[Click on category “The Chicken Saga” to get the whole story]
Now I’ve been around a long while here on God’s great earth and I have learned that for me life’s rewards only come from hard work. I also have come to realize that knowledge only comes from consistent study and finally this accumulation of hard work and knowledge will net you some gems of wisdom but only if you are paying special attention.
The honest truth is that in my chicken dream there was no downside, there were no problems to solve and even when problems arose there was always hope. Over time I did accumulate knowledge about chickens and their care. Through reading and experience I gained knowledge and felt more competent than when I started. I’ve never been afraid of hard work so hauling water during winter and cleaning the coop were tasks of enjoyment for me. But the hardest lessons were yet to come as one of my hens came down sick. You might wonder how you know when a chicken is sick and I can only say that a well-chicken is a busy creature, scratching, meandering and always on the move with breaks to fluff up in the nesting box to lay an egg. Otherwise a well-chicken is quite active.
That’s how I knew when one little hen, who was not jumping up into the nesting boxes and was a slow mover overall, was getting sick. This little hen, later named “Sicky Chicky,” was moving very slowly if at all and “roosting” near the floor on the doorway ramp. I checked her over, discovered no wounds and segregated her, finally bringing her inside the house. I thought she might be egg bound so I gave her a warm bath in the kitchen sink. It was winter and so I kept her in the house for a month or more.
Sicky Chicky was eating, but just a little and her poop was an unusual color. I researched online and my best guess is she had Mareks although I can’t be positive. Whatever she had I knew that she should be culled (culled equals killed) and I just didn’t have it in me to do it. I knew instinctively that she needed to go… but I held on keeping her alive with extra care. She did end up recovering somewhat but some of the most important chicken behaviors – like roosting off the ground and preening to keep parasites at bay were no longer a part of her behavior. Sometimes she would fall over and not be able to right herself and I would set her aright. This went on and on for months and all the while I was compromising my well chickens.
And then there was the day I came home after work later than usual… after dusk. I’d done it before many, many times without incident. This night though when I went into the coop to do a headcount I found one hen missing. I grabbed my flashlight and began my search only to discover a half eaten carcass with feathers all around inside the chicken pen. Some unidentified ground predator had come inside the fenced area and killed one of the Black Australorps. It was dark so I went inside deciding to clean up the scene of the massacre in the morning. Come morning the carcass had been dragged and further eaten. It was impossible to tell what it was as no tracks could be found in the hardened clay. Raccoon maybe? Fisher cat perhaps? Weasel? Could be. All of those chicken predators have been seen in the woods around my house. I was devastated because I had gone more than two years without a loss such as this. We’d had a few scares from aerial predators – hawks mostly – but no losses. I’d been lucky to have avoided a loss to a predator up to now but it didn’t make it any easier.
At this point I was afraid to let my hens outside into the pen and afraid to let them loose. I kept them inside for a week or so and then decided that was a routine I could no longer continue. Hens are happier outside and living in fear is no way to live at all. So one morning about a week after the massacre I decided to let the chickens out before work. I hemmed and hawed about whether I should let them out into the pen but a predator had just killed a hen in there. Maybe I should just let them out into the yard where they could escape into the trees if needed. So that morning I turned the flock out into the yard and headed off to work. I was determined to be home before dusk – the killing hour – and I was. But that afternoon after work when I pulled down the road I saw a hawk fly off of the side of the road. I knew immediately that hawk had taken another hen. I was devastated and even more so when I discovered it was Candy Corn. I was beside myself… just beside myself with grief. These chickens were my friends and I was supposed to be their protector. I’d failed… in less than two weeks two of my hens were gone.
A few mornings later before work I discovered another hen was acting funny. She wasn’t meandering and scratching like all the rest. She was standing in the corner… just standing in the corner facing the wall. I picked her up and checked her over looking for parasites or what I didn’t know. That’s when I discovered she had fly strike near her vent. Now I won’t describe what that is here but suffice to say it is quite disgusting… like extremely disgusting. I went and grabbed a bucket, filled it with warm water and cleaned out the wound, then sprayed it with a chicken safe wound protectant. Each morning and night the wound would need to be checked and tended and I did so and she did recover.
By then I was questioning my decision to get chickens at all and questioning whether I could continue. The thought of getting rid of the chickens was too much to absorb so I continued on until… one afternoon my boss had let us all go home early from work. I, of course, went to check on the chickens as I always did. I discovered Sicky Chicky had fallen again and so I reached down to set her aright and that’s when a slew of little black mites began running up my arm! I WAS BESIDE MYSELF… particularly because I knew instinctively that she should have been culled… and so I got my bucket of warm water once again and bathed her with what I had on hand for cats and dogs. I set her into a dog crate with shavings and started cleaning out the coop. If she was infested with mites there was a good possibility that the rest of the flock had them too. I scooped, shoveled and hauled all the bedding out, dusted the coop with poultry dust, on the roosts, floors, cracks and crevices. I check the other hens and didn’t see any mites on them but dusted them anyway.
That night with Sicky Chicky in the dog crate away from the rest of the flock, I ponded my options. I knew that I would need to cull her. I knew before but now I had compromised everyone else and I could no longer do that. I thought all night long about how to accomplish this culling. Let me be straight here… I was trying to decide how to kill that chicken… over and over in my head it went until I decided what I would do. I won’t share with you my plan but I can assure that I prayed to God that she would die overnight. “Dear Lord please take her home… Dear Lord please take her home… .” Thankfully in the morning she was gone and I did not have to do the deed.
And that was it. The last straw. There was no more hoping. I knew then that I was not a farmer or a faux farmer. I was not prepared to make the hard decisions. While I could kill a rat to protect my hens but I could not kill one of my hens and that was a part of the responsibility of it all. This chicken dream was unraveling. It was time to call the game, which was not a game at all.
With that I made a call to a friend of mine to see if she might take them. No. I asked if she knew someone who would. I reached out to them. No. Finally, there was someone. A soft heart. Someone who had lots of animals, all kinds. She said she would take them and she did.
I’ll not forget my last sight of them. A big cardboard box, one that has handles carved out on the sides with one little hen peering through the hole. I felt sadness and relief. They would not be killed at their new home but they would not be here. The sadness percolates to the surface now as I write.
It’s been months now and I don’t know for sure how they are doing. I did text Mary, their new “mom,” and she said they’re doing fine but I wanted more details, details I will never know. There are times now that I regret rehoming my little flock and there are times when I know it was the best decision. The truth is in my idealistic chicken dream we all rode happily into the sunset, me with eggs in hand and my chickens with happy smiles on their beaks. In my chicken dream there was no poop, no predators, no problems. But life isn’t that way and for now I am chickenless, planning to chart a new course for my life and focusing on what is and where I am.
What is and what I’ve learned …
- I am an artist, not a farmer and not a faux farmer.
- I can use power tools and build things.
- I can run fast if coyotes and coy dogs are howling.
- I can kill rats to protect my chickens but cannot kill my chickens for any reason at all.
- I know that in life there is loss and that we can live through it somehow.
- I know what pecking order means and that it exists with chickens and humans.
- I know that chickens should not be dressed in knitted apparel, sweaters or vests and the like.
- I have seen that chickens actually do cross the road but still don’t know why.
- I have tasted free-range eggs that are delicious and nutritious and even more satisfying when they have come from your own hens.
- I will never say never to having a flock of chickens again but for now I will remain chickenless in Charleston.