March 31, 2017

A quick study in animal husbandry

My entourage while I work on the porch the last couple of weeks.

Up until the last few years, I'd never been much of an outside kind of person. The family joke was that my enjoyment of the great outdoors was limited to walking to and from my car. But then I started dabbling in gardening and became fascinated with growing flowers and vegetables, and practicing and reading about horticulture led to my desire to also dabble in livestock.

As it turns out, you don't dabble in livestock. And that lesson became clear to me a few weeks ago.

It was a stressful time. The hot water heater was broken, and my dad and uncle were taking a while to fix it, which meant no hot water and sometimes no water at all for several days. And if you have been around me at all in the last month, you know I just finished up the Whole30 diet, and I complained about it the entire time to anyone who would listen.  I went days without eating due to lack of time and water to prepare any kind of real meal, and then I went days without eating due to a stomach virus. I also kind of maybe decided to dance up the stairs one night and twisted my knee and couldn't put weight on it for several days. Throw in the fact that my mom was sick, and we weren't exactly sure why, and work was crazy, and a couple dozen other things, and I had no time or room on my plate for more catastrophes.

So, naturally, when I ran out to the chicken coop one day to let my five remaining chickens out for free-time, I saw drops of blood everywhere. At first, it didn't occur to me that something was wrong. The chickens peck each other. They kill small animals. Blood isn't totally unusual. Plus, I was kind of delirious after having existed on a diet of bananas and sparkling water for three days.

But then Marigold, who, let's be honest, is not my favorite chicken, because she's always been kind of bossy to the others, comes out of the coop about 20 minutes after I opened the door. She's scared, she's walking strangely, and shy little Iris who won't stray more than about 20 feet from the coop, even when the others are all the way on the other side of the house, started pecking her. Marigold hid behind a bush. I knew something was up.  I went outside to take a look at her, and I saw blood running down her backside.

Marigold has never been my favorite chicken, but we've bonded in recent weeks.
I spent the rest of the evening trying to catch her so I could put her in a separate quarantine cage, and scrubbing all the food and water bowls in case there was some kind of disease involved. I threw out all the eggs. I researched and called anyone I knew who raised chickens. I managed to narrow down her predicament to no less than ten causes. I went to the Tractor Supply store. I researched some more. I checked on her nonstop for the next few days. I can now tell you what perfect chicken poop looks like and exactly how their reproductive systems work.


I knew I was in over my head when I read something about about lube and sticking my fingers in some places. I wasn't even sure I could find the places to stick them in if I wanted to.

Marigold in quarantine, looking into the big coop.

The night before I finally decided to call the vet, I couldn't sleep. I knew poor Marigold was probably suffering, and it was storming — hail, wind, rain, tornado watches. On Monday, I called my vet's office and tentatively asked if the man who once saved my Gabby dog's life would mind seeing a chicken. His website did say he saw birds after all. The receptionist kind of chuckled, but she told me he would see her the next day, and I felt so relieved.

There was just one problem: I was going to have to catch her.

Here's a little secret. I don't actually handle the chickens very much, and when I say I had to catch her to quarantine her the night this all happened, what I meant to say was that I flagged down my dad in the midst of the water heater drama and got him to help me catch her. I'm kind of afraid of being pecked. Animals who make sudden movements freak me out. That's why I don't like frogs. I'm sure there's some psychology behind that, but let's save it for another day.

About an hour and a half before I had to be at the vet's office, I put on some old sweats, some thick gloves, and gathered up my gear. Yes, I felt it was important to have gear to gather a chicken out of a three foot cage. Lots of gear. Garden tools, treats, boxes, tarps...  I was shaking — part nerves, part adrenaline rush — but she was super cooperative. I managed to use one of my tools, a broken down cardboard box, to push her towards the front and over to the side. I scooped her up, praying and pleading that she wouldn't try to attack me, and I rushed her into the $40 cat carrier I'd purchased at Walmart earlier in the day. It felt like the hard part was over.

The trip to the vet was quick and easy. He suspected she had become egg-bound at some point (stopped up if you aren't familiar with the term) and something had ruptured. While there was no sure way to fix her or even figure out what exactly was wrong with her without paying way more money than one might want to spend on a chicken, he gave me some ideas, some antibiotics, and some corny jokes and wished me luck. As I left, I asked his assistant if they saw many chickens. She said, "Actually, about four a month or so." At least I'm not alone, I guess.

The day ended up costing me about $200, after buying the carrier, paying for the visit and medication, and heading over to Tractor Supply and Publix to pick up some items I might need for the next two weeks of playing chicken infirmary. There was a good chance she would never lay another egg, much less survive this ordeal. I wouldn't even pay $200 for a great meal at Chick-fil-A, and here I was with one expensive free-loading chicken.

I need to buy stock in Tractor Supply. I spent lots of money there when the chickens are healthy.

The next two weeks were busy with round-the-clock chicken care. The vet suggested I bring her inside, and I started with the basement. She hated it, so I moved her to the porch, where the two kittens I adopted just before Christmas spent most of their days watching her every move. She was less than amused, but I think they all kind of grew fond of each other. I spent those days feeding her treats and giving her medication and even sitting on the porch with her, working on my laptop, just to keep her company. As time passed, she became stronger and healthier and ready to move back outside.

Marigold did not care for life in the basement.

It has been exactly 23 days since I first saw the blood dripping from her backside. She's perfectly healthy now, and while she's not laying eggs and probably won't anymore, I see no reason not to integrate her back into the flock. A few of the other hens have already let me know they have an issue with that, but that's a story for another post. As a matter of fact, I fully suspect it's going to take 23 more days just to move her back into the big coop unless anyone's got a good book on chicken psychology I can borrow.

I'm sure a better farmer would have stuck his or her fingers in some places. I'm sure a better farmer would see her as a waste of feed at this point and turn her into a Sunday dinner. My vet said some chickens are beloved family pets and some people don't care because they have 15 more at home and there are babies at Tractor Supply, so he's never sure how far to go in treating them. I suspect Marigold and the others are somewhere in between for me, but more than anything they've been one big lesson in why I'm probably not quite the farmer I once I thought I wanted to be.

I don't speak chicken, but I'm pretty sure she said "Go away, tiny white devils" on more than one occasion.

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