Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tentative Green Light

While Thelma definitely had the sniffles, everyone else has seemed to be more or less normal.

Luna, the new hen, had symptoms only for a day (hers were very mild) and Pearl, who had seemed a little sniffly, now seems bright eyed and normal. In fact, none of the three seemed to feel very sick at all.

Uncertain about taking any hens to fair, I called the poultry expert for the county, and she suggested that we see how they are doing Friday (the day when we are to bring the chickens to the fairgrounds), and if they seemed ok, to bring them and have the vet take a look at them then. She didn't think that it sounded like they needed to stay home, and I've been much relieved to see everyone behaving normally.

Which is to say that Thelma and Louise are still chasing Pip around (and Pip is still chasing sparrows in retaliation), Violet is still hanging out with me when I garden, Clover still wanders around making noise all the time, Pearl and Oreo are their usual unassuming, happy-go-lucky selves, and they are all anxious to get out of the coop and get busy scratching and snacking and chasing bugs. 

We have kept Luna and the little one isolated. Sadly, the little one, whom L named Dove, is a casualty this week. After doing a little research, I think she may have had "runting stunting syndrome" -- which is characterized by failure to thrive, malformed feathers, and weakness, all of which fit her to a T. She never did show signs of the sniffles that Luna had shown.

We knew when we brought her home that she wasn't likely to make it--the breeder had warned us the same, and it appeared congenital. She seemed to try very hard to peck at food, but at the same time ended up getting very little into her beak. She simply wasn't getting nourishment--she weighed next to nothing. We gave her vitamins, electrolytes, yogurt, and Avia Charge (a big dose of enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and omega fats) but it just seemed to have little impact. I found her this morning.

L was sad. I tried to explain the process of natural selection... and I think she feels comforted that Dove had a pretty comfortable place to end her days.

So, it's been an up and down week in the coop.

If we arrive at fair and find that the vet thinks we need to take her hens home, L plans to still help with set up, and help the other 4Hers feed and water their birds during the fair. She'll work at the dairy bar and help clean up the poultry barn after, then start thinking about next year. And we will chalk up all of it as part of learning about chickens, life, good sportsmanship, and perseverance. Not bad lessons to learn, all in all.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Under Quarantine

Two new pullets, Dove and Luna, before they got sick.
We brought two new pullets home about a week ago, and this time we made sure to keep them quarantined from our other hens. But it appears that in spite of our precautions, we have a respiratory disease spreading through the flock.

The new hen, a blue orpington tentatively named Luna, seemed healthy when we brought her home. We also brought one of her flockmates, a sympathetic and totally impulsive decision because the pullet was runty and tiny and L fell in love with her. She's a little lavender orpington L has named Dove. She seemed healthy, just small, and very sweet and attached to L. But two days later, the blue began to show symptoms of a respiratory illness--and it began to look like Coryza, a particularly nasty, common poultry disease. One source told me we should euthanize our entire flock now, and start over in a few months with new healthy hens.

I looked at Pearl, and Clover, and Violet, and knew I really wasn't ready to do that yet. Though the hens are likely to recover, they will be carriers of the disease for life. That means L won't be taking any of them to the Fair to show.

At first I wasn't too worried because I'd kept Luna isolated from my other hens from the beginning. But somehow, the germs made their way to the in-residence ladies. Yesterday, while watering the garden, I noticed Thelma seemed to be sneezing. Or coughing. She was making these odd gurgling sounds. I pulled her out of the main flock and placed her in a run by herself, next to the run where the two new hens are.

I think she feels like little Miss Persecuted, poor thing. I headed to the vet supply store and bought some Tylan (an antibiotic) and some heavy-duty disinfectant. I carefully dosed three waterers, and carried them out to the coop and run. I was beginning to feel like some sort of hospital worker facing a pandemic, wearing gloves and a mask, using disinfectant on my shoes, and feeling paranoid about every little speck of dirt that I saw in the house.

I had a meeting yesterday evening, and K and L left to go clean stalls at the barn. When I returned, Thelma had ramped up her determination, hopped the fence, and found her way into the coop to roost with her flock. I felt terrible when I plucked her sick little self off the perch and put her in isolation again.

Then I stood there full of indecision. The other hens have likely been exposed, so maybe I should just put her back in with them so that she feels a little better with company and we get it all over with at once. I vacillated like a metronome, but in the end, left her in solitary confinement with food and medicated water. She's not really drinking much of the water, so I've added a little mango-peach juice to hers to see if the sweetness will attract her.

I've locked the hens that seem healthy in the coop so that they can't tromp around through the runs and pick up the nasties. They are really not.happy. Violet charges the door every time I go in, and they all seem confused.

I'm feeling terribly guilty for bringing a sick hen into the flock and for completely wrecking L's plans for fair. L has been very gracious and stoic about it, but I can't help but feel just awful. I'm worried about the hens.

Beyond feeling guilty, though, there's not much to do now but wait and see how everyone does. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Finding Focus

L with Butters.
Today was one of those days where I felt like I was crazy busy all day, but running into roadblocks at every turn so that nothing really got done. I need to finish an article and have been waiting for a veterinarian to return my calls so that I can interview him about a horse with bone cancer. I needed to get some work done outside, L needed help with her 4H record book, and I had to run and pick M up from a friend's house. Tybee had an afternoon appointment at the vet for lab work (he's losing hair), I needed to track down a couple of phone numbers for the next article I need to write, and I felt like I was checking my phone constantly for the vet's email, distracted and running in too many directions.

By late afternoon, I wasn't sure I really had time to go out to the barn, but L had a lesson, and we needed to clean stalls. I hadn't done much with Ellie in more than a week. I gulped down dinner with K and the girls, then headed out to the barn still thinking about everything else I needed to get done, and why did I think I'd have time for horses?

L brought Butters in and tacked him up for her lesson, and K started working on stalls and runs. So I went out and got Ellie. She was up to her eyeballs in hay, and not exactly in a big hurry to greet me, but she stopped eating and walked up to me, frisking me for cookies. I pulled some hay from her forelock, slipped on her halter, and walked out of the pasture with her.

I led her past the run where Mosie, a gray Connemara stallion, was peacocking around, all but standing on his head to get Ellie's attention. She paid no attention to his foolish self. In the barn, I put her in crossties, pulled her fly sheet off, and started to curry her, rubbing along that spot on her neck that is always itchy. Over the past few weeks, Ellie and I have become acquainted in measured paces. I've bathed her on hot days and hand grazed her while watching L take lessons, or tacked her up and just done simple circles with her.

She is still dragging her front feet, so we've put down poles to try to get her to work those shoulder muscles stepping up and over the ground poles. I've trotted her here and there, pleased to find that she has a nice, easy trot that is smooth to sit. (I've also learned that while posting was an easy exercise when I was in riding shape, it's definitely not as effortless as it used to be. Going to need to work on that.)

I didn't really have time for a ride tonight, so I sprayed her liberally with fly spray, then walked her over next to the arena where she could hoover up some grass while I watched L's lesson. It was a calm evening without the broiling heat of the day. Ellie contentedly and greedily moved her lips over each green patch of grass, cropping it close with rhythmic intensity.

While I stood there with her, L was learning to canter Butters, and she was earnestly focused on what she was doing. Butters would canter four or five strides, then break back to a trot, but those few strides were pretty exciting. Butters has this funny habit of occasionally giving an exuberant squeal while cantering, and on L's last attempt at a canter, he took a couple of strides, gave a short squeal, then took a few more strides. L praised and patted him. She was proud.

As I stood there with Ellie, I realized that I hadn't once checked my phone, hadn't worried about hearing back from the vet or checking off the next item on my list.

Earlier this week I finished a story for Horse&Rider about Allan Hamilton, M.D., who wrote Zen Mind, Zen Horse. In it, he talks about having focus when you are with your horse, and he says, "We learn from our equine partners how to clear our minds." Standing in the grass with Ellie, with the scents of summer and the sounds of her grazing--with our growing comfort with each other--I realized she had done just that.

And it wasn't just me.

L, who typically flits in 50 different directions and sometimes struggles to focus, was so intent on what she was doing, and so hyper-focused, that watching her made me realize how good riding is for her as an exercise. When riding, you have to be present and focused, and Butters was teaching L how to set her intention and clear her mind of everything except what she was doing.

I watched L a little while longer, then walked Ellie back to the barn, grabbed a few cookies, put her fly sheet back on her, and walked her out to her pasture. We again walked past Mosie as he tried in vain to get her attention. Ellie doesn't give him the time of day. I pulled her halter, gave her the two cookies I'd brought, and let her return to her hay. She was back to what she was doing when I'd pulled her from her pasture. But I was a much calmer person leaving her pasture than I was when I'd first arrived at the barn.

Funny how horses can bring the present into sharper focus.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Jumping Jaerhons

Uff-da and Lotte (left) with Pippa. Pippa thinks she's a Jaerhon but can't fly like one.
The Jaerhons are just at point of lay (the bigger one started laying a few weeks ago, and Lotte, the smaller one, doesn't seem too far behind). But they are more like jumping beans than yard hens.

For some reason, Uff-da (M's name for her...I call her Inga), has grass-is-always-greener syndrome. I'll see her hopping impatiently to the top of our tallest fence, then glide down gracefully for a little adventure in the alley. She has explored the roof of the shop, our neighbor's garden, the alley, and our other neighbor's yard. My poor neighbor has come to my door several times because she's worried about our errant hen.

I've tried clipping her wings, but to no avail. The third time I found her wandering around in the neighbor's yard yesterday, I decided to clip both wings. And I clipped all the primary feathers (it's painless--no different than clipping a toenail). She suddenly had these stubby little wings. I felt bad, but figured if it kept her safe, it was a good thing.

Fixed your wagon, I thought to myself as I released her back into the chicken yard.

Less than a minute later, she hopped to the top of the fence, and from the top of the fence to the top of the coop. Then she flew (sort of) from the coop roof to the yard with a slight beak dive, righted herself like a gymnast grimly determined not to fall, rearranged and settled her feathers, then strutted away,  like, "Heh, no sweat. I don't need those feathers."

I groaned, and she headed back to the neighbor's yard. I'm trying not to take her determined defection personally.

I couldn't keep fishing her out of someone else's garden, and I was worried that if she landed in the other neighbor's yard, their dog would get her. Finally, I realized that these little golden hens are the most determined chickens I've ever seen. Stubborn as a... well, as a Norwegian (I do live with three of them).

And so the Norwegian Jaerhons are going to live on K's sister's place, with her nice flock, out in the country where they won't be hemmed in by traffic and clotheslines and neighborhood dogs. We'll still be able to visit them, and I think they will be a little happier. They just aren't meant to be city chickens.

With the loss of Mabel and the Jaerhons, we will suddenly be down to seven hens. Of course, that's likely to change. Chicken math rule #36: There's no such thing as a static number.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

At a Loss

This morning when I opened the coop door, I found Mabel, the Speckled Sussex, lying on her side. I knew immediately that she had died.

I began to think back, wondering what I could have missed, and how she died. Yesterday, I let the hens out to free range for the first time in a long while. They've been in their run most of the time as we allow young plants to establish themselves in the garden.

But yesterday, they happily bustled out into the yard, settled in to their favorite dusting place, and all seemed well.

I noticed Mabel was roosting under the privet bush, in an area where they like to dust themselves. As hot as it was outside, this didn't seem unusual. But when it came time to lock everyone up last night, only nine hens sat perched on their roosts, and Mabel wasn't among them. That was unusual, but a quick search found her walking along the run fence, looking for a way into the yard. I picked her up and carried her into the coop, settling her on a roost next to Pearl. She seemed fine.

I played those moments out over and over in my mind. Thinking back, it seems she'd been a quieter presence these last few days. Normally, she's vocal and bossy and a bit dotty. Still, she didn't seem ill, and I was pretty sure she'd been laying normally. Had I missed something? Was she feeling poorly and hiding it well?

The only other thing I could think of was that she tried to fly down from the roost, and hit the door, injuring herself.

I wandered around the yard a bit aimlessly for a time, checking on the other hens and the garden, trying to come to terms, thinking about what to do, and stalling. I didn't look forward to telling L.

This is the part of chicken ownership that is so hard. Hens are fragile creatures, and they can succumb to illness or injury fairly quickly. Few vets have knowledge of poultry, and the general reaction to chickens and illness or injury is that they don't really matter all that much. Economically speaking, veterinary care for a hen is well over the monetary value of a chicken, and in many cases, chickens die no matter what treatment you offer.

So dealing with the death of a hen is part and parcel of poultry. Few people see hens as companion animals, but to their owners, the connection is real and heartfelt.

Since we aren't sure how Mabel died, I'm checking with CSU to see if they suggest a necropsy. If she was ill, we'd want to know in order to protect the rest of the flock if we can. But my gut feeling is that it was something non-contagious--an impacted crop, an internal egg problem, or an injury.

L is pretty sad, and has gathered up scratch grains, flowers, and some of the dust from Mabel's favorite dusting spot, sending her little feathered spirit off with everything a chicken might need for the journey heavenward.

We will miss her noisy, scattered, dotty self.