Life in the chicken coop on our little homestead has been moving along predictably. Summer found the girls in the nest boxes in the mornings, getting their egg-laying duties done by noon, and off to the afternoon hunt and peck fun. Late summer and fall, for some reason, found several hens going “broody” and squawking protests when eggs were removed from beneath them. More recently, the broody hens have given up for the season, and the entire flock is molting. Feathers are all over the coop and yard—and the only eggs are coming from the two Copper Marans that just started laying in February.
That’s all as it should be. Just in case, I do always take a few moments morning and evening to inspect the flock:
How are the combs looking?
Any signs of mites or other parasites?
Is one chicken being bullied or picked on?
Are they looking droopy; are eyes bright?
Do things sound right—regular peeps and purrs at night/happy clucks during the day?
I lift up wings, check bottoms of feet, feel crops.
I watch them for a while.
One morning not long ago, I started watching one Speckled Sussex, Simone, in particular. She was eating and drinking normally, moving within her usual circle of chicken-friends, performing regular activities, but her crop seemed extended.
A bird’s crop is located just below the neck, just off-center to the right. It is the organ in which food is softened before emptying into the stomach and gizzard, where it is ground and digested. Crops should be nearly empty by morning, barely able to be felt. By merely observing her, I wasn’t certain if her stage of molt might not cause her to look a little oddly shaped. When I felt her crop, though, I realized it was large and hard.
This signals, to me, a bird that has an impacted crop or is “crop bound”. It can happen when a bird doesn’t ingest enough grit to help break up and soften food, or it may occur when a bird eats long pieces of grass or hay and those pieces tangle and compact internally. Bread or pasta fed to chickens may also compact in the crop and cause problems. “Sour crop” is a fungal infection that may result from an impacted crop, when the food ferments in the crop. Sour crop is diagnosed by also feeling the crop—it will be squishy—and smelling the chicken’s breath.
In Simone’s case, I was not sure of the cause—we offer grit all the time; but obviously there was a problem that needed to have attention. The first thing I did was to remove her from the main flock and place her in the “hospital wing”—a dog cage that is in the back of the coop. She could still see the rest of the birds, but I could regulate her intake. I gave her plenty of water, and no feed for 24 hours, hoping that the problem would resolve itself.
Luckily, after a day with no food and plenty of water, Simone’s crop was softer and less distended. After another night with no food, she was looking much better; I don’t feed mash to the birds, so I ground up a few pellets and offered that to her with more fresh water. After the third day in the hospital wing, her crop felt empty, and she rejoined the flock.
Often, the solution isn’t as simple. Once or twice, I’ve had to take the next step, which involves an eyedropper or syringe, some vegetable oil (I use olive oil), and a second pair of hands. While one person holds the chicken, and gently lifts the head and opens the beak, the other drips a few drops of the oil down the chicken’s throat, and then massages the crop. This really does take two people—it’s tricky to hold, open and drip—and extra care must be taken to be sure the chicken doesn’t aspirate the oil. I’ve found that once the oil is in, the chicken really likes the massage part!
If, after this, your chicken is still crop bound, it may be necessary to call a vet to have the impaction surgically removed. There are places on the Internet that give directions on opening the crop and cleaning it out, yourself, at home, but that’s not happening here at my home.
Impacted crop is one of the things that happen occasionally to chickens within a flock. Regular flock watching-inspection-can catch potential problems before they become Big Problems. If you know how your birds behave, look, sound and interact on a regular basis, you will be able to take quick action if something isn’t quite right.