Monday, March 11, 2013

A Tale of Henemoa Two-Toes

Title page of my childhood
copy; Rand McNally, 1966
Henemoa Two-Toes.

An Irregular Henny Penny
Rather more than the rest of the flock, my Rhode Island Red occasionally behaves like Henny Penny (“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”)

I find this understandable. Before Henemoa came to me as a young pullet in 2010, some undocumented accident deprived her of one toe on her left foot, probably damaging her psyche at the same time.

This year, that same foot has given me – and her – further cause for concern. I found blood on the perch one morning, and this I traced to Henemoa. It didn’t require detailed forensic investigation to see that she was limping. The vet, one Id not encountered before, diagnosed an ulcer.
Baulk, Baulk

Many of us baulk at major medical bills. When the patient is a chicken with a sore foot, that very human reflex tends to be stronger. Perhaps it’s not surprising that “Should I bring a $5 chicken to the vet?” is a prominent heading in a recent poultry-keeping handbook, A Chicken in Every Yard.

So, “I’ll just have the antibiotics, thanks,” I said firmly when the vet wanted to give Henemoa anaesthetic, an operation and anti-inflammatories as well. 

In my defence, I’d like to say that I love my chooks and treat them as I would my own children, but that argument is problematic. Firstly, I am not a mother, so the extent of my maternal capability is untested. Secondly, if I did have any bairns, news that I kept them in a compound at the bottom of the garden and expected them to sh*t in the dirt would most likely prompt a visit from C.Y.F.S.

Anyway, I went home that day with Henemoa the R.I.R. and a packet of very large pink pills. These I dubbed ‘pink pills for pale poultry’ in homage to ‘Dr Williams Pink Pills for Pale People’, but they were more effective than that quackery. Certainly they cleared up the infection that had begun to creep up my poor Hen’s leg. Unfortunately, they didn’t deal with the underlying cause, and nor did I – or not very effectively. That must be why the aforementioned vet had instructed me to return in a week if theres still a problem.

Hen, unperturbed by her bandage. According to New
Zealand Lifestyle Block’s How to Care for Your Poultry,
“if you are on friendly terms with your birds, you can
pick up the first signs of bumblefoot if you check the
underside of a bird
s feet every few days or so.”
A Case of Bumblefoot
After the bleeding began again and I Googled “how to bandage a chicken’s foot” (with more reward than you might think), it dawned on me that Henemoa’s foot ulcer was what’s popularly known as bumblefoot.

This quaint and innocuous-sounding word suggests merely a comical clumsiness. The first recorded mention in chicken-keeping is from 1854, after other poultry disorders were named squeck, gargil, roup, the gapes, garget and snifter (
OED Historical Thesaurus). Together they might make an interesting set of dwarves for Snow White. 

But bumblefoot, the only one commonly discussed nowadays, involves a pressure wound plus a staph infection, and if the pressure isn’t dealt with, reinfection is inevitable when the hen walks around in bare feet. ‘Heavy breeds’ of chicken (four of my six) are prone to this condition, especially if there’s some distance between their perch and the henhouse floor, and if the surfaces are hard. 

Sharp stuff.
They can also develop bumblefoot after standing on sharp stones, prickles and the like. Over the last few weeks I have combed the chicken run for such objects and almost filled a bucket with them, much to my astonishment. Alterations to the roosting area are also on the agenda.

A Hen in the House

Meanwhile Henemoa has hung out with the flock during the day and spent her nights not in the henhouse but in our house. For the first week she slept in the bedroom so I could hear if anything went wrong. 

Then my very patient and accommodating human cohabitant asked if the laundry mightn’t be close enough. She quite liked the muted chookly sounds that emanated from time to time, but the smell of chicken poop had little allure.

I hasten to add that while sharing the bedroom, Hen never slept in the bed. No, from the outset I confined her to the very large carton in which my first iMac computer had arrived 14 years ago, and placed a folded-up laundry-airing rack on top. The precariousness of this lid worried me initially, but the chicken has made only one attempt to escape, and that was on her first night.

Signing Her Life Away?
When I went back to the vet, my usual man was there. “Does she really need an anaesthetic?” I asked. I had admitted defeat, but was nursing a remnant of my previous resistance.

I mentioned the detailed internet article I’d found – Advisory: GRAPHIC Photos – on how best to perform bumblefoot surgery at home, with the patient conscious. (Of the two associated YouTube videos, the surgical one is silent and the bandaging one has an upbeat musical accompaniment.)

Henemoa’s sedan chair.
My vet grimaced slightly. “I think it would really hurt,” he said. So I left Henemoa in his care and signed the piece of paper they gave me at reception. 

YES, I understood she could possibly die; YES, I would pay the bill regardless; and YES, I could administer medication to my chicken myself, even if I couldn’t bear to be her surgeon.

The Patient Recovers
On our third veterinary visit, when Henemoa’s flesh-toned bandage was removed, I worried aloud about not having been able to insist on bedrest. I needn’t have said anything: the dirt inside spoke volumes.

The vet seemed unconcerned. He told me Hen was recovering well, and that the pretty purple stitches in her foot would dissolve in time. As I removed my gold-plated chicken from the premises in her sedan chair – an old Auckland City recycling bin – I didn’t exactly skip out the door, but I wanted to.

Henemoa, Alice and Vanessa as impressionable young
pullets, February 2010.


  1. What a great story, Claire! Please pass on my very best wishes to Henemoa and tell her I'm looking forward to reading the next instalment, whicj I hope will be full of good news!

  2. Good grief! I am learning so much more about hens than I ever expected to. More than I knew I wanted to know, in fact - but I discover that I DO want to know, this and more. Please give my best to Henemoa, and keep your posts coming!

  3. Thank you, both. Lillyanne, I guess empathy is important. I've just been reading about endangered birds, focusing on one particular red knot. One of the pieces of praise on the back of that book says that it "shows marvellously well... that to celebrate the individual makes it easier to save the species". Gallus gallus domesticus (the chook) isn't in any danger of dying out, but some of the same things apply.

  4. Love that empathy quote, it sounds a bit like Schindler, doesn't it? And I reckon it's true - for all endangered species. Certainly true for the kakapo, though they have been much helped by their reportedly mysteriously gorgeous aroma!

  5. Bumblefoot? How fascinating. Hope Henemoa's soon fleet-footed and free of infection.

  6. Lilyanne - oh yes, Schindler! No wonder it sounded familiar. Your comment made me run to the reference books to see if the quote came from the man or the movie. No definite news on that.

    Penelope: thank you. Henemoa seems well mended now.