Stress comes for all sorts of reasons to an organic flock and if not treated within 24 hours there is a good possibility, if it's a bad attack, that it can be fatal. Over the years I have dealt with stress triggers such as, predator attack, problems in laying, loss of status, fights, bullying and overheating but if like us you are living in the Northern Hemisphere, then, at the moment, your most likely problem and cause will be the cold.
"Now what do we do?" Cochin brothers in adversity.
This is such an important and complex topic, it can't possibly be dealt with in a single post. I truly believe, from all I've experienced, that stress lies at the very heart of most if not all the health and behaviour problems encountered within the organic flock. In this first post I will look at the identification of stress, its underlying causes and how to identify those birds most at risk.
The first time I encountered stress in a bird was on bringing home a new Ardenner cockerel from an exhibition. He was young, only just in full colour and my eight year old niece, who was staying with us at the time, attracted to him as a lovely gentle bird, named him Dark Cloud. We were very careful to keep him cool on the way home, as it was a hot May day. Unbeknownst to us, as he had not been on show, he had been kept in the breeder's car throughout the morning. On arrival, although he seemed rather nonplussed, which was not unexpected, he appeared to be fine. However, after an hour he suddenly started to eat and drink rather manically and after another half hour or so, he was unsteady on his legs. The next morning he was dead and we were all very upset. When I rang the breeder and told him what had happened and explained the symptoms he recognised it immediately for what it was, heat stress brought on by the morning spent in his car. That was ten years ago and having sworn at the time to find out all I could on the subject, despite predator attack, serial broodiness, extremes of cold and heat, difficulty in laying and general internecine battles amongst both hens and cockerels, I've always been able to treat this condition.
How do I know if my bird is suffering from stress?
This is Ruffles, a calmer and more phlegmatic Ardenner you could hardly find, he is the son of Raffles the cockerel I was given as a replacement for Dark Cloud.
Here's Sneezy our 8 year old Silver Sebright she looks a picture of tranquillity but she suffered from one of the worst cases of stress, due to predator attack, I have ever had to deal with. It was easy to diagnose because it came on so quickly after the event and with dramatic symptoms including complete paralysis down one side.
This is Squarky, a Sebright Frizzle cross, showing distinct signs of cold stress. I know him well enough to see the signs but even at first glance you can tell he is not at his best, in fact he even looks miserable!
In my experience, the symptoms of stress have two ways of manifesting themselves, there is a severe form, which appears quickly and dramatically after a given event and is therefore easily diagnosable. Then there is a more measured build up of stress, in which the time or even exact nature of the trigger may not be obvious. In this latter case, knowing your bird's normal behaviour and comportment are the key to early and successful diagnosis. For, if allowed to go unchecked, this latter case may possibly develop into a severe stress condition and may like the former, prove fatal.
Perhaps literature and country lore has been correct in associating cockerels with pride and position. They seem to suffer much worse than hens from stress brought on by more psychological reasons, such as loss of status and the aftermath of a fight. However, if you don't have a cockerel in your flock, you will probably have a hen who takes on the mantle of both cockerel and dominant hen, in her case therefore, stress caused by loss of status may be equally as dramatic.
Harmony within a flock is something we all strive for but each group's dynamic and its rules are often complex and unfathomable. We have three hen houses within our garden, all with a dominant hen and dominant cockerel(s) (we have three sets of brothers). Although I have some understanding of where the territorial boundaries have been drawn, certain groups seem to have passe-partout. There are also bands of 'marauders' leading ritual skirmishes which result in nothing but mutual bravado. The occasions on which tension and stress have occurred has often been by our intervention, such as our removal and eating of a cockerel, thereby causing a power vacuum and serious conflict.
So what should you be looking for
Severe stress Comprising, sudden loss of motor function after the event, loss of balance, complete inability to move, lying on the ground, prone with legs often sticking out the back, complete or partial loss of 'voice', inability to focus, bewilderment and in extreme cases, paralysis.
Stress build up This in my experience follows a pattern in which, your hen or cockerel stops talking, eats erratically and voraciously, drinks incessantly, stands huddled with feathers fluffed, stops eating altogether, gasps when breathing, loses balance, can no longer stand. This is why at the start of this post, I mentioned that knowing your hen is key, Squeaky and Sneezy are very 'chatty' birds, the minute they stop talking, I start taking notice.
Proviso In the case of specific stress particular in laying hens, I would be again noticing a progression; comprising, an occurrence of soft-shelled eggs, the hen experiencing difficulty walking and constantly stretching one of her legs out at the back as she walks. In extreme cases, I would expect, difficulty in standing, 'rubbery legs', sitting down constantly and if untreated, a progression to difficulty in breathing, gasping and a change in colour of crest and face.
Identifying those most at risk
You would think this would be the most stressful job in the flock, but the mother hen and resultant chicks are often the most carefully guarded, respected and often feared, group of all.
Poultry when left to their own devices, given enough space and food, have a fine understanding of continuance. I do wonder if this very capability of the hen to cope with so many beaks to feed is also why, unlike her male counterpart, she seems far less prone to the forms of stress engendered by loss of status.
However, broody hens can sometimes get themselves into a vicious circle of stress by becoming so intent on being broody that they forget to eat and drink. It's a good idea if your hen goes broody, even if you are not putting eggs under her but just letting her 'practice', to make sure that, she is getting off the nest at least once a day.
The most likely candidates for stress are the young and old and their lower rating in the pecking order, may thus be key in depriving them of necessary nutrients and trace elements. Stress and nutrient depletion make for a vicious circle, thus stress caused by jostling for a place, or inherent in the loss of a long-held position, may serve to deplete the system even further and engender yet more stress. Young pullets and cockerels are also more prone to chasing and being chased, something again which increases levels of stress. To add to their problems, the young and old are also often less well-feathered and thus more likely to become susceptible to heat and cold stress. Amongst my own flock most susceptible to cold stress, are my older birds, in particular the light-feathered breeds I crossed with my light feathered Frizzle. Yet again, mea culpa, in my craze to get a Frizzle line going, when I rehomed an old Frizzle hen, who suddenly started to lay I didn't think of the consequences of old age....but that's another story...
Next Up - Simple, organic emergency treatment for stress and how to administer it without stressing out yourself or your bird. Follow this LINK
If you have enjoyed this post, please share it and do feel free to comment, ask questions a relate your own experience with stress in your flock. Thanks for dropping by and hope to see you again, Sue
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©2013 Sue Cross