Monday, January 18, 2010

poultry woes

Last spring we jumped on the backyard chicken bandwagon and adopted a flock of 6 hens. As a fallen vegan who once worked for an animal-rights organization, I'm all too aware of the abysmal conditions in which most "food" animals live, and chickens have it particularly rough. I won't go into details here, but for more grisly info than you can bear, check out United Poultry Concerns or Compassion over Killing.

I liked the idea of bringing a little bit o' country living to the 'burbs and our kids witnessing from whence their breakfast came. Chickens lay eggs regardless of whether or not they'll hatch, which they won't do without a rooster on the scene, so I figured they'd be pampered pets who actually contributed to their keep.

A family up north was moving and selling their 30 chickens. I wanted to get grown hens rather than chicks, akin to adopting from a shelter versus buying from a breeder. (Note: This might be the bullshit rationalization of someone not quite willing to face up to using animals for food.) We had the room to do it and got the OK from our neighbors. Michael is a carpenter and awfully clever to boot, and built a coop under our play structure.


after (but pre-chickens. It will never be this clean again):

There's an enclosed run, and they also roam the yard hunting for worms and bugs, stretching their wings, raiding the garden, taking dustbaths and lounging under the lilac bush.

After about a month of getting used to the new digs and establishing their pecking order, they started laying, and laying, and laying...nearly an egg a day each. Here's our first dozen, aren't they gorgeous? The green ones are courtesy of Chloe Omlette, an ameraucana:

All was well in chicken world, until Rita Layworth suddenly died in July. She was crazy about kale:

The cause of her demise was a mystery. We didn't think to have her examined, postmortem. None of the other hens got ill, though they went on a laying strike after the death of their pal. Then 3 molted--Chloe, Captain Gloria Pecker (black minorca) and Kiki Jones (silver-laced wyandotte)--meaning their feathers fell out and regrew, during which they don't lay, so for a while we were getting maybe 1 egg a day. We decided to adopt 3 pullets--teenagers in chicken terms--while the flock was already in flux, hoping to increase the odds of having eggs through the winter. After a few days of territorial bitch-flapping from the older hens, Betty Bock-Bock (austrolorp), Annie Yokely (buff orpington) and Autumn (golden-laced wyandotte) settled in.

It's safe to say none of the hens like winter. They don't seem to mind the cold--all being breeds suitable for the northeast--but hate walking on the snow. On especially cold mornings I bring them oatmeal with their "tea"--warm water in their waterers.

On the advice of our vet, a seasoned chicken-keeper, we didn't heat the coop. The temperature difference from coop to run can encourage respiratory infections, to which chickens are prone. We did put plexiglass over the windows, so our coop is draft-free but not airtight, and installed a 60-watt bulb on a timer for a tiny bit of heat and 3 extra hours of "daylight" to encourage laying. And lay they do--6 eggs/day these days. But no longer the petite white ones unique to Captain Gloria Pecker, who died on Friday.

I opened the coop for a good cleaning that morning, the balmy 40-degree weather presenting an odious opportunity to clear out all the thawing poop stalagmites and crapsicles. She hopped out of her nest to say howdy but stumbled, then slouched, in front of me. And Gloria is no slouch: She's been the flock leader since day one, earning her rank (so dubbed by my stepson) by bossing around her brethren like a surrogate rooster, always the first to try new things, leading the ladies back to the coop at bedtime. She was the most aggressive hen (hence the name "Pecker") but the most sociable, too, sidling up for a pat on the tail feathers and playing chase with our two-year-old daughter. I picked her up--which she would never allow if feeling well--and dribbled some water in her beak. She drank and perked up a bit, then curled back against me. What to do...she was clearly close to death. Should I wait? Bring her to the vet? What if she was suffering? I called around and found an avian-savvy vet (ours was out for the day), rallied the babysitter and a ride, and brought her in, looking every bit the crazy chicken lady with a hen in my arms, bedhead and a shit-covered coat. He peered in her throat and judged it a virus, and suspects it's what Rita died from months ago. We decided to assist her passing and as he parted the feathers on her neck, revealing her, well, chicken skin, I was struck by what a fine line there is between a $5 grocery item and a $150 euthanasia bill; a dinner and a companion animal. I brought her body to the veterinarian pathology lab at UConn, so we ought to know today if it's contagious to the rest of the flock, or to us, and where to go from here.

RIP Rita Layworth and Captain Pecker.

UPDATE: Cpt. Pecker's necropsy revealed gout and "egg yolk peritonitis" as possible causes of death. Neither's contagious. She had all the symptoms of the latter, including having laid a few weeks back a mammoth double-yoke egg. Ouch.


Header Image from Bangbouh @ Flickr