best bird on show 2009 bearded white silkie pullett

best bird on show 2009 bearded white silkie pullet

silkie unbearded 2144-4413_IMG

Unbearded silkie pullet.

Silkies are one of the most ancient breeds of chicken. There are traces of them mentioned in biblical times, and also during the Spanish annexation of South America, where birds with black skin and hair like a cat were frequently mentioned. They are a Chinese breed and were written into ancient Chinese texts as far back as Marco Polo.
They have some remarkable genetic traits, one of them being the black skin with the white hair like feathering, the blue ears and the five toes.
The bones are also black.
The original silkies were all white so any other colour is a mutation.
There are two types, the bearded and the unbearded.
The unbearded tends to be more active probably because they can see, whereas the bearded silkie is often handicapped by not being able to see. The beard comes up under the chin and the crest down from the top of the head. In between there is the eye!
They are vulnerable to predators because of this and also because of the brilliant white colouring.
Silkies have the gene for a heavy crest, and this has been developed by the show poultry man who likes a heavy crest.
This is not always in favour of the bird, since with a heavy crest comes a mutation on the skull, which sometimes causes neurological problems.
Add to this the very small gene pool available, and you get in breeding added to that mutation.
The crest is homozygous or heterozygous in the heredity of the bird’s genetic make up. Homozygous if the crest comes from both parents, and heterozygous if inherited from one  parent only. I also thought it should be the other way round but there it is folks!
In pure bred silkies, the crest is inherited from both parents, actually increasing the chances of mutation on the skull.
ALL silkies have a skull that is not completely sealed on the top. Some have a cerebral hernia as a result of this. In showing circles it is known as a vaulted skull, and is found in some other crested breeds, polish among them.
Not all vaulted skulls have the hernia, but in cases where breeding is selected to increase the size of the crest, the herniated skull is more likely.
Some birds go through their entire life with no sign of this, some become affected from a young age, with the bird losing control of the neck, and the head constantly disappearing between the legs, so that the bird walks backwards.
This is usually because at some point the bird has been hit on the head, walked into a wall, or been pecked by other birds.
Some do recover very well, and show little sign of a crook neck after a time, others recover with a permanent tilt to the head, where the bird looks down always.
Others do not survive, cannot feed themselves or drink and die of dehydration unless treated.
The only treatment is symptomatic and supportive, ensuring the bird drinks, feeding by hand etc.
No drugs I have tried have ever helped, but supportive treatment with plenty of fluid intake has saved a lot of my silkies.
This I have found to be the only down side of silkies as a breed as they are gentle, make lovely pets, are intelligent and make excellent mothers.
There have been articles written about crook neck some available on the net. They make interesting reading, and some treatments are interesting too…they don’t work so don’t waste your money or your time!
I have as I say tried everything from steroids to aspirin and anti inflammatories, antispasmodics…..nothing works.
I even tried to increase minerals and vitamins, as it was suggested a lack of selenium was the cause of crook neck.
Again there was no improvement, but hydrating the bird subcutaneously with mild saline, and forcing plenty of boiled water down the neck, that helped tremendously. It takes time, at least three weeks of constant treatment three to four times a day, but if the bird is a good one, worth doing.
I injected boiled water with mild salt content, about 2% salt, under the skin twice a day.

Silkies brood exceptionally well, and fiercely protect their young.
They lay exceptionally well too, a fairly large egg for such a small bird.
Silkies in South Africa are only large, bantams not being available here.
I have tried in the last 15 years to improve on the size of silkies, which tended to be too small, especially the males. A silkie is a fairly chunky bird, should be heavy and solid in structure and not hollow boned in handling.
I remember being outraged at a national show some years back when a clearly uninformed judge commented on my cages that the silkies were too big! This after so many attempts at getting them to standard CORRECT size!
Judges should be better informed before they reveal their ignorance to the world.
There are many colours now available, including a Cuckoo silkie and a blue.
These are mutations on the gene which I am not keen to follow, as I am basically a purist and I like to stick to the original!
I know the American Poultry Club has accepted a naked neck silkie that they call Show Girl.
This is the ugliest bird I have ever had the misfortune to see, with its ugly black skin revealed on the neck.
To each his own, but why ruin a perfectly beautiful bird?
It seems for some breeders, the original is not enough, and this type of thinking has its place in the poultry world, where experimentation leads to more beautiful breeds and gorgeous colours….within reason.


A good quality show silkie needs to have the following:

1. The correct number of toes and separate fifth toe that is not fused to the fourth toe.

2. SILKIE type feathering that is almost like fur, and needs as the word says to be long and extremely silky in feel and texture.

3. The skin needs to be black and the comb in cocks mulberry. Red is a disqualification. The comb is a cushion comb and should be small as possible in cocks, neat and not obstruct the eyes. In hens there should be no comb visible at all.

4. The ears need to be blue though mulberry in cocks is allowed, and the eyes should be dark brown.

5. Silkies are NOT BANTAMS and need to be of a good size and weight. I never breed from a female that weighs less than one kg. They are solid birds and should not feel hollow boned on handling. The breed is stocky and almost square in shape.

6. In bearded silkies the crest has to be completely round over the head of the hen, and the beard very visible below. Feathering has to be dense and the undercoat very dense. In white colour variants the white has to be pure white and not yellow or buff.

7. Feathering on the feet has to be fairly full, although it is not a Brahma and should never display huge solid foot feathers. The feathers on the feet should be on the middle toe and be soft and abundant like down.

8. Wing feathers should display a shredded appearance with no sign of split. Tail feathers should be soft and abundant but never solid as in other soft feather breeds. A silkie feather has only a soft shaft, and no weft as in other breeds, Cocks should not have a flowing tail.

9. Over all, the silkie should present a completely round appearance from the side and almost square from the top. There should be no differentiation between the back saddle feathers and the tail but the whole structure should flow into one another into one smooth line.

10 Vulture hocks with hard feathers pointing straight down from the hocks at the back is very ugly and undesirable in the breed. Hocks should be round with

soft  fluff all over.

silkie fluff




This is the fluff you need in a show silkie. Dense, very thick and perfectly white. In fact it is difficult to find the skin under the fluff! Pulletts will show a kind of bustle over the tail.

The feathering must have the silk like appearance, soft and very silky to the touch.

You will find that silkies in the UK have longer silkier feathering, and this is desirable but I have not as yet achieved it.

Silkies Have a Hole in Their Head by Alan Stanford




111020127412006 champion cockerelblack aussie head shot winner 2002

FERTILITY in birds is not as easy as it seems.

It is not a question of throwing any male into a pen with any female and waiting for the results.

Unfortunately when it comes to pure bred birds you have to work for results.

How often have I heard from people who cannot seem to get it right, and so they blame the birds or the person who sold them duff birds…me!

You need to ascertain firstly what breeds you are dealing with: large, small, feathered feet or clean, heavy or light weight. Each breed reads differently. With bantams you can probably have a ratio of 10 girls to each male quite comfortably. With large birds, 4 females to one male is ideal. If the male is particularly vigorous, you can adjust the ratio later on.

Secondly, you need to ensure the viability of your flock. NEVER breed a sick or injured bird, an underweight bird or one with a visible deformity that will breed on, unless of course there is no other option. Ensure all birds are weighed before being placed in a breed pen, deworm, despur the cocks, make sure there are no parasites.

The secret to correct breeding is simple: You need to cull severely, do not feed and keep what will not work for you, select correctly, and have a good eye for what works from year to year. A photographic record of each year’s breeding helps.

Check housing, ensure comfortable warm housing in winter, ventilation that is above the head of the birds, good laying areas with plenty of soft dry bedding…hay is ideal. Place ONLY the girls in these houses, making sure you have space for four girls and a male later on, or ten bantam females. Bantams do better in smaller houses but for a large breed pen like Australorp you need a house approximately 2 metres by one metre by two metres high. Fence this house in with a small run for outside access. Don’t make this too large as you don’t want to give the cock too far to run.


saddle scan





When the girls are settled, and all laying well, you can put in the male. Observe to see all is well and there is no screaming or hiding under the house. If you see after a few days that the cock is favouring one hen, remove her. Check the girls regularly for wounds especially on the back, above the thighs. If necessary remove injured hens, or give them a saddle to cover the back.

Never leave a cock in for more than 3 weeks. Remove him, use another cock until breeding season is over. In SA it is usually between July and November. Then give your girls a break, take the cock out, place the girls in a large open run and let them sunbathe and relax.

Do not breed all year round it is unfair on the birds and they won’t last another season.

Collect eggs twice a day to avoid broken eggs or soiled eggs.


1. Non viable adult stock. Genetic weaknesses, illness, deformity. Rounded backs on the cock or the hens. Weak stock. Parasites. Bullying among the hens or with the cock. Lack of nutrition. Lack of water. Dissention among cocks and hens. Cocks too old or too young, hens too old or too young, moulting early. Ratio male to female wrong. Cocks too heavy for the girls. Cocks ‘bored’. Cocks and hens too fluffy on the rear end and need to be trimmed. Feathers on legs interfering with mating. Spurs and claws too prominent on the cocks.

2. Non viable housing. Housing draughty, too small, too large. Housing too cold or too warm. Predators or noise that disturbs. Cocks seeing other cocks in the next run and concentrating on them instead of the hens.

3.Feeding not correct, no calcium in the feed, no oil in the feed. Not enough food or water, not enough access to feed and water because of bullying. Wet or mouldy feed, feed not appealing to the birds.

4. floor eggs because the nesting is not suitable. Soft shells due to incorrect feed, disease, or heat stress. Hens dropping the eggs or breaking the eggs. Too many hens on one nest. Collection of eggs not done regularly, dirty eggs are diseased eggs.

It is essential that you remember several points:
She must be comfortable in her accommodation, she must feel good about her health, and she must feel safe, warm, fed.
These factors all contribute to happy healthy birds and lots of babies.
I will give you an example:
I had Australorps for many years and loved them dearly, but they could drive you insane.
They are the only large breed hens I have ever had, that could withhold fertility simply because they did not like the cock provided for them. I either got no eggs or I got eggs that were never fertile. They would hide from the male, or gang up on him and give the meaning “hen pecked” its true derivation.
Once I changed the cock, all was peaceful, I got my eggs and they were all full.
If I put the original male back into the pen, they all shut up shop again.
So, watch your breed pens, observe every tiny aspect of the breeding cycle. Don’t simply throw the male in with his females and forget about them. Select carefully which birds will breed. Select the hens that are the best layers, the largest eggs, the heaviest among your flock. Don’t breed underweight birds, they won’t survive.
You need to have an eye for this as with any hobby, and the person who is prepared to go the extra mile and do the extra work will prevail.
I was once given a trio of Silver Dorkings, and told the cock was too old and the hens had never laid. It was a question of either getting it right with them or destroying a valuable and rare trio. I took the challenge, dewormed the cock, despurred him, fed him well, and kept him away from the girls. I dewormed and treated the girls the same. Fed them well, gave them a pen to themselves. It took a while to encourage them to lay, but lay they did. And when I was satisfied they were laying well, I put the gentleman in with them…and produced some beautiful babies, 24 of them as a matter of fact.
It was simply a question of listening to what the birds wanted, being sensitive to their needs.

If you see that the cock you have decided to breed is not doing the job, don’t persevere with him. Take him out of the pen, feed him well, let him rest try again later. Sometimes there are reasons why the cock will not breed.


1. Cock is too old or too young. Choose an age group that fits together, young hens with an older cock, older hens with a younger cock. Watch them for signs of trouble and be prepared to step in if necessary.

2. The cock is being bullied by the hens. This does happen. Find out who is the trouble maker and remove her, or remove the cock and put him in with some gentler girls!

3. The cock is not feeling well. He has worms or is ill, has bumble foot or has leg problems. Check that the comb is very red and spongy, the sign of good hormones and good health in a male. Check his spurs that they are not hindering his mating. Check him over for signs of parasites,  itching, red vent or oily feathering and crusts around the vent. Check the girls too. Never breed a cock that has a leathery pale comb you will never have fertility.

4. The cock is too big for the hens, and he cannot balance.

5. The hens have rounded backs and the cock is unable to balance.

6. The cock is too fluffy and this happens with Orpingtons. Trim the feathers around the vent for the cocks and the hens.

After three weeks remove the cock, and replace with another you have screened already.

Birds do get bored  or tired . Give them all a break, you would be amazed how long you can keep them going if you do this regularly. My oldest Australorp cock gave me babies at the age of 12 years.

sussex cockerel 2001

This cock won best soft feathered large on show in 2008. He bred many champions in his own right and died at the age of 9 years.




Feed them a good compound feed as a base, Meadow Feeds layer pellets does quite well.

To this you must add extra grain, wheat, whole maize and sunflower. Give them maas regularly for the fat and lactose content, and if you give them milk or soured milk, make sure it is full cream not low fat. They need the oil content especially the cocks for the hormone levels in the males.

You can add a half cup of cod liver oil or Ocean Gold shark oil to the feed every week. This helps too with the oil content. Compound feeds do not give the oil or fat content necessary for breeders.

Provide plenty of greens if you can.

Provide plenty of variety in the feed, like fruit: pawpaws are good, bananas, tomatoes, oranges, guavas, avocados.

See the section on feeding.





chicks4                                               122-2234_IMG





There are so many questions  to showing birds, and also for the general care of them when not showing.

Here are some of the most frequently asked.




You need to despur every breeding season as it is very dangerous for the hens if you don’t.

There are many different ways of doing this but I stick to what works for me. Firstly you need to know that the outer covering that appears hard and sharp on the leg of the rooster is only a covering. It has of itself no blood vessels and so no feeling or pain, otherwise the birds would not be able to use the spur to fight. The sensitive part is the underneath part, which is actually the new spur growing beneath the cover. I usually use a pair of pliers to twist the outer cover of the spur until it comes loose. Under that there is another very sensitive spur sometimes bloody and soft. If this spur is very pointy and long it needs to be clipped. Do this with a pair of cutting pliers and do not cut too close to the leg. Leave at least one centimetre, clip as quickly as you can, as it will bleed, apply pressure with your finger to stop the bleeding and apply black or white powdered pepper. This is an old army trick to stop bleeding, as pepper does not sting on an open wound, does not cause infection and stops bleeding very quickly.

You need to seal of the new spur by spraying with antibiotic NECROSPRAY or a wound gel that will form a skin around the spur. This stops the new spur from being sensitive to air or occasional bumps and scrapes. You need to isolate the bird in a cage for a few days. In 24 hours the spur has formed a new skin and the sensitivity is gone.

Be careful on despurring older birds as they bleed a lot more.

When the wound stops bleeding, apply an antiseptic spray, and leave the bird in a cage by himself for a couple of days. He will recover very quickly and if kept away from the hens for a few days, will return to duty without further ado.

I am not a fan of using the hacksaw blade which some breeders prefer. I find this causes pain to the bird far worse than the above method, and is unnecessary. It is a matter of choice, and as one cannot ask the patient his opinion, one does the best one can!

It is not painful for the bird to have the outer covering of the spur removed, no matter what people tell you. I have checked this with a vet. Only the underlying spur is sensitive. Unfortunately this despurring needs to be done or you will end up with:

  1. spurs that are long and very dangerous
  2. Spurs that eventually grow back onto the leg and cause abscesses and pain and inflammation.
  3. Spurs that injure you and the hens.
  4. spurs that prevent the bird from walking properly and eventually make him totally lame.

Using a hacksaw is another method, one I do not support but many people swear it does no harm. Acccording to my vet, the hacksaw method is quick but causes a lot of pain. Some birds may even go into shock at the severity of the pain. You must make the decision yourself.



Common problem. remove the favourite, who will no doubt be worse for wear, and watch that there is no bullying going on in the breed pen. If there is, you will need to remove that rooster and try another. Breed pens are not always easy to set up as the girls also have their favourite studs and they may not like your choice!

Australorps are the only large breed I know that can actually prevent fertility by either refusing to lay, or by retaining the sperm instead of allowing the sperm to reach the egg in the follicles.

I know this sounds really odd but I have proved it again and again…and again.

I have seen this with my own eyes, where the male does not appeal to them or is a bully and a real aggressive bird in the breed pen. Eggs dry up, the girls sulk all day and hide under the house where studly cannot get to them. Eggs that are laid are clear. Change the studly, and MIRACLES…here come the babies! Eggs become plentiful again, everyone is happy. Of course this does not suit the breeder who wants eggs from one special male….ever considered AI?


This depends where you live and the climate you have. I am on the South Coast KZN South Africa where temperatures and humidity are sometimes reversed…higher humidity.

This is a wonderful incubator for all sorts of parasites so deworming has to be done every 3 months and delousing as well. Keep checking birds every week if you can for signs of infestations. What was clear yesterday may not be so today. Use a standard dewormer, I use TRAMISOL for ostriches, 5ml per bird which I squirt into the back of the mouth with a syringe. Putting it in the drinkers is a waste of time as we never know how much a bird will drink in a day.

Every 3 applications  I change to IVOMEC by Merial, which is injectable. 0,5ml under the skin. Even small birds like silkies can take 0,5ml but for really small birds use 0,2ml.

This is not recommended for birds younger than three months.

For lice and fleas use a dusting powder. If you can, buy in some DRASTIC DEADLINE for cattle and squirt 0,1ml between the wings of each bird. External use only.


This is dealt with in the section on parasites but bears repeating. Scaly leg mites are a microscopic mite that burrow under the scales and cause the scales to raise into huge lumps. If the infestation is bad, the bird will be lame. It is also very ugly and probably painful too for the birds. You can purchase a tub of 500g Vaseline petroleum jel, and a carton of KARBASPRAY insecticide. Mix a cup full of the KARBASPRAY into the jelly. Add a tablespoon of calamine lotion for the itching. Smear this onto the legs. Wait a week and smear again. You will see an orange powdery residue, which are the dead mites. You can store the remainder of the mixed jelly and use again and again. It does not perish over time. the Use the KARBASPRAY not KARBADUST which is the same active ingredient but not as strong. This is for external use only.


If you see the bird has an eye infection it can present either as a closed eye, a red eye, a swollen eye or a huge lump above the eye.

The lump will be a ball of infection caught between the third eye lid and the conjunctival membrane.

You need to remove this very carefully with warm water, a mild antiseptic like 3CP (One teaspoon in a cup of warm water), or if you have nothing else, saline: One litre boiled water with one tablespoon table salt.

Use a Q tip, and carefully ease the pus out of the eye. Clean and add Terramycin eye powder to the eye.

Other infections need basically the same treatment, wash, clean, powder. It should clear in three days.


eye infections4                   poultry eye infection   111807_dsc_0966 eye infection2

Photos from Backyard

Pus in a bird is not like in a mammal: It looks like very hard cheesy substance, and is not viscous at all, so it needs to be removed differently. Birds get infected eyes frequently, from feed blowing into the eye, running into fences, seeds, grass, sticks and fighting with other birds.

I have found a site which is I think American, where they refer to an eye worm.  It is apparently a worm that infects chickens if they eat cockroaches.  It is probably a round or thread worm.This is not the same as conjunctivitis, and there are definitely worms that you can manipulate out of the eye.Worms will be long and thread like and alive!

Eye worms will not present like the picture on the right, but the eyes will be watery and puffy.

There are graphic photos on U Tube!  It is fairly common in warm humid climates, though I have seen this pussy discharge also when a bird has run into a fence. You must manipulate the eye until the worms have popped out then clean the eye and apply terramycin or Neosporin eye ointment or powder.

If you are certain that it is an eye worm you can dilute 1cc Ivomec injectable with 4cc boiled and cooled water or distilled water. Drop this solution into the eye twice a day, wait 5 days and do it again. Then clean and disinfect the eye. The worm should be visible inside the conjunctival tissue. You may or may not see it. The bird pecks worm eggs and the eggs travel up the oesophagus to lodge inside the eye lids, (a chicken has three eyelids).

Of course if you dose regularly with Ivermectin you will not get eye worms or any other type of worms!

I have seen infections like this from a spitting cobra as well. I had spitting cobras in my poultry run that had nested under a pile of rocks. I wondered why so many of my flock had terrible eye infections and even lost sight in one eye, always one eye. I took the birds to a vet who told me to look for spitting cobras. Problem solved, but not for the poor birds that were already affected. Of course a chicken will lean down with one eye parallel to the ground, hence always one eye affected.



Photo from Backyard

There are two types of bumble foot infections, one is a hard lump that forms under the sole of the feet and can cause much pain and deformed feet if left untreated. The other is a form of abscess that is a soft lump usually under the foot but it sometimes becomes so severe that the swelling is visible on top of the foot, as in the picture above. It can be treated and lanced like any other abscess with much success. The hard bumble foot can be treated with cleaning and antibiotics and anti-inflammatories, but there will always be a lump there under the foot. The soft  bumble foot responds well to soaking the feet in hot water and disinfectant,  until the skin is soft. You then lance the abscess with a sharp blade and remove all the pussy substance. You may have to do this several days running as the abscess sometimes refills itself. Dust with antibiotic powder, and give the bird either injectable or oral antibiotic to prevent infection. The birds recover quickly and feel better without the awful pain. If you have had an abscess yourself you know how painful they are.

I have found that continual care of the feet, rubbing the legs and feet of adult birds with Neats Foot Oil regularly does help with hard bumble foot. Also, I use a cream on the underside of the soles that contains urea. Not all foot creams have urea and it is essential to soften the skin. Eulactol Heel Balm available in SA does wonders, but must be applied every day. You can use a fine grain sandpaper to remove the hard skin as well. Be careful not to take off too much at a time. Eventually the lump will reduce and may even disappear. This kind of callous under the feet is due to birds jumping on hard surfaces or concrete. The soft bumble foot is uusually due to a puncture, a stick or piece of wire that has punctured the sole of the foot.

The swelling is sometimes so severe it transfers to the top of the foot, as in the picture above.


You need to wash the foot thoroughly and see just how bad the infection is. If the foot is very swollen you will need to lance the swelling and remove the pus. You may find the cause of the infection inside, a stick or a piece of wire. Remove as much of the pus as you can and try to remove the core of the abscess as well. It will look like a cone shaped mass at the base of the swelling.

Wash thoroughly, apply a disinfectant like Terramycin powder, and inject the bird with 0,5ml general antibiotic like Kyrotrim. This is intramuscular so inject in the soft tissue beside the keel.

Keep the bird in a clean cage, no dust bathing for a few days. If necessary inject again after three days.

Bumble foot happens a lot in older birds, so try to keep them on softer ground.


Vent prolapse is when the hen strains to lay her egg, or has an infection that causes swelling of the oviduct. The oviduct then does not retract after laying of the latest egg and the hen walks around with a bleeding or protruding vent. This is very painful, and is potentially fatal if you do not act to remove the bird away from other birds to prevent cannibalisation.

You need to isolate the bird in a quiet area with a cage that is covered by towels so that she is not tempted to lay again.

Wash the affected area with warm water and Savlon or 3CP or salt if you have nothing else. One tablespoon in a litre boiled and cooled water. Wash any faeces, blood or egg matter. Make sure you wear rubber or latex gloves, and gently probe inside the vent to remove any egg matter. Then cover the area with PREPARATION H haemorrhoid cream, insert as far inside the vent as you can and gently push back all the tissue inside the vent. Give a half disprin for pain and inflammation. Keep the hen confined, wash and repeat process every day until the vent is normal. Give three day course of antibiotic, KYROTRIM injectable 0,6ml per day intramuscular. You can give oral antibiotic such as oral Baytril if you have nothing else, but try to avoid this. Half a disprin every day.

When the vent looks more normal, you can smear ZAMBUC cream, herbal and anti inflammatory on the vent. Do not allow her back with the others until the vent is normal again.


vent prolapse                        53434_100_7074 vent prolapse2

Photos Backyard

No one actually knows what causes vent prolapse, except as I said above a hen laying extra large eggs, or double yolk.

I believe also that the practice of artificial lighting during winter overseas, has had something to do with this complaint. Also the total disregard by breeders of intelligent breeding and crossing of breeds. The search for ever more and ever larger eggs has caused breeders to concentrate on breeding those hens that will give you those eggs, and sometimes there are dire consequences. It happens often too with bantams which are not true bantams but are a product of man’s genetic experiments, and the bird will sometimes regress to laying full sized eggs. Silkies are not bantams but are considered large soft feathered fowls, and they do lay a large egg which sometimes causes prolapse especially in older hens.

It is painful for these girls. Handle gently and deal with it as soon as possible.


This is dealt with under BROODER but bears repeating.


Usually depends on the weather but the rule of thumb is that you start at 35degreesC and decrease the temperature of your brooder 3degrees C a week more or less. watch out for a late cold snap, and be prepared to switch your lamps on again.

I say more or less because this depends largely on how your brooder is laid out. If you have a large brooder with a vast expanse of shavings, you will need more to heat it and the chicks will require more heat. If your brooder is small, you will need less. Remember not to cook your chicks. They must have an area where they can get away from the heat lamp if necessary, because if your temperature rises above 40degreesC the chicks are dead.

It is advisable to have a brooder guard, like a Masonite ring, to prevent loss of heat and prevent draughts as well. Chickens do not do well in a draught at any age. Ventilation yes, draughts ,no.


If your chicks are bought from a dealer who deals with broilers, the most likely cause is that he was using nipple drinkers, which require the chicks to lift their heads. If you have a font system, you need to press the chicks’ heads into the water, to show them the water is on the ground and not in the air. You need to do this with every chick as they arrive, or they will die of thirst.


This could be what they call gape worm, a worm infection transmitted  from guinea fowls or wild birds. You can deworm but it is risky with young chicks. It is better to deworm the parent stock before setting the eggs, deworm all birds regularly and never house species of birds such as ducks and chickens, guinea fowls or turkeys together, or in close proximity. Also keep your age groups together, as young chicks will pick up infections from the older birds who are immune to many infections as they grow older.

The cause of the gasping could also be respiratory, such as Aspergillosis, a fungal infection also known as Farmers Lung, and caused by aflatoxins or spores in the bedding material. Never house young chicks on anything but wood shavings. Hay is deadly for them because of the spores in the grasses.

Once Aspergillosis has been contracted, there is nothing you can do and the chicks will die.


See the section on vaccinations.


Learn to observe and listen to your flock. They will soon tell you what is right and what is wrong. A contented flock makes soft cooing contented noises, chicks and adults. The adults scratch contentedly, crow or cackle all day. The chicks talk contentedly to each other in soft tones.

A flock with problems becomes strident in the noise it makes. Cocks scream instead of crowing, hens  become shrill and very loud in their complaints, believe me you will know! Observe and see where the problems are if this noise is constant. Check feeders to see if there are sufficient feeders for the amount of birds in the pen. Check drinkers for the same. See if there is not a bully who prevents others from eating or drinking by guarding the feeders and drinkers. Check the feed at night, there should be a little left over from the day. If the feeder is dead empty, there is not enough food, and you need to add more in the morning. If the feeder is still half full, you are feeding too much and maybe the cause of the noise is rats after the food. CHECK ALSO IF YOU ARE IN A SNAKE AREA AS I AM, FOR EGG EATERS IN THE NESTS, SNAKES HIDING UNDER THE FEEDERS, PREDATORS LIKE MONITOR LIZZARDS THAT HIDE UNDER THE EAVES, HAWKS OR EAGLES, AND CATS OR GENETS, OR VERVET MONKEYS FREQUENT VISITORS IN MY YARD!

In the case of young chicks, check that they are not in a draught or too hot or too cold.

Check the nesting area for snakes or rats. check your nests are being used because if you find floor eggs, there is a problem with the nest you have provided. Move the nest to another area, change the bedding, and see if this works. If not,  take the nests away and try another form of nest: cardboard box as opposed to tyres for example. Stay away from metal nesting boxes as they get very hot in summer, and air flow is not great.

If you listen to your birds you will avoid small problems becoming big problems. If you walk among your birds you will also pick up a sneeze or a cough or a rattle before it becomes a serious illness. If you walk among your flock as they sleep, you will hear at once if one is not breathing properly. During the day the noise is such you may miss it.


This is very serious and very common in our part of South Africa. Temperatures where I am are not so high, usually restricted to between 29C and 32C in summer, but the humidity is 100% sometimes. This means the humidity has reached saturation point and breathing becomes difficult for humans, impossible for birds. I live on the lower South Coast Kwazulu Natal.

Chickens have very inefficient lungs. Their breathing is controlled by a series of air sacs, and these are not very efficient in conducting oxygen/Co2 transfer.

This is especially true when they have no access to sand, a great cooling agent, and when they are housed inside and overcrowded.

When this happens the birds pant a lot, exhale a lot of vitamin C, and a lot of minerals as well, thereby depleating their system.

If overcrowded they breathe in each others’ exhaled C02 and this leads to disaster. They drink too much, overloading the system with water, and causing diarrhea, water under the skin, ascites and more. They stop laying and eggs that do appear are soft shelled.

When they drink too much they do not eat, thereby exacerbating the problem.

They also eat less and this is where you need to step in and feed differently: Give them fruit, lots of fruit, bananas, pawpaws, guavas, avocados, citrus. Plenty of vitamin C to replace what they are losing. The water in the fruit also helps to rehydrate the bird without overwhelming the system with too much water. You can give them banana plants, this is excellent wet feed.

Cut down on the amount of protein you feed, like maize, as this increases the heat levels in the blood. More protein in winter, less in summer.

You need to be careful not to overcrowd, In hot weather allow birds access to shade and sand to dust bathe. Add a tablespoon of bicarbonate of soda in their drinking water last thing at night. Make sure they have access to fresh water, but monitor how much they drink. If they are drinking too much consider actually dunking your birds in cold water to drop their core temperature. Fans work well as well, to allow for good ventilation and elimination of C02.

Ventilation is crucial at all times. Extractor fans in large houses are essential. Never allow water to stand in the sun. Make sure the bedding is not saturated with faeces as this increases the heat levels in the house. Dry bedding plenty of ventilation.

Symptoms of overheating are:

Listless birds.

Pale combs, closed eyes.

Heavy panting, wings open, collapse and inability to walk.

Birds with their heads in the drinkers.


It is possible to avoid losses of your birds in the summer. I have had Orpingtons for years, and they are very susceptible to heat stress. I never lost one to heat stress in all the years I kept them. Large birds tend to be more susceptible to heat stress than bantams. Birds can stand cold much better than they do heat, so be aware.

Do I need to cope with pests such as mosquitoes and flies?

Yes, you do. Mosquitoes carry diseases such as pox, and also certain types of protozoan infections such as spirochetosis.

Try to fit your houses with fans as the circulating air does disrupt mosquitoes and they are less likely to linger. Try not to leave your birds outside at twilight when the mosquito is most active.

You can place burners outside your houses with green wood to make smoke and this will keep the mosquitoes away. You can also sprinkle citronella oil on the green wood before you burn, and use containers inside the pens with citronella oil on cotton wool. Make sure it is placed in saucers high up away from the birds. You can spray insecticide at night but this is dangerous as it can lead to respiratory stress in your birds and the spray only kills the mosquitoes already inside, not the fifteen million waiting to come in!

Best of all, vaccinate your flocks at six weeks against pox, which is relatively cheap and easy to administer.

Flies can be controlled with fly bait,  placed at stations not accessible to the birds, and can be controlled also by good sanitation practices such as daily cleaning of faeces, no wet build up of chicken droppings, a compost heap away from the runs and sealed from access by your chickens. If you disinfect regularly you will not have flies.