WARNING: Graphic content related to chickens. Proceed at your own risk. 🙂
You would think that chickens wandering in the yard, pecking at the dust would be a normal sight in the morning when you live in a little farmhouse like ours in the country.
But it’s not.
At least, not on our farm.
“Kristi! The chickens are in the yard!”
I bolted out of bed. Not normal at all.
“But Kate put them in for us….right?” I said.
“That was two nights ago.” John pointed out. “Last night we were sitting out there with them before we left for dinner. Remember? We forgot to lock them up when we got home. ”
Dang. I so prefer to blame the kids.
But there they were. Happy as could be. Free ranging in the fresh morning air.
I was afraid to go out to the coop for what I might find. We have predators all around who love a moist, juicy, free ranging chickens. Foxes and coyotes mostly. With an occasional mountain lion. We’ve lost many chickens to them before.
Sure enough, the door to the coop was hanging open, presenting an engraved invitation to some fox. And there, right in front of the door, was proof of the demise of one of my chickens. A crop circle of black feathers.
I quickly took an inventory, and all but one were accounted for. The missing chicken was one from the youngest flock. Hatched in the summer and not yet laying. Poor thing. I thumped my forehead. How could I forget?
Then over in the corner I caught a glimpse of the grotesque, bloodied back of another chicken. One whose head I counted but whose back wasn’t visible at the time. The other chickens were making a fuss, as chickens do when there’s blood. The wounded hen was cowering on the ground, and as I came closer I could see she’d been torn at and left bare-backed and bleeding. Probably by the same predator who moved on to grab the missing black hen.
I gathered up the bleeding bird and carried her inside, peeling out her wings to assess the damage. Chunks of flesh missing. Feathers gone. My fault.
In the house, I ran warm water across her back. She was strangely calm. And she’s not one of the chickens who likes to be held. She seemed to know she needed help, and that I would help her. Not being very experienced at chicken veterinary care, I grabbed the people-Neosporin, a non-stick sterile bandage and some band aids from the medicine cabinet, and gingerly covered her back with it. She didn’t seem to mind.
She’s a beautiful chicken. An Ameraucana who has feathered legs (not typical). They’re known as “Easter egg” chickens, so named because hens lay eggs that range from turquoise to deep olive. Ours has the look of a Golden Eagle, with her mane of feathers and her legs disappearing under more golden and brown feathers. Beautiful. But she was weak. Beaten up. Sad, even.
Chickens react aggressively to blood. They peck at it. If I walk into the coop with a fresh scratch on my ankle, they’ll go for it. It’s freaky. Like Hitchcock. I knew this poor chicken would be attacked if I took her home to the flock. So I set up housekeeping for her in the little coop I use for new chicks. Her own space. We called it “the Hospital”, and it was close to the house where I could check in on her.
I actually considered taking her to a vet.
“Are you serious?” John said.
“Well, she’s a pet, right? If this happened to Bart, we’d take him in immediately.”
“She’s a barnyard animal, Kristi. Livestock.”
“Why don’t we eat her?”
I shuddered. That’s sick, I thought. Who would eat their chicken?
Thank goodness I caught myself before I said it.
“OK. Well, I’m not going to kill her. She’s too skinny anyway. I’m going to try to nurse her back to health.” And I mused that this would be another good reason to lose some weight. In this case, being skinny saved this chick’s life.
Weeks passed, and there was very little movement in the Hospital. A nice, grassy, fenced-in yard surrounded the little coop, but that chicken stayed inside. I brought her fresh water and food each day. I spiked the water with a probiotic mixture I give to new chicks, thinking it made sense to get some electrolytes and vitamins into her. She drank enthusiastically. Chickens know what they need. They’re pretty remarkable that way.
Finally one day she stumbled out of the coop. Stumbled….and limped….and flapped her way around the yard. It was encouraging, yet pitiful. I began to think she’d suffered an injury to her legs or feet that I’d missed in my focus on her back wounds. Or maybe she’s just weak. Well, it’s progress anyway. She’s exploring the Hospital grounds now.
The stumbling continued for a few days. She seemed stronger. Her struggle was more vigorous. It was not making sense. There’s got to be something else wrong with her. So one day in response to her flapping around, I picked her up to examine her more closely. I turned her over on her back, and she allowed me to plow through her feathers to find her legs.
What I saw made me gasp.
Some sinewy material had bound her legs together within an inch or so of one another. I couldn’t tell what it was. A claw? A bone? It was a mess. Mixed up with feathers and dirt. And a very definite, tight connection between the claws on one foot and the leg above the other foot. What in the world?
I ran into the house with her and grabbed my glasses. We went into the bathroom under good light and I found some tweezers. She did not object.
Gently, I tugged at the connecting material with the tweezers to see what it was. I still couldn’t tell. But I could see that it was wound so tightly around the chicken’s leg that the flesh above and below it had swollen – or grown – up around the material so that it appeared to be part of her leg. Then on the other foot, around several toes and part of her leg, the material wound around and around, doing the same thing. Making two of her toes almost black.
I concluded that this material could not be part of this chicken, so I took the scissors and snipped the center of the connection. Then I tried to unwind the material from her legs and toes. It wasn’t easy. It was actually embedded into her skin. Like a tree growing into a fence wire. I would tug at bits of it with the tweezers, then snip it away. Pinch another bit, tug and snip. She laid there on her back in my arms, feet in the air, calm and patient. Letting me work. Relieved at the attention to her problem. As I snipped and unwound, it dawned on me: cotton twine.
It’s twine. Tangled mercilessly around her legs in every possible direction. Then ultimately drawing her legs together so that she couldn’t stand properly…or stroll the Hospital grounds….
Or flee from a fox.
This twine – the kind you unravel from the stitched closure at the top of bags of chicken feed – had bound this poor chicken. It must have landed on the floor of the coop when I was refilling the feed canisters and disappeared into the pine shavings. As she scratched about in her normal course of looking for food, she’d tangled herself in that string, and it buried itself under her beautiful feathers and slowly dragged her down. I imagined her fussing with it and kicking at it, making its grip on her even tighter. It caused her to cower in corners. It made her defenseless. And no one noticed. Not until a fox almost did her in.
Why the fox took off without her, we’ll never know. Maybe George or Bart, our two dogs, arrived on the scene and scared him away. But there she was. Alive. Still bound and cowering, but alive.
And when help finally came – ironically the same “help” who carelessly left that nasty twine in the pine shavings – she allowed it. She allowed the Neosporin and the sticky bandaging on her back. She drank the funny water and rested gratefully, legs still undiscovered. And when she was strong enough, she asked for more help by staggering about and flapping her wings. And it came.
She couldn’t walk for weeks after I cut away her burden. It was as though the loss of the strangling twine allowed blood flow to dying limbs and toes and created even more discomfort. I was afraid she might lose the use of her legs altogether, but we gave it some time to see.
Gradually, she got better. She stood. Favoring her right foot, patting it on the ground to avoid giving it the full weight of her fattening body. Then eventually, walking. Full weight.
During “free-range” time, we opened the Hospital gates and encouraged her to merge with the flock as they searched for bugs and took their dust baths.
She declined. She’d become independent. An outsider.
It appeared to be a mutual decision.
We didn’t press it because we didn’t want her to be bullied. At the first sign of aggression toward her by another chicken, we decided she would be her own girl. Free-range for life.
She chose a place that felt safe. The porch outside our bedroom door. She found a corner where she could hide her face. I think she believed she could not be seen as long as her head was stuck in that corner.
Coincidentally, we had stationed our new puppy’s bed on that same porch. When he was around, she would go to her corner and “hide”. I think he liked the company and would curl up calmly on his dog bed near her to sleep.
Over time she realized that this white, furry animal – a huge Great Pyrenees puppy, but a puppy nonetheless – was harmless. She would go about her business, pecking at her food bowl and wandering around in his presence without worry. I think they calmed each other.
And they became friends.
One morning I peeked out the window and saw her with the puppy, lifting up his ears and pecking at the fur beneath. Grooming him.
I was stunned.
I watched for some time as she circled the dozing giant, picking off specks of mud and dirt from his white coat, moving in a circle around him. Every so often he would change position and she would move in to the newly exposed coat and do her work there.
Clearly she is glad to take care of someone.
And best of all, she feels safe.