Tag Archives: chickens

Chicken Guts

As promised, I am starting a description of the different systems inside the modern chicken.  I thought I’d start with a description of the intestinal tract of a hen. From beak to butt, there are a lot of specializations that allow chickens to magically convert grubs, worms, corn, grains and calcium into eggs…one of the most nutritionally dense foodstuffs in nature.

Not a pretty picture, but shows the tongue and choanal slit well

First off, it is always amazing to me that people are surprised to find that chickens have triangular tongues. What other shape could it be? There is also a slit (called a choanal slit) in the roof of the top beak. It is here that many substances that are eaten and drank are exposed to the immune system. The triangular tongue is very poor at sensing taste. The human tongue has about 10,000 taste buds, cows have about 20,000, and chickens have 25. Not 25,000….25. Chickens, like most birds, rely heavily on their eyes to locate food, and don’t invest a lot of brain space to taste. It explains some of the things they are willing to eat!!  You will also notice the scarcity of teeth. (Yes, your grandmother was right….hens teeth ARE rare).   More on this later.

After the food passes through the beak mostly untasted, it passes through the esophagus, a 3″ muscular tube, until it is deposited into the crop.  The crop is basically a holding tank for food and water.  It is muscular, but weak.  If a Anatomy-of-the-chicken-with-text

chicken eats things that are difficult to pass through the crop (like long blades of grass or hay), or the stuff in the crop gets too dried out, you get impacted crops.  If the contents stay there too long and start to rot, sour crop can result.  To help with either of these problems, it is important first to get the offending material out of the crop, and allow the muscles to relax, and the interior of the crop to become normal.

I know, its gross, but I’m a vet…this is what I do. Plus it gives you a good idea how things really look.

The the food is now the consistency of gruel and enters the proventriculus.  This stomach is similar to ours.  It secretes acids and enzymes and starts actively breaking down the food.  The food now enters the gizzard, which is a very muscular organ that is lined with a tough substance called koilin.  Inside the gizzard, the hen stores small pebbles.  These pebbles get rolled around inside the gizzard through the muscular contractions, and the action is like a grist mill.  Remember the part about the lack of teeth?  This is the compensation.  Stones are lighter than teeth, because you don’t need too many of them, since the feed is already pre-softened by soaking in the crop.  In professional farms, the stones are provided as pieces of oyster shell or limestone, both of which also act as a source of calcium for egg-shell and bone strength.

Once through the gizzard, the gut contents are like a very moist paste, very uniform, and still smelling like chicken feed.  It enters the small intestine, where the pancreas and the gall bladder add their contributions of enzymes and bile acids respectively.  The food is now basically reduced into its components.  For the next 30 cm or so, the protein, fats, sugars and other nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream.  This is the function of the small intestine.  You can imagine, if there is some problem with the intestine, absorption will be reduced, and the volume of manure will increase…..this is the root cause of many cases of diarrhea.  The gut contents are now a darker brown, and more dense and pasty…pretty much half-way between feed and poo.

The food now enters the two cecums (called cecae when plura….great word to remember for Scrabble).  The primary functions of the cecae are to absorb

Normal Cecal Dropping
Normal Cecal Dropping
normal dropping

Normal Dropping

water and to act as an immune organ.   The contents of these are fairly light….lighter than normal chicken poo.  Every couple of days, the cecae empty themselves, resulting in a cecal dropping, which is sticky, somewhat foamy, and lighter in colour.  These droppings are very distinct, and completely normal.  It also explains why anything that stimulates the immune system can result in diarrhea, since the same organ is responsible for water resorption from the gut contents.The final step in this process is the ejection of the manure (sometimes with a fair bit of velocity!).  The interesting part of this is that birds have “vents”.  That means that the urinary tract, reproductive tract and gastrointestinal tract all leave the body through the same orifice.  Meaning, everything comes out of the same hole…..sometimes at the same time.  That is why the normal manure has the white, uric acid cap on it…that is the bird’s version of urine.  Importantly, it is also a source of manure contamination of eggs, especially if the hens are sick and have loose manure.  I have talked about safe egg handling previously, but I would like to re-emphasize the importance of this.

All in all, it takes around 3 hours for a piece of chicken feed to become chicken manure.  For humans, gut passage time is around 2 days. This speedy transit time is important for….wait for it…..flight.  Birds will actually spend a fair bit of time with almost nothing in their guts….thus lighter and more able to fly.  But, this short passage time means that diets that are high in indigestible components will seriously increase the fecal volume, since there isn’t time to break down the more fibrous bits.

So, that is the story of  chicken feed becoming raw materials for eggs and the necessary body processes that support the chicken in everything she does.  Remember that bird digestion is quite different from mammalian digestion, and some of the gut problems you might see in a small (or large) flock will show certain symptoms because of the way the gut works.

Mike the Chicken Vet

What makes a chicken?

I am starting  a short series of posts that will describe some of the physiology, anatomy, and behaviour of the modern chicken.  This has been done many times before, by people more qualified than I am….in greater detail….likely more accurately….and with far more authority.  They are called textbooks.

The difference is, I am going to make it interesting, useful, and hopefully fun.  Oh, and it will be in the english that normal humans speak.  I also intend to explain some of the reasons why chickens are the way they are….how some of the attributes of “chicken-ness” are useful for the birds.  The aim of the series is to give the readers some tools to problem solve issues that may crop up in their flock (pardon the pun…..see, entertaining all ready!).  If you know how the guts of a hen works, you have an idea as to what might be going wrong when you see diarrhea or blood in the droppings.  At the very least, it will give you another way to think about the way a hen works.

To start, I will talk about some of the striking factors that make chickens the way they are, and why they are that way.

Birds are strange creatures….feathers, eggs, hollow bones, no teeth, don’t produce urine, different red blood cells, all of which I will discuss later.  All of these various oddities work together to allow one thing….flight.  It seems like the vast majority of adaptations that the successful dinosaurs made revolve around the ability to fly.  Feathers are lighter than hair, and insulate better.  Bone marrow is heavy, and provides little structural integrity.  Teeth are heavy, and carrying around a bag of urine inside your body definitely crimps your ability to soar.  Red blood cells that have nuclei (the difference between bird and mammal blood cells) are more efficient at carrying oxygen and are quicker to produces…making bird blood more able to support the high metabolic rate needed to stay aloft.  Getting the sugar shakes at 250 feet up is not an evolutionary advantage.

Chickens are omnivorous, able (and willing) to eat almost anything.  They have a very short digestive tract (again, lighter), that is very efficient at extracting nutrients from whatever they put in their beaks.

Birds have lung adaptations, great eyesight, and lay eggs…..all of which make flight possible.  (I am saying these like they are facts, but in reality, they might be adaptations that just followed along from their dinosaur heritage, and weren’t lost…..dinosaurs laid eggs and didn’t fly…..but it makes a good story, and is plausible).

Anyways….I will be developing the truly informative stuff over the next little while.  I hope it is useful to you, and gives you a different way to look at and evaluate the way your hens interact with the world.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Chicken Cinema

Hi Everyone;

I apologize for the lack of attention I have been giving to my blog lately….things have been busy, but that’s no excuse.  I have been very active with chickens, however, and today was no exception.  I got the opportunity to spend the morning with Norm Saito at the Ancaster Fall Fair (http://www.ancasteragriculturalsociety.ca/Pages/Fair/fairframe.htm) .  Many thanks to the fair organizers for all their help and accommodation.  Also thanks to the Egg Farmers of Ontario for putting me in contact with Norm in the first place.  I am impressed with the community outreach that the EFO is doing, trying to let people in the province know about poultry of all types.  They have the idea that letting urbanites know more about poultry can do nothing but improve the relationships the farmers have with the public, and I couldn’t agree more.

Norm Saito….the depth of knowledge this man has on various breeds and standards for fancy chickens was staggering.

Norm has been a judge of fancy chickens for over 40 years throughout North America.  He is the end-all and be-all of knowledge regarding Buff Orpingtons, Barred Rocks, Polish, Wyandottes, Minorcas, and Rhode Island Reds.  He also judges turkeys, peafowl, guinea fowl, ducks, and rabbits.  His background information on where each bird origionated….both geographically and through history (how bantam chickens were bred to be smaller versions of regular hens, and how many of the sport breeds are descendants of fighting cocks, once fighting became socially unacceptable) was amazing. 

We had a great time “talking turkey” for most of the morning.  He started his career with fancy chickens when his son was in Cubs, and wanted to get his “pet keeping” badge.  Norm and his son decided they wanted a chicken, so they purchased Sylvester, who lived in their basement until they moved.  The family loved the bird by then, and couldn’t leave him behind, so Sylvester came along, and became the base for a flock of fancy chickens that eventually numbered in the hundreds.

The creative process…it is WAY more complicated than I ever thought!

For anyone not familiar with video production, it is a LOT more complicated than I ever thought.  Worrying about background noises, direction of sunshine, background composition, etc. is really involved.  Plus, once I knew what I wanted to say, getting the phrasing right, and saying it in a way that sounded somewhat coherent was tougher than you’d believe.  I will be posting the interview video in a little while, once it is edited, and hopefully you will have no idea how many mistakes went into each of the little segments.

Hopefully there will be some information and insights that are of interest to people who raise and show these “beauty queen” chickens.  I don’t know how many of you have had the chance to see behind the scenes  to see how a fair poultry show is judged, but I sure am glad I got a chance to see it!

Winner in the Polish class….one of the stars of the video

  Mike the Chicken Vet

Bones, Shells and Hen Health

People keep backyard hens for any number of reasons…..for companionship, for comic relief, to fertilize the garden, eat bugs, teach kids about the circle of life or to eat table scraps.  But the main reason that most people have hens around is because they do all these things AND produce eggs.  Eggs are the lynch-pin that makes henning so popular.  You (and your kids) can see how the food the hen eats today becomes your breakfast tomorrow.  It is fascinating and awe inspiring….old broccoli into an omelette…..talk a bout a silk purse from a sows ear!

There is an aspect to egg production that puts the health of your hens at risk, however.  Each egg is presented to you in its own handy carrying case….the shell.  An egg-shell is made up of calcium carbonate.  It contains the entire

Hens in lay have “trabecular bone” that allows for the rapid storage and release of calcium when the hen is in lay. If the trabecular bone is depleted, the cortical bone (part that gives strength) will start to be used, resulting in weakness and pain for the hen.

amount of calcium the chicken can carry in her bloodstream.  This means that if a hen doesn’t eat any calcium, she will deplete her calcium stores very, very quickly.

A chicken’s bones are made of calcium phosphate.  In the currency of egg production, consider this the “bank”.  Hens eat feed that contains calcium….it’s her “income”….she deposits egg-shell….this is her “expenses”.  The bones act as a storage site (important, since she eats during the day, and deposits egg shell overnight).  Simple, right?

Sorta.   Getting enough calcium into a hen every day is tricky….the ration needs to be balanced for both calcium and phosphorus, and hens do NOT like eating a ration that contains more than 4% calcium (the amount needed if a hen is to lay an egg each day)…..it is very salty, and hens will back off feed when the calcium level is high in the diet, until they get used to it.  Giving oyster shell as a free-choice supplement is not enough if you have a modern laying hen breed.  Hens eat oyster shells, and they stay in the gizzard as the acid there dissolves them

The black stuff inside the gizzard is limestone…another source of calcium. It stays in the gizzard until it shrinks to less than 3mm in size, then it goes through the gut. This gizzard is quite full, but the large particles won’t provide enough calcium for the hen, if they are the sole source.

slowly….thus it is a constant drip of calcium for the hen.  Helpful, but if it is the only source of calcium, the physical limits of the gizzard, and the slow release of the calcium means the hen won’t get enough.

To further complicate things, the bones are made of calcium phosphate….therefore phosphorus is also very important for bone health (and indirectly, shell quality).  The problem is, the phosphorus level needs to be in the proper ratio with the calcium…..too much phosphorus is dangerous to the hen, and she must get rid of it through her kidneys, and will (strangely) result in the same condition as insufficient phosphorus.  In a backyard, feeding minerals becomes more art than science.  Feed sunflower seeds, edamame, flax seeds and oat bran (foods high in phosphorus), but not TOO much…..and there is no target amount to feed…..it depends on the amount of calcium the hens consume…..the ratio of calcium to phosphorus is the important number.

To further complicate things, if you have a modern type laying hen, her physiology is set to lay an egg a day (pretty much).  She will do this, regardless of the state of her bones, or the balance of her calcium intake vs output.  The result is poorly shelled eggs, weak bones, egg bound hens or chickens that are too weak to survive well.  Heritage breeds are not as physiologically driven to lay eggs, and will just stop laying if the mineral balance is poor.

The answer is to feed hens a ration that is balanced with a lot of calcium in it, and appropriate amounts of phosphorus added.  Feed treats and scratch as just that….treats and amusement.  Don’t try to balance your hens rations piecemeal….it is all but impossible, and the hens will suffer.  Another way to approach the problem is to use heritage breeds, which will go out of lay  much more easily, and spare themselves the effects of calcium depletion.  You will get fewer eggs, but also less problems.

Mike the Chicken Vet

What Eggs are Safest?

I work in the professional egg world.  I know by name the vast majority of people who supervise the production, transport, grading, marketing and delivery of the eggs you find in your grocery stores, restaurants, farmers markets (yes, legally, those eggs need to be professionally graded too), and industrial users of eggs (think bread, cake, cookie, cereal, etc. makers).  I know how much care, concern, time, money and worry is dedicated to preserving the safety of eggs.  Being a vet, I am very involved in advising on many aspects of egg safety, right from chicken health to giving opinions on egg handling, and even national programs for salmonella control.

We, in the world of Canadian large-scale egg production, are quite proud of our safety record, and the programs we have in place.  We often debate whether small producers (read backyarders and hobby farmers) can produce a product that is comparable in safety.  We snicker a little at activists that say we need to get away from large-scale farming, since you can produce healthier eggs in your backyard, or on your apartment house roof.  How on earth can removing the expertise and care that we provide result in a healthier product?  By concentrating the number of birds on a farm, you allow a person to focus strictly on the care and protection of the hens….learn about them and become truly an expert.  I admit to having this opinion much of the time.

Many, many people disagree though.  “Factory farms”, “industrial production”, “bacterial breeding grounds” have been used to describe professional farms….unfairly, I think, but the terms are sincerely used by many people.  The problem is that there are many confounding factors.  Depending on what you WANT to read in a paper, almost any study can say anything.  Professional, caged farms are much bigger than extensive farms, and exponentially bigger than recreational farms.  If there is 1 contaminated egg per 1000 in a cage barn, the farm will produce many contaminated eggs per day.  A backyard flock with a rate of 1 contaminated egg per hundred would only have 1 contaminated egg per month.  If you eat 2 eggs per day, however, which is safer? 

The fact remains (check any activist website for examples) that many studies show that large farms have higher bacterial contamination.   Conversely (check any egg farming website for examples) many studies show that professional farms are much safer, contamination wise.  So, what’s right?

There is a very recent scientific paper from Spain that describes bacterial contamination that I think is quite balanced.  It must be taken with a grain of salt, however, since in North America, all graded eggs are washed, whereas in the EU, this is not the case.  Also, the rules on antibiotic use is different.   That being said, the study found that there was more significantly more bacterial contamination in free-range, organic and backyard (called “domestic eggs”) production than in free run (birds free inside of a barn), while cage barns had the least contamination.

Having said that, the authors went on to evaluate the antibiotic resistance in the different systems.  Free run barns were worst, then cage barns, then free range (outside), organic and backyard flocks had the least antibiotic resistance.  Both these findings make sense to me.  Large scale farms have a higher tendency to use antibiotics (thus the resistance), whereas backyard flocks almost never medicate (sometimes that is itself a problem). 

Which is more important?  I don’t know.  Antibiotic resistance doesn’t necessarily mean that the bacteria is likely to make you sick…it just means that if you treat an infection, you are more likely to clear it.  Some resistant bacteria don’t make you sick at all….some susceptible bacteria make you deathly ill, very quickly.  On the other hand, if you DO get sick from a resistant bacteria, it can be a serious problem. 

Bottom line, eggs from backyard flocks are more likely to be contaminated by bacteria than anything you would buy in a grocery store.  Be careful with them….wash your hands; keep the eggs in the fridge, separate from other foods; rinse eggs in running water to remove contamination before packing them in the fridge……and then relax.  Contamination rates are very low, and most bacteria are not pathogenic.  Take reasonable precautions and then just enjoy the fruits of your labours.  You are as likely to give yourself an ulcer from stressing about the bacteria as you are of getting food poisoning.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Eggless Chicken Born?!?!

Saw this story forwarded from the Daily Mirror in Sri Lanka…it is amazing!!

The Miracle Chick

In a zoological anomaly, a hen in Sri Lanka has given birth to a chick without an egg.

Instead of passing out of the hen’s body and being incubated outside, the egg was incubated in the hen for 21 days and then hatched inside the hen. The chick is fully formed and healthy, although the mother has died.

PR Yapa, the chief veterinary officer of Welimada, where it took place, said he had never seen anything like it before. When examining the hen’s carcass he found that the fertilised egg had developed within the hen’s reproductive system, but stayed inside the hen’s body until it hatched.

A post-mortem of the hen concluded that it died of internal wounds.

I have seen a lot of funky looking eggs, but have never even heard of a chick being born outside of an egg.  Eggs come in a variety of sizes, shapes and colours naturally. 

Quite a range of normal colours and sizes.

Once you work in the abnormal eggs, the range is extensive.   I was in a barn today where many of the brown eggs had “targets” on them….perfectly round white rings around a dark circle on the side of the egg.  I didn’t have a camera with me though….figures.

I’ve seen double-yolked eggs, triple-yolked eggs, shell-less eggs, round eggs, double-shelled eggs, and yolk-less eggs. 

Hen Reproductive tract

The double- and triple-yolked eggs are simply the avian version of twins and triplets, and are not that remarkable.  Double shelled eggs are odd (and rare), since the egg has to form in the shell gland, then be moved back up the reproductive tract to the magnum, where new membranes are added, then new shell is deposited as the egg re-descends through the shell gland.

These abnormal eggs are interesting, but should cause no concern to a flock owner.  There are eggs that are

Soft shelled, wrinkled and shiny eggs

symptoms of problems, and recognizing them will help you diagnose problems with your flock early enough to treat them effectively.  Soft shelled eggs and slab-sided eggs are symptoms of calcium deficiency in a hen.  Pimpled eggs can also be a sign of low calcium, if the shell is thin (pimpled eggs can be of 2

Slab Sided egg

types…1) the shell is normal thickness, with extra calcium causing raised nodules on the surface, or 2) thin shells with small areas of normal-thickness shells, that then seem to be raised areas).

 Slab sided eggs occur when an egg is held inside the bird for a day, and the next day’s egg comes down the tract, and lies against the formed egg that is in the way.  The new egg is a soft-shelled egg and deformable….it sits against the old egg as the shell is deposited on it….thus the flat side on the egg, and the round area of wrinkles around the flat side.  If you see these types of eggs in your nests, you should immediately assess the amount of calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D that is available to the hens, since hypocalcemia can result in weakness, sickness and death in a hen.

Another egg that should alert you to possible problems is a wrinkled egg.  It is usually a sign of an infection of some type.  Viral infections such as infectious bronchitis, egg drop syndrome and avian influenza can cause these types of eggs, but so can other illnesses that cause the hen to be fevered and dehydrated.  Imagine a yolk that gets covered by membranes in the magnum, but does not get its share of protein and water added to it while travelling through the

I've seen this only twice, but it does happen.

infundibulum….a partly full bag of water will result.  Once the calcium is added, the egg will stay wrinkled until it is laid.  A wrinkled egg is almost always a sign of illness.  Check that your hen is not wounded (wound infections can cause wrinkled eggs too), or showing any signs of illness.  Look carefully, because hens are often very stoic. 

It is, of course, important to know what is normal for your breed and type of hen.  Some hens lay dark eggs consistently, and light eggs may be a sign of problems….however some hens lay light brown eggs all the time.  A change is usually worth looking into….often subtle changes in egg color or texture can be the earliest sign you will get that your hens are missing something in their diet, or are facing a health problem.

If you find this egg in your coop....look for an escaped emu in the area!

 Mike the Chicken Vet

Spring is Coming….So is Coccidiosis!

Yesterday, spring sprung.  It was the warmest, sunniest, “springiest” St. Patricks day ever!  There were people in green t-shirts and shorts all over the place.  Shorts….in March….in Ontario, Canada.  This has been the year of the absent winter, and so I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that spring has come early.  I’m guessing that the spring has caught some backyard hen keepers a little by surprise.  There are some things that you should keep in mind, if you have hens outdoors this time of year.

All the organisms in your backyard are waking up….the water is sinking into the lawn, melting the frost, and sparking growth in plants, flowers, worms, bugs and all sorts of good things.  Unfortunately, along with all the good things, the nasty things in your yard are also waking up and rearing their ugly heads.  In terms of backyard hens, the big risk is parasites that have been lying dormant or under control all winter, that are bound to become more of a challenge for the flock as the weather gets warmer and wetter.

Coccidiosis is by far the biggest concern for backyard chickens.  Coccidiosis is a disease that encompasses a bunch of different “bugs” that live in the intestines of the bird, and are deposited in the environment every time the bird poops.  According to wikipedia, coccidia ” is a subclass of microscopic, spore-forming, single-celled obligate intracellular parasites belonging to the apicomplexan class Conoidasida.”  Hope you got that.   In english, coccidia are small parasites that MUST live inside the intestine cells of animals (in this case, chickens). The interesting thing is that they produce spores when they reproduce.  A spore makes a cockroach look like a frail butterfly.  Nuclear war, napalm and fire-breathing dragons are the only reliable ways to kill cocci spores.  This means that if you have chickens, you WILL have cocci spores in the area in which they live.  Spores start to develop and become infective after they get moist.

Cocci under a microscope. The shell around the 2 organisms is INCREDIBLY tough, and can live in your soil for months to years before it becomes infective.

Depending on how you manage your coop, now is the time that any build up of manure from over the winter will have the best chance of getting wet.  Also, any fresh droppings this time of year will sporulate almost immediately, since most chicken runs at this time of year are bound to have muddy areas.  Although treating coccidiosis is usually relatively effective, depending on the strain of cocci you have, and what other bacteria are present in your environment, birds can become very ill very quickly if coccidiosis gets going in your flock.  For this reason, it is best to manage the problem before it happens, since responding to it is sometimes too late. 

This is a milder stage of coccidiosis. She just looks "off", with ruffled feathers, a shrunken comb, and droopy wings. She will be contaminating the environment for the other hens.

If at all possible, move your chicken run regularly.  Any area that is consistently fouled with manure will eventually become severely contaminated with bacteria, viruses and parasites, so this is a good management practice regardless.  You should make it a special priority to move the run in the spring, however.  Because of the “load” that has built up over the winter, the disease challenge during spring thaw and muddy period  is especially high.  If you can get the hens to a clean area for several weeks until the yard dries up, you can prevent most of the parasite infections, and the severe illnesses that can follow coccidiosis infection, which can result in sudden death in affected hens.

This is a severely affected pullet. Notice the ruffled feathers, closed eyes...you can imagine how quiet and depressed she will act

If your birds do get coccidiosis, you will see chickens that look ruffled, rough coated, lethargic and will want to spend a lot of time sitting around.  Sometimes they will lay on their sides to keep pressure off their sore stomachs.  Their droppings will range from diarrhea to green paste, to blood tinged loose manure to black blobs that are made primarily of digested blood.

This is one way coccidiosis can show up in the manure....wet droppings with a fair bit of mucus.

If you see any of these signs, quick response is important.  Besides not wanting you birds to be sick, it’s important to treat the birds because they are full of cocci, and they are vigorously contaminating the run and coop, putting all the hens at greater risk of getting sick.  If you do get coccidiosis, it is most effective to treat the entire flock, since sub-clinical cocci is very common.  If you treat individual birds, you will just get one better, then another will come up sick.  If you treat them all, you break the life cycle of the bug, and the hens can get back to normal.

So remember, keeping the hens’ environment dry and clean will prevent many infections from occurring.  I realise this can be very difficult, depending on the weather, but the effort is worth it.  Also, treating the entire flock at the first sign of infection will help prevent more hens from coming down with the disease.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Be Careful what you Wish For….EU Egg Crisis

I am “up” on the animal welfare issues facing laying hen farmers across the world.  Different jurisdictions are dealing with hen housing in different ways, trying to find a balance between production efficiencies, animal welfare, consumer demands, environmental impact, food safety, and many other concerns.  The European Union has been touted as the leader in this regard, leading the way in banning conventional cages as of January 1/ 2012.  Animal rights organizations have long been using this as the “gold standard” when they criticized other areas for not moving fast enough on this issue.

Unfortunately for the EU, their policy has had some holes in it.  Recent newspaper articles have shown that there is an egg supply crisis in the EU…

“Britain’s supermarket shelves could be empty of key products within a month as an acute shortage of eggs threatens to have serious consequences for the country’s food chain. New EU rules banning the housing of hens in conventional cages are being blamed for what some in the industry are already labelling a “crisis”, as competition among food manufacturers to source eggs sends prices rocketing. The price of eggs on the EU wholesale market has nearly quadrupled over the past week to more than four euros a kilo.” The Guardian, Mar 4/2012


“France is now suffering a shortfall of 21 million eggs a week or 10 per cent of overall production, the National Union of Egg Industries and Professionals said in a statement. As a result, egg prices shot up 75 per cent between October last year and February”  Ottawa Citizen, Mar 2/ 2012

The mistake that the EU made was that they tried to be too much to too many people, and they did not enforce a “phase-in” period.  (As an aside, I would like to point out that I have the benefit of hindsight and the ability to analyze what other jurisdictions have done since the EU directive was enacted in 1999….I am NOT criticizing the program, or the people who developed it.  They were WAY ahead of the curve, and did an excellent job.  They weren’t perfect however, and this situation can serve as a cautionary tale for other jurisdictions, like Canada, that are still deciding how to deal with the issue.)

The EU (under pressure from animal rights groups), decided that conventional cages were unacceptable, and legislated them out of existence.  They gave a 12 year “accommodation period” for the industry to adapt to the legislation, but didn’t demand a gradual uptake of alternative housing.  What happened is that farmers put off the huge investment for as long as they could (remember the unlucky coincidence of the world-wide recession in this period).  The legislation also discouraged farmers from investing in furnished cages (again, because any cage system was discouraged by animal rights groups), by categorizing them as “cage” eggs, and not paying a premium for them.  This resulted in many farms hesitating to moving to free-run or aviary systems, since they are less efficient and much different to manage.

There are two situations that have resulted….some countries have aggressively adopted the new requirements, and have been importing the eggs that they have not been able to produce locally, since the new systems are somewhat less efficient.  Now, however:

“Under the new rules, manufacturers are not now permitted to source their eggs from non-compliant EU countries, 13 of which have yet to introduce the new pens.” The Guardian, Mar 4/2012.  Because of this, even compliant countries are short of eggs, especially for commercial markets, such as for bakeries and food production facilities that use liquid or powdered eggs as ingredients.

“Cake and brioche manufacturers [in France] may soon be forced to shut down production and temporarily lay off workers if shortages continue.” Ottawa Citizen, Mar 2/2012.  I’m not 100% sure what brioche is, but it sounds yummy, and if it not produced anymore, I expect the world will suffer.

Countries in the EU are still unhappy with the directive….Irish sources state:


“Unfortunately, the cost of complying with the directive and the way in which it was implemented forced an estimated 10% to 15% of our producers out of business. This has resulted in a tightening of egg supplies and a rise in the price of eggs. ” Belfast Telegraph, Mar 10/2012.

They say a fool never learns, a smart man learns from his mistakes, and a wise man learns from other men’s mistakes.  If this is true, what can be learned from the EU example? 

First, putting together these types of sweeping rules is VERY complicated, the pitfalls are deep and plentiful, and the repercussions are HUGE.  So, as frustrating as it is to say, it is necessary to approach this issue slowly and carefully.  I have been really frustrated in the pace of change in the industry, but moving forward slowly and correctly is much more effective than moving quickly.  Jurisdictions such as the United States have proposed plans that give a phase in period, but have required benchmarks that require a certain amount of the industry to be compliant an interim times.  Other jurisdictions, such as Manitoba, have started to pay an incentive for hens housed in furnished cages, as well as loose-housed systems. 

I think that improving welfare is important, and it is the right thing to do.  All the farmers I work with agree, and want to do the right thing for their birds.  The unfortunate thing is that the question is so complicated that it is impossible to know for sure what the right answer is.  And the repercussions of moving the wrong way is losing your life’s work.  We can do it, and we can do it right.  I would like to thank the EU for paving the way with a really good first draft of a welfare program.  I can’t wait to be part of the committee that improves on the system of implementation that they developed.

Mike the Chicken Vet


Some Cool things about Chickens

I was asked last week if I could give a tour to some grade school students from the big city to show them where eggs come from (Sobey’s is about as far as most of em get).  I was contacted third-party, and was given the teacher’s address and waited for her to contact me with details.  I had no idea what age group, or what the teacher had in mind as goals for the tour, but since I was working in a chicken barn for a couple of hours, I started thinking about what to tell the kids when they came.  Unfortunately, the tour got postponed, but my ideas are still valid, so I am going to impose them on you…..imagine you are in grade 7…..you are in a chicken barn for the first time ever, and this super-cool, engaging, professional guy is telling you interesting stuff about chickens….. (if the guy was ACTUALLY super-cool, would he use the term “super-cool”? ….nevermind);

You all know that chickens are different from mammals….but do you know how, or why?

The biggest difference between birds and mammals is that birds fly.  Most of the major differences between birds and mammals are changes that enable birds to fly…….Yes Johnny?  I know bats fly too….don’t worry about it…..that is just an exception.

Chickens have no teeth.  Enamel is very dense and heavy, so not developing them lightens the birds so they can fly more easily.

Chickens lay eggs instead of carrying their young inside them.  Can you imagine a pregnant bird trying to fly?

Chickens have hollow bones, which reduces body weight, which makes them better able to fly.  — Yes Johnny?  I know penguins don’t have hollow bones….they don’t fly either….they have “de-evolved” hollow bones

Chickens have a gut-passage time of 2 hours.  That means that a piece of chicken feed turns into a piece of chicken manure in 2 hours.  This means that the birds digest food and get the nutrients out very quickly….making them carry less weight inside them.

Feathers keep birds warmer than hair does.  This allows birds to have less body fat, and thus less weight.  No Johnny…..skinny cats cannot fly…..

Birds have red blood cells with nuclei in them.  This makes it more efficient for birds to make red blood cells, and so more of the blood is made up of red blood cells, allowing the blood to carry more oxygen than mammals….this is really useful for long flights, since birds don’t get tired easily.

Birds have one way airflow through their lungs…..they don’t inhale, then push the used air out back out, over the lung tissues and back up the windpipe….they have structures called air-sacs…..the air comes in through the windpipe, over the lungs, then into the air-sacs, then out of the windpipe on the NEXT exhalation.  This means that only fresh, oxygen rich air ever touches the lungs.  This makes the lungs more efficient, and gives the bird more energy, which makes them better able to fly long distances.  No, Johnny…..chickens don’t really fly well….but they have all these characteristics because most birds fly a lot.

When chickens relax, their feet close tightly.  This is how they can sleep on perches.  Chickens actually have to actively let go with their feet.  You’re right Johnny…that has nothing to do with flying…..

Chickens can see ultraviolet light, as well as all the visible light we can see.  They see colours that we can’t even imagine.

Chickens have almost no taste buds…..humans have over 10,000 taste buds, while chickens have 20-30 taste buds.  Sigh, Yes Johnny….this also has nothing to do with flying……

Chickens only recognize friends once they get within 24 inches of each other.

Chickens recognize each other by way of facial characteristics.  YES Johnny…..I KNOW you recognize your friends by their faces too…..

You know….maybe it’s not a tragedy that the tour got postponed…..maybe Johnny will be sick on the alternate day….

Mike the Chicken Vet

Why Don’t Cities Want Backyard Chickens?

I just got interviewed for a magazine article on backyard flocks (I will read the article, and if I don’t sound like an idiot, I will let you know which magazine it is 😉 ).  A question that the reporter asked me is “why WOULDN’T cities allow backyard flocks of chickens”.  It got me thinking…..I have been involved on both sides of the debate, most recently in Toronto, where the issue was voted down, and the opportunity to legalize henning was not pursued.  I know personally several chicken owners in the city, and they were understandably disappointed, and also confused.  Why? was a question I was asked several times.

HOW could they possibly think this is a bad idea?

The pro’s of keeping backyard hens have been clearly and effectively put forth by the proponents:

  1. Chickens make good pets…they are personable, quiet, small and reasonably cute
  2. Chickens produce eggs….arguements that they will contribute to food security, local food movements, and sustainability
  3. Chickens are not loud or smelly, won’t bite the neighbors (and if they do, they don’t have any teeth anyway), and they teach people (especially kids) about where their food comes from, and makes people appreciate the wonder of food production.

Why, then, would the evil bureaucracy machines not allow chickens to be kept inside city limits?

I am not against keeping chickens in the city.  I feel there is a big benefit to city dwellers learning about and understanding where their food comes from….I think that most urbanites are WAY too ignorant about the food chain, and any knowledge is great.  I also think that chickens can make good pets….not for everyone, but like rats, fish, hedgehogs, lizards and snakes, there are a proportion of people who find them fascinating and wonderful companions.

My concerns, and those of most municipalities that I have advised (I’ve been in the debate in 5 or 6 largish cities in Ontario), is that if chicken keeping is not done well, the risk of animal suffering and human disease is significant.

The biggest risk (ironically, also the biggest benefit) to keeping urban chickens is the general ignorance people have of chickens.  What do chickens need to eat to be healthy?  What temperature should the coop be able to maintain for the birds comfort and health?  How can I dispose of 2 lbs of manure per chicken per week?  What breed is appropriate for my climate?  What should I do with my chickens in the winter?  Should I clean eggs that have manure on them?  How?  What should I do with an egg with a crack in it?  What does a sick chicken look like?  Where could I take a sick chicken to be treated in an emergency?

How do you design a bylaw to prevent this from happening?

These questions are the tip of the iceberg of things that a backyard farmer must know before embarking on the oddessy that is henning.  None of these questions are complicated, or difficult to answer, given a bit of research and motivation.  Ironically, most people who are currently keeping chickens illegally are well educated in these matters, and are capable of keeping chickens in a safe, healthy manner.  The risk of making “henning” legal in a municipality is that anyone can decide, on a whim, to get some hens because it might be fun, and geez….we get FREE eggs!!!

If a municipality condones such an enterprise, they implicitly assume some of the responsibility for what happens when their bylaws are followed.  If complaints come in for chickens freezing to death in a poorly made coop, city council will be asked why they permit that to happen.  If someone gets very ill, or, heaven forbid, dies from food borne illness from backyard eggs, fingers will point towards city hall.  If there is a family of children that get sick from playing in the backyard amongst the manure of hens, well, you get the idea.

So, the challenge that municipalities face is developing a bylaw and a method of policing it that makes it impossible for people to cause themselves or their hens undue stress.  The bylaw also has to deal with keeping vermin to a minimum, finding ways to make appropriate feed available, planning for the disposition of manure (the concern is always, “what if this REALLY catches on?”)

If you saw this in your neighbours yard, would you call city hall to complain?

I have discussed methods of licensing backyard flocks, requirements for the setups that would prevent animal suffering, ways to prove that henners have safe egg handling protocols and ways to trace where eggs go from backyard flocks (let’s face it, not many families will eat 3 eggs per day….eggs will inevitably be given away to neighbors).

These programs are not complicated, and the problems are not insurmountable, but most municipalities find that the cost of setting up and implementing the program insurmountable, especially for the small number of people who are interested in keeping hens.

You may still think that city hall acts as the evil empire, illogically keeping hens out of the city, and you could have good reasons to think that.  At least now you know that their motivation is for the good of the people and animals that they are designing the bylaws for….whether they could do better is another discussion, but (in my experience), councillors hearts are usually in the right place.

Mike the Chicken Vet