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Chicken Drama: Mysterious Illness, Recovery, Death

August 4, 2010
Cubalaya and Ameraucana

Cubalaya (white pullet) and an Ameracauna hen

I could watch our chickens for hours. I can see them through the window here at my desk, but it’s much more fun outside, when they come running when they see me, eager to see what tasty morsels I’ve got for them — snails fresh from the garden? Chopped up fruit bits? Gristly meat bits? You just never know. I love their varied color schemes and feather styles, and all the interesting sounds they make, from sweet, soft clucks and coos to goose-like honking and squaking and the occasional squeal and scream.

We’ve come to realize it’s probably better to start with your own chicks or at least pullets (hens less than a year old) so you don’t have to deal with psycho chicken complexes from ill treatment at their previous home.

Chocolaya, Cinnalaya, and Cubalaya

We got our first flock of 7 hens of undetermined age and a rooster, all free, and that was an easy way to start. Suddenly it’s no longer theoretical, you’re doing it. We later added 7 pullets and a cockerel from Linnea and Gina’s Laughing Frog Farm (a lovely spot in Laytonville, CA) in two installments. (One of the pullets, sadly, met her demise thanks to Zimmy’s keen interest in bird hunting, and eating.) We eventually decided we couldn’t live with the early, vigorous crowing of Stewart, the rooster, and I reluctantly agreed to handle his execution, which my friend Julie Apostolu kindly performed, with me assisting. It was very emotional, and Julie’s attitude towards animals and taking a life is similar to my own (it’s a solemn occasion, filled with gratitude and, in my case, a few tears), so she was the perfect person to help me through the first time. Plus, she’s experienced and has a sharp “kill” knife. (Note to self: we must get our knives sharpened! We had a hard time with the evisceration with my dull knives and kitchen shears. Plucking was easy, thanks to Julie’s tips on the perfect water temperature and time to dip the carcass.)

Once he was gone, we soon discovered how useful Stewart had been alive. He was hard on the hens, it’s true, and they get along much better with each other without him, and Bareback — named for her featherless back thanks to sex with Stewart and the other hens pecking her back — is growing back her feathers (how will we recognize her when then all grow in?), but, it turns out he was good at protecting his flock from ravens. Our egg harvest plummeted and still hasn’t totally recovered, but we no longer free-range the hens around the farm yard because of Zimmy and raven dangers, and I’ve rigged up tarps to disguise the entrance to the coop to make it impossible for ravens to fly in and steal eggs. I think. At least, they’d have to walk in. They’re brazen enough to do it, but I’m not sure they’ve figured that out yet. Also, somebody in the flock, we don’t know who, has apparently developed a taste for fresh eggs. I have found broken shells in the coop 4-5 times now. Ugh. Yes, chickens are cannibalistic. They are not vegetarian, people! I just feel sorry for the chickens whose eggs are labeled “all vegetarian feed.” They love worms, snails, earwigs and bugs in general, mice — and that’s just what I’ve personally witnessed. They will try just about anything, if it’s the right size or they can peck it down to the right size.

As I said, chicken sex isn’t pretty, and doesn’t look fun for the hens. When a big, heavy rooster such as Stewart mounts the ladies, his nails and spurs can scratch up their backs pretty bad. Then other hens, seeing blood on one of their sisters, will attack her and make her bloodier. These are feathered dinosaurs — raptors! — after all. Not as cuddly and sweet as they look (I still love them, but I have few illusions left). We hope our rooster-in-training, Boris (aka Count Orloff, a Spangled Russian Orloff and technically a cockerel until he turns a year old), will be gentler on the hens but still a good bodyguard. There’s evidence that will be the case.

Boris and Natasha Orloff, Cubalaya, and Cinnalaya (rear)

Boris seems to have taken special interest in Cubalaya, our white cubalaya pullet (yes, we named her after her breed; we liked the name!). Cubalaya just recovered recently from a month-long bout with partial paralysis. At one point she was listless and could hardly move. I was away, and begged David to separate her for her own safety. After I got back I was almost to the point of contemplating how to euthanize her. But then I thought, as long as she seems to be getting better, and not suffering too badly, I’m going to keep at it. I told David, “I have to either kill her or cure her, and I’d rather cure her.” We still don’t know what caused it — a fall? Marek’s disease? Ingested neurotoxin of some sort? — but after gradually losing control of her wings and legs, she gradually got her physical control back (her feet recovered last) and now appears to be completely recovered. We had isolated her from the other chickens for her own protection — remember chickens are NOT nice to the weak, sick or defective among them — and yet she still got her head bloodied after she stuck her head out of her cage and a hen or two pecked her viciously. So then I moved her little portable cage outside the chicken yard so she could see and hear them, but they couldn’t reach her. Her appetite was always there to some degree, and the stronger she got, the more appetite she had — or was it the other way around?

Anyway, Cubalaya clearly hated being separated from her flock after she started regaining her strength and her faculties — she looked and called longingly in their direction — and as soon as she could walk and run a bit I put her back with them, but tried to keep a close eye on her. More than once I had to intervene to keep hens from attacking her. This is when the special friendship with Boris developed, or at least became evident. We’d see them sitting close to each other, each on one side of her cage wall, and once I stopped caging her, we’d still see them together quite often, and he seemed to intervene on her behalf when the big hens threatened her. At this stage I could still pick her up easily. I thought this would be my one special “pet” chicken after the bond we developed, with me saving her life and all. Not a chance. She now acts scared just like the others. Don’t get me wrong, they run up to me looking for food, and will walk around me and even casually step on my feet, but they hate to be picked up. I insist on petting them a bit when I check on them before locking up the coop at night, but they clearly would rather not be part of it. They’re just more docile when it’s dark and they’re getting sleepy. Oh they look so cute when they’re sleepy. Doesn’t everybody?

SEPT. 4 UPDATE: My little white pullet (young hen), Cubalaya, finally died last Sunday. She’d been near death twice before, but I’d nursed her back to health. A week ago she seemed listless again, and unable to defend herself from pecking by other chickens, so I brought her into the house, where she ate and drank a little, then I put her to bed in a box lined with newspapers. Sunday morning, she was alive but weaker. I held her on my lap for awhile as I started work (my last day editing for All of  a sudden she stood up and flapped her wings and then just collapsed. I didn’t immediately realize it, but that was the end. David kindly buried her for me out in my garden where her body will nourish the soil. (Someday, I’d like to be buried in a garden or meadow where my no-longer-needed body will nourish the soil, too.)

Friends who raise chickens commercially tell me it’s just something you have to get used to, as chickens aren’t that hardy. Cubalaya was pretty amazing to have returned to health twice after being very close to death from, almost certainly, botulism poisoning. I know I gave her the best life that I could. Yes, if she’d lived and remained healthy, I would have had a hard time eating her, given that I’d worked so hard to care for her, and she’d really become a pet. She was mainly intended to be a laying hen anyway, but one of the reasons I wanted to get chickens was to take responsibility for my decision to eat meat. For that I have no regrets, but only increased gratitude for the gift of good health from the animals.

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