Treating Wry Neck in Your Flock

blue orpington hen being held by a woman
Lavender looking healthy again after a bout of wry neck.

Wry neck is a condition that will cause your bird to hold her head at a funny, backward angle, as if looking up, and she may struggle to stand up or eat. This most often happens with chicks and ducklings, but it can happen with older birds as well, resulting from a genetic disorder, an injury, the ingestion of toxins, or a nutritional deficiency. I’ll be discussing ways of treating the latter, but some of these observations may help regardless of the cause.

Lavender came to us, along with her two flock mates, almost two years ago when her previous family could no longer care for them. We don’t really know their health history, but two of them developed bronchitis shortly after their arrival, and Lavender still has breathing issues from it.

If you follow me on Instagram, you will know that Lavender went broody this spring, and I think this is where her problems began. When hens are broody, they tend not to eat very much, only leaving the nest occasionally to eat, drink, and poop. You can see from the photo below, that Lavender was extremely committed to her nest.

Thankfully, not long after she started to sit, we took in a chick whose family had been killed by a coyote. We replaced the egg she’d been sitting on with her new baby under the cover of darkness, and the rest is history. They took to each other right away and Lavender was an extremely devoted and dedicated mom.

The problem is, she may have been a little too dedicated, as she gave every last bug, oat, berry, and bite of kale to her baby for at least two months, and probably more (our previous mother hen made them fend for themselves much earlier). She then went through a moult, and then she started laying again, both of which take a huge nutritional toll on a hen’s body. Add to that her breathing issues, combined with smoke from summer wildfires, and she was getting hit from all directions.

When I first noticed her head at a funny angle, I thought she’d had a mild stroke (our dog had this happen several years ago), but the adorable cocked head quickly became more like thrashing and struggling to hold her head up at all, and soon she was having difficulty walking and eating.

A little research helped me pin down that she likely had wry neck due to a vitamin E deficiency. The internet suggested supplementing that with the addition of selenium, which helps with absorption. I knew that sunflower seeds were a good source of both, and had the added benefit of adding a boost of protein.

I also added camelina oil (high in both omega 3 and vitamin E, something we keep on hand for adding a boost to salad dressings), nutritional yeast (high in B vitamins and protein), and some quick oats (also high in protein and B vitamins) to bind everything together. Wheat germ is another excellent source of vitamin E, if you have it.

Lavender was separated from the rest of the flock and allowed to eat as much of this mixture as she could fit in her belly. It can be difficult for them to eat when the wry neck is really bad, but being outdoors really seems to help with that. Indoors, she would thrash constantly trying to right herself, but when I brought her outside, she would slowly gain control and be able to stand and walk around (my theory is that the brightness overhead helped her orient herself). I have a video demonstrating this, but am unable to embed it here – I will add it as a highlight in my Instagram profile if you want to check it out.

I’m happy to report that within a week, Lavender was noticeably straighter, and was once again able to roost instead of sitting on the floor. She’s now strong enough to get herself up into the rafters, her favourite place to sleep and somewhat of an athletic feat to accomplish.

The whole flock is now getting a bowl of this nutrient dense concoction on a regular basis, and they absolutely love it. Here are roughly the proportions that I used (scale up or down, depending on the number of birds you’re feeding):

  • 2 tbsp raw, hulled sunflower seeds
  • 1 tbsp quick oats (or wheat germ)
  • 2 tsp nutritional yeast
  • 2 – 3 tsp camelina oil (can sub sunflower, almond, safflower, canola, or grapeseed – or the contents of a vitamin E capsule)

It’s worth investing some time in your flock’s health while they’re still healthy. Chickens and ducks are bred to lay so many eggs these days that it takes a huge toll on their small bodies (which is why hens in commercial egg operations are killed at about a year old). That, combined with two moults a year (during which they lose and regrow some or all of their feathers), means they need an extra boost of nutrition on a regular basis. Doing this will ensure that they live a long and happy life.

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