Two-year old flock dying off rapidly

Nelliebee

In the Brooder
Apr 16, 2021
7
5
11
We have a mixed flock of around 40 birds free-ranging in a tree belt along with 1 rooster and 2 geese. They’re various ages from 2-yrs old to some POLs we raised ourselves. The 2-yr olds are the starter flock of 12 Isa Browns and black tails that we got before chicken math set in. Over the last few weeks, we’ve lost several in very short succession, all with the same symptoms: weight loss until they become lethargic, at which point they decline very rapidly and die over night.

The first time it happened, we did a necropsy and found a large tumour. Not 100% certain that’s what it was, but it was a large amorphous yellowish mass in her abdomen outside her reproductive tract (we’d initially thought she was egg bound until we realised we couldn’t reach the mass through her vent). The second time there were several smaller masses, again associated with but not inside her reproductive tract. Now it’s happened a third and fourth time and we didn’t do a necropsy because we couldn’t feel any masses from the outside, but otherwise the symptoms and trajectory were the same- they were behaving like perfectly happy hens, albeit a skinny ones, until one evening one couldn’t stir herself to go to bed and had died by morning. The other one died in the coop with no warning.

I should note, they all stopped laying at 18 months. We thought they must be laying in the field somewhere and we just couldn’t find the nest, but now I think they really have stopped.

At first we thought it was just bad luck and sometimes hens just get cancer, but now it’s happened four times, we’re worried there’s something else going on. I’d appreciate any idea anyone might have.

Whatever it is, it only seems to be affecting the older birds. They are our only industrial breeds, the others are a hotch potch of different, slightly less productive, birds. I wondered if it might just be a bad batch of girls not bred to last more than a year and, as they’re all doubtlessly very closely related, it didn’t surprise me it affected more than one, but it’s seemingly impacting both the black tails and the Isa Browns, and they should be more genetically diverse.

Husbandry wise, we have two coops and all the affected birds have been in the same one, but then they’re all from the same batch, so I’m not sure that means anything. They’re all vaccinated and the coop is cleaned regularly. We found red mite a few weeks ago, but that’s been sorted out now. They free-range in a large wooded shelter belt and this particular group have learned to hop over the fence and go wherever they fancy, including rampaging through the garden like little feathered tornadoes (that I love dearly, grrrrr). They are fed organic layers pellets and our own mix of seed scratch as an afternoon treat. The scratch is getting a bit old now as we bought a too large quantity by mistake, but it is clean and dry and there’s no sign or smell of mould. Occasionally they get mash from a neighbour that makes his own beer, and greens when we maintain the brassicas in the garden. They have ad lib oyster shell and grit. We keep and sterilise old egg shells and crumble and mix them in with the grit.

I’d appreciate any thoughts or ideas anyone might have as to what might be going on here! I noticed another one is looking very thin and I’m worried it might spread to the younger birds.
 

MandS

Songster
5 Years
Apr 14, 2016
282
312
186
Berkshire, UK
You've been very descriptive here and it's obvious you know what to look for and some possible causes (like mouldy feed etc).

I wondered at first if there was something toxic they are foraging, but then surely all the hens, not just this batch, would have the same symptoms.

When you described yellow masses, my first instinct was internal laying, salpingitis etc, but you clarified it was outside the reproductive tract. So I'm inclined to agree that it looks like it's tumors but associated with the reproductive organs.

Probably, like a few of mine over time, they behave absolutely fine and then just get very tired in a short space of time. The issue has been that the intestines or stomach is restricted by the growths around it and so food either passes slowly (usually associated with sour or impacted crop) and they simply get weaker and pass on.

So, I'm guessing it's possibly a batch that had inherent flaws. The fact they all stopped laying at 18 months and you've no evidence of them laying again since is odd but would also seen to tie in.

I'm sorry for your losses but they've undoubtedly enjoyed their short little lives in the sun, scratching about and doing things that many chickens never get a chance to do when bred for commercial battery laying.

Someone with far more knowledge than me may have an alternative theory.

Good luck with the others.
 

Nelliebee

In the Brooder
Apr 16, 2021
7
5
11
You've been very descriptive here and it's obvious you know what to look for and some possible causes (like mouldy feed etc).

I wondered at first if there was something toxic they are foraging, but then surely all the hens, not just this batch, would have the same symptoms.

When you described yellow masses, my first instinct was internal laying, salpingitis etc, but you clarified it was outside the reproductive tract. So I'm inclined to agree that it looks like it's tumors but associated with the reproductive organs.

Probably, like a few of mine over time, they behave absolutely fine and then just get very tired in a short space of time. The issue has been that the intestines or stomach is restricted by the growths around it and so food either passes slowly (usually associated with sour or impacted crop) and they simply get weaker and pass on.

So, I'm guessing it's possibly a batch that had inherent flaws. The fact they all stopped laying at 18 months and you've no evidence of them laying again since is odd but would also seen to tie in.

I'm sorry for your losses but they've undoubtedly enjoyed their short little lives in the sun, scratching about and doing things that many chickens never get a chance to do when bred for commercial battery laying.

Someone with far more knowledge than me may have an alternative theory.

Good luck with the others.
It’s not impossible that they’re forging something toxic as only this batch have learned to hop over the fence. They could have found something in the larger field the others don’t have access to. Could that cause masses/tumours though?

It’s interesting you mention sour crop as a symptom as one of the hens that we didn’t open up after she died had had persistent sour crop for the last few months of her life. We tried all the usual treatments and nothing seemed to work but as she seemed happy and was still doing all the usual chicken things, we ultimately decided to stop messing her around as she obviously wasn’t enjoying it. That suggests she may also have had a mass somewhere.

I hope it is just a bad batch. As you say, although it’s horrible to suspect that this is the state of the genetic lines that are used industrially at least ours got to have good lives <3
 

MandS

Songster
5 Years
Apr 14, 2016
282
312
186
Berkshire, UK
Hi.

It could be something toxic - particularly if there's any nasty chemicals sprayed on the field they are going to. It would need to be something pretty unpleasant though to cause tumours - most times toxic stuff will just poison them (slowly or quickly) without any cancerous stuff happening.

Sour crop is an odd one sometimes. It can be the usual fibrous stuff like long grass forming a lump or just simply a yeast infection (often caused by the former first) - which once cleared, goes away and everything returns to normal, however it can also be a sign that there is something obstructing the digestive system further down. I have had this happen at least twice that I know of. The difference is that treating the crop doesn't make much difference and it continues. The hen can live and behave fairly normally but will start losing weight. If like one of mine recently, she was a big bird and I simply didn't notice the weight loss - and yet she lost just over a fifth of her total body weight by the time we spotted it.

Sometimes though the crop can simply drop and then it doesn't empty properly - this is a pendulous crop and although you can help empty it (daily gentle massage), it just keeps happening (so you can fit a bib on the chicken to hold it up - done that too!)

So, I am kind of back to the thought that sadly this batch has just been bred to live short egg producing lives at the expense of their longevity. And yes, yours had good lives and so many don't, so I do hope you take some comfort in that 💗

Good luck with the other girls.
 

allenw

Songster
6 Years
Nov 22, 2015
124
171
151
NW Oklahoma
Sounds like my experience with the Isa Browns, I only had a few and sold a couple to a friend who had the same experience I had. They never really laid after the first molt and all passed close together. I'm not familiar with the black tails so cant comment on them.
 

NatJ

Free Ranging
Mar 20, 2017
8,190
17,183
706
USA
I should note, they all stopped laying at 18 months. We thought they must be laying in the field somewhere and we just couldn’t find the nest, but now I think they really have stopped.

For any that are still alive, you might want to catch them and look at their butts to see if they actually are laying or not. There are changes to the vent and the pubic bones when a hen is laying.

Here's an article about how to tell:
https://www.backyardchickens.com/articles/who-is-laying-and-who-is-not-butt-check.73309/

If you check a bird that is not laying (maybe a rooster), and one that you are sure is laying, the differences should be pretty obvious. Then you can check the ones you aren't sure about, and you will know what you are looking for.
 

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