved when food producing animals are concerned). It is often prescribed by vets though as a couple of drops on the skin weekly for 3 weeks.

  8. HELEN says:

    my chickens have started to have black poo, does this mean they are ill.

    • Keeping Chickens says:

      There are a multitude of different kinds of chicken poo, it could be something in the diet or something more serious. I would wait and see if there are any other signs of illness.

  9. Pauline Emsley says:

    One of our chickens has a blue comb, looks tired and is not eating as keenly as the others. Could you give me any advice.

    Thank you.

    • Keeping Chickens says:

      A blue comb is usually poor circulation. This could be caused by a number of problems, often the heart. Hard to say what to do other than worm, provide ACV regularly, good feed, greens and water.

  10. Koltin says:

    another question 3 of my cockerls just sat in one spot, kept their eyes closed and stared at sun then died a week later why?

    • Keeping Chickens says:

      Umm kind of a tough question. There are hundreds of known diseases… But these symptoms are far too vague.

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