It was an evening like any other. I went to work, pulled an 8.5 hour shift of sprinting around with a giant metal cart, made the 30 minute drive home… on that drive my muscles have a chance to rest…everything stiffens; the perpetual motion has finally stopped and the aching sets in. I knew it would be agony to stand and walk following the thirty minute drive home and mentally, i wasn’t ready to do it. So i did like i do sometimes and took a moment at the gate. I probably spent 12 to 15 minutes sitting at the gate. I was on the phone. I told myself i would finish my phone call and then get out of the car to go open the gate. However, it was more about my not wanting to face the physicality of the chores that had to be done before nightfall than it was about being on the phone. I wrapped up my phone call and forced myself to get out of the car. I stumbled up to the gate and unchained it. I pulled the car through and put the chain back on. The first thing i did after parking the car was to feed and let the dogs out. The second thing i did was bring feed to the chickens.
I walked into the pen and two chickens greeted me but they did not seem interested in the pitcher of feed i had. They were a bit standoffish and ran around the side of the coop when i tried to pet them. When i unlatched the door to the coop i first noticed a chicken sitting in the nesting box by the window, looking at me. My eyes then fell on the lump lying in the shavings. On the floor of the coop was a dead chicken. I knew immediately that she was dead. Her comb was purple instead of red and her skin was pale. Her visible eye was closed. People have told me not to touch my chickens without gloves and certainly people have given me a tongue lashing for touching a dead chicken without gloves, so i don’t recommend that anyone do what i did. However, in that situation, i wasn’t thinking; dead chicken. Those chickens are family to me. I raised each one from a tiny chick. They each have personalities and quirks and they do show affection and attachment. They will run to you when they hear your voice, sit in your lap, and nuzzle their heads against your shirt while making a sort of purring noise if purring were mixed with a vocalization. In this moment i was overcome with devastation and i wanted desperately to know who it was. I wanted desperately to understand the severity of the situation. Who had i lost? With ringing in my ears i returned to the pen and had a look at the two chickens who were standing in the pen. I recognized Rosie’s signature crooked feet. It wasn’t Rosie who was dead on the floor of the coop. My stomach opened up; Daisy, where’s Daisy?! I searched desperately for her floppy comb but the other chickens in the pen had combs that stood up. I ducked back into the coop and turned to the chicken in the nesting box. There was Daisy’s signature floppy comb, turned over on itself and dangling down the side of her head. Oh thank God! It wasn’t Daisy on the floor. Who was dead? Who was on the floor? And why…how? Daisy looked at me from the nesting box, followed my every movement with her eyes, but made no attempt to get up. It was eerily quiet in the chicken pen. Nobody squawked. Nobody clucked. I examined the carcass. I didn’t understand. I knew chickens to be cannibals. I knew they would eat any chicken that appeared to be dead or injured. Yet, the carcass was fully intact and untouched. Pristine shiny buff colored feathers. She looked like she was sleeping. Her feathers were so beautiful, it looked like i could just stroke her and she’d get disturbed and stand up. Her purple comb told me she was dead but her beautiful untouched shiny buff feathers with the cream colored ones shuffled in tricked my brain into thinking i was seeing something that was alive. She hadn’t been picked at. She wasn’t bloody. She wasn’t skin and bones. My heart ached as my brain toyed with the possibility that she would just stand up at any minute and walk about the pen. I knew on some level that was not going to happen, but she was still so pretty. She was so pretty, lying there with all her beautiful cream and buff feathers. She looked just like her sisters, with the exception of her comb and her slightly pale skin about her head. My instinct was to just get her out of there. I had to get her out of there, as soon as possible. Daisy was watching me closely from the nesting box. It was uncharacteristic for any of the chickens to be in the nesting boxes at this time in the afternoon. It was not close enough to sundown for them to be roosting and it was late enough in the day that all eggs would have been laid already. I recognized that Daisy had sat nearby and kept her sister company up until the point of death. That was also very uncharacteristic for a chicken. They typically have an urge to kill anything that seems weak or hobbled. I was astonished she hadn’t disturbed the corpse or made an attempt at eating her. I could tell the chickens knew their sister had passed. They were being unusually quiet, standoffish, and not interested in food. I wasn’t sure what they made of the death. I just wanted to get her out of there, away from my remaining live chickens. I didn’t want to traumatize them any further and i didn’t want to give them a chance to rethink cannibalism. I grabbed her tail feathers and lifted her body from the floor of the coop. In that instant i realized why none of the other chickens had eaten her. She had just died, literally while i sat in the car finishing my phone call at the gate. Her body was not warm but it was not yet cold either. Her comb was purple but her body and neck were still limber. It was not stiff yet, and the chicken’s bowels had not yet released. This chicken had not been dead for 10 minutes. As i carried it from the pen the other chickens ran around the side of the coop and hid. Daisy remained in the nesting box in the coop. While i walked the deceased chicken’s head flopped this way and that. This broke my heart to pieces. It reiterated the timing of her death. If i had gotten out of the car instead of procrastinating because i was sore and i didn’t want to open the gate, i would have happened upon her when she was still alive. I could have helped her, or at least held her while she died. Instead she died alone sitting on the floor of the coop. This traumatized me in a way that altered my behavior. I never again sat at the gate upon arriving home unless i could count all 4 chickens present and upright in the pen. If i couldn’t see them all, i went immediately in and found the ones that were hidden from my view. The first thing i would do upon arriving home from then on was check on the chickens.
Her little feet were curled beneath her but her neck flopped about in such a limber way. My brain would not comprehend that she was dead. I knew a dead animal to behave in a different way and so my brain did not compute. I sat in the yard looking at her. I had laid her in the grass in front of the house. I checked for wounds or bite marks and found none. There were no signs of a struggle or a fight. She was in pristine whole condition. Her pretty feathers ruffled in the wind. After a few minutes her body began to stiffen. Her neck was less flexible. My brain was willing to believe it now. This animal was dead. I stood and began to think about what was next. Dig a grave? I went to the shed and retrieved the shovel. My mind raced over the layout of the property. Where to dig? Where should i put her? I was overcome with grief and physically doubled over at the thought of burying her. It somehow made it final that she was gone, the thought of putting her into the ground. I couldn’t do it. Her feathers were so shiny and beautiful and well kept. How could she be gone? I kept having to check and confirm again that her comb was purple and body still stiffening. She was just so beautiful. I thought, for sure she was just sleeping, silly thing, this is all a big mistake and she’s gonna get up and run about the yard now, any minute. Her body continued to stiffen and the progression of it scared me. I wanted it to stop. I wanted to rewind and alter reality. I wanted a different outcome. It had been a record-breaking rainy year. The chicken pen had been poopy slush for most of the year. I hadn’t visited them for cuddles as often as i used to simply because no one wants chickens to roost on their legs and sit in their laps when their feet have been trudging through muddy poop slush all day. I only let them sit on me when the dirt was dry in their pen. Otherwise they would paint my pants legs with poopy chicken tracks. I had been neglecting them because of the weather, and now one was dead. It was either Lily, Petunia, or Buttercup. I was lucky it was not one of my two favorites but i was heartbroken to lose any of them. In the end, i put her in a bag and placed her in the freezer. I threw all the compost material i had been keeping in there on the pile to make room for her. I just couldn’t put her in the ground. I wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t ready for the death of this chicken to be real, so she went in the freezer. The dogs watched me do it with interest. They seemed to sense something was going on. I put them in the dog run for the remainder of the day while i ran through the possibilities. Had she succumbed to heat stroke, gotten bit by a poisonous snake, a spider? I combed the pen and coop for signs of a predatory intruder. I looked up every spider i found. They were all harmless, though some of them an impressive size. I mourned the loss of one of my feathered children, but beyond that, i had lost a resource. I used eggs to barter and to repay debts. I used them often in trade. I had three people that i was regularly supplying with eggs and four chickens meant nobody was going to be getting a full dozen. I was now kicking myself for rehoming Ellis and Oakley.
i waited for the chickens behavior to return to normal before deciding who it was that had died. Nobody was circling around behind me, pulling my apron strings, and pecking at the backs of my legs. This meant that the chicken who had died was Buttercup. She was the only chicken of the flock that committed this behavior. I was eternally perturbed about it. She was notorious for sneak attack pecking. She had been the rooster’s only friend and the day i killed him she watched the whole fight that led up to his death. The pecking behavior started shortly afterwards. I always figured she held it against me for ending her friend, but she had her moments where she would come in for a cuddle with the rest of them. She wasn’t evil, just ornery. Secretly, and maybe this is evil, i had hoped it was Buttercup. I tolerated Buttercup but i loved the others genuinely. The others were very bonded to me. Buttercup was the chicken that it would have hurt the least to lose. So God took my chicken, but he took the one i was least bonded with. I was thankful for that. I said a little prayer that she rest in heaven with the angels and God welcome her with open arms and that she have free range of a grass field with no hawks, coons, or foxes and all the bugs and melon rinds she could dream of. So, Buttercup left us. I was haunted by the fact that i did not know what killed her. I drove myself crazy trying to figure it out. I spent a lot of time in the chicken pen investigating and mulling over theories. I had to entertain that it could have been anything, in order to keep the others from sharing in her fate. I threw out all the old shavings and started new. I got rid of their old water container, got them a brand new one, and placed it on top of an extra large breed dog bowl turned upside down. This elevated the water dispenser so that when they kicked dirt and poop up with their feet scratching for bugs, it was less likely to land directly in their water supply. I refused to use rain water any longer and gave them only filtered well water, worried that bacteria might have grown in the sitting rain water i stored in toy boxes on the property. I began leaving the door off the chicken coop at night, worried the ammonia from their waste might be collecting in the coop and what if it was not properly escaping through the ventilation? What if i was trapping them in their with toxic fumes? I didn’t get my answer about what had killed Buttercup until a week later. It had been raining a lot, like for months. The pen was very muddy. The chickens appeared to have globs of mud on their faces. I didn’t think much of it, until i tried to wipe one off. It wasn’t mud. They were scabs of dried blood on their beaks and faces. I knew immediately that this was not a coincidence. The flock was plagued with something and Buttercup had died of it. I had to figure out what it was!
After researching, i was pretty sure the chickens had fowl pox. This was confirmed when the chickens developed bloody sores that scabbed over on their faces, the edges of their beaks, and their combs, had swollen bumpy areas on their legs, and then developed little oval shaped yellow mucusy spots on the insides of their beaks….made visible when they panted in the summer heat. All the reading i had done on fowl pox stated there was no treatment. There was a vaccine that could be given as a preventative measure but there was no known treatment for it once the chickens were infected. If a chicken survived fowl pox they could never again in their life become infected with it. However, survival was not guaranteed. It was transmitted via mosquito, which we had a lot of due to all the rains. Then any chicken who drank the same water the infected chicken did could contract it. There was wet fowl pox and dry fowl pox. You wanted your chicken to have dry fowl pox as it became massively more deadly when it shifted to wet fowl pox as the chicken could end up with pneumonia and die of respiratory distress with mucusy oozing sores all through its airway. The only known way of combatting fowl pox was to keep the chickens environment dry and not moist, keep the chickens calm, and give them extra vitamins to boost their immune system.
I stopped putting the door on the chicken coop at night. I had buried the wire fencing of the pen under the ground and it did have a roof so they were somewhat protected. I left the door open so a cross breeze blew through the coop at night, keeping the shavings from getting stale and humid each time it rained. I made sure to give the chickens organic vegetables every day, even if i didnt have any scraps, i would just give them something i had intended to eat myself, for the sake of them having the vitamin content of fresh food daily. I put on old clothes and squatted in the muddy poopy chicken pen daily for a cuddle session to keep the chickens calm. They each hopped up on my legs and nuzzled their heads in my shirt, sighing and making purring noises, relaxing their heads and leaning them on my arms. I was not going to give up on them. I prayed every day and i kept up all the measures i had put in place to get them well. i hoped with all my might, that they wouldn’t let this thing get the best of them. It was heartbreaking to watch them break out in sores, knowing i couldn’t do anything to stop the progression. Sometimes the sores would fall off and then the chicken would be bloody until a new scab formed. I watched as all my chickens began developing sores inside their mouths. I watched as they tolerated the heat less and less and seemed to be working harder and harder to breathe. Their legs became raised and swollen. Their combs were gnarly and scabbed. I furiously shoveled organic foods their way, especially kale stems, carrot greens, and whole sweet potatoes. If i was cooking i would almost be purposefully careless when chopping the vegetables and if anything fell off the cutting board for even a second it went to the chickens. If they were looking especially bad i would just go into the refrigerator and get the greenest vegetable i had and put it in the chicken pen. Twice i gave them two whole stalks of broccoli. It meant i wouldn’t be eating the broccoli. I would be eating rice and beans when i gave them my greenery, but i didn’t care. I just wanted my chickens not to die.
During this time my friend started talking about getting her friend to bring Oakley and Ellis back. I told her that was mean and i couldn’t ask for the chickens back. What was done was done and they were her chickens regardless of what was going on at my house. She said we could just ask her what she thought about the idea…that her chickens had still not accepted the two little ones into the flock and so they were not assimilated yet. I decided she could ask as long as she let her know that i’d be fine with it if she wanted to keep them. She said that i could have them back if i wanted. So, the decision was made to bring Ellis and Oakley back to the homestead. I realized that this was a huge kindness on the part of Cindy’s friend, as she had spent a lot of time and effort trying to get her flock to accept the two little chickens and here i was rendering the effort all for nothing. So i told her that her kindness would not be forgotten and that each time i harvested resources from the land like agarita berries or sumac, i would prepare her a portion of the harvest and leave it at Cindy’s house for her to pick up at her next weekly visit. This was important to me. She was giving me a valuable resource and i wanted to make her whole and have the effort she spent be worth while. To start over hand-raising and socializing chicks would be a time consuming and horribly long and hard process. These chicks were already hand raised. Half the work had been done. A lot of effort goes into making them social like dogs. They don’t come out of the egg like that. You have to put the effort in.
Obviously, my flock was infected with fowl pox. I couldn’t have Ellis and Oakley outside with them. So, i dragged the cattle water tank back into the house and filled it with shavings. Ellis and Oakley would have to live in the house until winter. I had to make sure they did not become infected and it would be when they’d be transitioning to adult feed anyways so it would be a good time to try to put them in the pen outside with the others who would be presumably healthy by then.
I was surprised when i picked up Ellis and Oakley. Of course they were bigger than i remembered them but beyond that their temperaments had changed. They were both very jumpy and standoffish. Oakley had become somewhat aggressive. Ellis, the sweeter of the two chicks, had obviously gone the other way. The chickens of the flock they had tried to join had pecked a huge hole in her head. She was missing a good chunk of her scalp and i was pretty sure i was staring at her skull. I could see massive scarring where it had tried to heal repeatedly and then probably been pecked open again. Let me just say that this was in no way neglect. Chickens will do this to any new members. They’re not for assimilation. My chickens will probably attempt something similar when the time comes. I have a long road ahead if i want to unify all the chickens as one flock. It’s not a given. As Oakley becomes more assertive i have to decide whether i’m willing to risk Rosie and Daisy’s lives to try to incorporate Ellis and Oakley into the flock. Ellis would not attempt to kill Rosie and Daisy but without Oakley as her ally, assimilating Ellis on her own would almost certainly be a death sentence for her. I decided to get all the chickens healed and healthy and then start putting Ellis and Oakley outside for field trips in the chicken tractor next to the main pen where the chickens could see each other but not touch. I’d judge from there what should be done based on their behavior towards one another. It took me nearly two weeks to get Ellis’ head to heal. I put blue goo on it so that Oakley could not see the red of the tissue and dried blood and want to peck at it. The rubbery substance acted as a scab and new skin formed underneath. Ellis continually thwarted my efforts by scratching her head open vigorously with her claws. I imagined it was itching as it attempted to heal. Eventually it did heal and i could no longer see her skull. The skin is stretched and twisted there. No feathers grow on one side of her head and neck. My boss and coworkers suggested names like baldy and cueball. I ended up naming her Ellis with the nickname of “Resi” for resilient. My boss commented that my name choice was much kinder than anything they were suggesting but that was probably because i viewed these animals as family members beyond resources and i wanted her to have a proper name that she could respect. It took me a few weeks to get them to stop screaming like banshees. These two chickens had clearly been in the fight of their lives, continually battling a flock that wanted to peck them to death. If anything in the house moved or even made noise, these two chickens would fly in every direction and scream like dying animals. It was very loud and very difficult to sleep. I knew i had to exercise patience with them. They had been through a trauma and it was my fault. I had given them to someone who had a large flock. The ratio of old birds to new birds was not great for assimilation. I hadn’t properly thought about what would happen. I now had to deal with the consequences of my actions. I sung to the birds. I spoke to them in a quiet soothing voice. I would engage in socialization sessions where i would pick them up and hold them for a period of time. They would scream the whole time but the goal was that eventually they would realize nothing bad had happened to them and stop fearing all human contact. Neither chicken seemed to remember me or my voice at all. They were different animals now. We were starting over at square one. I had to accept that Ellis and Oakley would probably never be bonded to me in the same way that my four adult chickens were. Oh well.
Once they felt safe i had a new problem. Oakley became quite aggressive and pecked me any time i changed their water or food dispensers. She pecked to draw blood and scratched hard with her feet. At some point my patience ran out with her. I realized they had been through something traumatizing but this was my house and i wasn’t going to have an animal that was actively trying to kill me under my roof, while i fed and watered her so she could try to kill me some more. There were rules. Mainly, don’t bite the hand that feeds you. She grabbed the skin on the back of my hand in her beak and thrashed her head about, twisting my skin in her beak. I took the plastic spoon i was holding to scoop the shavings from her water tray and shoved her. She looked astonished. From then on, whenever she flew at me, beak open and claws ready, i gave her a shove. I would place my open hand on her chest and shove her hard to the back of the enclosure. I wasn’t going to stand for this kind of behavior any longer. She could change her ways or go live at the feed store as breeding stock. That was that. After a few days she just stopped. She left me alone when i entered the enclosure to change their food and water and didnt fuss much when i insisted upon petting them. Every once in a while she would get a bee in her bonnet and decide to challenge me but if i gave her a shove she would back down and behave for four or five days. I filed this behavior away as noted information. Oakley was a dominant chicken. She would really shake up the hierarchy of my current group. She would not sit quietly beneath Daisy and Rosie. She would want to be top dog. This meant that i was not sure i wanted to assimilate Oakley into the flock. There’s still a good possibility that she may end up breeding stock at the feed store. If that happens, it happens. The question is, what is to happen with Ellis? Can i assimilate her without Oakley? Will Oakley get herself together by winter? Or will Ellis have to go back to the feed store by default, even though she has a wonderful temperament, simply because the chickens of my flock would take her apart as a lone addition without Oakley to guard her? Only time will tell.
While the baby chickens progressed inside the house the adult chickens were getting well outside the house. At one point Daisy lost a lot of weight, was making concerning poops, and appeared to be in respiratory distress. I thought i might lose her, but she pulled through. Pretty much all the sores have fallen off the chickens at this point and the raised bumpy areas on their legs have gone down. They seem to have all pulled through. I am hopeful for the future. We will see what i can do to bring these chickens together. Only God can know the outcome.