I was reading up on poultry parasites this week, after we lost a couple hens from the laying flock. Alex, who used to work in a vet clinic, and Charlotte, who is the resident chicken whisperer, wanted to check the flock’s fecal egg counts to see if anything looked particularly high.
I am always game for a date with the microscope. I like exploring the tiny world under the lens, and I’m fascinated by the relationship between parasite and host, which is not as one sided as it appears to be at first glance. I have tested the manure of cows, horses, and sheep before, but never chickens.
The basic procedure is the same: obtain some fresh feces, mix it with a floatation solution, strain out the plant matter, and place a representative sample on a special slide that has a grid on it, to facilitate counting. Wait for any parasite eggs to float to the top of the slide, where they, with their distinctive shapes and even edges, are discernible from the other detritus in a fecal sample. With horses, we are looking primarily for large and small strongyle eggs. With sheep, it’s the dreaded barberpole worm’s eggs. With the chickens, we would be looking for the oocysts of coccidia, which are very small, and for roundworm eggs, which are the most common.
My reading and my interest took me further down the list of potential chicken parasites to something called a gapeworm, which infests the trachea and causes the bird to gasp for air with an open-mouth. “The gapeworm is sometimes designated as the ‘red-worm’; or ‘forked-worm’,” says the MSU extension service website, “because of its red color and because the male and female are joined in permanent copulation.” My goodness, I could think of more entertaining names than that for a creature that spends its life joined in permanent copulation.
In the end, we saw some roundworm eggs, but not enough to indicate a problem, and no oocysts nor anything else. Which leads to a diagnosis, for the hens, of a bad case of Death. That’s how it goes sometimes. As an old farmer told me when we first started out, if you have livestock, you are going to have dead stock. Continue reading this Essex Farm Note.