Striving for Healthier Hens

Nora and Branwyn enjoying the sun on our windowseat.

Nora and Branwyn enjoying the sun on our windowseat.

The last six months have been very difficult chicken-wise.  We lost Chickpea to a coyote, who snatched her a few yards from us, we lost Miss Amelia and Madge from unknown ailments, and we’ve nursed chickens back to health as well. Mulan had a prolapsed uterus, which we cleaned, stuffed back in coated with honey from our own bees and bandaged.  She recovered and is laying happily, thank goodness.  Viola and a couple of others had impacted crop, which means that they swallowed something like long pieces of grass which have blocked up the exit from their crop to their stomach.  There have been many mornings I’ve spent making a chicken throw up, without breaking her neck or suffocating her.  We’ve been frazzled with the health of our hens, all purchased through feed stores.  Our past chicken experiences had no egg binding, no septic peritonitis, no crossbill (which should have been bred out of the hens) and no infected eyes.

I’ve purchased mostly organic feed for them, and given them greens in their large Fowl Fortress or brought them into the fenced yard for grazing.  Organic feed is amazingly expensive.  Since we don’t eat the hens and we use their eggs as one of our main protein sources, they need to be in good productive health.  Chickens can live ten years or more, and lay that long, too.  Ours seem to top off at three.

I tried fermenting their food.  Fermented food is all the rage and I read many articles about the health benefits of fermenting chicken food.  In a 5-gallon bucket I’d mix water and their lay crumbles along with some cracked corn and wait a couple of days until it smelled yeasty.  Then I’d give them some and replenish the bucket.  It took awhile for the hens to come to like the food, but it didn’t seem to do anything for their health.  In our warm San Diego weather it was tricky to not have the fermented food spoil.  Eventually I gave that up.

One of the hen’s purposes  in the garden  is to create compost.  They excel at pooing.  When the opportunity arose to be able to pick up discarded fruit and vegetables from the Fallbrook Food Pantry four times a week, I jumped at it.  Much of the produce is still edible for the hens; when mixed with pooey straw and dirt the chickens could grub out, well, grubs and fly larvae and eat more naturally.  Although we’re still picking it up, we are devoting hours a week lugging stinky veggies around.  It is hard and heavy work, and the fly population has exploded.  However we have seen more flycatchers hanging around the yard recently and the phoebe is truly fat.  I shovel and rake the produce mixed with carbon sources (paper goods from the house mostly) and then the hens kick it all over.  It is good exercise for them, they eat far less lay crumble, and they are producing some very good quality compost for the veggie garden.  Their health has been better.

One of the reasons that the hens came down with just about every known illness was because they were purchased from hatcheries.  Hatchery birds live in hell from the second they are born.  Since few people want roosters, the male chicks are swept into trash bags and thrown away, live.  The female  chicks are inoculated  and packaged up for shipment through the mail.  There are always extra chicks packed in because the heat of the ones on the outside keep the ones on the inside warm enough to possibly survive the stressful, hungry, thirsty and brutal trip.  Therefore the ones on the outside of the bundle are sacrificial.  I didn’t want to support this animal cruelty any longer.

I decided to find a local breeder who cared for her hens.  I found someone who seemed reputable; her  mother owns a feed store and the woman breeds horses, dogs and hens.  On conversation with her I learned that she had imported chickens from good stock and bred them at her place.  The hens weren’t inoculated, but that wouldn’t matter to us since we have a small isolated flock.  With glee I ordered four pullets, from several weeks old to a couple of months.  They were different breeds and were to lay different egg colors.  We sectioned out the back of the Fowl Fortress and happily put the girls in.  Not long after we found out they were crawling with lice.  None of our other girls had lice, thank goodness.  Upon contacting the woman she said that she’d put Frontline on the hens per advice from her vet.  We smeared Vaseline around the eggs that encrusted their necks and powdered  diatomaceous earth on their bodies.  We’ve repeated the treatment, but we haven’t won the war yet.  I noticed when we picked the girls up that the blue maran, Nora, had a watery eye.  That eye became infected, and we learned that it was probably a small eyeball, and now she’s blind in that eye.  Just a few days ago her other eye was bothering her so we are treating it.  She is underweight, and Miranda noticed that her beak was overgrown so it was hard for her to peck food.  Miranda trimmed it, having had lots of experience with our poor late crossbill, Belle.  So Nora lives for the time being in the house as we hope that she doesn’t go completely blind, and as we try to feed her up so that if the time comes when we can reintroduce her, the flock won’t attack her.

Branwyn balancing herself on her weak forelegs.

Branwyn balancing herself on her weak forelegs.

Then there is Branwyn.  She’s a feisty olive-egger.  A few weeks ago Miranda noticed that Branwyn’s legs were bowing out as she walked.  By the time she brought the bird up to the house she was paralyzed in both legs.  Our immediate fear was Merek’s disease, which is highly communicable and would have meant death for all our birds, sterilization of the coop and no hens for six months or more.  Within days Branwyn showed signs of moving her left leg.  Miranda configured a Rubbermaid container as a bouncy chair, tying a t-shirt across it and cutting leg holes through it so Branwyn could rest with legs down and feet touching the bottom.  Later, Miranda cut the legs from an old pair of tights and stuck Branwyn through to bounce her across the floor,  giving her physical therapy.  Sounds nutso, I know, but its working.  Branwyn’s left leg is much stronger and she’s beginning to force her right leg to work.  She can’t stand, but she can now get her feet under her.  We still don’t know what was wrong with her; some kind of neurological disorder or possibly vitamin deficiency.  We were giving her Vitamin E and B complex with selenium heavily for a week and saw her initial improvement.  Vitamin deficiency can be inherited; common chicken feed should have enough in it, especially when combined with vitamins in their water.

Miranda walking Branwyn in her sling made of old tights (to the tune of Surrey With The Fringe On Top).

Miranda walking Branwyn in her sling made of old tights (to the tune of Surrey With The Fringe On Top).

Lark, who was huge with sterile peritonitis, was drained by the vet and is several pounds lighter and much happier.  She’s with the rest of the flock.  Since we have no idea what caused the condition (she’s barren), it might happen again but for now she’s back kicking fruit around with the rest.

I still don’t want to participate in the hatchery butchery and torture.  Anything mass-produced, be it animals, food, plants or products, are rooted in cruelty: sweat shops in other countries, underpaid workers, poor root stock, diseased, malnourished and maltreated animals, unhealthy chemical-laden food.  I’m holding off on purchasing any new hens, even though I wanted a  lavender Americauna.  I still think that buying local, while more expensive, is better.  For whatever reasons this batch have all been ill.  In fact, the only hens we’re treating right now are all four of the new girls!

Chickens have wonderful personalities and make great pets, and they are pets; having a few hens for eggs and meat sounds easy but just like any living thing they require work.  Especially OUR hens, who must know we won’t cull them and have decided that we are an early retirement home with personal nursing care.  I wish I could look forward to such a deal!

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