What’s the best way to carry a hen? How do I clip my birds’ wings? Which birds should I cull? What’s dubbing?
This week’s article describes some common management practices that will help answer these and other related questions.
The best way to carry a bird is to hold its legs between the fingers of one hand so that it is upright, secure and comfortable, and carry it with its body under your other arm in a sitting position.
Birds must not be lifted or carried by the head, by one leg or one wing or by the tail. This could cause injury.
If birds are to be caught, they should be penned and handled quietly so that they stay relatively calm and there is no risk of them being injured. If large groups of birds become alarmed they can pile into corners with a risk of some being smothered.
A very useful tip for handling birds with a minimum of fuss is to work in dim light. Birds are usually much quieter in dim light, so wait until after dusk or cover the windows in the hen-house to make the job of catching them much easier.
A free ranger's hook that slips around the birds’ leg at the level of the hock can also make the job of catching individual birds easier. The hook can be made from thick wire, and it should be about 12 cm long and 3-4 cm wide.
Clipping the wings
Clipping the wings (also called pinning or flight restriction) is common in poultry farmed in backyards, to help prevent them from flying over the fence into danger, into the vegetable garden, or into neighbouring properties.
Clipping the wings means trimming the flight feathers of one wing without drawing blood. The idea behind it is that it makes the bird unbalanced and unable to fly. The procedure is repeated when the flight feathers regrow.
Some people clip off the end of the wing, but this is not recommended, because while it permanently grounds the bird it runs the risk of infection and it is painful.
Don’t cut the smaller feathers on the wing, as these help keep the bird warm and dry.
If you buy ‘spent hens’ from intensive egg-laying operations, their beaks will have been trimmed. Beak trimming involves cutting off the tip of the top beak to try to prevent cannibalism, and it is routine practice in intensive poultry farming systems where cannibalism can be a problem associated with overcrowding and stress.
Cannibalism should not occur in backyard flocks because the birds in free-range systems lead a relatively low-stress life, so dubbing is not necessary.
If you buy hens whose beaks have been trimmed, they won't be able to forage and fossick as effectively as the other hens, but they can eat layers’ mash and pellets with no difficulty, and once they have adapted to the new improved lifestyle they can fare very well.
Each summer, hens and roosters lose their feathers and grow a new thick coats to provide warmth for the coming winter. Moulting usually takes place in autumn, but the exact timing of the moult varies with the age of the bird and it depends to some extent on the weather.
Young pullets lay for about 14 months, so the pullets that began to lay late in summer will stop laying and start moulting in autumn the following year. Pullets that come into lay early in summer will probably stop laying and start moulting in late summer the following year. Older birds moult anywhere in between.
Sometimes it seems that the hens can sense a cold winter ahead and they begin to moult in summer, whereas if the summer is long and warm, moulting begins later.
Most birds lay some eggs through the moulting period, but there will be few eggs from each hen for about 8 to 10 weeks. As they get older they take longer to come into lay each year, often waiting for the warm spring weather
Identification of birds
Leg banding is useful to keep track of the various ages of birds. For example, if you use one colour leg band for each year it will be easy to identify the older birds for culling. Bands can also be used to differentiate breeding lines.
There are many types of bands available, from thin single spiral plastic to stout aluminium bands, and some types of bands are numbered. There are also aluminium wing bands that can be clipped over the tip of the bird’s wing.
Whatever type of band you use, make sure it doesn’t cause any injury to the skin, and make allowance for the fact that the bird may grow fairly fast, and roosters need slightly bigger bands than hens. The bands should be checked regularly and where necessary loosened or removed to prevent injury to the bird.
Unless you keep your poultry for sentimental reasons (and there’s nothing wrong with that!), you will need to cull some birds each year. It’s one of the least pleasant aspects of lifestyle farming, but it’s necessary unless you can support a large number of hungry passengers!
The birds that moult early are the ones to cull as they will not be the best egg layers. They will have eaten well using the food and calcium to put on weight and grow new feathers instead of laying eggs. They may look fat and glossy while many of the other hens are thinner with some feather loss but still laying.
Cull the older hens too, because as they age their egg production drops quite a bit and it may be so reduced that it isn’t worth keeping them. This usually means culling about half the flock and replacing them with pullets.
Whether you want birds for eggs or for meat, you will need to kill some from time to time or have them killed. Killing birds that you have cared for and especially hens that have laid eggs for you is always an unpleasant job, but it’s a necessary part of farming and most of us would agree that it is best to learn how to do the job humanely so that the bird feels as little anxiety, fear and pain as possible and preferably none at all. This makes it less distressing for all concerned!
One of the most humane and effective ways of killing a bird quickly and humanely is dislocating the neck. This means a sudden pull to separate the head from the neck so that the spinal cord is broken and all sensation to the brain stops, but the skin remains intact. This is sometimes called ‘wringing the neck’, but technically it’s “cervical dislocation”.
If you have any doubts at all about your ability to kill birds instantly, get the advice of someone experienced or, even better, get them to do the job for you.
Keep the bird as calm as possible, and catch it quietly, preferably in a darkened place. Hold its legs in your left hand so that it is upside down, stand up and grip it behind the head with the right hand, placing the index and middle finger on either side of the head and the thumb on the top of the head. Holding the legs firmly, extend the neck gently as far as it will go over your left thigh. Brace yourself and give a sharp firm pull to extend the neck 9 inches more, giving the head a twist at the same time with a flick of your wrist. You should feel the neck dislocate quickly and cleanly just behind the head. Hold the bird upside down so that the blood drains conveniently into the cavity formed in the neck.
Pull too hard and the head will come off and there will be a bloody mess. But this is better than not pulling hard enough, because then the bird will not be killed and may be very distressed
Be prepared for a lot of reflex flapping of the wings and paddling of the legs immediately after you’ve killed the bird and don’t be concerned. If the head is separated from the body, it’s not possible for the bird to feel any pain or distress. These are reflex movements.