Viola the House Chicken

Viola melting in the sun.

Viola snoozing in the sun.

When I tell people that I have a house chicken they look at me funny.  Then I launch into the explanation and sometimes afterwards they say, “I want a house chicken!”  Or sometimes they just smile gently and pretend they recognize someone else with whom they’d like to speak.

Right now I not only have a house chicken, but I have a bathtub full of chickens.  These are the chicks at the six-week stage, and are just about ready to put out in the Fowl Fortress.  They are exercising their wings, especially Esther one of the buff orpingtons, which comes to kamikazi-ish flights into the other chicks and scattering them like bowling pins.  I can be excused bathtub chickens because, after all, they are temporary.  And so, I thought, was my house chicken.

Chicks at six weeks.  The only one not looking at the camera is Belle, who has a crossbill and who is eating.

Chicks at six weeks. The only one not looking at the camera is Belle, who has a crossbill and who is eating.

The way Viola became a house chicken though will make much sense to you and warm the cockles of your heart.

Viola and Madge were two one-year-old Rhode Island Reds who were raised en masse at a feed store.  Although the hens had had their beaks trimmed (poor dears) these two had been severely pecked.  Madge is blind in one eye and Viola had a gimpy leg (and, I have come to believe, some psychological damage from the bullying).  These two hens have been the sweetest girls, unlike the other hens who were coddled from day #2 and act like complete spoiled brats.

One day last Fall I went to put the chickens away and noticed that Viola was holding one leg up high and not able to put any pressure onto it.  Uh-oh, I thought.  I felt it all over but couldn’t tell if anything was broken. I set up a cage by the kitchen table with a heat lamp and heating pad, and hoped for the best.  I spoke with the vet and researched online and everyone (all poultry-eaters, I’m sure!) said that she’d have to be put down.  The leg was probably broken.  She was probably in pain and showing a brave face… or beak. Well, I considered having her put down, but she didn’t appear to me to be in tremendous pain.  She acted as if she’d pulled a muscle.  She ate well, and after a night on the heating pad laid a very nice egg.  So I kept her in.  After a few days she began to use the leg a little.  She certainly ate well.  I took her outside into the front fenced area, formerly home to Homer the Desert Tortoise who had escaped the year before.  This area has a small pond and all the bird feeders where we watch and count birds for Cornell’s Project Feederwatch.  Pretty much a chicken heaven, except for the loneliness.  Having been hen-pecked, she didn’t seem to mind so much.

She sees us watching her as she roams Chicken Heaven.

She sees us watching her as she roams Chicken Heaven.

Viola improved and we developed a routine.  In the morning I’d let her out and sprinkle some food for her outside.  She’d wander and sun herself and roll in the dirt and eat bird seed, and lay an egg in Homer’s old house.

"This doghouse smells like a tortoise."

“This doghouse smells like a tortoise.”

At dusk she either would tap incessantly at the sliding door to come in, or I’d go out and call, “Vi – o- laaaa,” and she’d run around the corner of the house, up the stairs and inside, making a brief stop to check out Sophie-the-dog’s dinner, then she very nicely cage herself.  I’d cover her with a blanket so she could sleep while the light was on.  The cats ignored her and Sophie “peace and love in her old age” -the-dog was actually a little intimidated by her.  Perhaps she thought Viola was the ghost of chickens past.

The only animal I have who comes when she's called.

The only animal I have who comes when she’s called.

Did I say run?  Yes, her leg improved greatly, from a painful hop to a piratey roll.  Then I made the mistake of speaking on the phone about her within her hearing.  I gave a progress report on how well she was doing, and said that I’d try to reintroduce her to the flock again the next day or so.  By the next day, however, Viola suddenly had a very sore leg again.  She hobbled painfully around.  I couldn’t reintroduce her because the other girls wouldn’t be very nice to her.  So I nursed her again.  She improved.  During the Christmas holidays once more I spoke about reintroducing her, and by the next day she was limping badly again.  Guess what?  Viola got to stay inside for Christmas.

Staying warm by the heater last winter.

Staying warm by the heater last winter.

This healing/reinjury happened yet a third time, and yes I had mentioned bringing her to the coop, so by then I was pretty sure she was either a very good chicken actress, or she was injuring herself to maintain her improved way of life.

The best part of having a chicken in the house I find is at night.  While I’m up writing or paying bills and she’s caged, suddenly I’ll hear a sound as if a bomb is falling from a great height just outside the house.  It is a high pitched whistle that descends in pitch gradually, but instead of hearing an explosion at the end there is a little soft “brrrup.” The first time I heard it the sliding doors were open and I thought that Camp Pendleton (whose artillery practice shakes the house) had dropped a missle overhead.

When I sneeze or make a loud noise I always hear a comment from the cage.  She’ll often croon to herself, too.  Viola enjoys music and will sit contentedly both when I’m playing CDs or even when I’m practicing my beginning piano chords on the keyboard.  I’m sure she considers herself a songbird because she makes horrible noises of protest when she wants attention.

Viola taking a tour of the library.

Viola taking a tour of the library.

At first I had placed a metal food dish and a flat water dish into her cage.  She soon learned that if she stepped on the edge of the metal dish it would clank.  She became very good at clanking over and over and over again with her big foot when she wanted out.  She’d also manage to spill her water so I’d have to let her out to clean.  She’d take the opportunity to run into the other room and check out the cat’s food dishes.  Now I just put some feed right on her newspaper, and my daughter cleverly tied open the side door just enough so that Viola can get her head out to drink from a water dish placed outside the cage.

A caged Viola with the waterdish doorway.

A caged Viola with the waterdish doorway.

A friend who knows birds suggested that Viola had bumblefoot, a painful swelling of the pad of her foot.  She kindly gave me a week’s worth of antibiotic for Viola in pill form, and I learned a new skill.  Or not.  By the end of the week Viola and I had developed a whole new relationship which had us eyeing each other warily.  There was no change in her condition other than she wouldn’t let me anywhere near her beak without a tussle.  Yet again she’s walking very well.

Dog food is high in protein, and fun to steal.

Dog food is high in protein, and fun to steal.

I’m not the only one with a house chicken.  Social media is a wonderful method of exposing slightly affected people.  There are photos of perfectly respectable people – grandparents even – Skyping with a chicken on their laps.  There are even businesses who sell products for chickens such as chicken diapers.  Yep.  Chickendiaper.com, in fact.   I didn’t enjoy the diapering part of raising my children so much that I want to reenact it with a chicken, thank you.

Viola giving her opinion on what video to watch.

Viola giving her opinion on what video to watch.

So here it is the middle of Spring, and Viola’s leg is doing wonderfully.  She barely limps.  Perhaps I can reintroduce her to the flock at the same time I introduce the chicks.  I’m writing this while Viola is rustling about in her covered cage, facing the back of my laptop and unable to read what I’m writing.  I just wonder if tomorrow she’ll be limping badly again.

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