All about Chicken Crops and Poultry Digestion - Sour, Impacted and Pendulous Crop

A chicken's digestive system is very different from a human's. Since chickens don't have teeth, they need a way to grind up the food they eat so their bodies can digest it. And that is the purpose of a chicken crop.
The crop is the first stop the food makes after it enters the chicken's mouth and travels down the esophagus. Located just beneath a chicken's neck,  the crop sits slightly to the right of the breastbone.
As the hen eats throughout the course of the day (a chicken will generally eat about half a cup of food a day), all the food she eats is stored in the crop, which gradually fills up. Overnight, the crop will slowly empty as the food is ground up and moves through the digestive system.
You might notice your chickens eating small pebbles, stones or coarse dirt as they roam your yard looking for bugs. In the absence of teeth, this is what they use to grind up their food. If your chickens don't get out to free range regularly and have access to new ground to forage, then you will need to provide them with commercial poultry grit as a digestive aid. 
If you pick up one of your chickens in the morning, you shouldn't be able to feel the crop - the breast should be smooth and flat. However, if you pick up that same chicken in the evening, the crop should be full and firm, maybe about the size of a racquetball or tennis ball, depending on the age and size of the chicken and how much she's eaten for the day.

-the full crop is easily seen on this chicken who was recently broody and therefore plucked out her breast feathers-
The crop should be slightly soft when you squeeze it, with a bit of give, however it shouldn't be squishy. If the crop is soft and squishy, you can hear gurgling when you press on it, you smell a slightly 'off' scent on your chicken's breath or notice foul-smelling liquid dripping out of her mouth, that can signal sour crop. This is a condition where the contents of the crop ferment and a bacterial yeast infection occurs.
On the other hand, if the crop is rock hard and not emptied come morning, that  can signal impacted or blocked crop.  An impacted crop can press against the wind pipe and suffocate a chicken. 
Sour crop and impacted crop are two different conditions which are often related. Oftentimes an impacted crop (which can occur if your chickens eats long strands of grass or other fibrous material, or non-edible items like string, rubber bands or the like that get stuck in the crop) will become soured because it's not emptying correctly and the contents basically start to ferment and spoil.
Another condition called pendulous crop can occur. Pendulous crop becomes a problem when the crop muscle gets damaged and can no longer function the way it should. This can occur when your chickens are allowed to gorge and over stuff themselves, on treats for example, or overeat in general over a long period of time. It can also be the result impacted crop, especially if the impaction is a recurring issue. Once the muscles have been stretched out from the weight of excess food, they can't retract properly and the crop swings like a pendulum.

-Oil of Oregano diluted in olive oil can be helpful in preventing sour crop and relieving an impacted crop-
Treating and Preventing Impacted Crop

Prevent by:
- Limiting access to long cut plant fibers, hay, grass (free ranging generally doesn't lead to impacted crops, but feeding long strands of grass you cut and feed to your flock can)
- Limiting access to sand (no sand in the coop, please, it's just a bad idea for so many reasons)
- Ensuring your chicken area is free of foreign objects your chickens might eat; such as string, baling twice, plastic or rubber bands
- Providing plenty of fresh water
- Providing access to grit

Treat by:
- Withholding solid food for 24 hours
- Offering vegetable oil (by eye dropper if she won't drink voluntarily)
- Massaging the crop gently with your fingers several times a day to break up the blockage
- Extreme cases might require slitting the crop open with a scalpel and removing the blockage (best left to a vet!)

Treating and Preventing Sour Crop

Prevent by:
- Limiting bread and other sugars in foods
- Treating impacted crop as soon as you notice it
- Adding apple cider vinegar - its an antifungal! - to the water weekly (1 Tablespoon per gallon)
- Adding probiotic powder to daily feed

Treat by:
- Holding the hen with her head facing the ground and gently massaginging the crop towards her head to induce vomiting and empty the liquid in her crop (hold her upside down until the liquid stops coming out of her mouth to prevent her aspirating) Repeat several times a day.
- Offering plain yogurt
- Feeding fresh or dried oregano or adding oregano oil to the water
- Feeding fresh garlic or garlic powder

Treating and Preventing Pendulous Crop

Prevent by:
- Preventing impaction of the crop
- Limiting treats

Treat by:
- Manually massaging the crop to empty it each evening
- Realize the crop likely won't repair itself and consider your options as to long-term life decisions best for the hen

Note: Massaging the crop or turning the chicken upside down to try and empty the crop can result in harm to a chicken if she aspirates or chokes on the liquid. Do for only very short periods of time, allowing the hen to catch her breath in between. And you will need to weigh the risks versus the benefit and, as always, consulting a vet before you try any at home treatment is recommended.

So if you're new to chicken keeping, the next time you pick up one of your chickens and notice a large tumor-like protrusion on her breast late in the day, don't panic. Its perfectly normal and just shows that your chickens have hearty appetites! 

Further reading:

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