When it comes to raising backyard chickens, there are a few things you need to take into consideration before making your purchase. You need to think about the breeds you want, the amount of space you have and how to care for them. However, before you even get to that point, you need to make sure that the chickens you are buying are healthy and free from diseases. With that in mind, here are a few things you should check before buying chickens or other birds.
If you are buying adult hens that are meant to be in lay, then their combs should be red. Cockerels should have redder combs from a younger age. Birds of this age with very pale combs can indicate anemia or general illness.
If you are buying chicks or birds that haven’t started laying yet (even some point of lay (POL) birds) then it is perfectly acceptable for their combs to be very pale.
Birds of certain breeds are meant to have combs of another color, such as the Silkie, which has a very dark, sort of black/mulberry comb, and the Sumatra has a black/red comb too. However, if a bird with a large comb has black bits on the tips, this indicates frostbite. This isn’t necessarily a health problem (the black bits will simply shrivel up and fall off) but you cannot use the bird for show.
Eyes should be bright and alert. Sunken eyes mean dehydration, caused by either a lack of available drinking water or a disease so severe it doesn’t want to drink.
Birds can have a discharge coming from their eyes. This could be thick and pus-like, or watery and bubbly. The latter indicates mycoplasma. However, some breeds such as Indian Game show bubbly eyes when they are completely healthy.
Make sure that the bird hasn’t got a twisted beak. Birds with twisted beaks need their beaks trimmed regularly (probably by the vet, which is expensive) and extra deep feed bowls so that they can sort of scoop up the feed with the lower part of their beak. These birds cannot be used for showing or breeding, as it is a genetic condition. The beak should also not be overgrown.
Check for signs of discharge. If there is, it’s a sign of disease. However, sometimes it won’t come out of the nostrils because they’re already blocked with said discharge. Open up the beak and have a look for any discharge around the back of the mouth, also checking that the mucus membranes are nice and pink. Large amounts of discharge indicate infection.
Feel the crop (located at the base of the neck). It should be roughly golf ball sized, but it fills up during the course of the day and then what hasn’t been digested during the day is digested at night.
If it is part way through the day, and the crop is empty, the bird isn’t eating. This could be a sign of disease or because she is at the bottom of the pecking order and isn’t being allowed to eat by the others, although the former is more likely.
If it is large and pendulous, then squeeze it and sniff its breath as you do it. If the breath smells nasty then it has a sour crop – this is a bird better avoided.
If the food in the crop is a hard ball then it has an impacted crop. This can be easily cured, and often won’t reoccur, so this shouldn’t put you off a bird that is otherwise the best of the lot.
The feathers should be smooth, soft and shiny. Gently part the feathers and check for any lice. Sometimes they are all over the body, and other times they are all around the vent.
The vent should be clean, pink and smooth. If it is crusted over then it has vent gleet. This is hard to cure, so avoid it. Make sure that there are no lice, or lice eggs, which are seen at the bottom of the shaft of the feathers, as white clumps. If you bring a bird like that home then your current chickens will get infested too.
The feathers around the vent should be clean and fluffy. If they are covered in feces then it is a sign of diarrhea, which could mean any number of diseases.
The legs should be smooth and with no raised scales. If the scales are raised, then it has scaly leg mites, a hard-to-cure condition that is not very pleasant for the bird and can easily be passed onto your existing birds.
Feel the breast bone (“keel”) and breast meat. If the bird’s keel is very sharp, then the bird is underweight, which could indicate an underlying disease. However, some young and in-lay birds can be naturally a bit thin, so it takes a bit of skill that is only really acquired with time.
If you can barely feel the breastbone, then the bird is overweight. It is also best to avoid this, as being overweight can lead to prolapse, which is basically when they expel their own organs through their vent which isn’t nice.