Janice Houghton-Wallace says how you interact with your poultry is important

It can be all too easy to think that so long as poultry have safe housing, feed and water they could want for little more. However, if we take the time to handle them we can learn so much about their state of health and overall contentment. Also, how we handle and interact with them will impact on their welfare.

Just like any form of livestock as well as pets, poultry respond to certain behaviours and respect for the birds and their needs certainly helps. If young chicks are introduced to being handled – although I would point out that mass handling at events is not I feel in their best interest – they will get used to human contact and grow up not being afraid if approached.

As birds mature, it will be easier to handle them if they are relatively tame.

How birds are caught is a vitally important manoeuvre. It will be more difficult to catch birds the larger the area they are in because by choice they will prefer to carry on with what they are doing rather than be willing to be interrupted for something for which they have no idea. What you should not do is attempt to catch a bird by chasing it from pillar to post in order to suddenly dive upon it. This is a classic predatory action and will only stress the bird who will be terrified of what happens next.

The best way of catching up a bird is to herd it into a smaller area and then into a corner by corralling it by use of a large wire frame. With the bird then cornered you can reach behind the frame to take hold of the bird. Although the bird may well react to this it is by far quicker and kinder than grabbing it from a distance.

South West Farmer:

These Scots Dumpies could be herded into a corner of their pen before catching them

Some females during the height of the mating season will act subordinately and crouch in which case they can then be picked up without resistance. The bird will be expecting a mating consequence but by being picked up gently it will accept being handled with ease.

There are many reasons for handling poultry and top of the list is to assess the health and welfare of a bird. As a predated species poultry tend to try to hide any defects or injuries until it is often too late to reverse.

Before inspecting a bird hold it is a manner in which it will feel comfortable and therefore not stressed. Most medium and small sized birds can be held in one hand leaving the other hand free to inspect its condition. Once the bird has been caught up by putting a hand on a shoulder and confining it, then place one hand underneath from the front with the legs between your second the third fingers and your other hand over the back at the same time holding the wings close into the body. Then lift the bird and slip the tips of the wings behind the thumb and little finger. The bird should then feel safe and secure and not be distressed.

If a bird feels insecure or is being held far too tightly then it will try desperately to get away from you. A firm but gentle hold is all that is required.

South West Farmer:

A firm but gentle hold is all that's required

By holding the bird you can then feel the condition of the beast and whether there is good muscle on it. With your free hand lift the feathering to look for any signs of external parasites, especially around the vent and the base of the back. Should there be any evidence of lice or mites then treat this immediately with either lice powder or mite spray that should be kept for any such occurrence.

Check that the eyes, ears and nostrils are clean and if the top part of the beak is not protruding over the lower. If it is then the overhanging part of the top beak can be trimmed back slightly but no further back than to meet up comfortably with the lower. Look over the legs for any signs of scaly mite and whether or not the claws are too long. If scaly leg mite is present then dipping the legs in Benzyl benzoate or covering them in Vaseline will help to kill off the mites. When trimming back long claws make sure only that before the evidence of the vein is carefully clipped back. Take too much and the claw will bleed.

When finished place the bird gently back onto the ground before letting it go, this is more welfare friendly than letting it fly down from your hands.

Another way of catching up a small number of birds is to wait until they have perched at night and then bodily lifting them one at a time off the perch as gently and quietly as possible. In darkness or at least dusk, they are more likely to remain still but clearly this will also depend on how quietly and gently you are carrying out the task.

Never grab and hold any bird by the legs as some species, especially turkeys are prone to dislocation. Some would say that there is little difference between the body weight being taken by standing or being held by the legs. However, there will be more pressure on the joints with the body weight hanging and the birds will flap indicating insecurity and stress.

A goose or turkey held underarm with its head pointing behind you or with the head pointing forward is a welfare friendly way of carrying it. A small bird can be held and carried by cushioning both shoulders and supporting the whole of the body.

Ducks do not need to be carried by their shoulders alone and larger ducks especially should be supported by the hand underneath the body without pulling the legs together as their thighs are wider apart than fowls.

Article by Janice Houghton-Wallace from Smallholder: June issue, 2019