This has not been a great weekend and before anyone sends me any jeering email or criticizes how we spend the precious little money we have or before anyone decides to use this incident to point out how Fred and I just do not have what it takes to run even a small backyard farm, I just want you to know you cannot say anything to us that we have not already beat ourselves up with. I assure you that my paternal grandmother is probably rolling over in her grave at what she would consider; yesterday’s frivolous waste of what probably should have been the car insurance money. Whatever, my only defense is this: our flock of half a dozen laying birds are pets. To our family they are actually more than pets, they represent our small successes our struggles and our fervent desire to thrive and be self sustaining. That being said I know that what we did will be a onetime frivolity and that next time we will have to “man-up” and do the more fiscally responsible thing.
As everyone who follows this blog knows; the last few weeks have been disappointing at best. We found our honey supers to be empty, we found fifteen of our eggs ruined under the pine tree and in turn we learned that our hens had decided the nesting box was no longer to their liking. Well we can add yesterday’s horror to the list of failures and disappointments.
Helga, my favorite little underdog of the chicken world, has recently begun to lay her first eggs. They have been a mismatched assortment of different sizes and different numbers of yolks. She left them in different nests and under multiple trees. It was kind of funny if not frustrating although after yesterday’s incident it takes on a much more sinister tone. At least now I think I realize why she was so desperate to hide her eggs.
Last week one of the things that prompted Fred to believe Helga may have begun to lay was when she showed up one afternoon to beg at the kitchen door with a small bloody spot on the back of her head. Fred thought if she had begun to lay momma might feel threatened and probably gave her a sound peck at some point. We doctored the little eighth-of–an-inch wound with peroxide and kept an eye on it. It scabbed over nicely and began to heal we assumed this was the end of it. Chickens can sometimes be mean, especially a dominate hen like Momma, especially to each other. I did not worry too much about it, I figured Helga had just got her head in the way of something Mama wanted to eat and Mama had too soundly made her point. I did not know just how wrong I was.
At this juncture, we were still dealing with the problem of finding eggs all over the back yard. We had to do something to get the hens to once again lay in the nesting box. I read a lot of information on the internet and referenced my Encyclopedia of Country Living looking for ways to break the hens of leaving eggs under every tree. Some of the methods were extreme and cruel. Some called for things like housing a hen that refused to lay in the nest box without food or water until she produced an egg in the proper location. This is arcane and wicked. Yes God gave us these animals to use but NOT to abuse.
We chose a less Natzi-esque method of breaking our girls and decided to leave them in the coop every day until early afternoon. We cleaned the coop well and put decoys in each of the nesting boxes to give our girls the right idea. Now, remember, these girls are used to being let out of the confines of their chicken yard as the sun begins to crest the horizon. One seriously would have thought I was individually pulling out their toenails with tweezers they way they fussed through the first couple of mornings of confinement.
“Tough”, I though, “you girls can just sit there until you put those eggs where they belong,” and for a couple of days it worked. Both Friday and Saturday found new warm eggs in the nest boxes before noon, so I would let everyone out and praise them and give them treats. Now, mind you, I continued to feed and water them and give them treats in the yard of the coop I just did not let them out to free-range the back yard until after the eggs were in the nest box. I thought I had hit upon a good compromise and I was once again getting two or three eggs a day. I do not know if this is important or not but I will note it here anyway: both laying hens (Helga and Momma, the RIRs) continued to use only one nesting box even though I clean both and put equal amounts of sweet straw and decoys in each.
Also, I think it is important to realize that our coop is spacious and large with a good sized yard (more square footage than necessary per chicken) and two nesting boxes for six chickens only two of which are actually mature enough to lay. In theory and according to everything I had read this should be ample space in which to raise the chickens in total confinement. But, like I have said before, these girls are our pets, we want them to be happy as much as we want their eggs and we enjoy having them free-range through our back yard.
I though all was good. I thought we had solved our problem of the wandering eggs. I had just begun to think about how long I would need to keep them confined each day before they realized that if they would just return and put their eggs in the nesting box I would again let them out at dawn. I was actually wresting with this Pavlovian conundrum driving home from church Sunday morning when I got back into cell service and found I had both a voicemail and a text from Fred. He had stayed home from church.
The voice mail told me to stop at the dollar store and get cat food and Bactine. The text just said BACTINE in all capital letters. I sighed figuring Fred or Sarah had stubbed a toe or some such nonsense and, instead of walking the quarter mile to the dollar store, was insistent that I make a special trip to get it. I will not lie, I was considering ignoring the voice mail and cruising past the dollar store. It had not been the best morning and I was actually considering not going home at all and treating myself to an afternoon movie. Fred and Sarah were both home, I figured for one afternoon they could take care of themselves. About the time I was contemplating these selfish thoughts my phone rang and it was Fred again;
“Where are you?” he said.
“I’m crossing the Big Chimney bridge. I’m almost home, I’ll stop at the dollar store.” I said as my afternoon of indulgences dissolved in the mist.
“Never mind, I’m at the dollar store now,” he said, “Just get home quickly.”
“What is wrong?!” at this point his tone and urgency had me worried,” Are you hurt?”
“No. I can’t tell you now, I will tell you at home. I have to get off here and get what I need.” He urged.
“Ok.” And we hung up.
As you can imagine at this point I am panicked and my mind began to swim with any number of atrocities, but how much could you really fix with a bottle of Bactine I wondered? I consoled myself with the thought that surely if he or Sarah or one of my animals was hurt that badly they would already be at the doctor, right? Wrong. Even so, I raced home driving 119 like a woman possessed I tore into the driveway throwing gravel into the yard and raced up the front steps banging into the house.
“Sarah!!” I screamed. She answered in a typical teenage nonchalance. I got a half hearted “yeah?” from the directions of the living room/her bedroom area. I asked what was wrong and why daddy was so desperate for Bactine? Was she hurt? Was daddy hurt? She muttered something about no, but one of the chickens had pecked another one.
I raced out the back door barely shutting it in my haste, but I thought: oh good grief Fred has worked himself into a panic over a few missing feathers or something. I called for my flock and they all came barreling out of the underbrush except for Helga, who often tottered in last, but is by far the most lovable of the bunch. As they closed in I looked closely at each one for marks of missing feathers. Everyone seemed fine and then Helga approached. She was walking more slowly than the others and as she got close I saw there was blood running from her head. She staggered a little and made very little noise as I bent down to pick her up.
As I knelt and gathered her in my arms she did not struggle or fuss, she seemed glad of the security and warmth of being held and snuggled down tight under my arm. I looked at the bloody mass of feathers matted to her head and began to examine the wound. From behind the right side of her comb, crossing her scalp and reaching up almost to the vent on the left side of her head her skin had been viciously torn and her skull degloved, scalped. Blood and tissue and bone were clearly visible. I do not really know what Fred thought we would do with a bottle of Bactine and quite frankly I thought I was holding a dying chicken. Fred pulled into the driveway as I was standing their clutching Helga to my chest. She lay still against me only making the occasional clucking-coo.
Fred got out of the truck and asked what I thought we should do. I told him we were not going to fix this with Bactine, I told him that I was not sure it could be fixed at all, and it certainly would not be repaired without sutures. He nodded his head and asked what we should do? I knew what we should do. I knew the merciful thing to do would be to put my hands around her little head and break her neck, thus ending what was surely excruciating pain and not incurring any additional expense over a chicken which, after all, was free.
I also knew I could not do it. Helga, named after my mom’s nickname and by my mom herself, was by far my favorite of the flock, an odd and loving bird who very much liked people, liked to be petted and held, and enjoyed socializing on the porch steps with me in the afternoons. This is my bird who talked the most, who ate from the wildbird feeders and who generally had personality plus. I could not snap her neck anymore than I could walk back in the house and snap the neck of one of my cats or Louie. Now what?
Yep, emergency vet.
It was Sunday afternoon, no veterinarian was open and our only option was to take her to South Charleston to the emergency clinic, that necessary vice of every loving pet owner. I do not know about you, but the thought of having to go down there makes me sick to my stomach. Number one: it is never good, anyone who is there is in a pet crisis of some sort and number two: you can rest assured that it will drain your bank account. Stepping through the locked doors requires you to sign away almost a hundred dollars just for an exam. But , like most other pet owners, I am so thankful they are there. In the night or on the weekends with a sick animal that is more child than pet where else would you turn? I am grateful they provide such a necessary service to stand in the gap of regular care.
We packed Helga into the cat carrier and loaded ourselves into the car for the seemingly endless journey to South Charleston. In hindsight I look back and am thankful for my training in the fire service and EMT fields which does not allow me to instantaneously get sick or panic at a sight as gruesome as poor Helga’s head. I had kept my cool and my resolve until I was sitting in the car with a cat carrier on my lap and a pitiful hurt scared little chicken trying to coo at me and rub my fingers through the bars. I lost it, it was as if she were trying to comfort me.
I put my head down on the carrier and let my guilt and anguish over her suffering run down my face in tears. If I had not kept them in the coop would Mama still have pecked her so cruelly? I know this is probably funny to some of you. I know the thought of a grown woman who has dragged dead bodies out from behind toilets, who has responded to mutilating car accidents, who has been covered in vomit and other bodily fluids sobbing over a chicken who most people would consider dinner must be hysterical. To me it was not.
We arrived at the Emergency vet where a tech took my carrier to the back but explained that they do not treat “exotics” I kept my smarmy tongue in check because I really wanted to scream at her, “just what in you-know-where is exotic about a stinking domestic chicken, it is not a parrot.” But I knew it was not her fault and more importantly I knew I desperately needed these people’s help if Helga was going to live to see tomorrow. I bit my tongue and I guess the anguish on my face made her feel a little more compassionate towards me. She told me that we were lucky, the vet in attendance today had formerly practiced in a clinic where birds and some farm animals were treated and that if they had the proper antibiotics that she would treat Helga. I thanked her and collapsed onto the bench beside Fred.
I could tell the staff of the clinic thought we were nuts. They had probably all just had chicken for lunch and, since they work their every day, they know the expense entailed in a visit to the clinic. I am sure they were wondering what kind of eccentric rich morons would bring a chicken almost thirty miles for an emergency visit. But they kindly did not utter these thoughts they merely took Helga back for the vet to examine. The vet joined us several minutes later and told us again that she did not normal treat birds but that in the past she did have some experience. She was willing to treat Helga and she said she realized from her initial exam that Helga was oddly social and affectionate for a chicken, she said she had never really seen chickens behave like that.
I tearfully explained that she was a pet. Fred went on to tell her that we had recently begun our homesteading endeavors and that we were very attached to our birds. We consider them pets with benefits not just a source of food. She agreed and said that she understood and in her former practice she always enjoyed dealing with the small homestead farmers who treated all their animals with dignity and respect. She said she admired people who take good care of their animals and it was always a much better experience to treat an animal that was loved and well tended than it was to treat one that lived it’s life treated like an inanimate object.
Then she gave us the estimate on Helga’s care. Needless to say you can safely assume it was staggering and we will be feeling the economic effect of it for a while. We signed off on the estimate and she said it would be a while if we wanted to go out and grab a bite to eat or walk around we should. I chose to sit in the waiting room. I know that technically me sitting there praying for a chicken is probably an extremely absurd activity but that is what I did. Fred and Sarah went down the street to get something to drink and then promptly came back to sit the vigil with me.
While we sat there we were privy to the suffering of another small family when three generations waiting stoically for their cat to be put to sleep and then waited again, with tear stained faces, to receive the body of their smallest family member in an undignified cardboard coffin. My heart went out to them but I had very little emotional resource left for empathy. I put my head down on my lap and worried selfishly about my own chicken. I did send up a quick prayer on their behalf but I probably should have offered some words of comfort. I was not in a mental state to comfort anyone.
After several hours in the emergency clinic with eyes swollen, head throbbing and general exhaustion and anxiety taking over my body, the vet techs came out to announce that Helga had done quite well through surgery and that we would soon be able to take her home. I was relieved, although until I actually had my chicken I was not entirely sure of her outcome. Each of the technicians working in the clinic came out in turn to tell us what an interesting and strange bird Helga was. One tech, who raised chickens of her own, said she had never in her life seen a chicken that actually liked to be cuddled and petted. See, I told you Helga was worth saving.
Ok, I know that many of you still may not agree but whatever. Come next pay day when Fred is sick of eating eggs and pinto beans he may too agree that it was not a wise investment. What is done is done and now we once again have a chicken living in our master bathroom. They had to pluck most of the feathers from her head and neck to debrade the wound and to make room for the sutures. She looks distinctly like a guy I saw once who had fallen from a bridge and had his scalp degloved in the process. He had a long scar that went ear to ear and when he turned to the side he had a strange indentation that ran the length of the scar across his head.
Helga will have to live in our bathroom for the next ten to fourteen days until her stitches come out but the good news is, although a little worse for wear with a splitting headache and what promises to be an ugly scar, she should make a full recovery. I can tell you that she is very unhappy with our attempts to give her the necessary antibiotics she is also extremely unhappy with her confinement to a large dog kennel. Fred built her a short perch last night so at least she was able to sleep in relative comfort. I have bombarded her with treats all morning trying to make sure she is as happy as possible. She does not seem to be as bothered by the stitches today as she was last night so hopefully her pain is minimal.
I know that what we did was frivolous and probably not a good decision from a farming stand point. I know that the money we spent to save the life of one laying hen would have bought us countless new ones. I also know that money could have bought us the two nanny goats we want in the spring, or repaired the fireplace that must be fixed before winter, or even have paid for groceries and take out for several weeks, but what I also know is that killing Helga or worse, letting her die of infection and pain would have killed the little bit of hope that is sometimes all that keeps this little homestead running.
I know that in the eyes of many we will be judged and found wanting but I know that as a family unit we did the right thing and yes we consider those birds part of this family unit. I know in the years that follow, and with the many chickens and other forms of livestock that will follow Helga, we will have to grow a tougher skin. I know there will be loss and death and pain and suffering to temper the joy and pleasure and success of our endeavor but yesterday in Helga’s tiny little beating heart and shinny little chicken eyes rested the hope and all that we hold dear in our grasp towards green. I think to have sacrificed her would have killed a part of the spirit of what we are striving towards and ultimately may have been the chink that brought down our dam.
What I do know is that we have patched one more hole in that dam of loss, and although we may not have had the best first year so far, we have made it through. We have made improvements in our lifestyle and we have improved our small patch of earth and we continue, with God’s grace, to push forward. Now we have a scar headed hen as a mascot for our homestead and as an ever present reminder of what is worth the sacrifice of one family may not be worth a ninety-nine cent meal to another. I think that Helga and her story will far out last the meager life span of a chicken. I think she will live on in family lore and hopefully her story will always remind us that sometimes kindness and compassion are worth more than we think especially if they buy you a little more hope.
I was to start my Master Gardener’s course this evening. The money we spent yesterday would have partially been used to pay my class fee. The class fee is supposed to cover the book materials. I was able to obtain a book used from one of my fellow beekeepers who completed the course last year. I put a call in this morning to the extension office to see if I would still have to pay the class fee. If so then the class will probably have to wait till next go round. I will be disappointed but it is worth it to listen to Helga fussing in my bathroom as I type.
Thank you for reading,
Much love (and less judgment),