When i had my first flock of buff orpingtons, someone told me that i should give them a weekly exam to make sure everything appears to be going o.k. with them physically. So i did. And i was super faithful - every Monday - when they became a new number of weeks old, i would examine each chicken before bed time.
Now, with this flock, i've gotten lazy. I guess 25 or more birds seemed too overwhelming - and sometimes i'm a little TOO hands off. But i'm starting to realize why the weekly exams are really important.
One of my girls died several weeks ago, and now i have another sick - and i think that if i had been doing weekly exams, i would've noticed long before they started huddling in the corner...and then maybe i could've intervened earlier - giving them a better chance. When you intervene earlier, often the remedies are also much simpler.
Here's what the exam should entail:
Give them a good looking over and just see if anything seems amiss. Then, more specifically, check several key areas that might tip you off to any emerging issues.
The keel: Feel the keel (the pointy part of the breast bone) with you hand. Unless your chicken is very fat, you will be able to feel the keel. If you can pinch it - the actual bone - between your thumb and finger, your chicken is way too skinny and may be starving for some reason.
The vent area: Pretty much always, the vent will look normal. If the vent is inverted, that will be obvious that something is really wrong. But also, if there is runny diarrhea stuck to the feathers around the vent, that can be a sign (combined with others) of intestinal distress or crop problems.
While you're looking at the vent area, pull back the feathers and see if you see any creepy-crawlies. This is an area where they like to hide.
The feet: Check the skin and scales for signs of scaly leg mites. Scaly leg mites cause the scales on the legs and feet to be raised and hard - and painful. The earlier you catch it, the easier it is to remedy and cause less pain for your chicken.
The crop: If you check right before bed, the crop should be at least partially full. If you check in the morning before they eat, the crop should be empty.
Under the wings: I think my chickens like this part even less than the vent check, but under the wings is another very warm and cozy area where creepy-crawlies like to congregate. While you're in there, look for any signs of build-up around the base of the feathers - this might indicate the presence of mites also.
This exam takes a lot longer to write about than to accomplish. Once you have the hang of it, depending on the cooperation level of individual chickens, you should be able to spend less than 2 minutes on each healthy bird. Of course, if you do find signs of distress, you'll want to spend a little more time on the chicken to look for additional clues to the problem.