If you’re new to keeping chickens, then you might never have come across a crop before and may be wondering what it does and whether it’s really necessary for a chicken to have one at all? Well, a chicken’s crop is actually a very important part of its digestive system and this is what you really need to know about it.
In theory, a chicken can live without a crop. In reality, it would be vastly impractical to raise a chicken without a crop and you’d find that without non-stop care – the bird would quickly starve to death. So, taking care of their crop is a vital part of being a chicken owner. We’ll walk you through what it is, why it matters and how to take care of it.
What Is a Chicken’s Crop?
The crop is located at the base of the neck and somewhere to the right of the breastbone. It’s a muscle and one which can be expanded (though it’s not a very strong muscle, opening and closing slightly is all its really up to).
Why Is This So Important To My Chicken?
When your chicken eats, it doesn’t chew. Instead, whatever it is feasting upon is shoved to the back of the mouth by the chicken’s tongue and there it falls down the esophagus (the tube down the neck heading to the stomach) but instead of going directly into the chicken’s stomach – it lands in the crop, instead.
In the crop, the chicken’s body then coats the food in some lactic acid and bacteria. The idea is to sort of pre-digest the food a little (but only a little) before it gets passed down to the stomach.
Can A Chicken Live Without Its Crop?
Chickens don’t do this trick in order to be difficult. The life of a wild chicken is fraught with peril and there are plenty of creatures out there, in addition to people, that have developed a taste for chicken. Thus, when they are out foraging for food in mother nature, there’s an incentive to get the food and then get under cover where they won’t be eaten.
So, they evolved a mechanism that meant that they didn’t have to chew. The crop is a result of that. They eat, they dump the food in the crop, let it break their food down into smaller more digestible pieces and their bodies empty the crop into the stomach at leisure.
This is a good design and it means that in theory – a chicken could live without its crop. If you were to provide it with a slow but steady flow of tiny pieces of food, the food would hit the stomach and be digested.
Practically, however, this is an impossible task to carry out and, in reality, your chicken would starve to death without this assistance or left to eat without assistance, it would overfeed itself and choke to death.
When Does the Chicken’s Crop Tend To Get Noticed By Its Owners?
The crop (sometimes it’s also called a “craw” in the Southern United States) is something that most chicken owners find by accident when examining their birds. They often make one of a couple of mistakes at this point too:
- They decide to squeeze the crop to find out what it feels like to do. This isn’t the end of the world, but it is a good recipe for getting covered in chicken vomit. Squeezing the craw forces the contents back up the bird’s throat and all over the person in front of it.
- They panic and assume that the lump they’ve found is a tumor. It’s not, of course, but it normally takes an expensive trip to the vet to assure them otherwise.
How Can I Tell If My Chicken’s Crop Is Normal?
OK, before we look at the possible problems with a chicken’s crop – it’s fairly important that you can distinguish a healthy crop and know when it’s full and when it’s empty. This is quite important, because when a chicken’s crop is empty – it will feel like it’s not there, so don’t panic – chickens can’t lose their crop, it’s there, but there’s no food inside to give it a profile that you can feel.
So, don’t grab a chicken just heading out of the coop first thing in the morning because they’re likely running on empty. Wait until she’s had a good feed. Then grab her and position her so that her backside is pointing towards you and her beak aiming away. The easiest place to grab a hen from is their nesting box but an experienced chicken keeper can often pick their birds up anywhere.
Then put your hand on the breastbone slightly right of center and feel around at the base of the neck – if you can’t get a touch of anything, you want to move down slightly, most people will start a bit high up the neck.
It should feel like it’s a bit swollen and firm. That’s a sign that it’s full. Over the course of time, the crop empties and it feels smaller and smaller as it does. You may even find that once you know it’s there that you can see a full crop on your chickens (it’s not possible with all species but it is with some).
This is important because it means that you should run a quick check every morning before you feed and water your birds to ensure their crop is empty because if it isn’t empty, your chicken has issues that you need to deal with.
What Is An Impacted Crop?
The most common issue when it comes to a chicken’s crop is an impacted crop. If this has happened, you’ll grab your chicken for its morning crop check and it will feel full – though it may be hard of it might be soft as it depends on what, exactly, is stuck in there.
The easiest way to get the blockage out of the crop is to flush it with water. But… unless you have the right equipment to hand (and you probably don’t) and the right training (which you definitely don’t or you wouldn’t be reading this) then doing this yourself is as likely to drown your chicken as it is to fix its issue.
That’s why we always recommend seeing a vet to talk about an impacted crop. Sure, it might cost a little bit but it’s better than ending up with a dead chicken.
You must not try to push the crop to get the chicken to vomit, either. We know that might seem like a good idea, but it might damage the crop further. You definitely shouldn’t pick up the bird and hold it upside down and shake it (we’ve heard some people have tried) as this is just going to distress your chicken. It won’t help with the blockage.
In the most severe cases of impacted crop, the vet won’t be able to flush a problem because the crop has become damaged. In these cases, they will need to operate and remove the trapped food (or whatever) in the crop.
You must not ignore an impacted crop. Without being able to empty their crop, chickens will starve to death (or die of dehydration) and that’s an ugly end for a loved pet. So, please take it to the vet and have it dealt with professionally, it’s the best and simplest way to return your chicken to normal.
What’s Sour Crop?
If your chicken has stinky breath or breath that smells of yeast – they’ve probably got “sour crop”. This is a candida albicans infection (thrush as it’s often referred to in people) in the crop. This isn’t likely to kill your bird (at least not quickly) but it is uncomfortable and unpleasant for them and you should treat it whenever possible.
Again, there are some real “don’ts” when it comes to treating sour crop – you must not try and make the bird vomit. It won’t do anything for the thrush at all but if the bird’s stomach acid drips into their lungs – they will die an ugly death.
The best thing to do is to start by isolating your bird from the rest of the flock and then…
Can You Treat Sour Crop?
Treating sour crop means treating not just the infected bird but also the entire flock. We would immediately get the food and drink dispensing units, clean them thoroughly and let them soak in a sanitizer before giving them a full rinse and drying them.
Then there’s a two-part process to the treatment:
- Give them a teaspoon of Epsom salts mixed with two tablespoons of water – this helps clear out their system and makes them receptive to being given a cure
- Then mix 0.5 lbs. of copper sulfate with a ½ cup of vinegar and a ½ gallon of water. Then store this somewhere as a main solution (it will keep forever) and then you take a single tablespoon of this solution and mix it with a gallon of water. From this new solution, give each bird two tablespoons of water.
It is worth noting that you should try not to use any antibiotic treatments while you are dealing with thrush as it can make it easier for thrush to thrive. (Thrush is a fungus and won’t be affected by antibiotics).
You should also ask your vet for an anti-fungal agent to add to feed or their normal drinking water for a few days after the thrush is gone.
Some say that if you add two teaspoons of vinegar to every gallon of drinking water you give your chickens, it is meant to kill of the fungal spores and prevent the flock from getting thrush again. However, you need to make sure that you do add enough vinegar because too little will promote fungal growth rather than prevent it.
What Is Pendulous Crop?
This seems to be a function of old age and it’s simply the instance when your chicken’s crop won’t return to normal size when it’s empty. Thus, it sort of hangs down and swings like a pendulum when the bird is wandering about.
It’s not a common condition in most chicken species. But when it happens it can be a real problem for the bird concerned. A crop that can’t reduce in size, can’t empty fully and thus, bits of food get stuck in it and there they rot or potentially ferment.
This will make the bird sick and eventually it will die and sadly, you can’t treat pendulous crop because it’s a genetic condition. You may be able to delay its progress by ensuring that it always has fresh food and water but if things start getting worse, it’s probably time for your chicken to move on to the great retirement home in the sky.
It’s a good idea not to breed any chickens with noticeably pendulous crops because it’s a genetic condition and it will end up passed on to any offspring. So, keep it out of your chicken’s gene pool and you should see much less of it.
What Should I Do To Care For My Chicken’s Crop On A Regular Basis?
OK, just a quick review for what you should do care for your chicken’s crop:
- Check it in the morning. You want to make sure that your chicken has an empty crop before you feed them – if not it’s time to visit the vet and deal with an impacted crop.
- Smell their breath at the same time. If you notice the signs of sour crop, start treating them and make sure that the problem doesn’t spread throughout the whole flock (even though you will need to treat them too).
- Don’t turn them upside down and/or try to make them vomit. This will just make your chickens more sick and can do them extreme harm in some circumstances. You wouldn’t turn a person upside down if they had a stomachache, would you? Same thing here.
- Keep the grass your chickens are on mowed. They’re less likely to get things stuck in their crops leading to impaction if they swallow little bits of grass which are easy to pass through.
- Fresh, cold, clean water must always be on hand. A chicken that doesn’t drink regularly will end up with a dry crop which can end up easily injured or damaged.
- Make sure there are no small plastic and metal objects near your chickens. That is never let your chickens eat things that are small enough to swallow but which will never be digested – they won’t pass through their systems, they’ll end up getting caught inside and that will lead to blockages in the crop.
Can a chicken live without a crop? Yes, in theory it could, because you could cut up tiny pieces of food and allow the chicken to eat them throughout the day in a measured fashion but you would need to be in charge of this process because the chicken’s biology expects a crop and the bird would eat like it had one even though it didn’t.
Unchecked, this would lead to the chicken’s death. So, no, in practical terms a chicken can’t live without a crop. So, taking care of your bird’s crop and making sure that it doesn’t fall prey to any of the common crop problems is an important part of being a chicken owner.