Love is in the Coop: A Guide to Chicken Reproduction

Some surprising aspects of chicken mating make it possible for families to keep a few hens in suburban and urban areas and enable monstrous operations to produce commercial eggs at low cost.

Imagine the future of suburban chickens if a hen had to have a rooster present to lay eggs. Few cities allow anyone to keep crowing roosters, so it’s fortunate that hens lay eggs whether or not a male is around. Huge factory egg operations are also lucky that hens lay without a rooster present. If roosters were necessary to stimulate laying, commercial eggeries would need larger facilities to house male birds that eat but don’t lay. Egg costs would be higher!

Roosters are fun to watch as they strut around the coop showing off their gorgeous feathers. Having one makes keeping chickens more interesting while producing fertile eggs that will hatch. Roosters protect their hens from intruders. Having a rooster in the flock lets people observe the rather unusual chicken mating process which is very different from how mammals mate.

A rooster often employs a type of foreplay by prancing around the hen and clucking before mounting her. The transfer of sperm happens quickly without the penetration normal in mammal mating. The cloaca, or vent, of the male and female touch and sperm are exchanged. It’s called a “cloacal kiss” and requires a bit of avian gymnastics for both birds to position themselves so their cloacas meet.

Just what is a cloaca? Unlike humans and most mammals, a female chicken has but one rear orifice with three functions. It is where feces and eggs exit her body and sperm enter. The rooster’s cloaca has only two functions. One is to pass feces. The other is to transfer sperm to a hen.

A hen doesn’t need to mate every day in order to lay fertile eggs. She stores sperm in her body and her eggs will be fertile for at least a couple of weeks and sometimes much longer before she needs to re-mate. One rooster will easily keep eight to a dozen hens fertile.

Mammals produce liquid urine which leaves the body through the urethra. Urine contains urea. In contrast birds have no need for a urethra since they don’t urinate.  Instead they coat their feces with uric acid that exits their body through the cloaca as moist chicken poop.

Not producing liquid urine allows birds to have lighter bodies than mammals of similar size. It is an adaption that helps them fly. Fortunately, the lack of liquid urine makes keeping chickens easier. If they produced copious urine, bedding would quickly become saturated and smelly if not changed often. Instead, moist chicken feces quickly dries and becomes incorporated into the coop’s bedding. As long as it stays dry changing litter doesn’t need to be done often and the coop stays dry and odor free.

A chicken’s cloaca is an amazing organ. To keep eggs about to be laid away from feces she inverts her oviduct within the cloaca so there is little or no contact inside her body between feces and egg, which comes out clean.

If hens required a rooster in order to lay, few suburbanites would be able to keep chickens. And, if birds produced liquid urine coops would quickly become smelly and need frequently cleaning. Far fewer suburbanites would be willing to do much more coop cleaning and simply not keep hens. So, these simple adaptations meet several needs.

Myth-Busting Medicated Chicken Feed

At Nutrena, and other poultry feed companies, feed is often formulated as medicated or non-medicated. There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to the medicated feed option. So, we’ve decided it’s time to bust the myths about medicated poultry feed. To level set, when we refer to medicated poultry feed, we’re talking about feed which includes amprolium. We currently offer a medicated and non-medicated chick starter/grower in our Country Feeds® and NatureWise® lines, to make sure you have the choice that works best for your flock.
Read our myth-busting facts below and to learn more about coccidiosis, read our other blog post here.

Myth #1: Medicated feed will ‘cure a bird with a cold or runny droppings’.
The fact:  The medication, Amprolium, will only help prevent coccidiosis, nothing else.

Myth #2: I do not want to feed an antibiotic to my chicks, so I do not feed medicated feed.
The fact: Contrary to popular belief, Amprolium is not an antibiotic. It is a thiamin blocker, and the cocidia parasite needs thiamin to multiply in the gut of a bird.

Myth #3: I do not want residual drugs in my meat or eggs.
The fact: There is no egg or meat withdrawal time for Amprolium in poultry feed. The FDA has deemed it safe to eat the eggs or meat from birds that have consumed it.

Myth #4: If I see an outbreak of coccidiosis (bloody droppings), I should start to feed the medicated feed immediately.
The fact: The dosage of Amprolium in medicated feed is not strong enough to fix an outbreak. Its purpose is to serve as a preventative measure. A stronger dose of Amprolium should be added to the water immediately if there is an outbreak, but a consult with your veterinarian may be necessary to fully address what’s going on.

Myth #5: I should always feed medicated feed
The fact: It is a personal choice, and coccidiosis can be managed with or without Amprolium. If there are wild birds present in the store where your chickens were bought, or on your farm, it may be a good idea to introduce medicated feed. But the decision is yours.

Myth #6: It’s a good practice to feed some medicated feed and some non-medicated feed as a mixture if I don’t want to give my flock too much medicine.
The fact: Feeding a medicated feed takes the guess work out of dosing, since it is formulated carefully. Mixing medicated and non-medicated feed reduces the effectiveness of the medicated feed. If you opt to use a medicated feed, a sixteen-week duration is what most experts recommend. If you have not started your chicks on medicated, it is OK to switch, but it may not be as effective.

Myth# 7: I should obtain a prescription from my veterinarian for medicated chick starter since there is new veterinary feed directive (VFD) starting soon.
The fact: Since Amprolium is not an antibiotic, no veterinary prescription is necessary. But, as with any medication, read and follow all label instructions for maximum efficacy and safety.

To learn more about what feed options are out there, visit NutrenaWorld.com.

Winter Water: Keep it Flowing!

Like all living things, chickens need water to thrive. But keeping your hens hydrated in winter can be a challenge when temperatures plummet. Consider these tips to keep the fluids flowing, even in the coldest climates. Above all, make sure your girls always have access to water that is fresh, clean and unfrozen.

Why Water Matters 

Granted, chickens don’t drink as much water in winter. But abundant liquid water is essential for a variety of reasons. First is egg production. Lack of water – even for just a matter of hours – can throw off egg laying, which may already be comprised due to molt and waning sunlight. This thinking applies to meat birds, too. Without water, they won’t have as much of an appetite and won’t grow as big.

Lack of water can also cause problems with digestion and a chicken’s ability to metabolize food. Chickens need water to help soften and dissolve their feed, and keep it moving smoothly through their crop.

Fresh Not frozen

Access to fresh, liquid water 24/7 is especially important because chickens don’t drink large amounts all at once. They take in small amounts frequently. That’s impossible to do if the water bowl keeps freezing.

You have two choices to prevent the problem: Haul heavy buckets from a distant source and replace the water each time it freezes, or use an electrically heated chicken or pet waterer. The latter are thermostatically controlled to keep ice from forming. (NOTE: Curious chickens have been known to unplug heated waterers.) In really cold locales, some chicken owners rotate two waterers. One stays in the coop half the day and is rotated out with a fresh one from indoors for the second half of the day. The waterer that gets removed then sits indoors to thaw, if needed.

Also keep in mind that even if your coop is heated or has a heat-producing bulb, the warmth may not be evenly distributed. If you have extremely chilly winters, always check the water bowl to make sure it’s liquid or not covered in an icy layer. While some chickens will “eat” snow, it’s unlikely they’ll ingest enough for adequate hydration.

Pecking Order and Water

New chicken owners may not realize that basic flock psychology can hinder water access. In fact, in any flock of chickens, there is a pecking order, Alpha on the top, Omega on the bottom, and everyone else in between the two extremes. This is seen initially with baby chicks. If there is a weak chick, the rest of the flock will eliminate it from the gene pool. “Vote her off the island,” so to speak.

The flock may do this as adults, too, if they sense the need to eliminate another adult from the gene pool (even a healthy, egg-producing hen). One way they do this is to keep the hen in question from drinking. Thankfully, wintering birds will expire less quickly from dehydration than in summer. You can help reduce the chances of this by adding a few extra watering stations that allow more options for drinking. This simple step can be key to keeping the entire flock healthy.

Along these lines, make sure your coop is big enough to accommodate your flock. A variety of issues may cause pecking or other aggressive behaviors. One common cause is possible changes in weather (winter’s cold) that would force the birds to spend more time indoors, where crowding may trigger aggression – and limit some birds’ access to water.

Keep the Coop Dry

While keeping water bowls filled with non-frozen water is critical, so is keeping that water in the bowl. Wet living conditions for chickens can foster cold and disease. Unfortunately, the downside to some electric water dishes, is that the birds can easily tip them over. A simple, level cradle made from scrap wood can solve the problem.

Your specific winter conditions (from mild to downright miserable!) will dictate what’s needed to keep your hens hydrated. As ways, stay diligent about flock care and you’ll keep them happy and healthy until warmer weather arrives.