Over several years, our chicken yard has been smashed down into dust. It’s nothing but dirt. On the other side, however, just a few cinder blocks away, is towering, lush greens that our chickens would love to have a peck at. I could mow, but that would be a waste of food for our fine feathered (or de-feathered, as the case may be) friends.
Instead, my girls and I have started letting them out to dine on delectable delicacies of the vegetarian kind. Every evening after supper, we let the ladies (and resident roo) into God’s restaurant. It’s fun watching them and trying to keep them contained. So tonight, we eagerly headed out, just like we’ve done every day for the past week.
But it wasn’t like every other day.
A Wounded Hen
“Mom, mom! I think there’s something wrong with one of our hens!” Justice comes running back in as I’m getting the Kaye’s shoes on.
“She’s laying down in front of the door, blocking it, and won’t move.”
I get out to the chicken yard and one of our beautiful Rhode Island hens is laying on her side, eyes closed, breathing heavily. She’s blocking the door, so I have to gently push the door a few times to get her far enough out of the way that I can open it. As soon as I pick her up, I can tell that something is terribly wrong.
I don’t know how to describe the feeling in my hands. Sort of like a stress ball that’s been squeezed too much. The right underside of our Rhode is soft and swollen where a firm thigh should be. I put her down, hoping she was just wallowing in the dirt as they do sometimes, but she puts no weight on her legs and just folds back down.
She looks so bad. I’m thinking, “She’s dying. She’s going to just lay right there and die.” Justice has run into the house to get my parents. I show my dad this almost lifeless bird. “She’s dying, dad. I can’t tell what’s wrong, but she’s very sick.” The little hen’s head is hanging down, her eyes are closed, her breath is labored.
I put her down out in the grass where the other hens are eating. Her comb is dark purple instead of the healthy bright read it’s supposed to be. I stare down at her, trying to think of anything that I’ve read that might explain what’s going on. As I reach down to pet her and maybe give her some comfort, and notice that some of her feathers look wet. Moving them aside, I realize that she has what looks like a huge gaping hole in her right side.
Instantly, I know what that unnatural softness on her underside is. Infection. I also know that she’s dying. There’s nothing I can do. Justice runs inside sobbing about how she doesn’t want to watch her die.
As I pet her and look closer at the wound, I find a few others and another realization hits me. This is my fault. I guess I said it out loud, because Mom tells me how ridiculous that is. But I know. Looking at those wounds, I know that they were caused by a rooster. Not only that, but the wounds are bad enough that I know they were caused by the very roosters I was so torn up about a few days ago.
Guilt. Nerves. Nausea. Sadness. I watch that hen’s head as she lays in the grass at my feet. I see her back lift up and down quickly as she struggles to breathe. Not only is it my fault, but if she doesn’t die soon I’m going to have to kill her. I can’t let her suffer. I don’t know how to kill a bird. The thought hits me and I holler to Justice to bring me my laptop. Youtube and Google have been big helps in handling our newest flock.
“The quickest and most humane way to kill a chicken is by cervical dislocation, or breaking its neck,” says a website. I stare at the hen some more, trying to picture following the directions.
“I don’t know if I can do it,” I say to my husband. Informed by Justice, he’s come out to see what’s going on. He just looks at me, waiting patiently and silently, for me to think it through. “I have to. I can’t just let her suffer.”
Living God’s Way
Oh, God, please give me strength.
My heart hurts so much. The guilt weighs on me. If I had just done what I was supposed to do. If I had just taken care of my flock and tended to it as we’re supposed to, this wouldn’t have happened.
See, it’s my job, as resident chicken herder, to tend and keep the flock. I know, I know. God talks about sheep, not chickens, but it adds up to the same thing.
If we have a weakling, we don’t let them into the breeding pool. If there’s a deformity, we don’t let it into the breeding pool. Most times, those types of creatures are culled. That’s what “killed” is called to make it sound nice. They’re “culled”. I’ve always thought this was a horrible practice.
And roosters. Thousands of one and two-day-old sexed roosters are culled every day because nobody wants them. Grown roosters, once it’s known what they are, are culled for the same reason. There are so very many roosters for sale on Craigslist and the like, all because they “serve no use.” I’ve always thought this was inhumane and wrong. It’s so wrong to get rid of an animal just because of it’s sex, right? Right.
So now I have a little chicken who is half the size of her hatch mates. She’s one and a half, but is about the size of a six-month old. Her name is Sweet Pea, and she’s severely cross billed. Until recently, she took more care than my three year old to keep alive.
Until a few days ago, I had two too many roosters.
And now I have a severely wounded hen.
Why? Because I was too involved in the lives of a few instead of the good of the whole flock.
Sigh. No. In reality, I was too involved in one life. Mine. I was too involved in how I felt, in my feelings. I didn’t want to miss the roos. I saw those poor hens getting jumped and oversexed by randy roosters and let it continue to happen because, darn it, I “love those roosters”. To tell the absolutely truth, I’m a bit disgusted with myself at the moment.
Now, I know that roosters just do what they do. I’m not mad at the roosters, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to boot Fuzzy Butt about ten feet when he still tried to hop the poor dying hen. I didn’t. But I wanted to.
Back to the Hen
As we close all the other chickens back in the chicken yard for the night, my husband Jay says, “Hey, look at that!” He puts to the dying hen. Or so I thought. Her head is up; she’ bright, alert and trying to clean her feathers. A fly lands on her and she quickly snaps it up. I scramble back to my laptop to look up wound cleaning.
“Sometimes the best thing to do in cases of severe infection is to euthanize the bird.” Shut up. I don’t want to hear that right now. “Clean the wound with peroxide, iodine…” Excellent.
“Justice!” I yell. “Get me some warm water and the hydrogen peroxide!”
It’s now 11pm. Thirteen hens and one rooster sleep in the coop. In another coop, a little ways away, is a wounded Rhode Island Red who’s decided not to give up today. While she has no strength in her right leg, she can stand on the left if the other is supported.
We found more wounds on her. A few of them are fresh, though small. They’ve all been cleaned to the best of my ability. If she survives the night, I’ll clean them again tomorrow. If she survives tomorrow I’ll clean them again the next day, and the next, until she’s back to good health.
My little Sweet Pea is waiting for her “before bed” meal, because I have to feed her through a tube. With the twisted bill she can’t feed herself.
There are two chicks in our living room, growing up in a box, under a red lamp.
Two cats get up to prowl around, leaving their young kitten under our porch.
And family members large and small are closing their eyes to sleep.
Surrounded by creatures – human, furred and feathered – that God has made, I’m overwhelmed with the knowledge that everything takes its own kind of care. I called the roosters, in my last post, my babies – and they were, sort of, because I raised them. However, I should never have let them live to the detriment of the rest of the flock.
Sometimes, doing the right thing isn’t always doing the painless thing. Sometimes, the right thing is the thing that causes the least amount of harm overall. If I’d killed Rooster and Bird, or if I’d given them to someone for stock, they wouldn’t have suffered but for a moment, if at all. The only suffering would have been mine. But I didn’t, because I didn’t want to miss them, and now my Rhode has suffered horribly.
Looking back from today, I can see several instances where the fear of emotional pain has held me back from doing what I should have done. Not just with chickens, whose lives are only a blink in time – six, maybe seven years. I’ve made the same kind of mistakes with people. My parents, my children, my friends.
As I close this way-too-long blog post (sorry, dear reader), I close it in hope. Hope that I remember this lesson: sometimes the right thing is the hardest thing to do. Hope that my relationships and significant others haven’t suffered too much from my failings. And hope that a little red hen lives through the night.
Until next time, dear reader, God bless, and may your life always be a work in progress.
P.S. If she lives, our little Rhode needs a name. I’d love ideas!