Basic Duck or Chicken Exam
Because birds can be so good at hiding symptoms when they’re sick, it’s important to give them regular check-ups to ensure they’re happy and healthy. This is something you can do at home, and it will help you become familiar with what is normal and healthy for your duck or cluck, so you can start to tune in to subtle changes that might indicate a health problem before it gets too serious.
Start with the head and look at both eyes to ensure they are clear and bright. I find it helps if you say “look into my eyes,” but that’s optional. There shouldn’t be any discharge from the eyes, and no foam or debris near the eyes.
Then look at the nares or nostrils of the beak. They should be clear of debris and should not be runny or have other discharge.
In ducks, you can often see clear through to the other side if the nares are clean.
Look at the feathers. They should be in good condition, with minimal breakage or wear. They should be shiny, bright and well kept.
Fluff through the face feathers a bit, and see if you can get a look at the ear. It’s a little further back than I’m showing here, but my other hand was on the camera. This is one good way to see if your birds have feather mites. They’re different in ducks and chickens sometimes, so this is a good way to see them in ducks. I’ve found that you have to especially watch for feather mites in any handicapped birds who spend more time on the ground than usual.
Check the feet for any scuffs, abrasions or cuts. Those can sadly get serious pretty quickly, so it’s important to keep your flock on soft, safe material as much as you can.
If you start to check feet weekly or every other week, you’ll start to get a good sense of what a healthy foot looks like, so you can be aware of any swelling or other changes.
I actually find the camera on a smart phone to be a good way to see feet when the flock doesn’t want to cooperate. With chickens, you’ll want to check all the scales on top of their feet and ankles. Scaly leg mites make these scales push out a bit and get dirt under them. If scales aren’t flat and tight against the foot, you may have scaly leg mites.
Take a look at the chest and belly of your duck or cluck. Feel along both sides of the keel – the hard cartilage that runs down the center of their chest. They should have some muscle on both sides of the keel. When they’re too thin, people say “this keel is sharp.” You’ll start to feel what’s normal if you keep checking. Here, Miles is missing a few belly feathers. That may mean he’s sleeping or napping somewhere that isn’t soft or clean. It’s something we’ll note and try to fix, then check again in two weeks.
Then you’ll want to move to the dark side of the duck or cluck. Take a look at their vent area. It should be clean and dry.
Check out their poo. It can vary with ducks because they swim a lot, but with chickens it should be firm with clearly visible urates (white goo). This example shows a bright green color that you should always watch for – that bright light green is a bad sign. Unfortunately, some foods like corn can make a similar poo color. But if you have a flock, you now need to pay attention to poo.
Chickens do tend to get a bit of poo stuck to their feathers now and then, but it shouldn’t be much. Too much can be a sign of problems.
With chickens, you’ll want to part the feathers near the vent and check for lice and mites.
Do this exam at least twice a month and you’ll start to learn the basic normal health status of each member of your flock. Then you are much more prepared to notice changes before they become serious problems. If you have an easy way to weigh your bird, that is also a great way to tell they’re eating consistently and feeling well. Once you’re done, pat the bird on the head and say “good birdie.” That’s it!
Here are a few links to further information on fun stuff like chicken parasites and illnesses.
Identifying chicken mites and lice: http://www.the-chicken-chick.com/2012/08/poultry-lice-and-mites-identification.html
Basic head exam for a parrot – helpful in showing how to find ears:
PDF chart of a basic bird exam for a cockatiel. Good details on what to watch for, including poo:
Lastly, here are some of the supplies I keep on hand to check feet, treat tiny scrapes if they’re caught early, and to treat any feather mites, lice or scaly leg mites.
To check feet, sometimes I need to wash them. So I fill this tub with luke warm water and a drop or two of Dawn dishwashing detergent. Only Dawn. I use an old toothbrush to gently scrub off any dirt and then check the feet and ankles of the flock. The spray bottle has a very dilluted antibacterial spray called chlorhexidine. Always dillute it until it’s a very light blue. I also have nolvalsan antibacterial cream. Apparently it’s no longer available commercially but I get mine from our veterinarian. For any mites or lice, I use Happy Jack’s flea & tick powder. It’s what my vet uses too. You’ll want to wear gloves when applying it liberally to your bird. And it needs to be re-applied in 10-14 days to kill any eggs that hatch after the first application. You sprinkle it on the back, belly and under the wings and then rub it in. Birds will not like you after that, so you’d better bring treats.
That’s the basic duck and cluck exam we do here, much to the irritation of the flock. But it helps to keep them healthy and happy, and with regular exams, they also get easier to handle.
Quacks and clucks,
Tiff and the flock