Sunday, April 1, 2012

It Shouldn’t Happen to a Hen

Where did I go wrong? (And would you buy
a used egg from this chicken?)
When do you take a chicken to the vet? This might sound like a variation on the joke about the one that crossed the road, but for some chicken fanciers it’s a Serious Question.

For those who name their chooks, who don’t require them to pay their way, and who find the idea of “culling” weaker members of the flock distasteful at best, the idea of anything going wrong is scary.

A lot of us, new at poultry keeping, are learning as we go — frequently on the internet, from fellow hobbyists. We ask a lot of questions and these have a degree of urgency, though the reasons are not always apparent. “I need to know if my chicken has a tongue,” writes LittleLady98 on the “Random Ramblings” forum of “Alot of different people have different answers. Help please!!”

On the same site, Poppy-the-Hen heads her question, “Is this normal? (photos included)”. She wonders whether her bird is
perspiring or if her photo shows “the symptom to some sort of developing illness”. She adds that the diagnostic enquiry is not related to her earlier one: This is a different chicken.”

Poppy sounds kind of high maintenance, but I know how she feels. Those of us who hope for a better-than-battery-operated existence are disturbed when one of our charges even slightly resembles those smuggled out by animal activists. Yet things often go awry in the world of chickens. Often, the only clues are a sackcloth-and-ashes appearance, isolation, lack of appetite, and nastier-than-usual poos. While in humans these suggest a choice of ascetic lifestyle, in chickens they can indicate problems ranging from trivial and temporary to terrible and terminal.

Is she plucked?
Or plucky?
Lately I’ve been keeping an eye on a hen who suddenly resembled an escapee from the chopping block. Well, Vanessa’s head was still attached to her body, but half her feathers weren’t. It was as if she’d had her neck wrung and been partway through the plucking process when suddenly, regaining consciousness, she decided she had higher priorities than ending up on a plate, and took off. (My partner tells such a story, which she swears occurred with a chook in her childhood.)

Anyway, Vanessa the White Leghorn subsequently hid under the chalet de poulet for three days. At mealtimes I pushed food in her direction, as far as I could, like the hired help who leaves a laden tray outside a room whose occupant is either sulking, working all hours or undergoing some unimagined and monstrous metamorphosis.

It was the end-of-summer moult — I knew it was — but it was more drastic than that of other flock members, and even after Vanessa emerged with the beginnings of a few new feathers, she looked increasingly miserable. Her interest in food was less than desultory, her ridiculously large red comb took on a shrunken, dry look and she hunched in a corner. Was it time for me and my hen to visit the vet?

Every time this question occurs to me, I think of Mustard Seed. This is less of a leap than it sounds: Mustard Seed, named after a minor character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (long story), was a Buff Orpington hen in my first flock, some years ago. She became ill after the kikuyu grass she ate became tangled inside her and refused to budge. I took her and her encumbrance to the vet.

One surgical procedure and $250 later I took this chook home again with a small packet of pills on which was printed her name, Mustard Seed Gummer, and some dispensing advice. She died, all the same, and I’ve never lived it down. 

White Leghorn, pre- and
(we hope) post-moult.
This week, Vanessa didn’t visit the vet. (She’s been before, but that’s another story.) Instead I accepted reassurance from fellow travellers. Even reading about other people’s poultry panics was helpful: it turned out I might not be the worst mother hen in the history of the universe. In addition, I indulged my White Leghorn with various treats. The sweetcorn kernels went down particularly well.

Now she seems less miserable; in fact she’s looking better every day. When her new covering of feathers is complete and she’s messing with other hens again, I’ll know she’s fine and dandy.

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