Basic Care for Your Flock Air and Ambulation

Over the last few months, we have been exploring the FLAWS, which are the things that contribute to poor performance and, possibly, mortality in your backyard birds. The easiest way to help your flock succeed is to cover your FLAWS (Feed, Light, Air, Water, Security). To ring in the new year, we are exploring Air and Ambulation. Here are some considerations for each of these components.

AIR: When we talk about air, we are referring to ventilation, temperature, and humidity. Ventilation is essential for the exchange of fresh air, heat, carbon dioxide, moisture, and ammonia fumes. Chickens require proper ventilation for good health. Since warm air, ammonia, and moisture all rise in a coop, it is important to consider ventilation at multiple “levels” within your coop – at the bottom level with the flock, in the middle, and at the top. At all three levels, there will be small gaps in the walls, doors, and windows of the coop, and those small gaps will allow for natural air flow from the outside in and back. At the bottom, make sure to keep the flock’s litter clean and dry as much as possible. In the middle, where chickens roost, you could install adjustable vents or windows to allow for those summer breezes to blow through as long as the vents or windows can be closed to protect your flock from cold winter winds. Be sure to position the coop's openings away from the prevailing weather – we’ll talk about drafts in a second. Finally, at the top level, above your bird’s heads, there should be plenty of ventilation along the edges of the roof, but make sure the roof is solid and will keep rain out. Around the coop where you may find gaps for ventilation, you can use mesh or chicken wire to cover gaps that are too large (which could also allow snakes, rodents, or other unwanted pests into the coop). Here’s a quick test: if you open your coop door in the morning and smell ammonia, then you need more ventilation. 

There is a fine line between good air flow and draftiness though, and drafts must be avoided to preserve the health of the flock. Even in the winter you need to allow for ventilation, but not so much ventilation as to allow for drafts. Windows and vents can help reduce the smell from ammonia as well as decrease the buildup of moisture, heat, and carbon dioxide from respiration. High relative humidity in cold environments actually increases the chickens’ chances of becoming sick and suffering from frostbite. 

AMBULATION: Ambulation refers to a bird’s physical ability to move. Movement can be hindered by weakness, lameness, depression, and other disease states that would keep the bird from ambulating normally. Some conditions are hereditary while others can be caused by poor nutrition and/or a vitamin deficiency. In some cases, a condition or disease will affect only a single bird and will not spread through the flock.  

Bumblefoot can cause lameness, swelling, and the infected bird’s reluctance to walk. It can be identified by checking the bottom of a bird’s feet for a dark round scab. What causes bumblefoot? Mismanagement of the litter, where there is too much moisture in the litter causing bacteria to grow. Separately a sprained or pulled ligament or tendon can be caused by jumping down from a high place; a bird with a sprain can heal with rest and relaxation. There is also Marek's disease, a herpes virus that attacks a chicken's nervous system and can cause an array of issues (including paralysis) depending on the virus strain. Since it is a herpes virus, it could flare up repeatedly in the infected bird. 

The main takeaway is that birds are severely affected by air quality and moisture. By managing these areas you will be able to raise healthy birds. Keep an eye on each bird and on your flock as a whole. If you have a bird showing symptoms of any illness, quarantine her right away, and have an avian vet check her out.

See you next month when we continue our discussion of the FLAWS by exploring Water and Welfare.

Assistance with this article was provided by Dr. Corissa Robinson, Best Veterinary Solutions, Inc.