Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Life and Death

I have always been an animal person. Since I was a kid I've been fascinated with the lives of other creatures. In addition to watching wildlife and creating wildlife art I've always had dogs and cats as well as various rabbits, mice, a rat, various birds, hamsters, gerbils and guinea pigs. I love feeding the birds and have a salt lick out for the deer. And now, in addition to the usual menagerie of pets, I have chickens.

When we got the chickens a year ago I didn't think there was much to it--you provide them with food, water and shelter and they give you loads of free eggs and endless hours of entertainment. Because we let them range for several hours in the evening we knew that there was a chance we could lose a few to a fox or coyote (or a hawk, and for that story check out the post "Chicken Hawk"). I never expected that the biggest threat would come from within their own little bodies.

About three weeks ago, during a busy weekend when we had our gallery opening on Saturday and participated in an open studios tour on Sunday, one of our hens was in trouble. I was exhausted by Sunday evening and we still had to go to the after-tour party to turn in signs and ticket money. I let the girls out before we left but counted only seven--Natalie was in the nest box, presumably laying an egg. This was not unusual so we left, assuming she'd come out when she finished laying.

We returned home around 11pm, and I went out back to lock up the coop for the night (the chickens always come home to roost). Natalie was still in the box, or, as I thought, back in the box. I wrote it off as her being "broody", something hens will do when they start to think they should be incubating the eggs. But I discovered the following morning that I was wrong, as I let the girls out into their pen and went in the coop to collect eggs and feed them. There was Natalie, dead in the box. I scooped up her still warm body and took her outside. She had managed to pass the egg but the process killed her. I felt awful, and responsible. Yes, it is not uncommon for hens to die from this, but if caught early enough you can help them pass the egg safely. Her death was sudden, but if I'd been paying attention I could have helped her.

Now we face the loss of yet another hen, but this process was gradual and I didn't realize what was happening until too late. Her comb and wattles began to pale, then yellow. She developed diarrhea. Her appetite waned, and her energy level slowly dropped off until she refused to leave the coop. Finally I pulled her out and put her up in a dog crate and began to give her fluids with a syringe. Yesterday she ate some apple and popcorn and I thought she was improving. All this time I was online trying to figure out what was causing her illness, and thought yesterday for a short time that she was improving. But after a brief walk outside in the grass she too died.

Now, this may seem disturbing to some, but I have a dissecting kit and decided to open her up to see if there was some discernible cause of death. Sure enough, after inspecting her crop, I cut open her stomach and found it full of pebbles, green stuff and a few bits of plastic, massed and fairly dry. Apparently she got plugged up. I had no idea this could happen and felt stupid and ignorant for letting another hen die.

So today we are ordering books abut chicken care and health, something we should have done a year ago. I see now that there's much more to caring for my feathered friends than I ever imagined, and I plan to be a better caretaker from here on out. I was so happy that they all made it through what was a pretty rough winter and now we've lost two at the very time when the world is coming to life. It reminds me that life is precious and time is short, and we all need to take care of ourselves and others if we expect to enjoy it for many days to come.

The Chickie Girls: Honey, Trouble, Sister Joan of Arc, Marty, Fancy, and Emily

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