Good-bye, Sweet Belle: The Death of a Crossbill Hen
Last Tuesday when I opened the chicken tractor to let the girls come bounding and clumsily flutter out for their breakfast, Belle our genetic crossbill Americauna didn’t emerge with her usual energy. I make a custard of blended chicken food, whole eggs, greens and fruit, cooked and cooled, to feed her. The custard contained all the goodies the other hens had, but was easier for her to scoop with her twisted beak. I’d fill her dish before I come down to ‘do the hens’, and she was fed first. Her dish was placed into the top of the quail hut with the door propped open so only Belle coud get in and out; the other hens loved to share her food otherwise.
Although Belle ate vigorously, she never gained full body weight. Her beak prevented her from eating well enough. Out of every five scoop attempts at the custard I’d say that she’d get one mouthful. Yet she was always perky, always running around interested in everything, and even tried dominance tactics over some of the other girls. They’d let her since she wasn’t a threat to any of their food.
Because Belle’s eating habits were very messy her neck and head feathers were straggly, and combined with her twisted beak gave her a comical, slightly crazed look. Because she was handled so much when she patiently allowed us to trim her beak and nails, and give her a bath, she was very friendly. She’d jump on our backs and shoulders any time we’d bend over in the coop. She’d enjoy being carried around. She was very spoiled. We’d read posts where owners of crossbills, who didn’t cull them but kept them as pets, had them live up to ten years and lay eggs. It was all dependant upon to what degree their bills crossed, and Belle’s became severe.
About a month ago we noticed mites on her, something that is common on hens, and gave her a good bath and treatment with food grade diotomaceous earth. The FGDE works immediately and is very effective and safe. Otherwise she was bright, fun and perky, burrowing under the other girls on the roost overnight to cuddle.
Tuesday Belle was slower to come around, and didn’t want to eat. A hungry hen not wanting to eat? Bad news. We immediately took her into the house. It was a cold day, so we made her comfortable next to a space heater. On inspection we discovered that she had mites all over her. We also checked the other hens right away and they were all okay, so apparently Belle’s diminishing health encouraged them to reproduce, and as she couldn’t groom herself she was stuck. We coated her with FGDE, not wanting to bathe her while she was feeling poorly since it was a cold day, and dropper fed her food. She showed some energy and wanted to run around, and took the food hungrily.
It was time to trim the Christmas tree, and my daughter put Belle under her sweater to keep her warm and comforted as we worked; Belle loved being cuddled and held, so she put up no resistance, but we could see that she was ill.
We brought in the cage that we used for Viola the ex-house chicken, and for all of our patients, and tucked Belle in for the night next to the space heater.
In the morning Belle was sitting very still. I knew that she was nearly gone. Just after waking my daughter, Belle died as she held her. She is buried outside our bay window where we watch birds, close to the house.
Birds are so tricky. They can seem perfectly fine, but when they show illness it is usually too late and the end comes quickly. There is little you can do for them besides keep them comfortable. Neither of us expected Belle to pass away; she showed no previous symptoms and was her usual plucky, fun self. Something internal gave way from slow malnutrition caused by that darned crossed bill and her inability to eat enough. On reflection I don’t think that Belle had a bad life. She ate enough to not be hungry all the time, and her custard gave her ease of eating. She was much loved and spoiled. Her end was quick, which was merciful and not granted to many of us. But Belle will always be remembered.