Our hard "first-flock" lesson
On March 30, 2020 we brought home our first flock of 8 pullets at the age of 8 weeks old. We found a local guy who had one of the coolest set-ups for brooding/hatching/breeding chickens. Buying them at the age of 8 weeks meant we were skipping the chick phase and these girls would go straight into the chicken coop we had prepared for them. We were also able to get a cool variety from our new “Chicken Friend.” We purchased 2 Olive-eggers, 2 Jersey Giants, 2 Cochins, and 2 Isa brown’s and we were in love. We took 3 days to get to know them all and name them one by one. Here’s a picture of our sweet girls shortly after they were brought home.
Gosh they were beautiful birds.
After 10 days of “coop training” we released them into the yard to explore. They were excited but very timid and at first they stayed right around the coop door. Each day they would explore further and further out into the yard. They traveled around together and would huddle together in shaded areas. Early on, I had my eye out for Barred Rock Pullets (young female chickens) but never found any and ended up falling in love with my 8 girls much more than I anticipated.
Keeping in mind that I had never found a Barred Rock for our flock, my husband reached out to his dad to see if he had any or knew where he could find some. His dad did in fact have some Barred Rocks and was kind enough to give them to Andrew. Andrew made secret arrangements to visit his dad and bring home the chickens for Mother’s Day. He planned to bring home a 1 year old layer and a 6 week old pullet. While it was very thoughtful of him to find the chickens and make plans to surprise me, Andrew had no idea what a big deal it is to introduce new chickens and the risks that come with adding birds to your flock from other flocks. He returned home late Saturday night, the evening before Mother’s Day, and quietly snuck them into the coop with my original flock.
There are many reasons why it is imperative to quarantine new birds before exposing your flock to them but the 2 main reasons are for socialization and health. Chickens are extremely social birds. My original 8 birds had been together since they were hatched, then they traveled to our farm together, and like I said, they hardly crossed the yard together. This makes it near impossible for an outsider to be accepted without strategic and supervised exposure. Because of her size, the 1 year old Barred Rock made it through the first night fine, but the 6 week old pullet was nearly killed. Upon going out to the chicken coop on Mother’s Day morning, we found her curled up in a rear corner and she was struggling to breathe. My daughters and I spent the entire day nursing her back to health on the back deck and we set up a crate on the deck for her to sleep in at night. We named her Chica.
This is Mamacita, she gave us our first egg on Equipping Arrows Farm and that was an exciting moment for sure. While the original 8 hens learned to tolerate her, they never fully accepted her. During her first week, she was picked on a little bit but once a pecking order was established, it seemed that things were going just fine. Mamacita was co-existing with the flock and Chica was thriving in porch-life with plans to join the big girls once she grew to be closer to their size and even then, we would have transitioned her into that with phases.
As far as health concerns go, there are many infections that chickens can carry without showing any symptoms. They can transfer these highly contagious infections to entire flocks without showing any sign of illness. Which is the other main reason for keeping any new chickens isolated from an existing flock.
You may have picked up on the past tense language that I’m using and that is because over the last two weeks, things have taken a turn downhill for our flock. During the first week of June, I noticed one of our birds acting differently, moving slower, and staying separated from the rest of the flock. It was around this time that our hens reached 18 weeks of age so we were anxiously anticipating our first egg at any moment. She was showing no other signs of illness so I guessed that she may have been preparing to begin laying. On Monday, June 8th, Sweetie pie didn’t come out of the coop first thing in the morning when the rest of the girls did. They were normally ALL very excited to get out and explore so it was very odd that she stayed back. On Tuesday, she did it again and I noticed that one of her eyes was partially closed. Upon further inspection, I observed that her eye was putting out a watery/bubbly discharge and she couldn’t hardly keep it open. I looked over all of the other birds and observed water present in another chicken as well, Bat girl.
I came inside and went straight to my chicken books, reached out to a friend, and then posted in a facebook chicken group for advice. I kept learning that these eye symptoms were definitely a sign of illness but I couldn’t find much more information. Thankfully, someone shared this article with me on facebook and another chicken keeper chimed in and confirmed that it was most likely MG (Mycoplasma gallisepticum) or MS (Mycoplasma synoviae) which are both common bacterial infections that affect chickens. After reading that initial article, I was devastated. This was describing exactly what I was seeing in my birds and the symptoms that they were showing were not common symptoms for any other illness.
You can read more here: Freedom Hatchery Blog Article about MG & MS
While this was NOT the news I wanted to hear, I felt a sense of urgency to try to save my sick birds and to protect my entire flock. I reached out to a friend who also keeps chickens and asked for his advice. Because my original flock had come from a NPIP certified chicken hatcher (which means his birds were handled and blood tested every 6 months by the state Ag department), I knew that the source had to be the Mother’s day gift birds. After many tears and much more research, we decided that our only chance to save our flock was to cull the two birds showing symptoms along with the older barred rock who brought the infection in.
We continued to research this MS & MG Infection and found these resources to be extremely helpful:
University of Maine FAQ Article
Later that week, we had to cull two more birds due to the same symptoms and by the weekend, we had another sick bird isolated. Then we started looking to the future and researching to determine what we should do. We learned that we could choose from the following paths ...
We could keep a closed flock and keep the 5 hens that we were left with happy and healthy as long as we could, not sure if they were all infected or not. - This was not really an option for us as we have neighbors with their own flocks and this infection is highly contagious. We love our neighbors and their birds and don’t want anything to happen to them and we would never be able to add chickens to our flock while this infection was potentially present.
We could order an expensive blood test and test our flock and only cull the birds that tested positive for the infection (which was most likely all of them since they have all been together in our coop.)
Depopulate the flock, sanitize everything and let it air out for a few weeks before starting over with new birds.
We took into consideration the amount of heartache that our entire family had already endured and would probably be around the corner if we attempted to test them, we considered the cost of the testing, we thought of our neighbors, and came to the conclusion that given the uncertainty of the health of the remaining birds we needed to depopulate the flock.
Because the birds were infected, we couldn’t eat them, burn them, or bury them. Andrew had to cull them, then put them in trash bags and take them to the dump. We said our goodbyes on Tuesday evening and Andrew did it after the kids went to bed. I personally didn’t want to be present for the culling and He didn’t want to talk about it after it was over so I’m not privy to the details but he assured me that the method he used was fast and as humane as possible. Tuesday was a hard night for our family and we all went to bed with heavy hearts.
We will be sanitizing the nesting boxes, coop floor, and all other chicken accessories with Oxine and let the outdoor elements kill any surviving germs over a few weeks before bringing home any chicks. We have decided to start with baby chicks this time so we'll wait until we can dedicate our full attention to that new learning process. This was a heart wrenching experience and not one that we are proud of. I only share the details of our story in an effort to educate all who are learning and pray that it will protect any other chicken loving families from experiencing this awful infection.