Respiratory Illness in Your Flock

It all started, really, with the loss of my Poe. She was a black Easter Egger who had my whole heart and changed me as a human. About a month after Poe died, we had our first hawk attack in the whole six years we have been raising chickens. And I came upon it right in the middle of the attack. Then, about a month later, we had another.

We have a large fenced area (about 3/4 of an acre) for our chickens, complete with lots of trees and many places to duck and cover. In all of our years of keeping chickens, we didn’t have a single hawk attack. When we had two back to back, I started to research heavily. I knew confining everyone to the run was the quickest solution. I read that due to lower than normal numbers of birds in our area that year, hawk attacks were on the rise. But after about a month with our flock confined the run, I realized I didn’t want my flock to live like this. They became stressed and started to exhibit some health issues related to the stress.

I set them free in their 3/4 acre again and decided the risk was worth their happiness– their joy in getting to scratch in the leaves, tromp in the garden for the gleaning, and dust bathe wherever they felt like digging a good hole.

But I had read in some folklore (and while I am an academic and science lover in my mind, I am a folklorist at heart) that black chickens, which look like crows, can help keep hawks away.

It made sense in my heart-broken desperation, of course. With Poe, we had no hawk attacks. Without Poe, hawk attacks.

So I went online and found a local chicken person with black Easter Eggers listed for sale. I was a little worried that the hens, though beautiful, seemed lethargic. We kept them in quarantine for a few days. I was mainly worried about mites. I saw no signs of anything and put them with the flock. I knew I was breaking the rules of quarantine for new birds, but I had done it once before and been lucky.

This time, I would not be so lucky. Desperation and sadness will often lead to bad decisions. This would be no different.

Within a few days, everyone in the flock was acting kind of strange. That’s the only way I can describe it. I remember closing them up one night and realizing they didn’t talk back to me when I told them goodnight. I was scared about what might be going on. Within a week, my first hens were coming down with respiratory issues, and these issues were pretty epic. If I thought the hawk attacks had been my worst nightmare as a chicken owner, I think the realization that my entire flock had been exposed to a serious respiratory issue ran a close second. It was devastating, and it was my fault.

I am terrible at making a long story short, but I need to. I want to help inform others about what I went through and what worked as treatment—and what didn’t work.

I contacted my vet, and we were not able to test for Coryza on a live chicken, but my flock experienced almost all of the symptoms. Because we are not sure if we had Coryza, we have decided to play it safe and keep our flock closed for the rest of ever.

The main symptoms were rales, runny nose, sneezing, and swelling around the eyes and face on some birds. Some also experienced gunky eyes. The only symptom of Coryza we did not experience was the smelly, runny poop. However, I have read that respiratory illnesses can be pretty severe and still not be Coryza, so there is a chance we just had a really bad respiratory illness. Still, I proceeded as if I was treating Coryza.

The rales were the worst, I think. We started out isolating birds who showed signs in our garage, and the rales were so loud some nights I could hear them in the house. It was like some kind of Edgar Allan Poe story where I was being constantly reminded of my sin of bringing in the sick birds, who just so happened to be black and looked like little ravens. You can’t make this stuff up.

I spent months treating what would eventually turn out to be every single member of our flock. Morning and night, I would do rounds of treatments on my sickest patients. Some were highly cooperative; some were not. Of course, they were grumpy at being so sick. I was bitten and scratched, and, of course, I deserved it all, I thought. I work full time and also homeschool my son, so being a nurse to 30 chickens took a toll for sure. I felt so worn.

In the end, I was treating someone from the end of October to the end of January. Below, you will find a list of symptoms and treatments I used. I am just completely honest here about what worked and didn’t work for me.

Others may have different experiences, of course, but I wanted to share what I did, as we did not lose a single hen. I read everywhere that the best thing to do is to cull. I am so glad I didn’t.

Symptoms

Rales (see video below)

Runny nose

Sneezing

Gurgled breathing

Swollen face and eyes (sometimes really swollen)

Gunky eyes

This is what rales sound like. It’s heartbreaking.

Treatments

TreatmentHow AppliedEffect
Vet RxWarmed and applied to nostrils and around the head. The instructions say you can administer it orally, but I chose not to, as I was putting other things in their little beaks. The instructions also say to put some at the wing, where the chickens tuck their heads, and I did this, only I didn’t keep it to the wing. I noticed where each individual chicken preferred to tuck in and then applied the Vet Rx in that spot. The purpose of this is so the chicken can breathe in the vapors. It’s kind of like an herbal Vicks.This had little effect that I could really notice—but some. I think it may be helpful with much milder symptoms, but I also think it maybe took the edge off when things were at their worst.
Oregano Oil/Olive OilI dosed chickens with 1 ml of olive oil before I got the oregano oil. I used a syringe and put the 1 ml of the olive oil or the water/oregano oil mixture down their throats (with Oregano oil, be sure to get the kind you can ingest and follow the directions on the bottle if diluting is necessary. I did this for 3 to 4 days with any chicken who had bad rales.Both of these seemed to do some good relieving some of the rales—at least taking the edge off. I think the oregano oil worked a little better, but both helped.
OreganoI added dry oregano to food and to nesting areas several times throughout the winter.It is difficult for me to say if this helped, but it did seem to help the overall immune response. I can only say for sure it didn’t hurt and may have helped.
Grapefruit Seed ExtractI added 30 drops per gallon of water every day when I changed the water.The idea with this is that it supposed to help the immune system, kind of like apple cider vinegar. I couldn’t tell much from this, but my chickens did recover. It definitely didn’t hurt and could have helped.
Colloidal SilverI gave sick chickens 1 ml of this in the morning, and when things were at their worst, I tried to do the 1 ml in the morning and at night.This helped more than anything I used, outside of the antibiotics. I found out about it a few weeks in, so I didn’t have it right away. I found it to be amazing at reducing the head swelling and just shortening symptoms overall. I had one hen come down with a very swollen face. I gave her a dose of Colloidal Silver, and by that evening, the swelling was almost completely gone. It is supposed to be an immune system booster, and it worked better than any natural treatment I have ever seen. I will never be without it again.
AntibioticsI took one hen to the vet for help and to get a prescription for antibiotics. Everything I read said to use Tylan 50 for this kind of issue, but it is no longer available over the counter. The vet actually prescribed a different all-around antibiotic. I used the antibiotics on three of our oldest hens who had the worst symptoms and both of our roosters. This worked, of course. One of my favorite hen’s eyes were so infected I thought we were going to lose her, but after two days on the antibiotics, the swelling was down and she was on the mend. The issue with this is that my vet visit cost more than $200. Also, as I heard and then learned from this experience, the illness can and did come back anyway, just as with other treatments. Everyone who was treated with antibiotics did relapse. But I am glad I had the antibiotics for my worst cases.
Clean Dry CoopAs soon as we found out what we were dealing with, my husband and I stripped down the coop and cleaned it from top to bottom. My husband vacuumed any dust in the nooks and crannies and in the rafters.This worked, but it’s critical to keep it up, like forever. You have to make sure you have really good ventilation, and you just have to keep the coop really clean. In the late winter, after everyone seemed to be healed up and over the respiratory illness, we had some really damp cold weather, like swampy and miserable. The coop got a little damp because we forgot to open up the front vents, and two chickens started sneezing and gurgling again. Keeping the coop super clean and dry for the rest of ever seems to be critical.

I think the moral to this story is to not give up hope, even if your entire flock gets really sick. I have some really old hens who took a long time to get well. Both of my hens who had the antibiotics were older and relapsed pretty hard. They were both sick for nearly three months! But you would never know it now. They are happy and healthy now.

Preventative Measures

I have also learned that I now have to live my life as a chicken keeper in preventative mode. I have to constantly work to limit stress, keep the coop super clean and dry, and use natural supplements to build my flocks immune systems.

For preventative, I use the grapefruit seed extracts in the dosage listed above, oregano oil, and I use small amounts of the colloidal silver. At least every other day or so, I add 1 and 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of the colloidal silver to their five gallon water bucket. I have also just started using oregano oil in the water to try something different than the colloidal silver, and it worked as well. I also continue to periodically add dry oregano to food.

As a testament to the success of these treatments, this summer, we let several of our broody hens raise babies. I was very worried about what might happen. Of course, these babies could never leave our property, as our flock is closed forever, but the babies all did very well. When the weather turned cold, the young chickens did get some very mild symptoms with a little sneezing and coughing, but the symptoms passed rather quickly and with no treatment beyond my preventative measures that have now become my habits. Their immunity is being built, and that’s really what beating this is all about, I think.

*Please note I was not paid to promote any of these treatments. I simply research treatments others had tried and tried them myself. My opinions are based only on my experiences treating my chickens. If you have any questions, you can post them below, and I will do my best to answer them. Please just keep in mind that I cannot diagnose chicken illnesses and believe that no one really can very well over the internet.

Mary Jane’s Long Dance: A Hen’s Story

It seemed difficult for me to decide what to write about for my first blog post for Farmer-ish, but, today, as I work through my day, despite all that is going on in the world, my thoughts have turned to Tom Petty and a hen named Mary Jane in his honor.

I hesitated to write about Mary Jane for my first post, but what better example is there of the way my life has somehow managed to weave itself so deeply around both farming and the arts?

Here’s the background.

On the day Tom Petty died, which was three years ago this day, my husband and I were processing meat chickens. We had done it only a few times at this point, and the days of processing were always hard on both of us. First of all, it’s hard work, and though my husband always bears the brunt of it, I am his assistant in the endeavor. I work from sun up to well past sun down with him. Second of all, it’s a deeply emotional experience.

To not only know where your food comes from but to also know your food will change you. Over time, the experiences have led us down a path where we eat far less meat and eat vegetarian meals more and more. But that’s another story.

This story is about Mary Jane. And Tom Petty.

There was always something special to me about Tom Petty–the poetry in his lyrics, his deep understanding of those of us who are broken for our various reasons. It was only after his death that I learned about how he, too, had been broken by his childhood, which explained so much about that deep empathy and artistic soul.

My husband was outside processing when I came inside the house to take a break on October 2, 2017. I went online to skim the news. There, I saw the headline that Tom Petty had died. It had been a rough year for all of us, for our country, and losing Tom Petty hurt badly. I just sat and cried for a bit.

I went outside with my red face and hollered at my husband from our back porch, “Hey, Tom Petty died today.”

“What?” he asked, and then the understanding came. “No!” he said in sadness.

He stopped what he was doing, and we talked for a bit–about our disbelief and sadness. It was like losing a friend. Of course, we didn’t know Tom Petty at all, but I felt like he had been with me through his music my whole life.

Now, a little more background.

Every single time we processed meat chickens, I would always start asking to save a few, especially the hens. In my mind, it’s more than just an emotional appeal; it’s logic. A hen makes so much food for someone over her lifetime because of the eggs she lays, more food than someone can get from processing her.

“But these are meat birds,” my husband would always respond. “They don’t live very long.”

It was true. Meat chickens are bred for very short lives. They grow large quickly, and even though we have never purchased the kind that grows so quickly they struggle to walk, the reality is that meat chickens are definitely not meant for longevity. We both knew this.

But that evening in October, in the sadness of Tom Petty’s loss, my husband agreed to give the last hen a chance. She was smart. She had dodged him all day, and she would be reprieved.

“She has to be named Mary Jane,” he said. I agreed.

In the coming days and weeks and months, we would listen exclusively to Tom Petty’s music, and I was inspired to write. I wrote a short piece about Tom Petty’s impact on my life that was featured on the front page of Huff Post, only for a few hours, but there I was. I would later go on to publish a collection of essays about Tom Petty’s work. It was as if Tom Petty’s creativity was contagious to me. And, in my frenzy of writing, I also wrote about Mary Jane.

When I shared Mary Jane’s story, many Tom Petty fans reached out to me. “Here’s hoping Mary Jane lives a long and healthy life,” one person wrote to me. I didn’t have to heart to explain that Mary Jane was a meat bird and that “long” for her might be just 18 months.

But I really liked Mary Jane, and over the years, I came to love her. That’s right, I said years! Mary Jane is now just about 3 and 1/2 years old and is still with us; she is just a magnificent bird. She’s huge, like the size of a turkey, and she’s even smarter in her age. She knows her name and somehow knows exactly when to run and hide when I am coming for her for a health check.

Last year, she nearly died. I brought in a little hen who infected our whole flock with a respiratory illness. Mary Jane took it the hardest, as of course she would. She was an older meat bird. But we moved her into the garage, and I got on my hands and knees every night for weeks giving her medicine. She hated it all and fought me like crazy. Essentially, I had to fight with a turkey every night.

After a while, and in my exhaustion, I just decided to put remedies in her food and hope for the best. I thought, perhaps, my battle to get the meds in her was maybe causing her enough stress to hinder her recovery. So I took good care and waited and watched.

After nearly three full months of battling the illness, that hen fully recovered. Mary Jane has will.

Then, miraculously, this spring, Mary Jane even started laying again–and on the regular! We now have a Mary Jane baby on our little farm named Petty, and somehow, Mary Jane is, indeed, living a long and healthy life.

Much has changed in my life since the day Tom Petty died and Mary Jane got to live. We no longer listen to Tom Petty music exclusively. Our little boy is a cellist, so we listen almost exclusively to classical music. Interestingly, after a few years of listening to classical music all day every day, we can’t listen to popular music anymore–with one exception, of course–Tom Petty.

Sometimes, late at night, I go to our basement for quiet while I grade essays, and I listen to my Tom Petty favorites. I think about the impact a man I never met has had on my life. And, tonight, in the middle of writing this, I just went to the chicken coop and tucked in Mary Jane and gave her an extra pet. She didn’t even seem to mind.