Chicken Health Issues
1. Cannibalism/feather picking. My chickens are pulling out each other's tail feathers out or are killing each other. How do I stop this?The tendency to cannibalism and feather picking varies widely among different kinds of chickens. You should ask your hatchery to recommend a non-cannibalistic strain before placing your order.
Commercial flocks generally use beak-trimming to reduce the birds' ability to harm one another. This frees the breeders of commercial strains from any need to control cannibalism. My experience with two strains of Production Reds is that they are quite cannibalistic. California Grays, Barred Rocks, and Black Sex-Links from Privett Hatchery (in Portales) are quite non-cannibalistic. I don't have enough experience with other strains to have a firm opinion.
As mentioned above, beak-trimming controls cannibalism. Day-old chicks can have their beaks trimmed at the hatchery, but this is temporary and has to be done again around six weeks or so. I've never seen an outbreak before six weeks, so I don't see the point. Beak-trimming is unaesthetic, butnothing is more disgusting than a flock of actively cannibalistic birds. But it's better to avoid the problem by choosing relatively non-cannibalistic strains.
Crowding increases cannibalism. Inadequate feeder and waterer space increases cannibalism. Malnutrition increases cannibalism. Feeding pellets instead of mash increases cannibalism. Keeping the chickens on wire floors instead of on litter increases cannibalism. Using sand instead of straw or wood shavings as litter increases cannibalism.
Low light levels can eliminate cannibalism. Birds become relatively inactive in dim light.
Giving the birds access to free range usually prevents cannibalism or, if already established, causes it to cease immediately. I have tried this several times, and it has always worked like magic.
The Wisconsin Experiment Station developed a "salt cure" in 1942 that is supposed to be 99% effective. For a single morning, replace the birds' usual water with water that has one tablespoon of salt added per gallon. Replace the salt water with fresh water in the afternoon. Repeat three days later.
Adding palatable, high-fiber feeds will discourage feather-picking. Whole or rolled oats, alfalfa hay, and alfalfa meal help prevent cannibalism from starting. Given the birds access to green range will of course provide vast quantities of palatable, high-fiber feeds, while also reducing crowding and increasing the vitamin and probably the protein level of the diet.
Sometimes flocks of pullets that are given free-choice grain will eat too much grain and become cannibalistic. I suspect that this is only true for confined flocks, and only for brief periods. At the first sign of cannibalism, cease feeding grain except for moderate amounts of oats.
Some poultry supply houses (such as Kuhl) sell "peepers" -- blinders for pheasants and chickens. This makes it hard for them to take aim at potential victims. Peepers are removalbe. I haven't tried them myself.
Many people swear by the "pine tar" method for birds that have had their tail feathers pulled out. Slather some pine tar (available at feed stores and garden supply stores) on the bare skin where the chicken is being pecked. It apparently tastes bad enough that pecking loses its appeal.
2. Roost MitesRoost mites are little eight-legged bugs that hide during the day and swarm over your hens at night. They can kill your chickens -- I've had chickens killed by them. Before feeding, they're gray; after feeding, they're red with your chickens' blood. They seem to be everywhere in North America; I don't know about other continents.
Roost mites breed very quickly in warm weather. During the day, they hide in cracks and crevices, and in litter. When they're engorged with blood, they're fragile; they can pop like balloons. If you start noticing eggs with little pinhead-sized red or brown dots on them, these are mites that were squashed by the egg in the nest box. This is a bad sign. Having a "crawly" feeling up your arms after an egg collection is another bad sign. It means that mites have crawled up your hands and arms while you were collecting eggs. Roost mites aren't dangerous to humans, so far as I know, but it's a very disgusting feeling.
The best early warning sign of mites is to flip the roosts over and look at the undersides. If there are lots of tiny little bugs crawling around there, this is bad.
Because roost mites don't actually live on the chickens, they're controlled largely by treating the houses and the nest boxes. There are a variety of treatments. The one that has worked best for me is to paint the undersides of the roosts with linseed oil or used motor oil thinned with kerosene. Mites are killed by oils because a film of oil blocks their breathing pores and suffocates them. Probably any non-drying oil would work, though petroleum-based oils have the advantage of not being edible by vermin. Mineral oil would probably be okay for people looking for organic certification. My roosts are not nailed down, so I can flip them over, paint them, and flip them back. By painting the undersides only, the birds' bodies don't come into contact with the oil. (This is why I don't mind using old motor oil.)
Insecticides also work against roost mites. Malathion and pyrethrins both work and are relatively non-toxic to the birds and humans. They also break down fairly quickly. Sevin works, but you're not supposed to use it around eggs. As always with chemicals, read the label and follow the directions. (Different insecticides are legal or illegal in different countries, with little rhyme or reason that I can see. Follow local regulations, or at least be furtive.)
You can also kill the mites with steam or boiling water, which would be convenient if you have a hot-water pressure-cleaner handy. Whitewash is supposed to be reasonably effective, but most of the old-time poultry whitewashes had their effectiveness goosed up by chemicals which are banned nowadays for being carcinogenic. Whether plain whitewash is worth the effort is something I don't know.
Some people will tell you that you can prevent roost mites by providing dust baths, using cedar shavings as nest littr, and putting diatomaceous earth in the nest boxes, dust baths, and everywhere else you can think of. I tried this, and none of it seemed to have any effect at all. I had some hens die while I was messing around with these "cures." Then I got out my sprayer and applied about twenty cents' worth of Malathion to my henhouses. That worked..
Remember not to confuse prevention with cure, though. Oiling the roosts is mostly a preventative measure. If you have a serious infestation, you need to kill off the mites now.