Posts tagged egg-layers

Lessons A Chicken Taught Me

The unthinkable has happened. Chip, our favourite hen, died last weekend.

A typical scene when you arrive at the Queendom - a chicken scritch in action!

A typical scene when you arrive at the Queendom – a chicken scritch in action!

At the tender age of 17 months, she simply faded until her light snuffed out. Despite her initial recovery from our amateur crop surgery, she continued to have digestive issues. Our guess is that something was seriously wrong in her gizzard or intestines which continuously caused a back-up of fluid and food in her crop. Whatever the reason, she is gone now and we are both full of heart-ache.

The last photo I took of her in the Chicken ICU dog crate. She had lost colour in her comb, was disheveled from not preening and would look at us through one winking eye.

The last photo I took of her in the Chicken ICU dog crate. She had lost colour in her comb, was disheveled from not preening and would look at us through one winking eye.

She was just a chicken but …

She was one of our original six. We brought her home in a box, knowing only what we had read in books about chicken farming. She was the bright light of that brood, constantly surprising us with her ingenuity, memory and curiosity. She taught us everything we now know about raising chickens, and most of that is not written in books.

Here is what Chip taught us during her short but favored life:

Named Chip - short for Chipmunk.

Named Chip – short for Chipmunk. And look at that adorable tail!

Chickens are smart – When Chip was a chick, she figured out different ways to climb out of the brooding box so that she could roost up high. She would hop from a roosting stick onto the top of the chick waterer and then onto the top edge of the brooder. No matter how we configured the objects, she would figure a way out.

You can't keep a good girl down. She was like Houdini in that brooder box!

You can’t keep a good girl down. She was like Houdini in that brooder box!

Chickens learn from each other – Once settled inside the finished coop, Chip would slide down the roost supports on her feet, rather than fly down or hop from rung to rung. Soon enough all the other chicks were copying her and now, with two new generations of chicks, everyone gets off the roost in Chip-style. It looks as fun as going down a fireman’s pole. All the others looked to her for ideas and direction.

A communal Chicken Melt on the sunny porch.

A communal Chicken Melt on the sunny porch.

Chickens seek affection – I am a determined ‘scooper’, meaning that I scoop every chicken up into my arms each day, in an effort to get them used to being handled. One day, as we were sipping coffee on the porch, Chip hopped up onto my extended legs to roost. It was the first time that contact between us had been initiated by one of them. Soon enough, she would hop up and walk to my lap where she would contentedly snooze or chat with me. It became a daily routine that we both looked forward to and enjoyed. In the last weeks of her life when she was too weak to hop up, she would come and stand near my chair and wait for the daily scoop. Only since she has passed away have other chickens initiated the hop up, emulating Chip. I sure hope it continues.

During one of her first hop-ups.

Captured on film during one of her first hop-ups.

Chickens are brave – During the record-breaking snowfall of last winter, it was Chip who dared to leave the coop, walk through the pantaloon-deep snow (which she had never experienced before) in her bare feet in order to have a visit on the porch.

Lured by scratch and a chance to sit on my lap, Chip was the first to brave the snow.

Lured by scratch and a chance to sit on my lap, Chip was the first to brave the snow.

Chickens wield their power gently – Chip was at the top of our flock’s pecking order. She always got her way whether it was first dibs on fresh compost, top rung on the roost or keeping new chicks in line. Being neither large or aggressive, she managed her flock with simply a look or a curt ‘bwack’. We never witnessed her pecking or flapping at anyone else.

Chip going to check out the latest additions to our flock.

Chip going to check out the latest additions to our flock and to let them know who’s in charge.

Chickens are trusting – When Chip’s crop first became an issue of concern, we read that massaging it would help contents pass through. For weeks, she would tolerate our palpations even though I’m sure it was uncomfortable, if not painful. Even during the worst of it, when we tried to forcibly vomit her, she never lost her trust in us and continued to be as animated and affectionate as ever.

Completely trusting and unafraid, Chip would follow us anywhere.

Completely trusting and unafraid, Chip would follow us anywhere.

Chickens communicate – Chip knew that there was a communication barrier between us and came up with creative ways to let us know her thoughts. I tried to give her antibiotics by hiding them in her favourite foods – grapes, melon, cherries, tomatoes or strawberries. She was always able to sniff them out. She would give me a look before gently sharpening her beak on my pant leg to let me know “No way am I going to eat that” and “How dare I ruin tasty strawberries in that way?”.

She is smiling on the inside!

She is smiling on the inside!

Chickens forgive – During those last weeks of Chip’s life, we pulled out all the stops and tried every remedy. Since she was losing weight and unable to get enough food down, we resorted to giving her liquid food, antibiotics and de-wormer by gavage. Even after the traumatic event of having a tube stuffed down her throat, she would snuggle down to rest and snooze in our laps.

Typical weekend morning - bathrobe, coffee, porch and Chip

Typical weekend morning – bathrobe, coffee, porch and Chip

Chickens leave an indelible mark – When this chicken-keeping hobby began, I never thought that I would consider our chickens to be anything other than egg-laying livestock. But Chip taught us otherwise. She enlightened us to their intelligence and their companionship. She showed us that they can be as faithful as any pet. We were so lucky to have had Chip in our first brood since she loved us unconditionally and taught us to reciprocate. She taught me so well that I almost feel unable to continue without her.

But I will. I know now that I will keep chickens for as long as I am able, if only to search for that experience again.

It is hard to get anything productive done around the Queendom when your lap is busy with a chicken.

It is hard to get anything productive done around the Queendom when your lap is busy with a chicken.

Curious about everything and willing to try anything

Curious about everything and willing to try anything – even FM’s homebrew.

Thank you, Chip

Thank you, Chip!

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A Rose Among Thorns

After waiting and watching for three months, we have discovered that little, blonde Sunnyside is the only hen from our latest clutch of six eggs. Five of those eggs hatched, four of them are dark grey or black males and she is the lone blondie and the only female.

Her lot in life so far has not been an easy one. For starters, she had trouble hatching out of her pretty blue eggshell. Two days after the first chick had hatched, her egg finally had pips around the center but progress was very slow. After the recent issues with the school incubator, we took action.

Here, FM is helping Sunnyside out of her shell. The membrane had adhered to her fluff.

Here, FM is helping Sunnyside out of her shell. The membrane had adhered to her fluff.

Her leg is stretching out.

Her legs are stretching out but she was completely spent with the effort.

After releasing her from her confines, we tucked her under Tweedle Mum and hoped for the best. All has worked out just fine.

After releasing her from her confines, we tucked her under Tweedle Mum and hoped for the best.

She was so tiny even after she had fluffed up!

She was so tiny even after she had fluffed up!

All worked out just fine!

All worked out just fine!

The first family photo

The first family photo (around 3 weeks old)

Around the two month mark, her four brothers began showing signs of Rooster-ness. Their first attempts at crowing was the gender giveaway. Little Sunnyside never joined in with her own party horn and we knew then that she was a hen and therefore a keeper.

She is not a pure breed but a mix of all sorts.

As with our whole new brood, she is a mix of a whole variety of breeds.

Our guess is that she is mostly Ameraucana because her blue eggshell, her ear tufts and her prominent tail. Hopefully she will go on to lay blue eggs of her own. She is cute, tiny and timid but is managing to hold her own among her aggressive, domineering brothers. Tweedle Mum has now kicked all of them out of the nest and out from under her wings. As a result, little Sunnyside spends a lot of time alone since she has not yet been accepted in to flock with the adult hens and she avoids the aggressive hassles from the boys. She is very curious but I haven’t managed to ‘scoop’ her yet. She is as fast as lightning and a talented flyer!

I have already nicknames her "The Lorax" because of her fabulous winged mustache!

I have already nicknamed her “The Lorax” because of her fabulous winged mustache!

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Chip Chop – Impacted Crop (part #2)

After weighing out all of the options for Chip’s impacted crop, we decided to surgically empty it. I’m sure this comes as no surprise to any of you who know us and especially to those who have met Chip.

Although this procedure should only be considered in extreme cases and when all other options have been exhausted, it had been in the back of our minds for a number of weeks, long before her case had become extreme. We talked about and began acquiring equipment that we would need (headlamps, scalpel, forceps, syringe for irrigating, needle and absorbable sutures). We also began watching youtube videos showing chicken crop surgery (not for the faint of heart and not right after a meal). The majority of youtube videos showed people with very little medical knowledge pulling off successful surgeries. Some of them were ghastly to watch, using dull knives and scissors to open and crazy glue to close the incisions. Most videos showed crops filled with masses of straw or hay bedding that their chickens had consumed. We wondered aloud what was the cause of her impacted crop, since we don’t use straw in the coop. Could it be piece of plastic found in the ‘fill’ around the garden? Could it be a piece of that fraying tarp under the porch? Could it be some of the dry, brown grasses still lingering in the garden from last fall?

We finally decided that she was close to crisis. If we waited any longer, she would be too weak to recover from surgery and too susceptible to infection during the healing process. We set a date for Saturday and steeled ourselves up.

When our operating room and recovery box were ready, I went out to find Chip. As usual, she eventually came out of hiding to visit me and I was able to scoop her easily. Her crop was larger than an egg even though it was morning. We lay her down, covered her head with a tea towel and bound her legs loosely with an elastic. My job was to hold her still and keep her from flapping her wings while FM had the tougher task of performing the operation.

Everything went just as planned.  FM cleared away feathers with scissors from a very large area of her chest and we used a surgical drape to hold the remaining feathers out of the way. The incision was made high up on her crop, avoiding any blood vessels and it was about 5 cm long in both the skin and the crop tissue. There was very little blood.

As soon as her crop was opened, that familiar dark brown liquid oozed out and the smell was nasty. She was full of green grass, clover and barley (from the scratch feed) which are all normal consumables for our girls. But she also had a lot of pine shavings in her crop, the type that we use for the coop floor and nesting boxes. As FM emptied the crop, he found that the entrance to the proventriculus/gizzard was packed with these pine shavings. It was no wonder that she was losing weight.

FM emptied about a 1/2 cup of crop contents into a container.

FM emptied about a 1/2 cup of crop contents into a container.

Using forceps and tweezers, FM pulled out all the contents of her crop, pinch by pinch. There was no solid mass like in the images we’d seen. Instead, it was a long labour of a few leaves at a time. He used the syringe with saline to rinse and irrigate the crop, ensuring that all nooks and crannies were cleaned out. As the crop was emptied, it shrunk and collapsed in on itself, as it should do, making it difficult to see if we got everything out. FM was determined to do a thorough job, knowing that we really have only one opportunity to do it.

Just before he stitched her up, he swabbed her, trying to make sure that the incision would be clean and clear of any remaining crop juices or contents. The swabbing caused her to bleed and suddenly there was a fair amount of blood. I felt myself go pale and FM’s hands began to shake. We both had a panicked minute while we tried to deal with this unexpected twist. With a good amount of gauze and pressure, he got the bleed under control and he was able to close the crop with 7 stitches. The skin took another 7 stitches and a dab of crazy glue at each end. We cleansed the area, put a good blob of polysporin antibiotic ointment and bandaged her with gauze and tape.

Immediately after surgery she was up and alert, but very exhausted.

Immediately after surgery she was up and alert, but very exhausted.

When her feathers were flattened down, her incision was completely covered, so other hens haven't seen it or pecked at it.

When her feathers are flattened down, her incision is completely covered, so other hens haven’t seen it or pecked at it.

Chip held so still throughout it all, flinching and attempting to sit up only 3 times – during the first skin incision, during the final cleaning of the incision area and during one of the stitches. When she was all bandaged up, we helped her up and she just stood there looking at us for minute. I held her on my lap for a few minutes until she drifted off to sleep and then I placed her in the recovery bay.

She had some special treatment. She joined us in the living room for our morning coffee the next day.

She had some unusually special treatment. She joined us in the living room for our morning coffee the next day, spending her time roosting on our shoulders and looking out at the view.

We kept her in the house, in the recovery box for 2 days and 2 nights. She removed her bandage as soon as we put it on every time, but she didn’t pick at her stitches. She slept for almost all of the first day and night and became more vocal on the second day. We fed her dishes of moistened chick starter (high in protein) which she enjoyed although it took her a long time to get through a tablespoon of it. On the morning of the third day, she was squawking and eager to get outside. As soon as I brought her outdoors, the other hens came running over to see her and seemed genuinely content to have her back.

On day 3 we put her out to flock with the girls. It was just like old times.

On day 3 we put her out to flock with the girls. It was just like old times.

 

We have kept a watchful eye on her and are so pleased to see her eating normally, flocking with the others and having no infection near the incision. Her crop has been flat in the mornings and smallish in the evenings, just as it should be.

Thing We Wish We Had Known

1) The surgery from start to end took about 1.5 hours – much, much longer than we anticipated. We were not trying to set any speed records, but it was a long time for us all to be under such stress.

2) It is possible to get anesthetics – either topical or injectable – and I wish we could have used something for her pain. But we did all of this with no freezing at all.

3) We were so busy with the intensity of the moment that we took no photos at all. It was helpful to see others’ photos and videos so that we knew what things would look like. It would have been good to share ours as well.

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Chip Chop – Impacted Crop (part #1)

This is me and Chip, our favourite hen.

A typical scene when you arrive at the Queendom - a chicken scritch in action!

A typical scene when you arrive at the Queendom – a chicken scritch in action!

She is social, affectionate and whiz-bang smart. She enjoys daily lap scritches and has been a consistent egg layer, giving us huge, double-pointed, dark brown eggs about 5 times a week. She is the ruler of the roost among our small flock and, in the absence of a rooster, has taken on all the duties of watching out for potential dangers and alerting all the others.

But in February, a lot of things with our flock went sideways. With the sudden death of Florentine, most of the hens went into a molt. Both Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum had minor molts, losing and then replacing their wing and shoulder feathers within 3 weeks. But Chip’s molt was slow and complete. First she lost all the fluffy feather down beneath her tail, giving her a truly bare ass. Next she lost her face and head feathers and then those on her chest. The molt went on and on for more than 8 weeks, during which we received no eggs. Her comb and wattles went pale – almost yellow – and she was too exhausted to hop up onto the deck to visit.

Once her molt seemed complete, her demeanor did not improve so we began looking for other issues. Sure enough, we found that her crop was enlarged to the size of a tennis ball and was very firm. In the mornings, when a crop should be an empty sack, her crop was smaller – more like a squash ball – and still very firm.

Chicken Digestion

The crop simply holds food before it enters the proventriculus / gizzard where digestion occurs. The crop is full after a chicken eats and empty when they haven’t eaten.

You can see her crop slightly bulging out here. Her comb and wattle colouring also show her level of sickness.

You can see her crop slightly bulging out here. Her comb and wattle colouring also show her level of sickness.

With some quick internet research, we began to try various home remedies:

Try feeding her bread soaked in olive oil and then gently massage the crop.

Chip is a strong-willed gal and there was no way that she would eat olive oil soaked bread. So I tried soaking it in canola oil instead which she did eat a little. I also encouraged her to drink lots of water and then I would massage her crop. I was able to soften her crop a little and it felt like I was breaking up clumps of solid fibers. We hoped that this massaging would allow whatever the blockage was to pass into her stomach/gizzard.

Her weight continued to drop and her listlessness became worse. She would hide under our cars or fall asleep when feed was offered. We could feel her keel bone (breast bone) becoming more and more sharp and prominent. We could even find her hip sockets! I finally called the local farm vet. The next day I brought her in so that the vet could show me the next home remedy:

Hold the hen upside down by the feet and vomit her. While she is inverted, massage her crop, like milking a cow, and she will bring up sour liquid and solids.

I sat back and watched in horror as Dr. Peter and Dr. Alicia demonstrated this technique. It was as awful as it sounds and it released a stinky, black liquid out of her mouth, but no solids.  They told me to try to vomit her at home a few times a day until her crop emptied.

I didn’t think that I could do such a thing to any living creature, but sure enough, FM and I vomited Chip a couple more times at home over the next few days. It felt brutal and mean but, more than that, it wasn’t changing the state of her crop. After about five attempts to vomit her, we decided it was doing more harm than good. Surprisingly, Chip maintained her docile, affectionate nature and would still come to see us whenever we were outdoors. Onto the next home remedy:

In extreme cases, the crop will require surgery to empty it of the contents and the object causing the blockage.

So … we had to decide if Chip’s case was extreme. Our choices were three-fold. 1) We could cull her and make her into the thinnest soup you ever tasted.  2) We could let her carry on with an impacted crop and she would slowly starve to death. 3) We could be pro-active and try to save this cherished member of our flock.

Stay tuned for the big reveal!

 

 

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Desperately Seeking Florentine

Imagine for a moment that you have a twin sister who is your inseparable bestie and together you share a loving Mum who keeps you warm, sheltered and fed. Now imagine that suddenly, without any explanation, Mum turns on both of you in anger, yells at you and makes it obvious that she wants nothing to do with either of you ever again.

As sad and surprising as this is, you manage to get by because you have your sister. Together, you venture into the big wide world to run, play and explore, all the while keeping a keen eye out for each other’s safety. Danger is everywhere, though, and one day you both witness your auntie get mauled and killed by a ferocious beast right before your eyes.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, imagine that this beloved sister suddenly falls ill with an unknown respiratory illness and dies within a week. Now you find yourself truly alone, on the bottom rung of society, trying to make sense of this new, lonely reality.

But each new day still arrives. Grieving and mourning are only possible when all other necessities are taken care of – eating, finding a quiet place to sleep and earning a living – even if your heart just isn’t into any of it.

Just when you think that you have hit rock-bottom, your fickle and moody Mum vanishes. Even though she kicked you out and called you names, she is still your mum and you still seek her affection – but now you can’t find her anywhere.

This is the life story of our 5 month old hen, Benedict. She has endured all of the above and more in her short life.

Poor Benedict has had more family tragedy in her short 5 month life than any of us could handle.

Poor Benedict has had more family tragedy in her short 5 month life than any of us could handle.

“But she’s just a chicken! Chickens don’t have feelings or emotions!”,

I can hear you say. But I challenge you to come out to the Queendom and observe her for a while. You will see that this is not personification on my part.

At least once day, Benedict becomes frantic and begins pacing. She starts to emit low and constant clucks. She runs to each of our out-buildings and stretches up high and crouches down low to look over and under things before moving on to the next place. She will go into the wood storage, then into the tractor bay and then into the trailer bay before running over to the garden shed to continue her search. She will circle the house and then the shop, clucking all the while. She will run into the coop and hop up into  a nesting box, pecking at all the corners then she will exit and hop into the other nesting box. Once the circuit is complete, she will begin again. There is no way to calm her or divert her quest – even scratch has little effect. Eventually she gets hungry or thirsty or simply loses interest for the time being.

When she discovered that Tweedle Mum had not vanished but simply has moved out and is living on her own, Benedict makes sure to visit her every day

When she discovered that Tweedle Mum had not vanished but simply moved out and is living on her own, Benedict makes sure to visit her every day, much to Tweedle Mum’s displeasure.

Another change is Benedict’s egg laying. She had been laying cute little brown eggs, too small for the egg carton. But as soon as Florentine died, she began laying shell-less eggs, double yolkers and even laying two eggs at a time.

Benedict laid these two shell-less eggs in the middle of the grass. They were separate eggs but joined with a delicate membrane.

Benedict laid these two shell-less eggs in the middle of the grass. They were separate eggs but joined with a delicate membrane.

Antoher single shell-less egg. This one was laid on the gravel driveway.

Another single shell-less egg. This one was laid on the gravel driveway.

"One of these things is not like the others"

“One of these things is not like the others”

Even upon discovering Tweedle Mum in the broody pen, Benedict continues her desperate search, so I can only conclude that she is looking for sweet Florentine. Watching her is heart-breaking. She is obviously searching for something or some-chick and is driven to distraction by her absence. I am completely sold on the fact that she is confused and grieving, filled with sadness and anxiety. If you allow yourself to believe that dogs form attachments to their families, is it such a stretch to think that chickens may do it too?

My thoughts today will only push me deeper into that “Crazy Chicken Lady” category but I am willing to take that risk.

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If You Can’t Beat ‘Em….

As reported in The Torture Chamber post, putting Tweedle Dum in isolation for a few days succeeded in getting her back into the routine of laying eggs and flocking with the others. But, one month later, she has become broody again. This hen is made to mother.

With our flock dropping down to an all-time low of 4 hens, it is as if she knows that we need a few more chickens running around.

With no rooster on the scene at the Queendom, FM called in on a work colleague and came home with six freshly laid, probably fertile eggs in a wide variety of colours.

These six eggs came from a farm with many breeds of chicken, resulting in the full rainbow of egg colours.

These six eggs came from a farm with many breeds of chicken, resulting in the full rainbow of egg colours. We may be so lucky.

The weather has warmed up significantly and it only drops slightly below freezing on some nights, so we are able to house Tweedle Mum and the eggs away from the other hens in the coop. To hatch a successful clutch, Tweedle Mum needs to feel safe and secure from predators and other chickens while she sits for the requisite 21 days.

Here she is immediately after we placed her in her new digs. She seems to approve of the dog crate housing.

Here she is immediately after we placed her in her new digs. She seems to approve of the dog crate housing.

The garden shed has once again become her broody pen but this time she is sitting in the lap of luxury inside a large dog crate, rather than under an upturned Costco vegetable box. Although we provide her with both food and water close at hand, she gets up only once each week to eat, drink, poop and preen. I check on her a few times a day and sometimes bring her a fresh garden salad of clover which she eats hungrily. The rest of the time she sits, flattening herself as much as possible to cover all of the eggs.

Tweedle Mum is our smallest bird and it is quite a stretch for her to cover all six eggs. Her wings need to be partly opened and her chest flattened below her.

This photo was taken on day 8.  Tweedle Mum is our smallest bird and it is quite a stretch for her to cover all six eggs. Her wings need to be partly opened and her chest flattened below her.

We couldn’t break this girl so now she gets her way. Go for it, Mum! Our hopes are high and we are trying to come up with 6 more egg-dish names!

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