…Or perhaps I should title that “Chicken Obsession” as my love for chickens now tends to border on obsession.
Last year I purchased 6 RI Red pullets from the local Agway and 4 Khaki Campbell ducks. I had never raised either before so it was a new experience. I considered the joy of raising them for the eggs and a more eco-friendly alternative to ridding my yard and garden of unwanted bugs like ticks and such; I never considered the joy of having them just as pets, though I made it clear from the get-go they would NEVER end up in the stew pot. But that is just what they’ve become–pets.
In my last post, I talked about relocating all 10 birds to the warmth and sanctity of my house during sub-zero temperatures. Springtime brought a different challenge. Rusty, one of myRI Reds (all of my RI Reds have names related to their color: Rusty, Ruby, Amber, Rouge, Copper & Penny…), stopped eating. She also had diarrhea. I found her hiding behind the kiddie pool I have for my ducks, just hunched over. When I picked her up, she barely protested but she had lost weight. Something was seriously wrong with my little girl. My first thought was “Is she egg-bound?” But, when I examined her, it was obvious that wasn’t the problem. I looked in some books I have for chicken care and then in some herbals for possible treatments but, though she had some of the symptoms of some of the maladies, she didn’t have all of them and I was afraid–being a novice with poultry–of misdiagnosing her. So I called the local vet and made an appointment. (I should probably add that Brooklyn, Connecticut is a rural, agricultural town so many of the local vets, even if they don’t treat poultry and/or livestock themselves, can usually refer you to someone close by who does…)
Rusty went to see Dr. Betsy Japp in Eastford, CT (3 towns over; about 15 minutes away). Dr. Japp has been raising chickens herself for many years so it was a relief to find someone with so much experience–and more–a real love for chickens, which was obvious in her manner while handling Rusty. In addition to a thorough examination–that Rusty bore quite patiently, I might add–and providing treatment for Rusty, who had ingested some sort of microscopic worm, Dr. Japp also gave some sound advice for caring for my chickens such as keeping a calcium supplement free choice in a separate feeder at all times and also, offering my adult gals chick starter on occasion. Now I know chick starter isn’t exactly organic or eco-friendly and, as an herbalist, I am always looking for more natural ways to care for my pets and livestock. But I’m also not totally anti-allopathic medicine either, believing holistic and allopathic have much to compliment each other if only both sides could put away their egos (sorry, one of my soapboxes…). Anyway, Rusty came home with some antibiotics to treat the infection that had developed as a result of this parasitic worm. She was running a high temperature and had to be quarantined for 10 days. I put her in a large dog crate in a far corner of the rabbit barn where the other chickens couldn’t pester her.
The fun part was trying to stick a tablet, about the size of a Bayer aspirin, down Rusty’s throat twice a day. Once I had Rusty in my arms, opening the beak and placing it at the back of the throat was easy; it was “catching” Rusty from the back of the cage that I had quarantined her in. Twice a day I would have to crawl into this cage (it’s a cage large enough that one of my St. Bernards could stand up straight in it), getting covered in pine shavings, scattered feed and, yes, even the occasional dropping. She would flap her wings in stark protest every time. But, the amazing thing was how quickly she recovered. Within a day, her feed bowl started emptying out. She was drinking plenty of water again. The diarrhea disappeared. Within a week Rusty decided she’d had enough of that cage and boldly walked out one morning to play with the Quackers and Reds in the barnyard. I let her go, bringing her back into the cage at night for her meds and, also, to make sure she got enough to eat in case some of the others tried to bully her away from the feed in the henhouse.
It has been over a month and Rusty is 100% better. Two weeks after her near-fatal illness, she produced my first double-yoked egg. It weighed 4 ounces! She’s always been one of my best layers. But, I confess, when I walked in on her laying this egg and saw her all hunched over again, straining to produce it, I got scared. But it was just a large egg…poor gal! Now, she and her pals caper around the backyard together everyday, scratching in the dust and sunning themselves, seemingly happy just to be alive. Though they have always come running the moment I go outside, Rusty has decided to follow me like some strangely-shaped lap dog looking for affection. And her antics have inspired the others to do likewise. She even comes to visit in the rabbit barn at night when I feed them, though she makes it clear she wants no part of the cage again.
I didn’t plan on getting more chicks this year but, while Rusty was convalescing, I had a sudden increase in egg demand. A good friend of mine owns a laundromat and has been telling her regular customers about my chickens. I started getting phone calls: “Can you bring 6 dozen down?” “I need 8 dozen this week” and so on and so forth. I picked up a baker’s dozen: 4 Silkies, 3 Araucanas, 3 Plymouth Barred Rocks and 3 Polish Frizzles. I lost a Silkie chick the first night; the rest are feathering out nicely and growing strong. Soon the cage they’re being kept in will be relocated to the henhouse, where they will continue to live in the cage for a few more weeks so my Reds won’t peck the “intruders” to death (advice given by a couple of more-seasoned poultry raisers on integrating new birds with the “old”…). I say “obsessed” because the wide variety of breeds seems to me a sort of strange bouquet, not of flowers, but in the iridescent sheen of feathers dancing in the sunlight. And these flowers chirp and cluck at me, filling my days with a joy I never expected to find with chickens. Who knew?