SNUGGLES WITH CHICKENS
The Continuing (Mis)adventures of a Dirt-worshipping Tree-hugger and Her Pet Chickens.
CHICKEN HEALTH AND WELLBEING
It seemed to me that it might be helpful to write up, as many others have done, my learning experiences regarding the health and well-being of my girls, for whatever benefit it might offer the greater community here. I've been a panicky momma from day one, but I have calmed down a bit, and I have learned a lot about poop, molt, dirt-baths, and other features of chicken lives.
I've perused BackYardChickens and other online communities at length, as well as several more clinical sources of knowledge about chicken health. I continue to experiment, judiciously, with good foods and helpful treatments to keep my chooks in good health. These are the things that I have learned so far:
Fortunately for my own sanity, I'm already fairly familiar with the physiological processes of molt, because I study wild birds. So when I came home one day to find a mostly-naked Fish running around the yard, I didn't panic. Still, she was the last of the girls to go through her annual "puberty"; Kitty and Princess threw me a couple of curves during their respective molts.
The thing about molt is this: it's not just about losing and replacing feathers. It's a comprehensive overhaul of the whole system, including replacement and replenishment of muscle and organ tissue, and major fluctuations in seasonal hormones (hence, "annual puberty". Can you imagine?!?). The basic avian annual cycle goes something like this: breed, molt, migrate, fuel up, (partial molt), migrate, breed, molt, etc. Birds almost never lay eggs and complete their annual molt at the same time, because both activities are such a major drain on a bird's resources. Migration is also a very big deal in the birds that do it, so they slot in their molt between breeding and migration periods, either molting before they leave for their wintering grounds, or waiting to molt until after they reach their wintering grounds (this is a general rule with a few fascinating - to me - exceptions). Non-migratory birds, like the ancestors of chickens, usually do their molt in the late summer or early fall, after breeding is finished but before resources are at a low ebb for the winter.
Molt is a necessary process that preserves the aerodynamic and insulating qualities of feathers. Anyone with a down quilt knows what awesome insulation feathers make, and much the best of human flying technology is based on the superb function of bird feathers. Flight feathers are light, and they "zip" together, forming a surface ideal for minute manipulations of airflow over the wing. Even in birds like chickens, for whom flight seems arduous and awkward at best, impossible at worst, the aerodynamic benefits of their wings still likely offer some advantage when trying to escape predators or get to the good food first. Sorry, digression. Anyway, the other reason feathers are so great for flight is that they are incredibly light - and this is where the necessity of molting comes in. The structure of feathers is degraded over the course of a year by wind, weather, UV radiation, and wear. In order to maintain their aerodynamic function, as well as their insulative properties in the case of contour feathers, the feathers need to be replaced periodically.
This I knew before I got my girls and mothered them through their first major molt. What I failed to consider was exactly how much energy this process would require of the girls, and how that would translate to body condition. As each of my girls began to drop feathers, they also began to drop weight. Additionally, they each suffered a bout of very watery poop that lasted at least a few weeks. Each bird lost 2 lbs or more during the first month or so of their molt. And on a 5 lb bird, that's not an insignificant amount! When I first noticed this, with Princess, I was terrified. My poor little girl, nothing but skin and bones! I checked her over obsessively, weighing her each week, checking vent and ears for mites, poop for blood or worms, and eyes and nose for discharge. Nothing. Aside from the weight loss and the super-watery poop, she was fine. She remained inquisitive and active, with a reasonable appetite (although she's always been finicky), and the only other change that I saw was that she went to bed a bit earlier and slept a bit more. When, after a few weeks of anxiety, worming medicine, garlic, and coddling, she was still alive and well, it occurred to me that all this might just be related to her molt. And as she began to finish replacing her feathers, her poop became normal and she began to put weight back on; she is now heavier than her pre-molt weight, and has begun "squatting" for me again, suggesting that she's through with molting and (hopefully?) ready to lay at least a couple eggs a week through the winter. Then first Kitty and then Fish went through similar drops in weight accompanied by molt and runny poop, so I now feel confident that those "symptoms" are a normal part of the molting process. (I would certainly love to hear from folks who have noticed something similar with their birds).