Every so often it is a good idea to schedule a Chicken Spa day. The hens will thank you and so will those macho rooster boys. Following are the three components that I generally use:
1. Nail Care – Chickens have three toes in the front of their feet and one in the back (except the Silkie breed has five toes!). Chickens generally don’t need to have their nails clipped if they are given enough room to roam and scratch about the yard. This activity will serve as a natural nail file for your birds. As a chicken ages and gets less active she may need help with a trim now and then.
It is best to have a helper who can hold your bird so you can position the clippers accurately around the end of the nail. There is a vein and nerves in the quick of the nail so you want to make sure to avoid cutting into the quick. With light-colored nails you can usually see the darkened area of the vein. Birds with darker feet and nails are not as easy but sometimes holding the nail up to a light will show the end of the vein. I would suggest trimming conservatively the first time until you feel comfortable with the process.
You will know the nails are too long if they begin to curl at the ends. I would start by trimming off just the tip of the nail. This may be all that your bird needs to free up her natural movement so that she can take over regular maintenance herself by scratching and filing her nails on the ground. If you do accidentally nip the quick, apply pressure to the end of the nail for a minute or so to stop any bleeding (immediately administer a chicken treat to the beak area!). Nail trimming is also a good way to get your bird used to being handled and also enables you to check for any other possible health issues at the same time such as leg mites and bumble foot.
2. Dust Bath – Chickens love to get down into a pile of loose dirt and sift it into their feathers. They appear to be so blissful when “bathing” it makes me want to come back as a chicken just to experience this happy place of being. I provide a bin in the chicken yard filled with organic soil purchased from the local recycling center. Mixing in a little sand helps keeps the dirt loose. I find that my flock enjoys bathing together as a social activity and they often preen each other while engaged in their “puppy pile”. It also gives them the opportunity to peck gravel bits up for their crops. Chickens have oil glands in their skin which help keep their feathers healthy and shiny. The dirt particles are said to help soak up the old oil which then can be dislodged during preening. Adding some fresh rosemary, lavender and/or catnip to the dirt may also help discourage feather mites and ticks. And lucky for you, the fact that your resident chickens prefer dirt to water bathing also means they will not be expecting you to hang out the monogrammed towels afterward!
3. Massage – That’s right, are you surprised? Many creatures thrive with gentle touch and chickens are no exception. I find that massage is very calming for my birds and also inspires their trust in me for being handled. Start with holding a hen (or rooster) on your lap and making small circular movements around the crop and chest area. If they are comfortable with this move into the lower chest area and up into the indentation where the legs connect with the body. This seems to be a particularly receptive area for chickens and I can feel them melt into my hand at this point. Continue up underneath the wing and if your bird is calm enough she’ll allow you to knead the thin area of skin and muscle where her wings attach. None of my chickens respond well to having their necks massaged but they will sometimes enjoy the area around their comb (because they can’t reach it themselves?). There also seems to be a sweet spot on their face just below the eyes, where rubbing gently in a small circle with a fingertip will get them to close a blissful lid. Massage helps aid circulation and is an opportunity to spend quality time getting to know your bird. Experiment to see if you can tell what they like and don’t like. I have one little roo who follows me around until I pick him up to give him his regular wing-shoulder rub!
Here are some other sites which go into more depth on nail trimming:
-Singing Luna 12/21/2013
Seed for Thought: What makes your chickens happy?