With more people keeping poultry in their backyards, learning how to look after your birds so they are healthy and in good condition is essential. A healthy hen will produce lots of delicious eggs even over the colder winter months if she is kept in a nice, clean environment and fed a good quality varied diet.
A healthy flock will boast great plumage and their skin will be in top condition too. However, skin on chickens is a lot different to that of other animals and is in fact a lot more delicate too. It's only attached to muscles in a few areas on their bodies yet it is very firmly connected to their skeletons especially on their feet and at the end of their wings. One very noticeable thing about their skin is that when injured it heals extremely quickly.
When it comes to feathers, the follicles lay in tracts, but there are areas on a chickens body where no feathers grow for a very good reason which is because these featherless patches help them regulate their body temperature. Chickens don't have any sweat glands which means they can overheat all too easily when kept in environments that are not well ventilated or when the weather is extremely hot.
When hens go broody they lose all the feathers on their undersides to expose bare skin which is known as a brood patch. This ensures eggs stay in contact with the chicken's warm skin and it also helps eggs retain moisture. Chickens living in hotter climates tend to have less feathers on their bodies so they can cope with hotter temperatures. One example being the Transylvanian Naked Neck where all their exposed skin is bright red in colour instead of the normal white.
The skin of most breeds is white, but breeds like the Silkie have much darker skin and the Rhode Island Red's skin is yellow. When it comes to leg colours, these vary according to breeds and plumage, but breeding cockerels tend to have a red streak down their legs. Laying hens lose the yellow colour in their legs because this pigment is needed for the yolks!
Both combs and wattles have a very good supply of blood and if the bird is healthy these are typically bright red in colour with the exception of darker faced breeds that is. A chicken's earlobes can be various colours and again this depends on the breed, but they can be any of the following:
However, a point worth remembering is that hens with white earlobes lay white shelled eggs because they are genetically linked to each other.
A chicken's beak is pretty robust being made out of very hard keratin and it continues to grow through the bird's life. Very often if chickens don't get to scratch around and peck at the earth, their beaks grow too long making it hard for them to eat. Battery hen's have their beaks cut really far back which is another reason why these lovely birds should not be kept in this way!
Their claws are also made out of keratin and again just like our nails, these grow throughout their lives. If birds are kept on soft ground, their claws overgrow and need to be trimmed back so they walk comfortably. Both cockerels and hens can have spurs with some males having very long ones because they can grow anything up to half an inch in a year. In short, the older the cockerel, the longer their spurs will be.
The scales on a chicken's legs moult every year but in healthy birds, these should always be nice and smooth. If the scales are proud, it's a sure sign the bird has got a condition known as scaly leg which would need treating as soon as possible. A chicken's foot pads act like shock absorbers and if they get cut in any way, the injury can quickly become infected causing all sorts of problems, one of which is a painful condition known as bumblefoot.
Chickens have ear canals rather than ears and these are tucked safely away behind a tuft of small feathers. Glands in the canals often exude a little ear wax but this is not usually something you need to be worried about, unless there's an excessive amount of discharge that is.
The preen gland is important and is located just above a bird's tail. In a healthy bird, the preen gland will produce enough oily substance so that birds can preen themselves which helps keep their feathers waterproofed. It also helps keep a bird's beak and leg scales in nicely supple and in good condition.
There are certain obvious signs when things are not quite right with chickens and which show up on their combs, wattles and even on the general look of their feathers. These include the following:
This is could be a sign your bird is anaemic which means there could be a mite infestation that needs sorting out both on your birds and in their housing.
This is a typical sign of a fungal infection which is called Favus. Chickens catch is from old, damp wood in their environment. The best treatment is a long-acting athlete's foot cream which can be applied to their combs as needed.
A purple coloured comb is a sign that a bird might be suffering from a weak heart and therefore their circulation is not what it should be. Stress can be the cause but you can get medication from the vet to help treat your chicken and manage the condition.
If you find a bird with a black comb, it could be they've been fighting and it's just dried blood. However, in the winter time, when the weather is really cold, it could be that they have got frostbite. Birds with larger combs and more especially cockerels that are more prone to suffering from frostbite so it's important to put Vaseline on them when the weather is extremely cold.