Sunday, April 28, 2013

Stop All the Clucks

A Time to Mourn

Amelia in early life, with Emmeline behind her.
“A chicken?!”

Her words came out as a squawk: the woman at the after-hours service must have missed the class on dealing diplomatically with distressed pet owners, and as a result she missed out on my money. I decided to wait another day and take Amelia the New Hampshire Red instead to my usual, more understanding veterinary clinic – not just for my sake, but for the hen’s as well.

Killing a chook is one of those DIY activities that I feel should be within my grasp. We all had poultry-keeping forebears; ergo we have all inherited the ability to wring a chicken’s neck or cut off its head. My personal experience with living hens – two small flocks, over time – should surely make me an expert in dispatching them.

But I’ve never tried. Though I’ve killed feral rats, killing one of my ‘girls’ seems just too hard. This time I went so far as to research possible methods, consulting my chicken bible and discussing (with friends over dinner) their possible efficacy. My conclusion was that the methods might be failsafe, but I wouldn’t be.

Commercial layers are usually culled after a season or two, as they become less productive, but the term of a chicken’s natural life is eight years or more. Amelia, three and a half, had been unwell for a while with what seemed to be a respiratory problem. Often these are contagious – bird flu, anyone? – but she didn’t pass it on.

’s Labours
Breathing was more of an effort. She drank lots of water, lacked get up and go. I watched her closely for signs that life was no longer worth living, and took her to the vet for treatment when she developed coughs and sneezes. The antibiotics made me feel better but the last two courses that I requested did little for her. Surgery would have been invasive, expensive and quite possibly futile. So Amelia was for the chop, figuratively speaking. It was just a matter of when.

I’m an agoniser, weighing the need to prevent prolonged suffering against the fear that I may cut a life short for my own convenience. With Amelia’s fate hanging in the balance, I was tempted to ring the specialist cat clinic that, I’ve heard, offers clients a Q&A sheet to help them decide when it’s time to euthanise. “Have you got one for chickens?”, I wanted to ask.

Amelia was very poorly when I rang the after-hours service, having decided the time had come. The next day she perked up a little, making some of the right chookling sounds and showing more interest in food (see video below). Her plumage was still beautiful; she wasn’t emaciated. 

It didn’t seem right, though, to further delay her date with destiny. So I placed her in the recycled recycling crate that I use for visits to the vet, draped a towel over it, and off we went.

The clinic that morning was quieter than on my previous visit, when the waiting room was full and 
Henemoa’s and my appointment had been sandwiched between those of a cockatoo (who had come some distance) and Poppy the pigeon. This time there was only one other customer, cradling a cardboard box. From his face, it seemed the outlook for whatever lay inside was bleak, and I felt for the young man. I managed to refrain from telling him that my chicken, too, had been having a hard time.

His pet was, I learned, a bearded dragon. (It takes all sorts...) When my turn came, the vet reassured me that although the creature – Rosie? – had fallen out of a tree and suffered some nasty bruising, she would probably be okay. And then he examined my hen very gently, taking his time. It felt like a ritual, albeit a secular one, to help me cross to the place of no return. We both knew Amelia was in a bad way.


My hen had lost 350g in the month or so since our last appointment, which I thought rather a lot for a 3kg bird. The vet typed “Breathing – dreadful” into her record on the computer. And then he took her away.

I came back to collect the body a few hours later. Amelia had been carefully ‘laid out’ (still in the recycling bin) as if by an undertaker, only without any of the fakery or indignities to which dead humans are subjected – applications of unlifelike makeup and so on. At home, we buried her in the garden. 

Last day.

Some Sorting To Do

The sudden disappearance of one flock member meant my remaining five hens had some sorting to do, a revised pecking order to establish, rather like the reshuffles that occur as a result of restlessness in political party ranks.

My own thoughts were of Amelia’s absence, and that the flock had a hole in it. “Stop All the Clocks,” I thought dramatically, remembering WH Auden’s poem about a momentous death. Embarrassingly, the day my redhead died, I nearly cried down the phone to someone whose book I was editing. She was kind.

After a week or so, it was tempting to try and fill the hole I perceived. I never considered ‘replacing’ Amelia with another New Hampshire Red – that would be disrespectful, hasty, and just a little creepy. Perhaps, though, a couple of new point-of-lay pullets of other breeds could be slipped into the mix.

At Whatipu Lodge in rural West Auckland, following an extraordinarily productive summer – three clutches of chicks! – a few gangly girls of mixed parentage were still available. Their owners were interested in getting them settled in good homes. Wouldn’t this be satisfactory for all concerned (Stephen Covey Habit 4: ‘Think Win–Win’)? 

Emmeline and Amelia as young pullets (above)
and all grown up (below), tucking in to guavas.

On consulting veteran breeder and chicken keeper Raewyn Norton at Heritage Farm, however, I realised that my timing was all wrong. Her pullets and those of Whatipu Lodge were too young, would have difficulty integrating with my existing older flock, and in their isolation would suffer badly from cold during the winter to come.

The Flock Re-forms
Reluctantly, I decided to keep my ageing flock as it was, at least for now. And gradually its composition and its dynamics – or my perceptions of them – underwent a subtle transformation. 

Emmeline, the large Light Sussex, had been an intimate of Amelia since their arrival together in December 2009. Now, Emmeline strengthened her ties with Vanessa, the White Leghorn. 

Henemoa the Rhode Island Red, another friend of Amelia (but darker brown), instead hung out with Alice the Australorp (black). Only Victoria the Araucana seemed unaffected. As always, this fierce little hen (grey) picked – or pecked – any companion she wanted.

Somewhat later than Vanessa, Emmeline, Henemoa, Alice and Victoria, I stopped thinking someone was missing. The flock was whole. Life went on. 

Henemoa (in autumn moult) hangs out with Alice.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Attention All Urban Chooks

This Saturday, learn how to lay an egg keep chickens in Auckland, at a workshop led by Barbara Stumbles.

Barbara, a homeopathic veterinarian, is pictured left. She has kept chooks for many years, and in 2012 she featured in Urban Chicks: Celebrating Backyard Chooks in the City.  

I enjoyed one of her workshops late last year, and that’s when I took these photos. Barbs down-to-earth approach was great, as was her willingness to answer all sorts of questions. 

These events are not just for newbies: I really appreciated hearing that my hens are behaving normally when they appear to be digging their way to the centre of the Earth, or when they decline to eat large snails. And yes, the pom-pom/Soviet spy headwear of Silkie chickens (pictured below) is also normal, as well as incredibly chic.

The April 13 workshop is from 10.30 to 12.30 at the Sustainable Living Centre, 4 Olympic Place, close to Olympic Park in New Lynn. The cost is $20; to book phone 826 4276.